Judiciary upholds its majesty in Tamil Nadu

After the big fight...

Chaos in court: Lawyers avenging police action, set ablaze a police station in the Madras HC complex. (Right) Lawyers hurl stones at policemen.

A chilling and prolonged lawyers-police standoff in Tamil Nadu since January 2009 has at last shown signs of easing, but not without costs.

Hopefully, a Rubicon has been crossed on October 29, a watershed day for both the judiciary and a key limb of the executive in the State - the police.

The historic Madras High Court (HC) that day re-asserted the judiciary’s majesty and grandeur as the defender of the Indian constitution, when it had no hesitation to indict four top police officials led by the Chennai Police Commissioner K Radhakrishnan, for being “primarily responsible” for the unprecedented violence in the Court campus on February 19 last that shook one of the founding pillars of a democratic civil society.
Climaxing weeks of boycott of courts by the lawyers, to protest the “continuing genocide” of Tamils in Sri Lanka, the turn of events that day was so terrifying that it was beyond reasonable human conception.

So much so that after all the violence and destruction unleashed by “uncontrolled and indiscriminate” bouts of police lathi-charge in the HC campus, burning down of a police station, extensive damage to Court property and lawyers vehicles, and even a sitting Judge of the High Court,  Justice Arumuga Perumal Adityan, receiving a hard lathi blow when he came out to pacify the mob, there could be no worse instance of the down and under.

The immediate backdrop to the violence was a nasty rotten-eggs attack inside a Court hall earlier on February 17, by a group of abusive, pro-Tamils slogan-raising lawyers against Janata Party chief Dr Subramanian Swamy, when he appeared in the Chidambaram Natarajar temple case.

On February 19, police sought to take into custody some advocates  accused in the February 17 attack right inside the HC premises, while another lawyers’ group insisted that an FIR against Dr Swamy be registered first under the ‘SC/ST Atrocities Prevention Act’ for verbally abusing some lawyers. They later demanded Dr Swamy’s arrest as a pre-condition for the ‘surrender’ of the accused-lawyers.

The friction was sufficient to snowball into a big commotion. However, as a division bench of the Madras HC, comprising Justice F M Ibrahim Kalifulla and Justice R Banumathi, disposing off several writ petitions in this regard ruled in their recent landmark judgment, the police ‘gravely blundered’ in handling the situation.

Worse, the actions by the top cops, also hauled up for contempt of court, resulted in the ‘police excesses’ in the campus that day by moving in large numbers of armed police even without informing the Court Registry and subsequently paralysed other courts in the campus. These amounted to a serious affront on the judiciary as an institution itself, the judges ruled. 

CBI probe

The violence’s enormity was felt when in the chamber of the then acting Chief Justice, Justice Mukhopadhyaya, a ‘Full Bench’ was constituted that evening, State officials summoned and ‘suo motu writ proceedings’ initiated, which resulted in the ordering of a CBI probe into the incidents.

Chief Minister M Karunanidhi, resting in hospital after a complex spinal surgery, turned tremulous at the police violence that he even faxed the acting Chief Justice saying, “Though I am in hospital, if you wish to see me, I will come and meet you even in an ambulance.”

Pending disciplinary and other proceedings against the four top cops and other police officials, the HC virtually directed the State Government to even suspend the top four officers to enable a fair probe.

But the ruling DMK seems to be in no mood to suspend the four officers. In a sagacious move to avert police demoralisation, Karunanidhi applied the ‘one swallow does not make a summer’ logic to say that, ‘one blot’ could be no scale to assess an otherwise efficient Tamil Nadu Police as a whole.

While the latest HC verdict has injected an element of sobriety in the police force, the Judges also wanted the lawyers’ side to “reform”. The Judges minced no words in urging lawyers’ bodies to give up court boycott/strikes and consider other ways of expressing protests on any issue.

Peaceful meetings only

The HC also invoked an apex court order to send a stern message to all the courts in the State not to use their premises for processions or meetings with a political hew. Lawyers could henceforth hold meetings peacefully only “within their Association halls”, the Judges said. 

It is imprudent to even guess how the other pending legal and criminal cases vis-à-vis the February 19 violence may go. Yet, the Madras HC’s two diktats are very positive outcomes to qualify as ‘lessons’ from the Tamil Nadu experience of a sordid phase of police-lawyers relations. The justice  dispensing machinery requires cordiality between both these arms.

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