Courting trouble

Print edition : March 27, 2009
in Chennai

The police in action at the High Court premises on February 19. The lawyers association claimed that nearly 200 lawyers were injured, 126 of them in the head.-PHOTOGRAPHS: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

IT was virtually a reign of terror by the Tamil Nadu Police on the Madras High Court premises in Chennai on February 19. Scores of people, including judges, lawyers, court employees and litigants were injured, many of them badly, in a police action that lasted nearly four hours. A number of vehicles belonging to lawyers, mediapersons and the litigant public were damaged. The police have also been accused of causing damage to the administrative office, court halls, lawyers chambers and other buildings.

What appeared in the beginning as a free-for-all between the police and a section of lawyers, who had only a week earlier withdrawn their boycott of the court as part of an agitation over the Sri Lankan Tamils issue, soon turned into a full-scale police operation. The involvement of top officers and 200 heavily armed policemen, drawn from specially trained squads such as the Rapid Action Force and the Riot Control Police, in the action against lawyers has raised suspicions about the motive of the police.

The assault on the lawyers began with a lathi-charge around 2 p.m. after some of them, protesting against the arrest of their colleagues in connection with an attack on Janata Party president Subramanian Swamy in the court on February 17, hurled stones at the police. According to the Tamil Nadu Lawyers Association, nearly 200 lawyers were injured; 126 of them had injuries on their heads.

The association complained that there was no statutory warning before the police began the lathi-charge. Under the pretext of chasing a stone-throwing mob, it said, the police rushed to different parts of the High Court and beat people indiscriminately. Judges, aged lawyers and women had to run for safety. Three hours later, in an act of retaliation, a police station in the court premises was set on fire, allegedly by a section of lawyers.

The police said that 122 of them, including women, were injured in the stone-throwing. But not everyone is ready to believe the police version, especially that the lawyers provoked them with their stone-throwing. Noted lawyer R. Vaigai said it was a very well-planned operation by the police.

It was not an incident that happened on the spur of the moment, she told Frontline. An operation of this nature with armed police and commandos could not have been carried out without the sanction of the government. Firstly, according to the Police Manual and departmental rules and instructions, the commando forces are directly under the orders of the Director General of Police, and the armed police are under the direct control of the Commissioner of Police.

According to her, the Subramanian Swamy incident came in handy for the police for a crackdown on the lawyers in the context of their prolonged agitation over the Sri Lankan Tamils.

The agitation had drawn a lot of media attention and was a source of discomfort to the State and Central governments. So, according to Vaigai, a decision was taken to crack down on the lawyers with a view to bringing the agitation to an end.

Lawyers across the State condemned the police excesses. In some places buses were attacked. In Chennai, the police arrested nearly 100 advocates when they tried to take out a protest march. The police have registered a case of attempt to murder against 150 advocates. The enraged lawyers decided to stay away from the court and demanded stringent action against the police.

Top police officers and 200 heavily armed personnel, drawn from specially trained squads such as the Rapid Action Force and the Riot Control Police, took part in the action against the lawyers.-

Meanwhile, a press release from the Madras High Court announced that the principal seat of the Madras High Court and its Madurai Bench, and all the courts and tribunals in Tamil Nadu and Puducherry would remain closed on February 23 and 24. Considering the damage caused to the High Court premises and the injuries to various people in the February 19 incident, the High Court said on February 21 that these developments might call for initiation of suo motu criminal contempt proceedings.

A three-judge Bench comprising Acting Chief Justice S.J. Mukhopadhyaya and Justices V. Dhanapalan and K. Chandru asked the Chennai Police Commissioner and the Joint Commissioner (North) to report on whose authority they had entered the premises to arrest the accused and at whose instance an order for lathi-charge was issued to the police and the Rapid Action Force.

The Bench asked the State government to file its reply as to why it could not be directed to pay compensation for personal injury and damage to property and all expenses for immediately repairing the furniture, and court halls and lawyers chambers. At its sitting on March 2, the Bench pulled up the State authorities for not complying with the court orders and granted them time to file an affidavit in this regard by the next date.

Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi, who was convalescing in a Chennai hospital after a surgery, appealed to both the advocates and the police to bury the hatchet and remain united. He asked them and members of the public not to fall prey to the designs of political leaders who were out to destabilise his government.

Jayalalithaa, former Chief Minister and general secretary of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), said the Chief Ministers appeal only showed that he had no control over the police force.

Significantly, the Supreme Court expressed its concern over certain incidents where some people barge in and raise slogans in courts as it happened in Patna and Madras High Courts. The reference was to the attack on Subramanian Swamy by a group of lawyers in the presence of judges in the Madras High Court. Please tell us how do we protect our courts, a three-judge Bench comprising Justices B.N. Agarwal, G.S. Singhvi and Aftab Alam asked senior counsel Harish Salve, who was appearing on behalf of a television channel in a sting operation case. Citing the instance of eggs being hurled at Subramanian Swamy, Salve said the time had come to rein in the rogue elements.

Meanwhile, on February 24, in a memorandum to the Chief Justice of India, K.G. Balakrishnan, six people claimed to have witnessed the violence against Subramanian Swamy and a few others. The memorandum also said a section of lawyers had beaten up an Assistant Commissioner of Police and some policemen. These incidents triggered the standoff between the lawyers and the police in the High Court premises on February 19, it said.

By February 25, there were three petitions before the Supreme Court: one filed by Vaigai and others representing various forums of lawyers, the second by former Law Minister of Tamil Nadu D. Jayakumar (of the AIADMK), and the third that came up as a public interest litigation petition.

Jayakumars petition sought a judicial inquiry and a declaration from the court that there was a breakdown of the constitutional machinery in the State, warranting its dismissal under Article 356 of the Constitution. All three petitions were taken together for hearing by a three-judge Bench led by Justice Balakrishnan and consisting of Justice P. Sathasivam and Justice J.M. Panchal.

Expressing anguish over the incidents, the Bench gave the Tamil Nadu government a days time to inform the court under whose authority the police and the Rapid Action Force entered the court premises and under whose orders the police resorted to lathi-charge on lawyers, litigants, staff and others.

The police entering the court halls, attacking judges, lawyers, staff and causing damage is a very serious matter. We are serious about it. Even if the police wanted to arrest some lawyers, in all fairness they should have informed the Acting Chief Justice or at least the Registrar-General, said Justice Balakrishnan to Solicitor General G.E. Vahanvati, who appeared for the State.

Vaigai termed the police action as an assault on the independence of the judiciary and a shame to the judicial history of the country. Senior counsel K. Subramanian described February 19 as a black day in the history of the High Court. He said the root cause was the presence of a large posse of policemen in the court on February 17 when the Subramanian Swamy episode happened.

On February 26, when it could not get any definite reply from the counsel for the State government to the courts question, the Bench ordered an inquiry into the incidents by Justice B.N. Srikrishna, a retired judge of the Supreme Court.

Vahanvati, however, gave details of the police force present on the campus that day. He said the trouble began after a few advocates, who had gone to the police station to surrender, insisted on the registration of a case against Subramanian Swamy. Vahanvati veered round to admitting that the police went inside the court halls without instructions in pursuit of a mob that threw stones at them and after their warnings to the mob to disperse had failed.

Not convinced, the court ordered the judicial inquiry and sought an interim report from the inquiry committee within a week. Earlier, Salve told the court that the State government must have conducted an in-house enquiry and by now they must know who the officers responsible are.

The Chief Justice said: They know who the officers are. Maybe, they do not want to tell. Let the inquiry committee find out who the officers are. The Bench also directed the State government to transfer four top police officials Joint Commissioner of Police Sandeep Rai Rathore and Deputy Commissioners M.C. Sarangan, Prem Anand Sinha and Paneer Selvam from Chennai.

The government was also directed to pass on to the High Court Rs.25 lakh from its fund to provide immediate relief to the affected and undertake repair works on buildings, besides paying compensation to those whose cars and two-wheelers were damaged by the policemen. The court wanted a committee to be appointed by the High Court to deal with payment of relief to the injured and decide on health care requirements of the victims.

The apex court also had a word of caution for the lawyers. Whatever may be your grievance, lawyers have no business to interrupt court proceedings, the Bench observed. Referring to the attack on Subramanian Swamy inside the High Court, the Chief Justice asked: How can anybody attack a private person inside the court? You seniors should have prevented those lawyers from indulging in these things. You also own up responsibility for not preventing such incidents.

Senior counsel K. Venugopal, who appeared for the High Court lawyers, said that the police remained in the court even after the Acting Chief Justice asked the Commissioner of Police to withdraw the force.

A number of vehicles belonging to lawyers, mediapersons and the litigant public were damaged by the police.-

Justice Srikrishna began his work in right earnest two days after his appointment. On February 28, he arrived in Chennai and visited the High Court premises and studied the extent of damage caused to the historic buildings in the complex. Among those who made presentations before Justice Srikrishna were Justice S.J. Mukhopadhyaya and Justice Prabha Sridevan. He also collected evidence from lawyers, the police, State government officials and the public. During his two-day visit, he recorded statements and received petitions on the incidents.

The Tamil Nadu Advocates Association, in a detailed memorandum, said that the police had unleashed terror on the High Court premises with the aim to destabilise the institution, deter the judiciary and instil fear psychosis in the minds of lawyers and litigants. The lawyers associations said their agitation would continue until the Justice Srikrishna committee submitted its interim report.

The preliminary report by Justice Srikrishna, submitted to the Supreme Court on March 5, indicted both the lawyers and the police for the clashes on February 19. It said the provocation came from the advocates who were on strike and, in retaliation, the police behaved in the same fashion as the unruly mob of lawyers.

The report said: The conduct of the police in entering the court rooms and damaging the furniture and articles therein, entering the chambers of the lawyers in the High Court premises and finally barging into the chambers of the lawyers away from the High Court premises and beating them and causing damage, is utterly despicable and needs to be roundly condemned.

It also said that though it was highly irregular on the part of armed policemen to be deployed inside the High Court premises, the extraordinary circumstances might afford a justifiable excuse to them. The report recommended that sufficient guidelines be laid down for the behaviour of the lawyers. It further said that the soft policy adopted by the Acting Chief Justice of Madras High Court and its administration sent out a clearly wrong message to the lawyers who were on strike and were holding meetings in the corridors of the court complex.

The Supreme Court referred the report to the Madras High Court, which, it said, could decide on the issue of holding a judicial inquiry into the incident. Lawyers, who have been staying away from work, rejected the report as one-sided.

The incidents have brought to light an undesirable rift between the executive and the judiciary in the State. Explaining the consequences of the police action, Vaigai said the judiciary was the only institution that could protect the people from any erosion of fundamental rights or safeguard their rights in times of state excesses.

The majesty of law is assured by other branches of the state, the executive and legislature, and this gives the judiciary its due place, said Vaigai. Any attempt to overlook such inbuilt protective devices would only end up destroying the institution, she felt. Any erosion of the peoples faith in the existing judicial system would take them to kangaroo courts, she said.

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