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The Karnataka lawyer strike: In defence of the black coat

By Aditya Sondhi

The ugly confrontation between lawyers and journalists on 2 March in the precincts of the City Civil Court, Bangalore marks a black day in the calendar of our democracy. The aftermath of the incident reflects the serious trust-deficit that exists among the fundamental pillars of civil-society – the police, the media and the legal fraternity.

What we are viewing now is a loss of faith among all these pillars, and more so, even within them. The legal community itself is now slowly getting divided into an ‘us versus them’ mindset, which is sadly becoming a divide between Trial Court lawyers and High Court lawyers, juniors and seniors, and in some cases, lawyers and judges.

While introspection is the need of the hour for us lawyers, surely it is a virtue that we ought to expect others to adopt, as well. AFP

While introspection is the need of the hour for us lawyers, surely it is a virtue that we ought to expect others to adopt, as well. It may be indefensible to justify an indefinite strike of work by advocates, but that does not mean there is no cause for angst among many fellow lawyers. Those who were brazenly taunted and beaten mercilessly, for no fault of their own, could scarcely be expected to remain quiet. Every advocate who visits court daily is not there to make ‘galata’ or abuse and beat people. Almost always, he or she is there to espouse the case (and the cause) of a client who needs justice. For such an advocate to be beaten merely for being in the wrong place at the wrong time is no laughing matter and requires redressal.

Men may lie, but pictures do not. A series of short videos and pictures taken on mobile phones betray the high-handed assault on innocents at the court complex. Many of these were taken by junior lawyers who went to court to attend cases of their seniors. Some had their heads split open, others cars and motorbikes were burnt. Even the Principal City Civil and Sessions Judge was manhandled in their presence, but this did not seem ‘news-worthy’ for most media houses. The impact of such unrestrained violence on idealistic young lawyers is most profound. They may doubt the justice of the system at large - which is a tragic paradox for a lawyer.

It is ironic that other sections of society have taken it upon themselves to pass moral judgement on the legal fraternity. Of course, the legal fraternity is not beyond reproach or reform. However, the half-truths that were put out after the 2 March episode seem to be responsible for this wrong impression. For every lawyer shown throwing a stone, what the media did not show was its own brethren indulging in rank unruly behavior. Television media that is usually trigger-happy in going after the police for the smallest aberration chose also to ignore the sub-human attacks by the police on some helpless lawyers caught in the crossfire.

It is based on such ‘reports’ that the general public is being brain-washed into becoming lawyer-haters. What some factions of the Karnataka media forget is that when the Emergency suppressed its right to speech and expression, it was a legend from the Bar (and earlier the Bench), MC Chagla, who rose in their defence. And when the police force needed reform, it was a Supreme Court judgement in Prakash Singh’s case that paved the way. These institutions – the police, the lawyers and media - are themselves part of justice delivery system (particularly criminal justice) and can ill-afford to be partisan or vindictive. Those who are taking snide pleasure in fanning the fire should be aware that he who sows the wind, also reaps the whirlwind.

The political class would also do well to remember that Rule of Law depends on harmony between the various institutions of society, and, particularly, on a robust, independent Bar. Suppressing and maligning the Bar as a whole will be counter-productive, and smearing the legal community will undermine faith in the judicial process.

Aitzaz Ahsan, former president of the Pakistan Supreme Court Bar Association, credits India’s success as a democracy to her vibrant legal system. Lawyers were nation-builders and we as a community need to reclaim such glory – with some help from our fellow citizens, who need to be less skeptical and more discerning. They should remember that one swallow does not a summer make.

Aditya Sondhi is a practicing Advocate. Firstpost.com regularly features content from Bar & Bench.