Monday, March 09, 2009

Justice Srikrishna's interim report: A few questions

Justice Srikrishna's interim report on the violent incidents at the Madras High Court complex on 19th February is now available in the public domain. Obviously, Justice Srikrishna has been concerned with the question, `who started it all?'. He correctly traced the events to the attempt to campaign, by a section of lawyers, on political issues within the High Court complex, with the connivance of the Judiciary. At the same time, he also found the excessive force used by the Police as disproportionate to the challenge posed by the unruly lawyers, as many innocent lawyers and a Judge were injured by the police lathi charge, and the police went berserk by damaging the Court's property in retaliation.

Surprisingly, Justice Srikrishna does not answer the question who ordered the police lathi charge, but says the order was interpreted by the police to unleash mayhem at will. Considering that the Supreme Court was concerned with this issue during the hearing of the case, one would assume that this was a relevant factual question to be unravelled. Justice Srikrishna writes: “It is not clear from the videos as to who was the officer that ordered the lathi charge”. Justice Srikrishna reveals in the Report that he interviewed police officers also. Do the police officers also plead helplessness in ascertaining the name of the officer who ordered the lathi charge? The report has no answers.

Secondly, as an impartial observer of the entire episode, I am concerned with the following issues, for which I have not found an answer in the Justice Srikrishna Interim Report. Hopefully, these will be addressed in his final report.

1. Justice Srikrishna's anxiety to trace the root cause of the Feb.19th incident also reveals his concern on how to avoid repetition of such incidents. Apparently, he believes that the use of excessive force by the police was a response to this root cause, and if this root cause had not been there, the temptation to use excessive force would not have been there. Many innocent lawyers, who were injured in the incidents, and who have nothing to do with the agitating lawyers, or the indifferent Madras High Court administration, (and I count myself as one among those innocent lawyers by temperament)are sure to find the Report,with utmost respect to Justice Srikrishna, disappointing in this respect.

Tracing the root cause, though useful in an academic sense, is unhelpful in fixing responsibility for what has finally happened. To be fair to Justice Srikrishna, he found the limited time inadequate to deal with the issue, and has suggested a detailed inquiry to identify the individual policemen or lawyers who indulged in hooliganism. But a recommendation for a broader reform of the police system to protect innocent lawyers or members of the public from being attacked in situations calling for a swift response from the police in case of a riot-whatever the root cause - would have been pragmatic.

2. Justice Srikrishna's aversion to lawyers' agitation over political issues not connected with Court work- again with very great respect to him - is somewhat unconvincing. He says: “The lawyers had continued their boycott of court proceedings in sympathy for the Sri Lankan Tamils, a purely political issue that had nothing to do with the work of the Courts. Yet the lawyers continued to abstain from the Courts in order to put pressure on the State and the Central Governments”. I would agree with him that the Madras High Court is not at all concerned with the Sri Lankan Tamils issue, and the lawyers' agitation over the Centre's inaction on this is not at all justified, and the call for strikes over the issue must be considered as a serious professional misconduct. Therefore, his plea for amendment of Advocates Act, and till such amendment, appropriate guidelines to be laid down by the Supreme Court to ensure certain degree of discipline by the lawyers makes sense.

But can one stretch this to say that lawyers must not be concerned with any political issue, which has nothing to do with the Courts, lawyers or the litigants to the extent that it results in boycott of courts? I only wish that such an inference from his Interim Report is just far-fetched. Because such an inference would suggest that the movement for democracy began by the lawyers in Pakistan must be considered as a serious professional misconduct; Or that the lawyers' stir in support of the freedom struggle (before independence) should be considered as unprofessional; Or that the lawyers in India justifiably did not launch a movement for democracy during the Emergency by taking to the streets.
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