Mumbai: It was quite a spectacle when a group of 170 lawyers from different districts of Karnataka reached Mysore court last month to defend just one person. Nalini Balakumar, an alumna of the University of Mysore had been booked under sedition charges for displaying a ‘Free Kashmir’ placard during a demonstration held at Manasagangothri campus. But the local district bar association had refused to defend Balakumar as they considered her a ‘deshdrohi’, an ‘anti-national’ or ‘traitor’. A resolution was passed preventing lawyers from defending Balakumar.
This prompted the unprecedented move of a large bunch of senior and young lawyers from Bengaluru, Chamarajanagar, Mandya and Davanagere to stand in court in support of Balakumar. They said it was a collective act of defiance and an assertion of the right to practice law freely. This act of solidarity by the 170 lawyers in one court was also a response to the unconstitutional but common practice that has plagued the courts of Karnataka.
“We knew if we had gone to court in a small number, we would have been outnumbered. Also, we wanted to make a statement that you can’t pass such unconstitutional resolutions and expect us to cower,” says advocate B.T. Venkatesh, on one reason for making such a huge representation in the court.
The case of three Kashmiri students
A few days later, similar to the Mysore bar association, its counterpart in Hubli too decided to not represent or even allow anyone from outside to legally represent three Kashmiri students arrested on charges of sedition for allegedly raising pro-Pakistan slogans and posting it on social media. The Hubli bar association, on February 17, passed a resolution to this effect.
The atmosphere was so charged that when Talib Majeed, Basit Asif Sofi and Amir Mohiuddin Wahi were arrested, a violent group of right-wing activists had hit them with shoes and slippers, along with loud sloganeering of ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’ and ‘Vande Mataram.’
The young men were also attacked when they were being taken away from the court of the judicial magistrate first class (JMFC). Police intervened quickly to stop the attack.
The Hubli bar association’s decision to boycott representing the men is an affront to an individual’s constitutional right to legal representation in the court. Along with this resolution, the lawyers, all dressed in black coats and black pants, had stood outside the Hubli court to stop any legal support reaching the court.
“Like Mysore, here, too, we had planned to go in large numbers. But the police told us having so many lawyers can give rise to law and order situation and hence we had only three lawyers visit the Hubli court,” said Venkatesh, who along with two young lawyers had been to the court last week.
The Bengaluru-based lawyers’ team had travelled with a police escort to Hubli. There they were informed that legal formalities could be completed only in the neighbouring Dharwad court. “And when we reached Dharwad court, a huge mob of lawyers had already blocked our way. Around 300-400 policemen were deployed here. But they were hesitant to stop these men,” said another lawyer from the team. Finally, the lawyers had to return without filing their legal representation leave alone argue on behalf of the arrested men.
The lawyers were heckled, called names and death threats were issued in the court premises. Their car was stoned. It has been nearly a week since the men were arrested, but they continue to be unrepresented.
Karnataka high court comes down on lawyers
The bar association and the lawyers from the district court continued to block representation for the students despite a petition being filed before the Karnataka high court. On February 26, the Karnataka high court’s division bench of Chief Justice Abhay Shreeniwas Oka and Justice Hemant Chandangoudar called the bar association’s behaviour “sheer militancy”.
The bench observed: “Let the advocates file the bail applications under police protection and then we may transfer the case to Bengaluru. Today it is about these three accused, tomorrow the Bar will pass similar resolution in some other case. You (Advocate General) impress upon them (Hubli Bar Association office bearers). We will ensure that cases are transferred out of their jurisdiction.”
On February 27, the advocates of both the Hubli and Dharwad courts told the Karnataka high court that they have decided to revoke the resolution. The high court has directed senior lawyers of the bar association to come forward and represent the accused so they are not forced to engage lawyers from outstation.
In the prevailing hostile atmosphere across the state, human rights lawyers and activists say, they have found it particularly difficult to negotiate the legal space. A week ago, a 19-year-old Bangalore-based student, Amulya Leona Noronha, was arrested for saying “Pakistan Zindabad” along with “Hindustan Zindabad”. The police, following the pre-decided script, booked her and arrested her for sedition.
In this case too, over 20 lawyers decided to form a team and represent her in the court. But as they were preparing to file for bail, the lawyers started receiving threat calls. “Appear at your own risk,” a young lawyer, who was preparing to appear for Noronha, was told. Another lawyer received a message in Kannada saying that he would be declared a ‘deshdrohi’ if she dared appear in court. “Finally, we had to arrange for a hearing at the magistrate’s resident. The lives of Amulya and the lawyers were in danger,” Venkatesh said.
A young lawyer, who was part of the team of lawyers approaching the Karnataka high court, told The Wire that the situation is highly frustrating. “Imagine just to represent these young men and women, we need protection from the high court. The lawyers’ fraternity is so highly Hinduised in the state that they are ready to go to any extent to deny legal representation to the accused,” the lawyer said. Several lawyers that The Wire contacted were afraid to speak on the record, fearing further backlash. “We got to work in this hostile atmosphere. We can’t afford to make more enemies. Getting the students released is our foremost priority,” a woman lawyer shared her concern.
It is not just the legal fraternity but also the state police which has acted in a peculiar manner since the agitation against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) began across the state.
The trigger for the agitation is clear: the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has repeatedly promised to conduct the National Register of Citizens exercise to identify undocumented immigrants and has connected the process with the CAA, which awards Indian citizenship to undocumented migrants from three countries on the basis of religion but pointedly excludes the Muslim community. If implemented along with the imminent NRC, the fear is that it would have a deeper exclusionary impact on the Muslim communities in the country.
The Karnataka police, however, used force and indiscriminately applied criminal charges against dissenting voices. In at least eight-nine cases across the state, the police have applied charges of sedition. And when the legal fraternity decided to gang up and make the legal fight impossible, the direct impact of such behaviour was on those booked or arrested in these cases.
Venkatesh says there is a greater human cost of such unprofessional and unconstitutional behaviour. “There have been very sharp judgments from both the Supreme Court and the high court explicitly laying down instances in which sedition charges can be filed. In none of these cases, any accused have insulted India. And Pakistan isn’t a declared enemy state. But this rot of Hindutva is so deep that it is impossible to reason these things out with bar association members or the police. We just hope better sense prevails.”