I am writing this to you to draw your attention to a set of facts that are relevant to events in the Madras High Court premises on Thursday, the reports on them and your editorial today. And it is necessary to do that given the long and glorious tradition of your newspaper and its reputation of being a crusader against the establishment. I do not have to recall and remind you that your institution has had to suffer at the hands of the establishment for being what it is.
Let us now take up the relevant facts of the case in hand.
(1) The lawyers have been on a course of boycott of courts demanding the intervention by the Union Government to halt the onslaught by the Sri Lankan army in the Tamil dominated Northern region of Sri Lanka. Your paper, like many others, may have a different opinion on the demand as such. But then, is it fair to insist that the lawyers shall not have their opinion on the issue? And when the lawyers boycott courts, they too suffer because the norm of no-work-no-pay applies here as much as in the factories!
(2) Then there is the issue of egg being thrown at Subramanian Swamy and your editorial comment that none of the forums spoke against it. Let me draw your attention to the newspapers the day after and the act was condemned by lawyers of repute. And the Madras High Court has taken suo motu notice of contempt and a five judge bench has been constituted to deal with the case. So, it is not as if the process of law taking its course has been delayed in this regard. In any case, there is no role for the police in this case where the act was committed inside the court hall and the judiciary is already taken up the case.
(3) As for the immediate provocation to the police action on February 19, 2009, the police attribute it to a scuffle inside the police station when a group of lawyers were being arrested. While the facts on this are yet to be established, there is another side to the story. The lawyers had gone to the police station to register a complaint against Subramanian Swamy under sections of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 and demanded Swamy’s arrest. Well. The law provides for the immediate arrest of the person against whom the complaint is made and puts the onus of proving innocent on the accused. I am sure that you will not blame the lawyers for having known the law and insisted that it be implemented. I am also sure that you will not describe this as an instance of the lawyers taking the law into their hands!
(4) This took place at about 3 15 pm that day. And within minutes, the Swift Action Group personnel as well as many senior police officers, wearing helmets and carrying shields and lathis were found chasing anyone and everyone in the premises and on the corridors of the City Civil Court, the Small Causes Court and the Family Court. I do not think I must tell you that the lathis they carried were not the same as the ones they carry on ceremonial occasions; they also put them to liberal use and did not spare Justice Arumughaperumal Adityan in the process. This resort to naked violence, we now know from your own paper (Saturday, February 21, 2009, page two: No permission granted: HC) without obtaining the necessary permission from the appropriate authorities. And it went on, unabated for four hours during which time the police went about smashing up the windshields of the carss parked in the premises, damaging the two wheelers and also the window panes of the various rooms in the court buildings. They wielded the lathis indiscriminately and you could have confirmed, from the footage on the various TV channels, the way the policemen went about smashing up the windshields of the cars parked in the premises.
(5) As for the police station in the premises being set on fire: The sequence of events and the large posse of police personnel in the premises are important facts that have to be factored in this regard. The lathi-charge by the SAG personnel started at about 3 15 pm and there was no let up by them at any point of time. They were moving about the premises and all over the compound since then and beating up anyone and everyone who were seen around. Now, do you believe that the lawyers, who had by now collected themselves inside the MHAA library and also around the chambers of the judges could have reached the police station which is on another side of the premises and set fire to it? And that the police, now made of over five hundred personnel, were unable to protect the police station? And that too when they were successfully made the city court and family court premises into sterile zones? As for the timing, the police began acting at 3 15 pm and the police station caught fire after 6 pm.
(6) There is now the story of one DySP having been held captive inside the office of a Public Prosecutor, that he was stripped naked and that he had sent across an SMS from his mobile phone seeking help and that the police then let the SAG to release him. Does this story sound convincing to you? There was no such explanation on Thursday night. The story, even now does not talk about the specific location of where the police officer was held captive; it does not explain how this officer could use his cell phone when he was being stripped and the only explanation of this would be that he was like one of our filmi heroes who manages to do the right thing even in adverse situations. And if it was the case that a police officer who came to discuss a case with the Public Prosecutor, then tell us the name of the lawyer in whose chamber the officer was held up. And in any case, the Commissioner of Police could have gone up to the Acting Chief Justice or the Registrar General to tell them the story and then ordered the ``rescue’’ operation with their sanction. I am delighted that your newspaper has not carried this fairy tale as narrated by the Commissioner of Police.
The point behind narrating these facts is to put the whole issue in perspective. There may be difference of opinion on what must happen in Sri Lanka or on whether the lawyers must go on strike at all. You will also appreciate if I say that we have journalists who indulge in corrupt practices or other such unfair practices. But then, do we then argue that the media professionals as a whole have utmost contempt to the morals and principles and hence hold a brief for the police to beat up all journalists once in a while? I do not have to recall instances of police high-handedness with journalists in the past and how the powers that be arm-twist pliant journalists and editors to fall in line. Do we appreciate all that or do we stand up and say No to such cheap tactics?
As I mentioned in the beginning, your paper has stood up to pressure and abuse of executive authority and that is why I decided to write this to you.
Advocate, Madras High Court,