Monday, January 24, 2011

Is one allowed to commit contempt of justice, but not of judges?- Himananshu Kumar

In our country, if someone raises their voice against a particular decision or behavior of a judge, they are punished for committing contempt of court. Peace prevails in a society only when everyone feels that no injustice is being committed against them, and if it is, they will get a sympathetic hearing under law. But when such a system of governance starts to sunder and fray at the edges, then the society also begins to disintegrate, because then people lose faith in the system and find other ways to fight injustice. Independence brought new hopes to a country that had endured 200 years of a brutal colonial rule, but It did not take long for people to lose faith in politicians and political process. Bureaucracy not only failed dismally when it came to development work, it in fact proved to be a hindrance. The hollowness of various religious ideologies and the cynicism, parasitism, and termite greed of the priestly class were already apparent to the common people of this country. One could not rely on the rotting pillars of politics and bureaucracy to achieve India's constitutional promise of a life of dignity, equality and freedom from hunger to each of its citizens. In such a situation, the only recourse left to the citizens of this country, whenever their fundamental rights are threatened, is the judiciary. From the poorest villager to the greatest social worker, everyone relies on the courts to redress any wrongs, instead of pleading with politicians or bureaucrats.

But it is a matter of grave concern that of late, even the institution of judiciary, much like other democratic institutions, has been hollowed out, and is losing credibility among people, and when someone wants to draw attention to this alarming state of affairs, he or she is is charged with contempt of court and intimidated by the people of the bench, who in spite of their pretense to the contrary, possess all the human foibles and use the fear of punishment and prestige of judiciary to silence any dissent. I have had a close relationship with the courts for a quite a few years now. I was a member of Consumers' Forum for five years, a member of the senior bench of the People's Court for three years, and a member of Legal Service Authority for another four years. During this time, I have had ample opportunity to learn in some depth about the mental level and character of various judges. I will not write about everything I observed since I wish to avoid introducing obscene and lurid material in my writing. But sometimes apparently inconsequential events can be quite revealing. For example, I would sometime see these judges call up a thanedar (in charge of a police station), who would send policemen to intimidate a bus driver to allow the said judge and his whole family to travel free of charge in the respective bus. In such a situation, how can one expect to receive justice from such a judge, if one were to sue the said thanedar?

When the villagers of Lingagiri and Basaguda, which were plundered and destroyed by Salwa Judum, were rehabilitated with the help of Vanvasi Chetna Ashram, and when people started returning from forests and the neighboring Andhra Pradesh where they had fled to escape the destructive wrath of Salwa Judum, and started rebuilding homes that had been burnt, they still had nothing to eat. Once a van belonging to our organization and carrying pulses, rice, cooking oil, potatoes, onions etc to be delivered to the starving villagers was stopped by Salwa Judum and police (notwithstanding the fact that it is the duty of the Government to deliver such necessities to the people, as per a Supreme Court directive). They insisted that our Comrade Kopa and his team who were responsible for delivering the food, show them the ration invoice, and only then would they let them proceed. Kopa tried to reason with them, and said that they were going to distribute these necessary items free of charge, and that they were not going to hand invoices to people. He further told them that the invoice was in our office, and that he would be more than happy to get it for them. However the real reason the police stopped the van was because they wanted to stop the rehabilitation work, and so they confiscated the van along with the ration and brought it to the police station, showing the least interest in the fact that the villagers were on the edge of starvation. 

On being informed of this, I took the invoice and went to the station. The thanedar told us that the only recourse left to us to get our van and ration back was the law courts. We went to the court, and the judge there was inebriated with both alcohol and power. Without even a hint of hesitation, the station officer went up the dais, and started whispering in judge's ear. In a loud stentorian voice, the judge intoned, “Yes, I know these people well. They are all naxalites. Don't you worry, I will take care of them.” We then tried to look for our attorney in the bar room. We were also accompanied by a woman reporter from Poona. The judge followed us to the bar room, and all the attorneys there stood up to show their respect to him. The judge sat in a chair and asked the woman reporter to sit beside him. Intimidated by the judge, the poor woman relented and sat in a chair next to him. The judge took out a bottle of liquor from his jeans, drank from it, and started to play lurid games with the woman. He told her that his wife was a country bumpkin, that he was lonely, and remonstrated with her to go home with him. The woman reporter was quite smart, and tried to play the judge's weakness to her advantage. “Sir, I am quite impressed by your humanity”, she said, “Please let this van and ration go.” The judge immediately signed the release papers for the van. The woman reporter promised to meet him again, and went along with Kopa and his team to deliver the ration to the villagers.

Other incidents shine further critical light on the state of Chhattisgarh judiciary. We all know that many judges have shares in mining corporations, and the owners of these corporations use these and other carrots to influence the judges. The large scale massacres that have now become the norm in Chhattisgarh are committed on the behest of exactly these corporations. That is why these judges have always been against the adivasis. A few examples should suffice to substantiate this thesis. There is a village called Nendra in the Dantewada district. This village had already been burned three times by the police and Salwa Judum. Under a directive of the Supreme Court, a team from National Human Rights Commission was sent to investigate the atrocities committed there. The villagers came forward to recount the horror they had lived through, but justice has eluded them to this day. Instead, they were punished for daring to speak out against the police and Salwa Judum. They filed their complaint on June 10, 2008, and on June 16, 2008, a mere 6 days later, their village was burnt again for the fourth time by the police. After this, our organization started working in this village. We created a human shield, which comprised of 22 adivasi youth, and they stayed there for a year and a half. The people in this village were not allowed to go to the market, and were starving to death. Women had no clothes to wear, and they were forced to cover their bodies with rags. The youth from the human shield would go to the market with the villagers and provide protection. People had not been able to farm for three years because the police would come and burn the crop. The human shield youth started farming along with the villagers.

Four girls had gone missing from the village for the past eight months. Two of these who had been abducted by Salwa Judum and were held hostage by its leaders in their homes, were secretly freed by our workers, and were handed to their families (I have pictures of the two to prove that I am not simply spinning yarn). But the other two girls had been abducted by the police, and no one knew their whereabouts. The father of one of them had also been abducted along with the girl and murdered by the police. The family of the girl pleaded with us to search for the girls. We sent a petition signed by her brothers to the local SP. The SP did not do anything for 9 months. Finally, a habeaus corpus petition was filed. Normally, there should have been a hearing on the petition the same day, and the police should have been then sent a notice.

In a classic case of blaming the victim, the judge instead berated the girl's brother for filing a complaint so long after the girl had gone missing. The family's attorney told the judge that it was in fact the police that had abducted the girl, and that the brother was hiding in the forest out of the fear of the police. How could he, who had been so intimidated by the police, file a complaint with the same police which had abducted his sister? If our organization had not helped, this case would have been long forgotten and would not even have reached the court. Furthermore, it is in fact the SP who had broken the law and sat on the complaint for a full nine months, and did nothing. But the judge said nothing against the SP. He was extremely incredulous (and perhaps willfully clueless), and asked why someone would be afraid of going to the police station. The family's attorney responded that if even attorneys are not immune, and get regularly beaten up by the respective thanedar, it is only natural that her brother would be doubly afraid of going to the station to file a complaint. “Take, for instance, the example of attorney Alban Toppo, who is standing in front of you. He was detained in a police station and beaten up by the thanedar on the orders of the SP, for the mere 'crime' of exercising his legal right and accompanying Kopa Kunjam. Will you do something about it?” asked the family's attorney, but the judge kept mum. A week later, the police picked up the girl's brother, and after threatening him and warning him that any false move would cost him his life, they produced him before the same judge. His attorney remonstrated with the judge that since the police had abducted him, the judge should order the police to separate him from the police for at least 48 hours, and only then he should file his complaint. However the judge ordered him to file the complaint immediately. Under the omniscient and threatening eye of the police, he was compelled to say that yes, his sister had been abducted, and yes, his father had been murdered, but that the police were not responsible, and that he did not know who was responsible. Upon hearing this, the judge immediately closed the case. I just received a call from the brother , and asked him why he did that. He lamented that there was nothing else he could do and that his entire family was now his other sister and his old and frail mother. If the police had killed him, who would have taken care of them?

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