Lawyer H.S. Phoolka Resigns as Punjab Leader of Opposition to Fight 1984 Riot Cases

An RTI activist has questioned whether the Delhi Bar Council’s decision not to allow him to fight the cases while holding the post is fair.

H.S. Phoolka. Credit: phoolka.net

H.S. Phoolka. Credit: phoolka.net

New Delhi: Disallowed by the Delhi Bar Council from appearing for the victims of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots in several cases against Congress leader Sajjan Kumar and others on the ground that as leader of opposition in Punjab assembly he enjoyed an office of profit, noted lawyer H.S. Phoolka has decided to give up the cabinet-rank post in the state to return to Delhi and fight the cases.

The council’s decision has raised the pertinent issue of whether being a cabinet minister is the same as enjoying cabinet-rank status. An RTI activist has questioned if by that yardstick the Congress government in Punjab and that of the BJP in Haryana are right in conferring cabinet-minister rank on two senior practising law officers.

Phoolka, who had unsuccessfully contested the Lok Sabha election from Punjab on an Aam Aadmi Party ticket in 2014, had won the assembly election earlier this year. After that AAP, which had won 20 seats in the 117-member house and emerged as the largest opposition party, had made him the leader of opposition.

Fought 1984 riots cases without fees for over 30 years

Having fought pro bono (without any fees) for over three decades the cases of 1984 riot victims, Phoolka is a known and very well-respected figure in the legal, social and political fraternity. It came as a surprise when earlier this month he revealed that the Delhi Bar Council has denied him permission to fight the riots cases.

On July 3, Phoolka had tweeted: “Sought permission to do ’84 carnage case pro bono, Bar Council should realise, it doesn’t amount to practice, rather should encourage it. Seek review.”

He had subsequently clarified that the Bar Council had stated that “an MP or an MLA can fight a case, but one enjoying a cabinet minister status cannot. I have asked them that if I give up the cabinet minister status, which I enjoy by virtue of being the Leader of Opposition, will they then permit me to fight cases.”

Phoolka further made his priorities clear when he tweeted that he would give up the post but not the fight for the victims. “Will not give up ’84 carnage cases. Asking Bar Council if by giving up minister status, I can appear in these cases,” he wrote.

On what the council’s stand in the matter was, Phoolka said, “The council said there is no difference in fighting the cases free of charge or charging a fee. I could not fight since I enjoy cabinet minister status.”

‘Noting is dearer to me than getting justice for riot victims’

With the cases having reached a very “crucial” stage and having put in 30 years of hard work to ensure that a large number of victims got justice, Phoolka did not want to let go of them in the middle. “It is a question of 30 years of hard work which has gone into these cases so that the main culprits are punished. I think at this stage my presence in these cases is very important,” said the lawyer, adding that the next six months would be very crucial and that nothing was dearer to him than getting justice for the riot victims.

With the Bar Council not relenting, Phoolka, who is appearing for victims in cases against senior Congress leaders Sajjan Kumar and Jagdish Tytler, on Sunday announced his decision to give up the post of leader of opposition and focus on the court cases.

“I have decided to quit as the leader of opposition in he Punjab assembly and I have conveyed my decision to the party high command,” he declared, adding that he had discussed the issue with party leader Arvind Kejriwal before taking the decision.

RTI petition reveals Punjab, Haryana AGs also enjoy cabinet-minister status

Meanwhile, Punjab and Haryana high court advocate Hemant Kumar, who had through his petitions under the Right to Information Act obtained information on how the advocate generals of Punjab and Haryana also enjoy the status of a cabinet minister, has questioned whether barring Phoolka from practice while allowing the AGs to even appear for the state was not discriminatory, since neither had taken the oath of a cabinet minister but only enjoyed the status of the rank.

“Even the advocate generals of twin states of Punjab and Haryana  have been conferred rank and status of state cabinet minister by their respective governments. While in respect of Baldev Raj Mahajan, the order in this regard was issued by Haryana’s administration of justice department on August 31, 2015 i.e. over nine months after he was appointed in November 2014, thus making him the first ever Haryana AG to enjoy the same privilege, in respect of his Punjab counterpart, Atul Nanda, the same notification was issued immediately on his appointment on March 16, 2017,” said Kumar.

The lawyer-activist asked, “If the enjoyment or possession of a cabinet-minister rank and status is indeed an embargo for practising law and appearing before a court of law as asserted in the Phoolka case by the Bar Council of Delhi, then shouldn’t this aspect also come into play in case of Haryana and Punjab AGs?”

Like Phoolka, who was elected AAP MLA but has not taken a formal oath as a cabinet minister and was only leader of opposition in the Punjab assembly, the two AGs have been granted the same status by their respective appointee governments.

“In fact,” Kumar said, “Nanda is enrolled with Bar Council of Delhi and it has no objection to his practising despite holding a cabinet-minister rank.” In the case of Mahajan, Kumar said he is registered with the Punjab and Haryana Bar Council.

Kumar has since filed an RTI application with the Bar Council of India seeking all information regarding the disqualification attracted, if any, by an AG of a state government with respect to practising law or appearing before a court of law while accorded full cabinet-minister rank or status at par with a state cabinet minister.

With inputs from PTI

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  • Anjan Basu

    In the context of the egregious venality pervading most of our political parties, it is heartening to see such commitment to a worthy cause. Mr Phoolka clearly belongs to the vanishing ( if not nearly extinct) tribe of political activists who can still put their ideals and beliefs above privilege and power. They are the salt of the earth. They help keep the hope alive in us that all is not lost yet.