New Delhi: On Christmas eve, just as courts closed after a brutal year of online hearings, lawyers smoking sheesha in Zoom sessions or appearing in baniyans, the Supreme Court coming in for general jeering for moving contempt proceedings against a comic and a cartoonist, the country’s legal community heard another bit of bad news: Delhi Police had invaded the private chambers of lawyer Mehmood Pracha in a raid to seize his papers and electronic equipment.
A video of a “thug-like” Delhi Police officer sitting in Pracha’s office, another of the lawyer shouting from his office balcony that police were holding him prisoner, went viral.
Prominent members of the bar condemned the raid, which is unusual in itself.
The legal community has cut-throat rivalry and big egos. One senior lawyer put it like this when pressed on why lawyers don’t have a collective strategy faced, as they are, by a stringent law such as UAPA (Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act): “We are not saints. Do journalists share story tips with each other? Why do you expect cooperation among us?”
So Christmas Eve was unusual in that lawyers rallied behind Pracha, who is, anyway, not an easy person to rally around.
In a profession facing its toughest challenge yet — a muscular executive has made the Supreme Court appear arbitrary in giving justice — Pracha is widely seen as a lawyer who refuses to work quietly to get his client out. He is the lawyer in the headlines, in the viral videos. He is the lawyer who addressed Shaheen Bagh. He is the lawyer with political ambitions, or a saviour complex.
But he is also a lawyer who Muslims turn to when they seek justice in a country that seems to increasingly threaten and bully them into accepting secondary citizen status.
Pracha is the defence lawyer for Gulfisha Fatima, a 25-year-old student from Jamia Millia Islamia. Fatima has spent the pandemic in jail, charged under the UAPA. In her photos, a young Fatima peers out with hope in her eyes. A year in jail can break anyone. Her incarceration is doubly fraught by families unable to meet prisoners, and judges seeing them online, without a chance to assess their physical condition.
Fatima spoke about communal slurs and bad treatment in jail at one hearing. Justice Amitabh Rawat sought a reply from Tihar Jail that said she was given corrective punishment three times after what the jail termed aggressive behaviour.
“I can’t imagine the pressure she would be under. The very fact she has spoken is very brave,” said Pracha, later.
I met Pracha at his office in early June, stumbling around, masked, in the heat in Nizamuddin East. All gates to the neighbourhood were closed as if the virus could be kept out of posh houses by padlocking iron gates.
“I am an Ambedkarite,” said Pracha, ushering me into his office, a gamcha around his neck.
His positioning is understandable. In New India, it is safer to be an Ambedkarite than a Muslim.
In January, Pracha got bail for the young Bhim Army chief Chandrashekhar Azad, who stood on the steps of the historic Jama Masjid with a copy of the Constitution of India in his hands at the height of the anti-CAA protests. A sea of believers in skullcaps surrounded Azad. Also at hand was his lawyer.
Television channels broadcasted the moment live into savarna drawing rooms.
The Modi government, given to grandstanding, did not like grandstanding by dissenters. Dalits and Muslims bandying together carried ominous signs.
The Dalit leader got to see the inside of a jail. Justice Kamini Lau granted Azad bail after famously asking the prosecution: “Where is the violence? What is wrong with any of these posts? Who says you cannot protest? Have you read the Constitution?”
That was then, this is now.
Delhi riots, followed by a pandemic, saw the government rounding up activists and students associated with the anti-CAA protests under stringent UAPA charges. India’s anti-terror law, a grandchild of POTA and TADA, goes further in stringency from its repealed forefathers. UAPA has open-to-interpretation terms such as being a member of a ‘terrorist gang’, and ‘unlawful association’.
“It is very easy to implicate anyone. A logo can be created, a leaflet found, a letter, a CD, that is enough to send someone to prison for life. It is now for the accused to prove he is not a member,” says lawyer S. Balan.
Balan, who is the public prosecutor in journalist Gauri Lankesh’s assassination, says UAPA has not been applied to any case of Hindu terrorism.
This law is what Muslims are up against; Gulfisha Fatima, Pracha’s client, is among them.
Pracha, in June, said the principal problem with FIR 59 that formed the basis of imprisoning several activists and protestors is that it is based on “source information”.
“It is hearsay of a person who is not going to depose in court. He is already hidden, whether he exists or not. It could be a cock-and-bull story. This is the amount of evidence they have,” Pracha said triumphantly. He derided human rights being invoked to get the anti-CAA protestors out, favouring a good legal fight instead.
He said he had enough arsenal to put sleuths of Delhi Police special cell who had manufactured this FIR, in jail. He also wanted to go after those behind the Delhi violence in February that left at least 50 dead.
“There were no Hindu-Muslim riots, which we will establish. I am also handling more than 100 cases of attack on Muslims, it is as gory as 1984. It was not a communal riot, it was not a fight between two communities, it was not. It was an attack orchestrated, planned and implemented by Delhi Police and RSS office-bearers,” Pracha said.
“There are dozens of complaints against RSS office-bearers including Kapil Mishra of not just giving provocative speeches but actually attacking people with guns, bombs. Houses have been blown off, two-storey houses. All these are statements of eye-witnesses which police is not taking action on. There is direct evidence of police involvement. Officers have been named,” Pracha added.
A relentless state
Pracha’s stance has, so far, not led to happy endings. The Delhi violence cases are slowly winding their way through court without netting the big fry, or police officers.
Fatima is still in jail.
The lawyers fighting UAPA cases have dug in their heels for the long haul. Except for accused Jamia student Safoora Zargar, released on the grounds of human rights — she was pregnant — rather than the merits of the case, all charged in FIR 59 haven’t seen the world outside prison.
Prosecution has not let up pressure; it filed a 17,000-page chargesheet on FIR 59, brought in ominously into the court in large trunks. “Had the police tried these tricks on the earlier generation of criminal court judges such as, for example, Vivian Bose, I can imagine the judge leaning back in his chair looking down scornfully at the masses of paper constituting the chargesheet and asking the investigation officer to produce one sheet of paper, just one from the 17,000 pages which would show him unambiguously that the accused had committed a heinous offence. The moment the police do drama of producing super-voluminous chargesheets, a criminal judge should know that there is hanky-panky going on,” wrote lawyer Colin Gonsalves.
After initial jostling between the Union government, and the Arvind Kejriwal-led Delhi government on who will prosecute the Delhi riots’ cases, the latter caved in. The Union government appointed a team of 11 lawyers for the prosecution in late June.
The home ministry gave out a medal of excellence to a police official who investigated Delhi riots’ cases and the involvement of Sharjeel Imam, a JNU student who participated in anti-CAA protests and who was charged with UAPA. Imam is still behind bars. Delhi Police rounded up high-profile student activist Umar Khalid, who has a status similar to jailed activist Joshua Wong in Hong Kong.
In July, Delhi Police filed an affidavit in response to a clutch of petitions including one from social activist Harsh Mander, asking for FIRs against BJP politicians Kapil Mishra and Anurag Thakur. The police said it found no actionable evidence against these people in instigating or participating in these riots.
The lawyer of choice for Muslims in India
Mander withdrew his plea from the Delhi high court the same month.
Pracha is livid at this move. He feels this was a good legal recourse that was lost. His own plea, he says, against Mishra got attached to Mander’s plea — and now doesn’t stand a chance.
Two lawyers I spoke to said Mander’s decision was wise as the court had shown its hand in its unwillingness to prosecute the likes of Mishra. The only time Kapil Mishra came near to incarceration was when Justice Muralidhar (then of the Delhi high court) made Delhi Police listen to tapes of Mishra’s speech on February 26.
The judge was transferred the same day. In a 30-page investigation by two of its reporters, The Caravan outlined the role of politicians, including Mishra, in the Delhi riots, besides the complicity of police which, the magazine said, took directions to carry out violence against Muslims.
Pracha’s past victories include getting bail for an accused in the bombing of an Israeli diplomat’s car in Delhi in 2012. Of late, he seems to have acquired a label of being the lawyer for Muslims in India.
“He takes that tag with the right spirit. There is nothing wrong with the tag,” says lawyer Miriam Fozia Rahman, who got to know Pracha, and his sister, also a lawyer, during the anti-CAA protests. The well-heeled Pracha siblings, known in legal circles for their pugilistic nature, are not from a family of lawyers, though. Their father, Siraj, stood for Delhi elections in 1993 but lost.
Rahman cautions that in a courtroom all tags are shed. All lawyers are the eyes and ears of the court, she says.
Pracha’s antechamber, when I step out, is full of Muslim men and women, some with a head scarf, some without it. Only a few wear masks to ward off the virus. Maybe they have weightier things on their mind.
Aparna Kalra is a Delhi School of Economics alumnus whose forte is investigations, profiles and data journalism. She has worked as a fact-checker on a Facebook project for AFP.