Let justice take its course


The Gadchiroli court verdict in the Saibaba case shows disdain for established law and judicial principles.

On March 7, 2017, the Sessions Court of Gadchiroli, Maharashtra, pronounced a life sentence on Delhi University professor GN Saibaba and four others, and a 10-year imprisonment on another. Many are now questioning the wisdom of handing life sentences to persons who had no accusation of violence against them and had, at the most, been charged only with sympathising with and supporting the Maoist movement. The security agencies, in their turn, attempted to justify the court’s verdict through press statements that painted Saibaba as a “mastermind of many arsons, murders, and abductions”. The Maharashtra Anti-Naxal Operations (ANO) office even seemed to criticise the Supreme Court for granting him bail earlier, stating that “72 offences were registered during this period [when Saibaba was out on bail], which included the murder of two policemen in explosion and encounters, 15 other murder cases and other offences”.

Many in the mainstream media were quick to pick up the ‘mastermind’ angle, without pausing to ask how a person with 90 per cent disability, who spent much of the period in question in Delhi hospitals, could direct violent operations 1,200 km away in Gadchiroli.

Some did point out that the ANO statement conveniently did not specify whether the cases were registered against the professor after his release on bail in April 2016; 72 registered crimes “masterminded by Saibaba”, but without a single FIR in his name!

What’s more worrying is when trial court judges start buying into this narrative of “violent resistance directed by ‘white-collar naxals’ in far-off metros”.

The 827-page judgement of Suryakant S Shinde, the principal district session judge in Gadchiroli, displays a reasoning that runs counter to the maxim “Not only must justice be done, it must also be seen to be done.”

‘Not harsh enough’

In para 1,013, the judge says, “Hence, merely because the accused no.6 Saibaba is 90% disabled is no ground to show him leniency and though he is physically handicapped but he is mentally fit and he is a think tank and high profile leader of banned organization CPI (Maoist) and its frontal organization RDF and by the violent activities of accused nos. 1 to 6… the situation of Gadchiroli district from 1982 till today is in paralyzed condition and no industrial and other developments are taking place because of fear of naxal and their violent activities. Hence, in my opinion, the imprisonment for life is also not a sufficient punishment to the accused but the hands of the Court are closed (sic)…”

The judge makes it plain that he personally feels the accused deserved the only harsher sentence available in Indian law — death by hanging. The law restricts death sentence to only the rarest of rare cases when aggravating circumstances outweigh mitigating circumstances. Shinde, however, offers no convincing basis for his assertion in favour of a death sentence.

His mention of “violent activities of accused nos. 1 to 6” is without basis, as there is nothing in the charges, chargesheet or judgment that alleges (let alone proves) this charge against any of the accused. There is also no evidence linking the development of Gadchiroli, or lack of it, to naxal violence.

These assertions are merely the judge’s personal opinions, which have limited weightage under the Indian Evidence Act. They would, however, certainly have served to prejudice him in favour of conviction and the harshest possible sentence. This bias is also seen in the rest of the judgment, particularly during the crucial evaluation of evidence.

Rules bypassed

The case rests heavily on the authenticity of the electronic evidence — memory chips, hard disks, pen drives and the like — shown to be seized by the investigating authority. As it is easy to tamper with electronic evidence, the law is stricter on its admission. The essential requirement of a certificate under section 65B of the Indian Evidence Act has been bypassed under the pretext that “prosecution has proved beyond reasonable doubt that at no point of time there was any alternation (sic) or manipulation in the electronic data contained in electronic gadgets.”

A trial court cannot waive the statutory requirement, but Shinde just brushed it away.

Biased evaluation

Eighteen of the 23 witnesses examined were police or government officials, and most others were professionalpanchas(apanchais a person called to witness and check the truthfulness of a police action), who had been used by the police in several cases, and included one who was a home guard and another employed to clean the police station. Among the most crucial witnesses was Jagat Bhole, thepanchfor the search-and-seizure at the Delhi University home of Saibaba. Illiterate, he had been specifically picked by the police over the numerous professors and students present there at the time — possibly because they felt he would be more amenable to manipulation.

Bhole, however, told the court that “the police kept myself and Saibaba out of the house and locked the door from inside while the search was going on”. This obviously rendered thepanchnama(a record of the search) unreliable, as it violated the provisions for searches and evidence gathering.

Judge Shinde got around this by simply rejecting this part of the witness’s evidence. His logic: “It is to be noted that this witness is illiterate witness. He cannot read and write English language and his cross examination was held in whole day that too by eminent lawyer having standing practice of more than 25 years and this witness might have frightened because of Court atmosphere.”

But the judge did not use the same yardstick for other crucial evidence — for instance, the confessional statements of accused 1 and 2. Both young Madia and Gond tribals, they retracted their confession after alleging that it was extracted from them in police custody through torture and intimidation.

Judge Shinde chose to disbelieve the complaint of ill-treatment and used an unbelievable leap of logic to assert that Marathi, the language in which the confession was recorded, was known to the accused. He states that the confession was retracted through an “application in Hindi language and… accused no.1 Mahesh and No.2 Pandu also signed in Marathi language”. Since Hindi, Marathi and even Gondi (the mother tongue of the accused), all use the Devanagari script, it is meaningless to conclude that the “accused were well conversant with Marathi and Hindi” from their Devanagari signatures.

Contrast this with the confessions of Swami Aseemanand, a blast accused, that were made well after he was out of police custody and in jail. His subsequent retraction was accepted, leading to his acquittal.

Going bananas on evidence

The court uses the flimsiest of reasons to convict Prashant Rahi and Dilip Tirki. It says, “Finding of incriminating article i.e. Yatri card (Art.126) shows that accused no.4 Prashant Rahi was going from Delhi to Raipur and finding of newspaper with him which was usually used by the members of CPI (Maoist) and its frontal organisation RDF as identification code to recognize each other shows that he was going to forest area to meet underground naxals as alleged by the prosecution.”

The court arrived at this conclusion based on an article by award-winning Hyderabad journalist C Vanaja, who once reported how she established contact with Maoists by using a particular newspaper and bananas as identification codes. This article was shown to have been found on Saibaba’s computer and used as evidence at the trial — a bizarre reasoning that was considered sufficient to grant Rahi a life sentence.

Saibaba has been the joint secretary of the Revolutionary Democratic Front (RDF). In trying to establish that it is a terrorist organisation under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), the judgment attempts to take upon itself powers that only the Central Government has. Its logic: “there is photo of accused no.6 Saibaba and there appears a meeting under the head of banner “Release all political Prisoners unconditionally”… Saibaba is addressing to the people. This shows that accused no.6 Saibaba is the active member of banned organization.”

Similarly, elsewhere it states, “Slogan “Lal Salam” is used by naxals and members of banned organisation RDF and hence it is clear that accused no.6 is a member of banned organisation CPI (Maoist) and its frontal organisation RDF and inciting the people with slogans Lal Salam Lal Salam.”

The Supreme Court has often held that the implementation of procedural provisions must be more rigorous in the case of special and stringent laws such as UAPA. In a similar case involving writer-activist Sudhir Dhawale and eight others, the Gondia Sessions Court had acquitted all on the grounds, among other things, of the non-fulfilment of provisions under the UAPA. The State appealed against the acquittal, but was rejected outright by the Nagpur Bench of the Bombay High Court. In an order passed just seven days after the Gadchiroli judgment, the HC gave prime importance to the sanction order showing compliance with the mandatory provisions of law, such as an independent review within the time limit, and that the sanctioning authority was aware of material that would constitute an offence punishable under the UAPA.

Overlooking basic principles

In contrast, the Gadchiroli court has been lenient to the prosecution, holding that the relevant sections of the UAPA were non-mandatory, and non-compliance did not vitiate the proceeding. Another important provision of law was given the short shrift.

In a criminal case, the proof should be beyond reasonable doubt — that is, no other explanation can be derived from the facts except that the accused committed the crime. A civil trial, on the other hand, simply requires a preponderance of probabilities — that is, its version of facts is more likely than not the correct version, as in personal injury and breach of contract suits.

At several points the judgment has dispensed with the principle of proof beyond reasonable doubt. On the other hand, it seems to be applying the civil trial principle in what is clearly a criminal proceeding. “According to the defence, the newspaper Sahara dated 19-8-2013 was found in possession of accused no.3 Hem Mishra and newspaper Lokmat dated 20-8-2013 was found in possession of accused no.2 Pandu Narote. This shows that accused were arrested on 20.8.2013. However, merely because the accused persons were found in possession of newspapers dated 19-8-2013 does not mean that they were arrested on 20-8-2013. According to the prosecution, newspaper is used as identification code by the members of banned organization… Hence, the version of the prosecution appears to be more probable than the defence”.

Similarly, the principle of adverse inference — “evidence which could be and is not produced would, if produced, be unfavourable to the person who withholds it” — has been turned on its head. The prosecution admitted to obtaining the CDR (call details report) of accused 1 and 2 but withheld it despite the defence asking for it to be produced, as it would prove false the prosecution’s arrest story (according to the prosecution, the accused were arrested along with JNU student Hem Mishra on August 22, 2013, from Aheri, whereas the defence contends they were picked up from Ballarshah on August 20 and their phone SIM were removed. The CDR would have settled the question and, had the defence been found right, proved the falseness of the very FIR on which the whole case is based).

Judge Shinde blames the defence for not obtaining the CDR on their own, overlooking the fact that such information can be shared by a telecom company only on the orders of a court. The judgment abounds with numerous such transgressions. The defence plans to appeal before the Nagpur Bench of the Bombay High Court at the earliest, given the fragile health of Saibaba.

Apart from his disability and cardiac and orthopaedic problems, Saibaba is suffering from acute pancreatitis, for which he was hospitalised in Delhi for four days just ahead of the judgment. Amnesty International has raised the issue of the alleged denial of medical treatment to him in jail.

Saibaba the human rights activist, however, is more pained by the misinformation shrouding the case.

In a letter to his lawyer from prison, he says, “We are deeply pained by looking at the false and defamatory and negative propaganda stories in newspapers… targeted for exerting pressure and influencing public opinion, in turn seeking to affect the legal process.”

Several civil liberties activists and organisations have raised their voice against the judgment. Two members of the European Parliament from Spain and Germany have written to the European Commission, calling for measures to ensure “all legal guarantees are respected under the highest human rights standards for him and the rest of prosecuted people”. Saibaba and his co-convicts can only hope that, whatever be the views on the bench, they will not be permitted to stand in the way of justice.

By Arun Ferreira and Vernon Gonsalves

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated April 8, 2017)

How political dissenters end up languishing in jails without bail


Deliberate delays and denial of bail has amounted to sentencing without trial.

Activists of the Kabir Kala Manch, perhaps one of the best known progressive cultural troupes of Maharashtra, heaved a sigh of relief on January 3 when three of their members finally walked out of jail after three-and-a-half years. A Supreme Court bench granted bail to Sagar Gorkhe, Ramesh Gaychor and Sachin Mali.

The apex court’s bail order pointed out that though the state had told the Supreme Court in July 2016 that the trial would be completed within six months, it had, till January 2017, only partially completed the examination (leave aside cross examination) of just one of the 147 witnesses it proposed to examine. Such a rate of progress in trial would have meant a lifetime of waiting for its completion. The bench ordered their release.

Method in the madness of trial delays

While it has become customary to blame the backlog of cases in courts for these seemingly crazy delays in trial, there is at the same time a method in the madness that is quite clearly at work, particularly when in comes to political dissenters.

The delays are often the fruit of a deliberate dalliance between police and prosecution to postpone service of summons, hold back witnesses, neglect bringing the muddemaal or physical evidence to court and other such means to ensure that the trial process is effectively paralysed.

This strategy is deployed because the prosecution is aware that most cases against political detainees are weak and often falsely fabricated by the investigating authority and likely to end in acquittal. These “political” cases are normally instituted under harsher laws like the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) and the Public Security Acts of various states. Such laws allow arrests on vaguely defined charges with insubstantial evidence. They also prescribe bail norms which render it difficult for courts to grant bail.

Inordinate delays then become the prosecution’s means for imposing a “sentence” of long years, which entails rotting in jail as an undertrial without bothering to go through the hassle of obtaining a conviction. Thus, though the accused are finally found to be innocent, the judgment offers small comfort for someone who has already spent almost the maximum possible sentence as undertrial.

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Inordinate delays then become the prosecution’s means for imposing a ‘sentence’ of long years rotting in jail as an undertrial without bothering to go through the hassle of obtaining a conviction.

Protection for the perpetrators

Such tactics, while being criminal, neither hold consequences for the investigator or the prosecutor; nor are there any redressal for the victim. A classical case in this regard was related to the Akshardham Temple terror attack of 2002. Six accused in the matter remained in custody for 12 years before being finally acquitted in 2014 by the Supreme Court. The judgment, quoted then in DailyO, explained how the case had been fabricated and the accused framed through concocted statements.

The accused then filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court asking for redressal and compensation for the years lost. Despite the unequivocal observations of the 2014 SC judgment indicating that the accused had been falsely implicated, the same court refused to either punish the perpetrators or compensate the victims. If, in a case which the SC itself has held to be fabricated, there is not scope for recompense, there is obviously nothing much the judicial system can offer by way of righting such wrongs committed by the police-prosecutor combine.

Laxity of the courts

In fact it often seems that the bench too is, unwittingly or otherwise, part of a system that ensures that political dissenters are “punished” without trial. In the case of the KKM members too, though the SC granted bail, almost half of their period spent in custody was during the pendency of their application before the same court.

In another similar case of a political prisoner from Maharashtra, Sudhir Dhawale, editor of the magazine Vidrohi, the Nagpur Bench of the Bombay High Court rejected bail, but ordered a timebound trial within a period of six months — only to extend this period three times over, while each time rejecting Sudhir’s bail. He was finally declared not guilty — but only after serving a “sentence” of 40 months as an undertrial.

Reluctance to grant bail

The irony is that, even where the duplicity of the investigating agency is prima facie quite apparent, the courts have been reluctant to exercise their power to grant bail. A recent case is that of the team of lawyers and human rights activists from Telengana who, in December 2016, were on a fact-finding mission to Chhattisgarh to probe accusations of police atrocities in Bastar. Though they were arrested in Telangana they were taken across the border to Chhattisgarh so that they could be charged under the severe Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act. The basis shown for arrest was the purported seizure of demonetised notes of one lakh, which they were allegedly taking to “help” naxalites in Bastar.

Despite the illogicality of the argument of lawyers carrying demonetised notes from Telangana to naxalites in Bastar, despite the notes being obviously planted and despite there being no law or rule in force prohibiting the possession of one lakh of demonetised notes, the bail applications of the team members were denied first by the magistrate’s court of Sukma and then by the sessions court of Dantewada. The Dantewada court felt that it was premature to grant bail.

The option of approaching the Chhattisgarh High Court in Bilaspur is not only cumbersome but also, considering the delaying tactics of the prosecution, likely to be long drawn out. The Telangana lawyers, research scholars and journalists who are part of this team will now have to prepare themselves to eke out a few months, if not more, in Bastar’s jails — a “sentence” being imposed without any realistic case at all.

Death sentence by encounter

But perhaps they should consider themselves lucky. In their very own state of Telangana, the police have taken the lead in taking this practice of delivering prison sentences to their logical conclusion. On April 7th 2015, five Muslim prisoners, who were on the verge of completion of their trial where they expected acquittal, were killed in cold blood while being taken to court. The Telangana police probably decided that they deserved not acquittal but the death sentence. They executed accordingly.

A similar dubious “encounter” killing of eight undertrial accused of the Students Islamic Movement of India whose trial was reportedly approaching acquittal was executed by the Bhopal police on October 31 2016.

Despite widespread protest by human rights organisations, the political establishment has indicated that those who have carried out these killings enjoy its support. Pehaps an indicator of the forms of justice delivery in the days to come.

By Arun Ferreira and Vernon Gonsalves

http://www.dailyo.in/politics/chattisgarh-maoists-bastar-kabil-kala-manch-political-dissenters-fake-encounters-cases-trial-delay-jail/story/1/15045.html

From HCU to JNU, it’s worrying how Modi sarkar is cleaning up India’s campuses


Teachers come under attack as institutions move to sweep out dissent.

In the wake of the students’ spring that swept the country’s campuses during the last academic year, the Union government is naturally bent on taking steps to stem the tide of unrest.

It was the government, and particularly the HRD ministry, that was at the heart of many of the conflicts with the students – at IIT-Madras, Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), University Grants Commission (UGC), University of Hyderabad (UoH), Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) and elsewhere – and it is the government that potentially holds the keys to their solution.

However, anyone anticipating a conciliatory approach to meet student demands and resolve the conflicts would be sorely disappointed.

Rather, the government seems to be promising more of the same thing – further appointments of unqualified PM loyalists (like cricketerChetan Chauhan) to head institutions and a proposal on New Educational Policy that wants curbs on campus politics and derecognition of caste- and religion-based organisations (like the SC-ST associations which were active in the movement for Justice for Rohit Vemula).

Political cleansing of ‘Socrates’ who ‘corrupt the youth’

Simultaneously, the HRD ministry, in close coordination with the home ministry and the ABVP – the Sangh Parivar’s student wing – is moving to the next step on its agenda for eradication of all dissent on the campuses.

It looks like a programme for swachh universities, politically cleansed of all divergent ideas. In this phase, it seems that teachers with views against the ruling dispensation will be as much the targets as student activists. The government’s logic appears to be that it first needs to condemn and pluck out the “Socrates” who are “corrupting the youth” against the ruling dispensation.

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Indications of these were available in February and March this year. There were police complaints by Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha (BJYM) and ABVP against a speech on nationalism at JNU by Nivedita Menon.

And when Rajesh Misra of the University of Lucknow shared on Facebook an article favouring JNU activist Umar Khalid, he had to face violent ABVP protests and notices from the university administration.

Earlier, Magsaysay Award winner Sandeep Pandey was sacked in January 2016 from the faculty of Banaras Hindu University (BHU), and Prof Saibaba of Delhi University was suspended and even physically attacked for sympathising with Naxalites.

As the new academic year commenced in June-July 2016, the UoH moved, on June 13, 2016, to suspend KY Ratnam and Tathagat Sengupta, two professors who had stood with the students fighting for Justice for Rohit Vemula.

They had, in March 2016, been arrested when they remonstrated with the police during a lathi-charge on protesting students. Their suspension met with strong protests by students and teachers in Hyderabad and other centres and the UoH administration was forced to beat a hasty retreat and revoke the suspension.

IB-ABVP combine

Meanwhile, other reports came in of removal of professors at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai, another deemed university.

The ABVP has, over the last few months, been repeatedly announcing that TISS was its next target after JNU.

They also met the TISS director S Parasuraman in April 2016 with a list of “anti-social elements” on campus. They even listed to a journalist the leftists in the faculty and boasted of their access to Intelligence Bureau (IB) reports about the activities of TISS fellows.

With such blatantly announced close coordination between central intelligence agencies and Sangh Parivar organisations, pressure on the TISS authorities to remove teachers who were difficult to control was bound to be high.

Bela Bhatia, who has even served on the Planning Commission committee on left-wing extremism, had been edged out in the midst of a course she was teaching in 2014.

Sanober Keshwar, who has taught for seven years and was listed as a teacher in six courses for the new academic year, was abruptly sacked by removing her office phone and blocking her TISS mail access even before telling her, in the second week of June 2016, of her removal. Another teacher, Monica Sakhrani, too has been abruptly moved out.

All of them have been active on democratic rights issues for several years and would be seen as obstacles to the Sangh Parivar plans.

Witch-hunts in academia 

As the ruling party organisations and State organs work in close collaboration to target their ideological rivals in the universities, the stage is being set for witch-hunts in the academia. It is reminiscent of the McCarthy era purges in post-Second World War US which were largely done by the FBI under Edgar Hoover. The spread of the IB on campuses is also being supplemented by surveillance by the local police.

In Mumbai, the police zone that covers the TISS has started a survey of all colleges for student and faculty details. While one college head saw this as police interference which was not required, TISS director Parsuraman said it was the TISS administration that had requested police officials to make the rounds of the institute and its vicinity.

Such methods are bound to face opposition from students and teachers alike. It remains to be seen whether such resistance will be able to preserve the much needed democratic space in our universities.

By Vernon Gonsalves and Arun Ferreira

http://www.dailyo.in/politics/modi-saffronisation-of-education-rohit-vemula-hcu-crackdown-kanhaiya-kumar-umar-khalid-smriti-irani-abvp/story/1/11420.html

Students Spring advances amidst violent State onslaught


Latest phase of student movement draws new centres and sections into ideological battle

Finance minister Arun Jaitley’s latest claim to ideological victory in the nationalism debate seems to have a more timid tone than his earlier assertion of triumph. Earlier, while speaking at the National Convention of the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha (BJYM) on March 6, he claimed, rather grandiosely, to have won the “ideological war”. His claim, made just three days after JNUSU President Kanhaiya Kumar’s release from jail, was based on the Jai Hind slogan Kanhaiya raised and the tricolor that was waved at JNU during his release speech. Interpreting these acts as acceptance of defeat, the BJP ideological general’s proclamation had the degree of finality one normally associates with the adversary signing a document of surrender.

Just 20 days later, Jaitley’s claims had been considerably scaled down. While addressing the Executive Committee meeting of Delhi BJP Jaitley continued to claim “victory”, but this time he merely said that it was the first round that had been won and that the ideological battle would continue. A very significant section to call Jaitley’s bluff was within his very camp.

The lieutenants in his army had been quick to realize that the students’ movement was far from defeated. As Jaitley was speaking to the BJYM, one of its district chiefs had even announced a five lakh reward for Kanhaiya’s tongue; another organisation offered eleven lakh for Kanhaiya’s head. Such calls and the wide applause they received from the Sangh Parivar foot-soldiers on the social media battlefield, could hardly have emerged from victorious ideological warriors. They rather resembled the reactions of the school bully who resorts to strong-arm methods to recover ground lost in an argument.

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Violence on students continues and grows

Strong-arm has been and continues to be an inseparable part of Jaitley’s ideological war against the students. In the earlier phase in the University of Hyderabad (UoH), when the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) was in constant retreat in the face of the growing ideological influence of Rohit Vemula’s Ambedkar Students’ Association (ASA), the power of government was brought into play to punish the students with a central minister branding them as casteist, extremist and anti-national. Students later protesting for #JusticeForRohithVemula were physically attacked by RSS members in Mumbai, Kolkata, Delhi and other places. The JNU phase saw a cocktail of coercion: FIRs and arrests based on doctored videos, violence by BJP affiliated lawyers, Sangh mobilisation of surrounding neighbourhoods to attack JNU student residents. The latest upsurge of student agitation following last week’s re-installation of the UoH Vice-chancellor has seen brutal use of police, not only in Hyderabad, but also in Kozhikode, Chennai, Mumbai and elsewhere.

The widespread and growing use of violence by the BJP and the Sangh Parivar organisations, both directly and by deploying the government’s coercive apparatus lays bare the lie of the Jaitley claim to victory in the clash of ideas. No ideological victor needs to resort to armed might to seal an argument from which s/he has emerged triumphant.

It is obvious that the Sangh Parivar and its government is experiencing an unusually high level of insecurity in the face of the rising tide of the students movement and the unsettling stirring of ideas it has generated. Challenges to caste discrimination in academia, outright rejection of Dronacharya and Manu and the audacious dream of annihilation of caste; interrogations of nationalism and assertions of the right of nations to self-determination; determined defence of dissent and radical redefinition and re-imagination of existing premises and promises of democracy are all ideas which have, in the last two and half months, broken free of the narrowness of small group discussion behind university walls and have forced themselves onto the streets and into public spaces in ways they have not done before in recent times. It is this churn that the ruling party and its government are trying to violently put down.

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New centres and issues of struggle

The physical violence is viciously one-sided with only one receiving end – the students. The numbers too are definitely stacked up heavily against them, with only a minority in the country being today supportive of ideas of caste annihilation, azadi and dissent. The David-Goliath face-off should have, by all conventional ruling class calculations been a walkover. Something however went horribly wrong (for those in power) and the students succeeded in turning traditional wisdom on its head. Rohith Vemula’s death became a historical rallying point that brought in an extremely wide ranging coalition of forces to demand #JusticeForRohith. While the motives of some supporters like the Congress were largely suspect, the Rohith movement generated genuine, active participation of a wide spectrum of students and youth from various regions, classes, castes and communities who are ready to not only fight against the immediate injustice, but also to carry it ahead towards the goals of social justice and annihilation of caste.

The movement seriously impacted the Sangh Parivar plans to make inroads into Dalit communities and appropriate the legacy of Ambedkar in his 125th Birth Anniversary year. The BJP, whose Central ministers were the prime focus of attack, was thrown on the backfoot and found it impossible to effectively tackle the challenge head on. The Parivar therefore chose the path of diversion by selecting what they thought would be an easier battle-ground – that of nationalism and the question of Kashmir. Their elaborate plan complete with doctored videos by crony media and sedition cases by a compliant police commissioner however had not taken into account the determination of the average JNU student and teacher and of the student and teaching community across the country to stand up in defence of dissent.

Broader and deeper student unity

After some initial “success” in using the bogey of anti-nationalism to divert and divide those standing for #JusticeForRohith, the Parivar plan was beaten back by a student unity that refused to see any difference between the anti-national branding of Rohith Vemula and the anti-national branding of the JNU students who organised the programme on Afzal Guru. At universities across the country, the sight of red flags mingling with blue amidst cries of Jai Bhim-Lal Salaam became the new nightmare of the Sangh Parivar. As azadi became the new war cry resounding at every student protest meet, it became the slogan uniting those fighting for various types of azadi – from azadi from poverty and caste oppression to the azadi to choose one’s own nationalist slogan or not at all. The green flags of Muslim student organisations are also being raised in protest as they join in significant numbers.

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The latest phase of this ongoing Student Spring has followed the attempt by the vice-chancellor of the UoH, an accused in the death of Rohith Vemula, to sneak back to his seat in the early morning of March 22. The ones who planned this from the seat of government grossly underestimated the intensity and unity of the resistance to the VC’s return. Despite tough police action and even arrests in Hyderabad, solidarity demonstrations have been a daily occurrence in several universities across the country, often resulting in clashes with the police or Sangh Parivar organisations.

In fact more centres, more universities, more organisations and students have been adding their voices in support. The increase in numbers has also meant wider differences in ideological orientation with an increase in the criticism on each other within the movement. This criticism, often conducted openly on social media sites, does not seem to have however hampered the unity and expansion of the students’ movement. In fact openness of criticism and openness to criticism can actually have helped to cement a more mature and wider unity.

Meanwhile the responses from the other side have been marked by a lack of credibility and coherence. Arun Jaitley and Venkaiah Naidu have both recently tried to debunk the ongoing student movement as the work of a handful of ultra-leftists and a few Jihadis or separatists in two-three universities. Considering the impact the student movement has had on the country’s political discourse over the last two and half months these statements seem to be quite an exercise in self-delusion.

Just a week after the BJP National Executive passed a resolution stating that refusal to say Bharat Mata ki Jai was unacceptable, Mohan Bhagwat, the chief of its parent organization, the RSS made a statement that the slogan cannot be forced upon the people. These confusions and general disarray in the face of an advancing students’ movement can only be expected to increase in the coming weeks.

By Vernon Gonsalves and Arun Ferreira

http://www.dailyo.in/politics/students-spring-rohit-vemula-hyderabad-university-kanhaiya-kumar-anti-national-bharat-mata-ki-jai-rss-mohan-bhagwat-jnu/story/1/9792.html

 

#JNU #Hokkolorob to #JusticeForRohithVemula: India’s student uprising is upon us


The Dalit scholar’s suicide has proved a catalyst for the explosive coming together of young people across an extremely wide spectrum.

“Don’t politicise the young man’s death”, was a refrain repeated ad nauseum by Smriti Irani and the rest of the Sangh Parivar brigade in the immediate aftermath of the death of Rohith Vemula, whose suicide has sparked a wave of protest throughout the country. Sanctimonious sermonising is a preferred mode of defence for a political party caught in a bind. And the BJP, with its unholy lien on smugness and piety, could only be expected to scramble pathetically to grab some moral ground. Some sections of media, also expectedly, joined the chorus, with anchors and panelists voicing alarm that students were being “instigated” and “diverted” from their primary avocations in the degree factory.

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Pontifications that students need stay away from politics are perhaps as old as the organised educational system itself. The preachers would well do to listen to Lala Lajpat Rai, one of the most dynamic leaders of the freedom struggle. In his presidential address to the first All India College Students’ Conference, held in Nagpur in December 1920 he had said, “I am not one of those who believe that students ought not to meddle in politics. I think it is a most stupid theory and an impossible theory too. It is the creation not of confused brains but of dishonest brains.”

Smriti’s dishonesties are legion enough to require no recounting here. Meanwhile, more and more students throughout the country have been voting with their feet on the lines of Lala Lajpat Rai and pouring out, in the campuses and on to the streets, on a variety of issues concerning the academic community and society as a whole. The last year and the first month of 2016 have seen a dramatic upsurge in the students’ movement throughout the country – a veritable Student Spring. Student agitations have seen a scope and sweep not seen since the decades of the sixties and seventies.

Resurgence of student political activism

The present phase of mass student agitation could be said to have started with the Hokkolorob movement, which began in September 2014 as a demand for action on an incident of molestation on the campus of Jadavpur University, Kolkata. When attempts were made to crush protests with a show of police brutality, it rapidly grew to involve tens of thousands of students in Kolkata and then spread to support actions from students throughout the country. The title of Hokkolorob – loosely translated as “let there be a noise” – that the movement took on signified in more ways than one the resurgence of the student political activist on the Indian campus scene – with a bang.

Though recent years had seen major mass movements with a considerable student presence, such as the December 2012 “Nirbhaya” movement in Delhi and the four year long movement of 2009-2013 for a separate Telengana state, Hokkolorob was significant for being a movement that had emerged from a campus issue and had carried within its sweep not only students from a number of other universities, but also teachers, parents and other participants from society at large. It met with success, with the government having to finally give in to the main demand of removal of the vice-chancellor who had ordered the police clamp-down. Soon after, two other prestigious universities of Bengal – Presidency and Shantiniketan – saw student agitations, though the impact was not as widespread as Hokkolorob.

In May 2015 the Smriti Irani led Ministry of Human Resources Development (MHRD), on the basis of an anonymous complaint, prodded the administration of the IIT-Madras to derecognise the Ambedkar-Periyar Study Circle (APSC), a students’ body functioning in the institute. Among the “charges” in the complaint was that the APSC was “trying to create hatred against the honourable prime minister” and trying to make SC/ST students “protest against the MHRD and Central Government”. The perverse governmental interference in an academic institution brought about a surge of protest from students in similar institutions against the obviously casteist and undemocratic act. The government and institute were again forced to hastily retreat, but not before a host of similar APSC bodies starting blooming in other campuses all over the country – potential watchdogs against casteist and autocratic institution managements.

Around the same time on June 12, 2015, the students of the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) began a strike against the appointment of Gajendra Chauhan as the Chairperson of the FTII Governing Council, despite him having nothing of note to qualify him for the task, except his loyalty to the party in power. They too received countrywide support, not only from other students but also from alumni, film personalities and other intellectuals. The government however did not relent and the strike was withdrawn on its 140th day, with the promise to continue the struggle from within. Chauhan’s first visit to the campus was only in January 2016, accompanied by protests, lathi-charge and arrests amidst fortress like security. Thus the FTII dispute continues to simmer with its enduring and deep impact on the student and intellectual community at large.

Occupy UGC is the next ongoing agitation that has spread across the country. It started in Delhi in October 2015 with the students’ occupation of the premises of the University Grants Commission (UGC) to protest its decision to, among other things, scrap non-NET scholarships (which provide small grants to research scholars who are outside the ambit of the National Eligibility Test – NET).

The students were forced out two days later by the police in a pre-dawn swoop, but their pick-up and detention only seemed to serve to further steel their resolve to harden and widen their protest. The protesters have continued since then to stay put at the UGC gates, providing a standard for research students across India to rally around and organise their own protests. There have been been All-India mobilisations at Delhi which have been lathi-charged and water-cannoned, but the movement shows no signs of abating. The government, by referring the matter to a review committee, has tried to send signals of a softening of its stand, but the students have pressed forward with a call for an “all-universities strike” on February 18, 2016.

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Rohith Vemula – resistance icon

It is in this situation of ferment that Rohith Vemula has proved a catalyst for the explosive coming together of students across an extremely wide spectrum, which in turn is providing a rallying point for the sundry forces who have felt the need to stand up against the repressiveness of the current casteist and communal regime.

Though Rohith had been targeted as a Dalit who refused to bow and submit to the casteist dispensation around him; though he, as his suicide note points out, had been reduced in his lifetime to “his immediate identity and nearest possibility”; in death, he rose high, above such categories and limitations, ascending to become the resistance icon of all struggling sections. As this is being written the protests snowball, with the figure for protest actions in various parts of the country on just one day – January 25, 2016 – reaching two hundred and forty two.

Bangaru Dattatreya, the Union Minister who pushed for action on the ASA activists, had, in his letter claimed that the University of Hyderabad (UOH) had become a den of casteists (read Dalits, tribals and all sections desiring the annihilation of caste), extremists (read all those putting up resistance to oppression and exploitation) and anti-nationals (read minorities, particularly Muslims, and all others opposed to the Sangh Parivar’s  Hindutva project). Rohith’s martyrdom has united such “casteists”, “extremists” and “anti-nationals”, not only in the UOH, but across the country. Joint Action Committees demanding justice for Rohith, formed in various universities and centres are now moving to form an All India Joint Action Committee for Social Justice.

The Parivar, though thrown on the defensive, has not remained silent. Organised attacks by RSS members on pro-Rohith protestors have already taken place in Mumbai, Kolkata and other places. These attacks may grow, but their efforts seem pitiable in the face of the rising wave of the Student Spring. This could lead to the more intensive use of the repressive state apparatus. But the movement for democracy and social justice seems to have already become quite a mass phenomenon which would require some stopping. The poet Pablo Neruda would have said, “They can cut all the flowers, but they can’t stop the spring”

By Vernon Gonsalves and Arun Ferreira

http://www.dailyo.in/politics/from-hokkolorob-to-justiceforrohithvemula-the-student-spring-sweeping-across-india/story/1/8689.html

Why repression of adivasis in Chhattisgarh doesn’t worry the media


However, amidst diminishing democratic space the struggles of the state’s tribal activists offer hope.

The Press Club of India should probably be one among the sacred-soil sites of Indian democracy. It ought to be a place from where the Fourth Estate sallies forth to test and stretch the spaces for free speech and democracy. Regrettably, these days that’s rarely the case. Nevertheless, on August 18, 2015 this was the venue selected for a press conference where three representatives of the tribals of Bastar in Chhattisgarh – Soni Sori, Lingaram Kodopi and Kawasi Hidme – came to tell of how democracy functions in their land.

Sori and Kodopi have done this before. In 2010 and 2011 they had exposed before the press the atrocities committed on the common people by the police in Bastar. They were then wrongly implicated and pursued by the Chhattisgarh police on patently fabricated grounds, arrested in 2011, faced severe torture and were only released on bail by the Supreme Court after they spent over two years in jail.

After release and return to Bastar, they have insisted on continuing to stand up against the innumerable cases of illegal detention, false implication, custodial torture, fake encounters and disappearances that have come to be a part of daily life in that area. Sori, in particular, has been in the forefront of numerous protests where thousands of adivasis have gathered in rallies and demonstrations at police stations and before district headquarters of the police and civil administration.

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The latest was her exposure of a fake encounter killing of an unarmed villager, Hemla Podiya, in Nahadi village of Dantewada district on July 29, 2015. This killing done by Special Police officers, who have been outlawed by the Supreme Court, was protested by the villagers, who assembled under the leadership of Sori. The Bastar inspector general of police, SRP Kalluri, retaliated by calling for her, and Kodopi to be excommunicated from the area and by instigating local traders to demonstrate outside Sori’s house.

The attempt to “excommunicate” Sori and Kodopi is not something new. It is only the latest in a long line of such attempts and it is definitely not going to be the last. Binayak Sen was targeted in 2007 for his aid to Maoist political prisoners like Narayan Sanyal, as also for his exposure since 2005 of the first armed Salwa Judum campaign launched and equipped by the Chhattisgarh government. Gandhian Himanshu Kumar is another example of an activist and dissenter who has been hounded out of Chhattisgarh, who has had around a hundred cases registered against him and whose centre, the Vanvasi Chetana Ashram, was bulldozed and destroyed.

There have even been attempts to keep out those attempting to approach the judiciary for relief. In September 2013, activist and journalist Prashant Rahi was picked up from Chhattisgarh’s capital, Raipur, where he had gone to consult and coordinate with lawyers who were defending political prisoners. He was whisked off to Maharashtra, tortured and shown to be arrested there and remained in prison for one year. The lawyers of the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group providing much needed legal help to the local tribals have also faced thinly-veiled threats of implication in cases of abetting Maoists.

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The abiding reason for this insistence on the eviction of all democratic dissent is the state’s gameplan to use maximum force to crush the challenge of the revolutionary movement of the tribals led by the Maoists. Such militaristic solutions require not only the deployment of lakhs of armed personnel, but also the management of “facts” and therefore the evacuation of all civil society support that could potentially carry the truth to the outside world.

The immediate reason for the repression is, however, the land hunger of the corporate class. The country’s biggest corporations and some foreign biggies have all lined up investments to exploit the minerals below the forests of central and eastern India. They are in a mighty hurry to realise their gains and will brook no delay in seizing the land. Both the Centre and state governments alike are therefore scrambling to pander to this hunger. Ten months ago, the Centre spelt out its “Clear, Hold, Build” doctrine that promised “to use any element of its national power” to wipe out resistance. The state government, after the utter failure of its first Salwa Judum campaign, is now getting ready to sponsor a new round of civil war – Salwa Judum 2.0. These cannot smoothly move ahead without the systematic and complete closure of all democratic space.

Such unholy stratagems call for comprehensive exposure, but it would be far-fetched to fancy that today’s mass media organs have it in them to do it. Creeping control of the media by big corporations, with its complement of self-censoring editors, ensures that material inconsistent with corporate interests can rarely slip on to the front pages. Corporate-controlled media is unlikely to report on the effects of corporate land grabbing. This was also probably why, despite a packed house of journalists at the press conference mentioned earlier, there was hardly any reportage the following day.

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During these days of rising undemocratic tendencies and shrinking democratic spaces, the decay of democracy’s fourth pillar is a cause for concern. There are, however, voices that make the horizons less bleak. One such voice is that of the frail-looking Kawasi Hidme, who was arrested at 15, tortured, gang-raped, falsely implicated and thrown into prison for seven years before she was acquitted and released in March this year. As she, with rare daring and dignity, related the horrors she had gone through, her mentor, Sori, had this to say: “I need to give her strength again, I want her to fight. Perhaps we can do something for all women who come out of jail but are still unhappy, to help them get their lives back.” She added: “Who knows, perhaps Hidme can become the strongest fighter of us all.”

Voices such as these, with their staunchness and stubbornness in the face of mighty odds can bring the greatest hope. Sori and Kawasi are after all only representative of thousands of other courageous people in their area who are standing up and refusing to give in. Long considered the wretched of the earth, it seems to be their struggle that is redemarcating and redefining what democratic spaces and democracy can mean. Their struggle to attain and sustain liberty, land and livelihood in the remotest forests of the country may be primarily their struggle to survive, but it has the potential to show the way for democracy in our country to thrive.

By Vernon Gonsalves and Arun Ferreira

http://www.dailyo.in/politics/maoism-bastar-chhattisgarh-soni-sori-salwa-judum-binayak-sen-naxalism-lingaram-kodopi-kawasi-hidme/story/1/5834.html

How Maharashtra robbed Dr Saibaba of his rights


BannerUntil police can be compelled to respect basic human rights, we will continue to remain far removed from the democracy we claim to be.

“I hope you are doing well, despite the fact that you are all in a larger penitentiary, as Uncle Sam would call it. I have been in a smaller enclosure here for the last ten months. My wish to join you back in the larger prison-house has been thwarted once again. I am sure you all understand the anxieties of your friend’s existence in the claustrophobic sealed concrete enclosure of an ‘anda cell’ behind seven heavy and gigantic gates.” Gokarakonda Naga Saibaba’s words (written over three months ago from the confines of the Nagpur Central Prison) carry that gritty tone characteristic of the man ‘guilty’ of supporting and participating in sundry issues and causes of the poor and dispossessed in various parts of the country over the last three decades.

Dr Saibaba, a Delhi University Professor in English, with 90 per cent permanent physical impairment of his lower limbs, was abducted on May 9, 2014 from a Delhi road by the Maharashtra police and has since been behind bars. His story is a telling commentary on the biases of a criminal justice system that readily releases convicted film-stars and politicians but insists on incarcerating those accused of committing the ‘crime’ of supporting or believing in thought contrary to the ruling ideology. Despite many Supreme Court rulings and the recent Kerala High Court assertion that ‘being a Maoist is no crime’, the reality is that it is just this accusation that keeps Saibaba and hundreds of others like him in prison for years on end.

Excuses for Denying Prof Saibaba his Rights

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In the last thirteen months, Saibaba has had his bail rejected four times – thrice in the Sessions Court and once in the High Court. Despite his severe disability and his rapidly deteriorating medical condition, the State has not only vigorously opposed bail, but also gone out of its way to deny him proper medical care. Whenever Saibaba has applied for bail on medical and disability grounds, the prosecution has adopted the tactic of ensuring that facilities were provided in the jail when the bail application came up for hearing, but after the bail application was disposed of, those facilities are withdrawn.

It was these tactics leading to a rapid deterioration in Saibaba’s health that prompted the bench of the Chief Justice of the Bombay High Court to take suomoto cognisance of the matter and pass orders on June 17, 2015 directing that Dr Saibaba should be taken from jail to a private hospital within 24 hours and be allowed to be accompanied by his wife and brother and a court-appointed doctor, where he was to be kept for a week until further orders of the court. Despite the detailed order of the High Court, the prison authorities, under the directions of the police anti-Naxal operations (ANO) department, did not implement the court’s directions and no one except the police were allowed to be with Saibaba when, as a formality, he was taken to the hospital for an hour and returned back to jail. Though Dr Saibaba is in jail custody and the court directions were to the jail and medical authorities, it was the ANO’s Inspector General of Police, Ravindra Kadam, who was directly supervising operations and even giving medical updates to the press on behalf of the doctors. It can now be expected that the doctors’ earlier report submitted to the court, which showed he required hospitalisation, will now, under police pressure, be changed to show some miraculous recovery. The long weary battle of Saibaba to salvage his health and reclaim his liberty is likely to continue its uphill course.

His letter relates an earlier experience when the Chief Medical Officer (CMO) of Nagpur was questioned by the Sessions Court why his treatment constituted primarily of diclofenac tablets. The CMO explained that this was because all physically handicapped persons were affected by excruciating pains for which medical science had found no answers except pain-killers. All this when Saibaba was known to have a number of medical problems, including stones in the kidney, heart problems, neurological and orthopedic issues, which were continuously being aggravated by the jail conditions.

Meanwhile the prosecution sees that the trial is deliberately delayed so that Saibaba can remain imprisoned as long as possible. Aside from the first production in court, there has been no attempt to take him to court – on the plea that the police lack a low-carriage vehicle suitable for the physically challenged. This was also a reason earlier given at an earlier hearing for not even taking Saibaba to the hospital, until a strict order from the court forced the authorities to bring such a vehicle, which had always been in their possession.

Have your say. You can comment here.The High Court is now seized of the matter and has again on June 22, 2015 taken serious note of non-compliance by the state of its earlier directives and has passed further orders in this regard. But for a Dr Saibaba, long languishing in Anda dungeons, this perhaps would bring scant comfort. One could not fault him if he were to be a bit cynical of the outcome of such orders – he has after all seen the casual contempt with which the authorities have treated many such judicial orders thus far. Until ways can be found to compel the police to respect basic human rights and the rule of law, we will continue to remain far removed from the democracy we claim to be.

By Vernon Gonsalves and Arun Ferreira

http://www.dailyo.in/politics/dr-saibaba-gadchiroli-police-high-court-maoist-anti-naxal-operations-naxalites-human-rights/story/1/4555.html

Allahabad lawyer killing shows how khaki is above the law


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.

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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

http://www.dailyo.in/politics/allahabad-lawyer-killing-nabi-ahmed-shailendra-singh-lathi-charge-high-court/story/1/2710.html