On 24 April, the advocates of Howrah Court in West Bengal were beaten up by the Howrah City Police after entering the Howrah Court compound. As a result, lawyers including women and aged advocates were seriously injured and admitted in Howrah General Hospital.
To protest against the heinous act of the Police, the lawyers’ representative body, “Bar Council of West Bengal” decided to call “pen down” protest in all courts of West Bengal including the Calcutta High Court from the very next day until the accused police officers were arrested. Bar associations of all lower courts over the state extended their support and were continuing the cease work in their respective courts.
On the other hand, Hon’ble Chief Justice of Calcutta High Court initiated a suo motu proceeding in this matter and on 22 May, the two-judges bench directed the constitution of a one-man inquiry committee of Justice (Retired) Kalyanjyoti Sengupta to enquire into the incident, and asked him to submit his report within three months from the said order. The Hon’ble Court also directed that the accused police officers had been restrained from working in Howrah District during the period of enquiry by the commission.
The order of the Hon’ble High Court could not heal all the wounds of the lawyers. Despite watching police brutality within the Howrah Court compound on laptop and after a prolonged hearing on consecutive days, the Hon’ble High Court was pleased to constitute an enquiry committee by a retired judge, which could have been done initially after filing of affidavits by all the parties. Moreover, when the Advocate General on behalf of the State confessed to the incident of police excess before the Hon’ble court, the inquiry committee could have been set up earlier, say a section of lawyers.
Questions have also been raised about the role of Bar Council of West Bengal. On 24 May, the West Bengal Bar Council called a meeting to decide future course of action after scrutinizing the order passed by the Hon’ble High Court. The council also invited suggestions from Bar Associations all over the state including the Howrah Court in this regard. Some Bar Associations had extended their unconditional support for continuing the pen down agitation till a fruitful result came up. On 24 May, Alipore Bar Association of South 24-Parganas district decided to withdraw the pen down agitation from the very next working day. But, the advocates of Alipore Criminal Court Bar Association (‘B’ Register) strongly condemned the decision as it was alleged by a group of advocates that this decision was taken arbitrarily and purposively without the participation of the criminal court (‘B’ Register) Bar Association. The said lawyers also refused to accept the decision of the bar and engaged in a scuffle with the other advocates.
On the said day, when lawyers of different District Courts, i.e. from Chinsurah, Sreerampore, Kalna, Balurghat, Bankshall, Alipore, Howrah and others arrived at the Bar Council office at about 1 P.M., they were surprised to see that the office was already closed. Representatives from Howrah Court also arrived to inform their decision. But it was learnt from the electronic media that the Bar Council had already suspended the cease work temporarily
It is alleged by a section of the lawyers that the Bar Council decision was taken without a quorum and nor was the decision officially communicated to the different District Court Bar Associations. Moreover, the order was not affixed on the Council’s notice board. This section alleges that members of the Council were playing hide and seek with them
As a result, the advocate community in West Bengal has been divided into two camps all over the State. The agitating lawyers already arranged a press conference under the banner of ‘All Bengal Lawyers Unity Manch’ at Kolkata Press Club condemning the attitude of the Bar Council and demanded a larger movement. On the other hand, the other advocates are not interested to continue the agitation and as such clashes have erupted in different Courts between the two sections of lawyers.
Those opposed to the Bar Council’s decision say an unfortunate precedent has been created by keeping lawyers in dark while taking a decision regarding a very sensitive issue.
Now the question is, whether the legal community will compromise with the humiliation, disrespect and assault upon lawyers? Whether the accused Police officers should go scot free? Rumors have already been spread that the agitating lawyers are trying to motivate the issue politically as they have an attachment to the saffron brigade. This type of simplification will damage the respect and unity of the legal community. Lawyers have to decide whether they are ready to sacrifice the dignity of their profession.
The writer is an advocate at Alipore court, Kolkata and a Human Rights Activist.