All-India advocates’ strike fails to have any impact on rising police impunity.
The story of the near-total strike on March 16, 2015 by 1.3 million advocates throughout the country began on March 11 on the steps of the entrance to the Allahabad District Court building. The shaky mobile-shot video available on YouTube shows a sequence of events which started with an argument between a uniformed sub-inspector, Shailendra Singh, and an advocate, Nabi Ahmed. The cop decides to settle the argument by other means and reaches for the gun in his holster. There is a scramble as other lawyers try to intervene. The police officer however fires from his weapon, felling the advocate. As shocked lawyers and standers-on run helter-skelter, the cop brandishes his gun, pointing it all around. As howls of protest rise he runs for the gate.
The advocate died even before reaching the hospital. Lawyers immediately started protests both at the District Court and at the Allahabad High Court, the largest high court in India, but had to bear the brunt of police lathi charges even within the court premises. They also marched to the office of the SSP (Senior Superintendent of Police), where the killer cop had reportedly taken shelter. As the protests there turned violent there was police firing. The lawyers struck work and boycotted the courts, first in Allahabad and Lucknow and from the next day, throughout Uttar Pradesh. A one-day All-India lawyers strike was called on Monday by the Bar Council of India. The lawyers of UP continued their strike, demanding action on the SSP, among other things. On the seventh day however, the Allahabad High Court Bar Association withdrew the strike without this demand being met. A mahapanchayat of all the District Bar representatives of the state has also decided to bring the boycott to a close on March 23rd.
The incident and its aftermath raises questions germane to the function of the system of justice in our country.
First, is the extent to which the police have become a law unto themselves. The sub-inspector not only used his service revolver to settle his dispute, but, after the incident, even visited his own police station and another police station, without any attempt being made to arrest him. The dispute itself arose from a criminal complaint filed by Nabi Ahmed, which was to have been investigated by Singh. The advocate’s grouse was that Singh has taken a bribe from the accused and had filed a closure report in the matter, without doing any investigation. That he dared to accost and question the officer about it cost him his life. A press report, which gives some indication of the police mindset, quotes the officer after the incident as saying there was nothing greater than sanmaan – thus implying that it was his “respect” that was at stake and hence the firing.
But it was not only the sub-inspector’s mindset. During the lawyers’ agitation the higher level officers too went out of their way to present a story indicating that the firing could be an act of self-defence. In a way they were merely mirroring the numerous fake stories of “encounters” in “self-defence”, used by police all over the country. To a society which has grown to accept hundreds of such stories without question, the story of an unarmed lawyer in a court building being a threat to the life of an armed sub-inspector does not seem too absurd.
The killer cop was no criminal in the eyes of the police. Though he continued to remain with the city limits he was not arrested until the rising tide of lawyers’ anger forced the authorities to show his arrest after 48 hours. Some police officers even started sending out messages on WhatsApp calling for contributions in Shailendra Singh’s support from all officers-in-charge of police stations in UP. The collection was reported to have touched twenty lakhs on the second day itself. Such measures quite possibly had the support of police higher-ups.
It is such brazen operations of a police force that call to question any claim that rule of law has sanctity in most parts of the country. Both of us (Arun and Vernon) have spent time in police custody and, having experienced torture and threats of being finished off in an ‘encounter’, are quite aware of the extent of the lawlessness of those assigned to uphold the law. We have seen officers react angrily when questioned in court on such illegal acts, implying that it was a question of their “honour”. But in advocate Nabi Ahmed’s case, the contradictions are all the more stark. Here is a case concerning the courts and the bar, which could at least have been expected to be immune to the acts of a lawless force. It is a case where the local lawyers fought resolutely to protect themselves and their rights. They were joined by all the lawyers of India’s largest state and then by all the lawyers of the country. However, even such a large and organized body could not achieve their demand of action on the district police chief, who sheltered the killer officer. It is perhaps indicative of the degree to which the police have been given a free hand that the government is unwilling to act on members of a coercive arm of the state.
Another less important, but nevertheless worrying aspect of this whole episode is the way such a massive All-India strike action by lakhs of lawyers has simply gone by without much of a ripple in society. Outside Allahabad, reports and commentary in the mainstream media have been minimal. Parliament too, despite being in session, and despite having many legal leading lights among its members, did not notice the strike. An event having a direct impact on crores of litigants has passed off relatively unnoticed. Another telling comment on our level of acceptance of the “tareek pe tareek” court-delay syndrome that ails the whole justice system.
By Arun Ferreira and Vernon Gonsalves