Questions are being raised about the role of the state government’s own legal counsels who handled the case
Srinagar: When beef is banned, can the Internet be far behind? With the High Court’s insistence on enforcing a colonial-era ban on beef threatening to polarise Jammu and Kashmir along religious lines, a panicky state government banned internet services for three consecutive days. Starting from the morning of Eid on Friday, the PDP-BJP coalition government hoped the temporary closure of the Internet across the state would prevent activists from using social media to create conflict.
However, a review of the beef ban file suggests the source for the state’s latest crisis may actually have originated from within the government and that the controversy could have been avoided had the state not bungled the case. Before the High Court’s September 9 order upholding the 1932 ban and calling for its strict enforcement, the state government had had a full year to prepare its response – time it failed to put to good use.
The PIL that sought implementation of the ban came up for hearing in the court a total of 11 times, starting from August 4, 2014. On eight of these occasions, the state lawyers sought more time to file compliance, while on the remaining three, the state counsel simply failed to turn up, forcing the proceedings to be deferred. It took a reprimand from the bench for the government to finally return to the court, and that too with an “incomplete defence.”
“The case has been mishandled from the very beginning. Now the focus has to be on the next hearing. The Government should also fix the responsibility as there are a number of other sensitive cases being heard in different courts,” said a senior government counsel.
The order that was ‘overlooked’
Hearing the PIL on August 4 last year, the court had directed the Divisional Commissioners of Jammu and Kashmir to submit detailed report on steps taken to “prevent slaughtering or sale of such slaughtered animals” in their jurisdictions.
The officials were also asked to get information from the Inspector General of Police of Jammu and Kashmir ranges on whether the slaughter of bovines and sale of their meat was going on at commercial levels and on a regular basis. The division bench consisting of Justice Dhiraj Singh Tahkur and Justice Bansilal Bhat also enquired as to “what steps have been taken by them to bring the guilty to book?”
The directions came in response to the PIL filed by Parimoksh Seth, the then Deputy Advocate General of the state. Seth, along with Additional Advocate General Vishal Sharma were later sacked by the J&K Law Department on September 22 for “failing to defend” the state’s position in the Court. Sharma, who was pleading the case on behalf of the state government, also came in the line of fire for “not informing” the Divisional Commissioners Kashmir about the compliance report.
Speaking to The Wire, Sharma says, “I was representing Home Department and had informed police authorities on July 22 about the Court order, but everybody took it so lightly.” He appeared in the case on two occasions, July 22 and September 9 this year. Like his predecessors however Sharma, too sought just time to file the report. “This was an indefensible case. And also I was never briefed by the Government about the factual details and its stand on the issue,” Sharma adds.
There are also question being raised as to how the state counsels who preceded Sharma – senior Additional Advocate Generals Gagan Basotra and SS Nanda – had handled the case. Basotra appeared in the case on five times during the tenure of the previous government, while Nanda appeared on once.
According to the state’s former counsel in the Supreme Court Ashok Mathur, in any court case it is the duty of the government to brief its counsel about the factual details, which then becomes the basis for pleading the case. “It is the Government and the counsels who are in the best position to explain what really happened during the eleven hearings in the case,” Mathur said.
The blame game
Incumbent Divisional Commissioner Kashmir Asgar Samoon, who took charge in May this year, told The Wire that he came to know about the court rulings of August 4 and September 9 only through the newspapers. “I have neither received any (Court) order on the issue nor was my office informed about it,” said Samoon. “I will be able to speak on it only after I receive copy of the order.”
Rohit Kansal, the present administrative head of J&K Roads and Buildings Department, was holding the charge of Divisional Commissioner Kashmir when the Court had ordered for the compliance report last August. Kansal refused to speak on the issue and said, “I am in the meeting at the PMO (in New Delhi). I will talk to you after three to four hours.” In the evening too, Kansal did not respond to the queries, saying “Don’t disturb me,” before dropping the line. There was no response from the official to repeated calls for the next three days.
The sacked AAG Sharma asserted a copy of the August 4 Court order had been forwarded by the registry of the Court to Divisional Commissioners of both Jammu and Kashmir provinces on August 6, 2014. A senior official in the Law Department however blamed Sharma for keeping the Government in the dark about the case. “Had he informed us the Law Department would have prepared its response in accordance with the law,” said the official.
According to the Law Department official, he report had to be submitted within one and a half month as per the Court directions, “But, it took time to collect all the details, and the complete report was submitted after eight.”
While confusion continues as to whether the Divisional Commissioner of Kashmir was informed about the August ruling, his Jammu counterpart had received the order, sources said. The case is being heard in the Jammu wing of the High Court.
In his report, however, the Divisional Commissioner Jammu had informed the Court that the law banning slaughter of bovines was being strictly enforced in the region. His report is based on information received from administrative heads of five districts – Kathua, Samba, Jammu, Udhampur and Reasi – apart from the Inspector General of Police.
“No slaughtering of bovine animals on regular basis for commercial purposes is being undertaken in Jammu province. However sporadic incidents of bovine killings/slaughtering were reported in some districts, for which cases have been registered to bring culprits to book,” the report says.
The counsels in the spotlight
Before he was sacked, Seth was summoned by the Law Department and “advised” to withdraw the PIL – a move that would have left the September 9 court ruling for ban invalid. An unrepentant Seth however refused to cooperate, inviting more criticism for the PDP-led Government.
Seth is the son of Onkar Seth, a vocal leader of the right wing, Jammu State Morcha that is closely affiliated to VHP. “I filed the PIL for a public cause, so why won’t the government implement the ban?” asks Seth.
Like Seth, Sharma too is unmoved. “Let the government explain why it kept mum for one year after the court sought response on the ban,” said Sharma. He
is the son of Leela Karan, the face of 2008 agitation in Jammu that opposed rescinding of the Government order under which 99 acres of forest land were transferred to Shri Amarnath Shrine Board that managed the annual Amarnath Yatra. The move provoked some of the largest protest rallies in Kashmir’s history, and led to the killing of 60 and the injury of hundreds of protestors in police firing in Srinagar.
The decision was later revoked by the state government, which in turn led to mass protests in Jammu, and a blockade of the highway which brought Kashmir to a standstill for days. Memories of those days were revived last week when Leela Karan threatened to “enforce economic blockade of Kashmir” if the existing law banning sale of beef was revoked by the State.
Floor test ahead
Given the outrage in the Valley over the beef ban, and a united opposition led by National Conference seeking its revocation, the upcoming assembly session is bound to be a big challenge for the PDP-BJP Government.
More attention would naturally be on the PDP, since it was the Valley that voted the party to power last year. So far, the PDP has been reacting cautiously to the controversy unlike its ally BJP, which has threatened to “resort to violence” if the House allowed any discussion on the ban.
As political analyst Prof Gul Wani of Kashmir University puts it, “J&K polity is a story of a divided house. Politics has gained the upper hand over people and ideologies over institutions.” This competing politics would be on display in the first week of the October when the Assembly meets for its autumn session.
It remains to be seen how the PDP would address the anti-ban rage in the Valley and at the same time ensure the coalition passes its big test.