A 'state' of Constitutional breakdown and lawlessness - II
by B R Haran on 08 Mar 2009 2 Comments

The Chidambaram case, which was adjourned for 19 February, was numbered 60 in the list and hence expected to come up for hearing late in the afternoon. But as the boycott by lawyers continued, it was again adjourned to 25 February. It was not clear if the lawyers who attacked Dr. Swami on 17 Feb. were planning the same on 19 Feb. as well.

Their sudden decision to file a complaint against him on grounds that he allegedly called a Dalit advocate by his caste name and to seek registration of a FIR under provisions of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act suggests they had made some plans against him. Had Dr. Swami really called a lawyer by his caste name, the concerned lawyer would have lodged a complaint on 17 Feb. itself.

The very fact that it took two days to file the complaint suggests intention to abuse a legal provision with an ulterior motive. It may be pertinent to note that the concerned lawyer, Rajnikant, has an interesting track record and 21 police cases have been filed against him. Other lawyers involved in the courtroom violence on 17 Feb. also have cases registered against them, which add up to over 100 cases in all.  

Despite getting the complaint against Dr. Swamy registered and obtaining the FIR, the lawyers refused to surrender and indulged in slogan-shouting against Dr. Swami and the police. They even raised slogans against Mr. Justices P.K. Mishra and K. Chandru, going so far as to demand the arrest (!) of the Hon’ble judges for recording the attack on Dr. Swami and issuing an order on it. All this happened when police attempted to arrest the lawyers for the incident of 17 February.

As the lawyers protested, resorted to stone-pelting and resisted policemen doing their duty, the police force had no choice but to retaliate, and very soon a riot-like situation prevailed. A section of lawyers burnt down the police station inside the High Court premises and police had to resort to lathi-charge. The High Court turned into a virtual war zone. The conflict lasted almost three hours, in which many police personnel, lawyers and even civilians were injured. Justice Arumuga Perumal Adityan was also injured in the melee. A number of four-wheelers and two-wheelers, and furniture inside the courtrooms and offices, were smashed. 

On 18 February, the First Bench of the Madras High Court comprising Acting Chief Justice (ACJ) Mukhopadhyaya and Justice V Dhanapalan appointed a five-judge bench to decide whether to initiate contempt proceedings against the advocates involved in the assault on Janata Party President Subramanian Swamy on February 17 or not. Besides the ACJ, Justice D Murugesan, Justice Prabha Sridevan, Justice V Dhanapalan and Justice K Chandru comprised the bench. The unprecedented constitution of a five-judge bench in the Madras High Court probably created panic among the accused lawyers; hence the FIR against Dr. Swami and resort to violence. 

The Supreme Court, which heard a petition from Chennai-based advocate R Muralidharan through advocate S. Balaji seeking action against the striking lawyers, on 20 Feb. issued notices to the Madras High Court Advocates Association, Registrar General of Madras High Court, Bar Council of Tamil Nadu, Bar Council of India and Madras Bar Association. The petitioner sought a direction to declare the strike by lawyers as illegal and directions for resumption of work in all Courts in the state. The petitioner cited the Apex Court’s 2003 judgment which virtually barred lawyers from going on strike.  

Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi, recuperating in hospital, appealed for calm and made a veiled threat to go on indefinite fast if the lawyers and police did not patch up. But the lawyers were in no mood to listen, summarily rejected his appeal, and demanded severe action against the police. The opposition parties rallied behind the lawyers and condemned the police action.

Even AIADMK supremo Jayalalithaa did not condemn the attack on Dr. Swami, but used the issue to play political games. The DMK and its main ally Congress were caught in a dilemma and could not take sides with either the lawyers or the police. While the lawyers attempted to project an innocent face, the police insisted that their action was restrained. Yet political leaders preferred to visit only lawyers in hospital and not police personnel. 

The state government formed a four-member committee headed by a retired judge to assess the damage caused to vehicles and other properties inside the court premises. Law Minister Duraimurugan invited the lawyers for talks, but they did not respect his invitation. Instead, on 23 Feb., hundreds of lawyers broke open the locked gates of the High Court and sat on a protest fast inside the premises, without obtaining the mandatory permission. They resolved to continue boycott of courts till their demand for suspension of the police top brass and transfer of Director General of Police K.P. Jain were met.   

AIADMK supremo Jayalalithaa questioned the capability of the Chief Minister, who holds the Home portfolio, in controlling the police force. AIADMK MLA and former Law Minister D. Jayakumar moved the Supreme Court on 24 Feb., seeking dismissal of the DMK government for allegedly authorizing the brutal police action against lawyers inside the High Court. He claimed that as the Chief Justice had not given permission to police to enter the Court, they would have acted on government instructions, issued by the Chief Minister (who holds the Home portfolio).  

The Supreme Court on 26 Feb. ordered a judicial enquiry by a single judge commission headed by retired SC judge, Justice B.N. Srikrishna, to probe the incidents and submit an interim report within two weeks. The apex court also ordered transfer of two Joint Commissioners and three Deputy Commissioners of the Chennai city police and strongly condemned the unruly behaviour of the lawyers and asked them to call off their strike by 2 March, saying that it would examine the issue again on 3 March. It dismissed the AIADMK petition. The Supreme Court further adjourned the cases to 6 March so that it could take up the interim report of Justice Srikrishna (submitted on March 5). 

While the lawyers have been getting fulsome support from the political fraternity and the Judiciary, the police have been left in the lurch; even the government was half-hearted in defending them. A total of 112 police personnel were admitted to hospital (74 in Stanley Medical College Hospital; 38 in Kilpauk Medical College Hospital). Those admitted to SMC were discharged on 22 Feb.; however, 22 police personnel (21 women) are still under treatment in KMC Hospital. 

When we, the affected persons of 17 Feb., visited them in hospital in order to thank them for ensuring our safety that day, the women police constables were literally in tears and had many sad stories to tell. Sadly, not a single newspaper or TV Channel reported the attack on women police officers. Some of these young women lamented that they are subjected to extremely poor behaviour by an unruly section of advocates each time they are posted on duty at the High Court Police Station. No woman lawyer has so far found the courage to speak up for the female constables. 

Till the time of our visit on the afternoon of 22 Feb., not one person from the government, political fraternity, or judiciary, had bothered to visit the injured police personnel recuperating in hospital. We decided to send a letter to the Chief Justice of India detailing what happened inside the third court on 17 Feb., how an unruly section of lawyers behaved and how the police ensured our safety. We sent copies to the media and some reported it.    

The author is a senior journalist; he lives in Chennai 

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