The Perils of Practising Law in a Polarised Environment

Lawyers who take up cases on behalf of the rural poor are not only victimised by the police and administration but also encounter suspicion and hostility from the local legal fraternity.

The Jagdalpur Bar Association in Bastar, Chattisgarh recently passed a resolution barring “outsider” lawyers from appearing in courts, a move aimed at a group of courageous women lawyers functioning as the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group (JagLAG).

A person accused of a criminal offence has a fundamental right to a lawyer and in addition a fundamental right to legal aid under Article 39A of the Constitution. The National Legal Services Authorities Act, 1987 provides for the constitution of a national, state and district legal services authorities with budgetary allocations to provide legal services to those from the lower socio-economic strata. The first criteria of eligibility for legal aid mentioned under Section 12 (a) is membership of a Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe – thus entitling a large majority of the poor from the tribal region of Bastar to legal aid. However, ground realities even in Raipur of Jagdalpur clearly demonstrate the miserable failure of these agencies to help the poor in a system loaded against them. By providing much needed legal services to the poor embroiled in criminal cases, the JagLAG lawyers are in fact fulfilling a constitutional mandate the state has failed to uphold.

In general, getting lawyers to take up your case boils down to having the money to pay them. As a seasoned clerk of a lawyer used to put it in the pithy phrase –“ghode ko ghas nahi daloge, to chalega kaise” (‘How will the horse move if you don’t give it grass’).  JagLAG’s lawyers, who are at present enrolled with the Delhi Bar Council, provide pro bono services. To comply with the requirement of High Court rules,  they have been getting their vakalatnamas (i.e. power-of-attorney authorising the lawyer to represent a client) counter-signed by local lawyers. Given the high level of unemployment in the country and the relatively easy entry the legal profession affords, there are tens of thousands of lawyers in the hundreds of district and magistrate courts dotted over the countryside. There are a few lawyers who earn well while many remain virtually briefless, managing their finances by keeping one foot elsewhere, typically in their village fields.  Under normal circumstances, getting a vakalatnama counter-signed by a local lawyer would be at most a matter of a small fee.

However, the rules of the game change where there are strong movements for social change and polarisation of society takes place. The Jagdalpur Bar Association has also passed a resolution barring its members from countersigning the vakalatnamas of the JagLAG lawyers. It is likely that members of the Association may fall in line and henceforth refuse to counter sign any vakalatnamas for them. In a situation which is polarised between classes, lawyers would not like to antagonise the local elite or the police and administration. There are some things which have not changed in decades.

The Chhattisgarh Mines Shramik Sangh led by the radical trade unionist Shankar Guha Niyogi was a union of contract workers in the iron ore mines at Dalli-Rajahra near the Bhilai Steel Plant in Chattisgarh. In parallel, the Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha (CMM) was working in the rural areas trying to organise marginal farmers and landless workers. In cities like Delhi and Mumbai, struggling workers can hope to find some support among a section of the middle class and intelligentsia who are active in civil liberties and democratic rights organisations. However, the struggles by CMM led to a sharp polarisation of classes in the area and there was unfortunately no support from among the middle classes in the area.

Embroiling people working for social change in criminal cases has been a strategy of the state since independence. Regardless of their beliefs or actions, sooner or later the court system catches up with them. In 1982, I started work with the CMM as a lawyer. Usually, people start approaching any political organisation with a base in the area for help with their disputes. We were trying to evolve a model where in addition to working as a lawyer in court, I would go to the village where the dispute arose, see what kind of class interests were involved, and whether the matter could be resolved without litigation. Sometimes, the contacts formed could be an entry point for the organisation to begin mobilising people.

The Balod court in Durg District, where a number of cases of the organisation were pending, was about 30 kilometres from Dalli-Rajhara, the headquarters of CMM. Finding a place to stay, money for food and transportation was looking like it was going to be a problem. However, I arranged to stay in the hut of a worker at Danitola mines barely five kilometres from Balod and managed to borrow a bicycle to travel to court and back. The organisation arranged for dinner at the house of Niyogi’s father-in-law, who was a mine worker. Breakfast was at a small dhaba that Niyogi’s sister-in-law and her husband used to run at the mining site.

Thus it was that I ventured forth on my legal career. Immediately, rather than assistance from even the lawyers who had been doing cases for the organisation, rumours began to emerge about me. The rumours were to the effect that I was not really a lawyer. Much to the credit of the naxalite movement, anyone perceived to be working for the exploited is immediately labelled a ‘naxalite’. People reasoned that no lawyer would stay in a mud hut. Or come on a bicycle. Or attend meetings to felicitate comrades released from jail. They quickly concluded, therefore, that I was actually a naxalite.

The situation deteriorated and eventually I had no option but to leave. I moved to Maharashtra and worked with the Kashtkari Sanghathana, an organisation of Worli tribals in the rural district of Thane. Just a kilometre and a half off the busy Mumbai-Surat highway and barely 70-80 kilometres from the metropolis and yet it seemed as if we were in a poor tribal village in Chhattisgarh. That is, however, another story.

Rakesh Shukla  practices law in Delhi