A few years ago, the present Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu M Karunanidhi, who was at that time leader of the Opposition, stated that: “the liver of the police department is rotten.” Going by recent events, one is led to believe that it is not just the liver, but also the heart of the Tamil Nadu police department that has become rotten. About three months ago, the police was criticised for remaining silent spectators during a bloody clash between two groups of students in the law college premises. They refused to enter the college premises even when a written request was made by the acting principal of the college. Now, on February 19, 2008, they have not only entered the High Court premises without any order from the court authorities, but have also unleashed brutal violence on lawyers and judges. Those who are meant to protect law and order have gone on the rampage and destroyed public property. This brazen attack on the High Court has caused grave concern among all those in the country who value the rule of law and democratic governance.
A Fact-Finding team was constituted comprising of activists from various Human Rights Organisations functioning in different parts of South India to look into the events at the High Court. Members of the team are:
1. Prof. N. Babaiah, Peoples Democratic Forum (PDF), Karnataka.
2. Prof. G. K..Ramasamy, Peoples Democratic Forum (PDF), Karnataka.
3. Thiru. V.S. Krishna, Human Rights Forum (HRF), Andhra Pradesh.
4. Thiru. G. Sugumaran, Federation for People’s Rights (FPR), Puducherry.
5. Prof. A. Marx, Peoples Union for Human Rights (PUHR), Tamil Nadu.
6. Dr. P. Sivakumar, Academic, Former Principal of a Govt. College, Chennai.
7. Prof. S. Kochadai, Peoples Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), Karaikudi.
8. Er. Ayanpuram Rajendran, Southern Railways, Chennai.
9. Thiru. Sivagurunathan, Peoples Union for Human Rights (PUHR), Thiruvarur.
10. Thiru. Natarajan, Social Activist, Chennai.
Team members visited the High Court complex and met a cross section of people on February 25, 26, 27and 28, 2009 and obtained a first hand account of the damaged properties as well as the burnt B4 police station inside the High Court complex. The members spoke to the agitating lawyers and the victims of the lathi charge of February 19. A section of the team members also visited the Apollo Hospital where the wounded lawyers, many of them with serious head injuries, were treated. The team also interviewed the Madras High Court Advocates Association president Mr. Paul Kanakaraj, former president Mr. Karuppan, Madras Law Association president Mr. T.V. Krishnakumar and a number of court staff who were also at the receiving end of the brutal police caning on that day. When we were talking with the court staff we happened to meet Opposition MLA Ms. Badr Sayid who is also an advocate. She stated that she was disallowed by the ruling party from raising the issue in the Assembly. The Registrar General Ms. Mala and the Registrar (Administration) refused to meet us. On the instructions of the Registrar General the Registrar (Management) Mr. Vijayan met us but was extremely and unnecessarily tight-lipped. He declined to answer any of our questions under the excuse that an enquiry commission was constituted. We wonder how the constitution of an enquiry commission is preventing him from answering very ordinary questions raised by civil society representatives such as whether he had given any complaint about the damages done to the court property. When we contacted the city Police Commissioner Mr. Radhakrishnan on the afternoon of February 27, he asked the names of the team members in detail and said he would talk to us only if the government permitted him to do so. He asked us to call him again the same evening but our phone calls went unanswered. One of our team members A. Marx met some of the agitating lawyers as well as the Bar Council secretary Mr. A. K. Ramasamy. We tried to meet Mr. Subramanya Swamy, but he was away in Delhi.
The lawyers of Tamil Nadu have been agitating since January 29th this year against the ongoing ethnocide in Sri Lanka and the Govt. of India’s military aid to the Sri Lankan Government. Lawyers and students across the State have been in the forefront in this agitation calling for an end to the war in Sri Lanka and the killings of civilians which is a just and humanitarian demand. The State and the police were partially successful in controlling the agitation by students, who put forth similar demands, by getting their colleges and schools closed. However, they were frustrated and angry at their lack of success in putting an end to the lawyers agitation. The government then decided to resort to repressive measures as was evident from the incidents on Feb 4, 2008.
On that day, the Sri Lankan Tamils Protection Movement, a federation of various political parties, had called for a bandh throughout Tamil Nadu. The police arrested three groups of lawyers on the charges of forcing shop owners to down their shutters. Two groups were let off in the evening but the third group, which consisted of a few young lawyers who were in the forefront of the agitation, were brought to the Saidapet court complex to be remanded to custody. As this news spread, about 200 lawyers gathered there shouting slogans against the police and the govt. They followed the van in which the arrested lawyers were being taken to court. A huge police battalion led by Jt. Commissioner of Police followed them in close vicinity. This led to a verbal duel between the police and lawyers. Suddenly, the Jt. Commissioner ordered lathi charge and the police began a brutal attack in which a number of lawyers were beaten up badly. One advocate Mr. Pugalenthi was seriously injured on the head. He had at least five sutures and had to remain in the Madras General Hospital for a few days for treatment. The arrested lawyers who were in the van protested against the lathi charge. They were then immediately removed from that place and taken to the Rajaratnam stadium in Egmore. Since there was no power supply in the stadium at that time they were kept in the dark till late in the night. In order to remand them, the police brought a judge there who released them on personal bond.
The lawyers agitation continued against the war in Sri Lanka and the recent amendments enacted in the Criminal Procedure Code. The State and police did not take kindly to this sustained struggle and the burning of effigies. One must take note of the fact that the proportion of young lawyers in the Madras Bar is much higher than their senior fraternity. In contrast to previous generations, these young lawyers come mostly from the lower strata of society. And it is but natural that these young lawyers are in the forefront of this agitation which is purely on humanitarian grounds.
It is against this background that a minor incident in the court hall on Feb 17, 2008 was utilised by the police to crack down on the striking lawyers. During the agitation, lawyers would go around the court campus and shout slogans in support of their demands. On that day, the slogan shouting lawyers found former Law Minister Mr. Subramanya Swamy and his advocate Radha Mohan sitting in the dais meant for lawyers in the court of the Honorable judges P.K. Misra and K. Chandru. A writ appeal challenging the takeover of the Chidamparam Natarajar Temple by the Department of the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowment of Govt. of Tamil Nadu was slated to be heard on that day. Mr Swamy had nothing to do with either the writ or the writ appeal. It is said that he was there to implead himself in the appeal. Mr Swamy is known for his attitude against the cause of Eelam and his efforts to thwart attempts like the take over of the temple. Seeing him there the agitating lawyers began to shout slogans against him vehemently.
At this juncture Mr Swamy did utter some derogatory remarks against the lawyers. In the melee some people threw some eggs on him. After the judges took strong exception to this act, the agitating lawyers left the place. Mr Swamy also left the court without filing any complaint. Justice K. Chandru has submitted a report on the incident to the Acting Chief Justice in which he has not named anybody. However, the incident became news in the national media the next day.
There is no doubt that this unpleasant thing should have been avoided. However, instead of handling this minor incident under relevant sections of the law, the State and police decided to use this opportunity for a major crackdown against the striking lawyers. Events of the next two days bear this out clearly.
Though the alleged victim of the assault had not preferred to file a complaint on anybody, the police went about registering cases against advocates Rajnikant, Vijendran, Gini Immanuel, Manohar, Sivasankaran, Vadivambal, Sengodi, Kayal @ Angayarkanni, Ravikumar, Parthasarathi and six others under sections 147, 451, 355, 353, 333, 506(II), 307 of IPC and 3(1) of TNPPD Act. Of these accused, advocate Gini Immanuel was arrested on Feb 18 and the police have been in search of the others.
Meanwhile, the Lawyers Association decided to withdraw the strike and attend courts from Feb 19 onwards. The High Court functioned that day after this prolonged strike. As the lawyers accused in the Subramanya Swamy assault case knew that the police were looking to arrest them, they decided to give themselves up. However, they were sore at the manner in which the police were hounding them while leaving alone Mr Swamy, who had insulted them on that day with casteist abuses. They finally decided to lodge a complaint against Subramanya Swamy. The complaint was serious and attracts sections of the SCs and STs (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989. About 200 lawyers including the former president of the Advocates Association Mr. Karuppan went to the B4 police station inside the High Court complex with advocate Mr. Rajnikant who was to file the complaint.
After a long argument, the police accepted to register a FIR on Swamy. Immediately, they demanded that the lawyers surrender all the remaining accused in the assault case. At that time, not all the accused lawyers were present at the spot. Someone suggested that they all go to the Advocates Association Office and gather all the accused lawyers together and come down shouting slogans so that the police can arrest them. Following this decision, a few of the accused lawyers left the place. At this moment the Additional Commissioner of police Mr. Viswanathan and Joint Commissioner Mr. Ramasubbiramani issued instructions to round up the lawyers present there. About 15 lawyers present in the near vicinity were rounded up and forced into a police van that was parked nearby. Of the 15 lawyers who were forced into the van only two or three were in the accused list and the others had nothing at all to do with the Swamy assault case. Amidst protests they were immediately removed to the Ayiramvilakku police station. The lawyers inside the court premises were agitated by this act and approached the police cordon shouting slogans. At this point the police unleashed brutal violence against the lawyers in a manner that was unprecedented. They simply ran amok. It was 3.30 pm.
After closing the gates of the High Court premises, the police force began to attack violently all those present there in lawyers attire. Soon, more personnel from the Swift Action Force were brought in and pressed into the attack. Vehicles of not only the lawyers but of the court staff and litigants were also damaged. At least three persons who didn’t want to reveal their identities told our team members that they have seen with their own eyes that small stones were brought in the police vans. Vehicles parked near the City Civil Court and the Family Court bore the brunt of police fury.
Lawyers with bloody faces ran helter-skelter to save their lives. Many ran and hid themselves inside the court buildings. When the Acting CJ came to know of this, he immediately contacted the Police Commissioner and requested that the police force be withdrawn.
But his request went unheeded. At about 4 pm, Justice Sudhakar came up with the idea of pacifying the police and protecting the lawyers. The Acting CJ also followed him. Seeing them, the police stopped beating people and damaging properties for about twenty minutes. About ten lawyers who were seriously wounded with blood all over were carried outside. However, after the judges returned to their chambers, the police unleashed a second wave of violence. They ran berserk for about one hour till 5.30 pm. About 5.30 pm five judges of the High Court including Justice Arumuga Perumal Adityan came out to request the police to stop the violence.
But this time the police were in no mood to even spare the judges. They were also attacked. Justice Adityan was beaten with a lathi and he received a head injury. The team members met seven young lawyers in the Apollo Hospital who tried to protect the judge. They were beaten badly and some of them sustained head injuries. When they shouted: “He is a judge. Don’t beat him”, a policeman hurled profanities adding that it did not matter to him who the person was, he was going ahead anyway. A women judge was insulted thus: “Are you a judge? You look like a nurse!” The police force then entered the court buildings and broke window panes, chairs, tables and racks in libraries, lawyer’s chambers, court halls and valuable articles such as computers. If anybody was found hiding anywhere, they were pulled out and thrashed mercilessly.
In the third phase of the attack, the violence by the police extended to N.S.C. Bose road and Thambuchetty Street and Armenian Street across the High Court where most of the offices of the lawyers are located. The lawyers who managed to escape from the High Court complex were chased in the area and beaten. Women lawyers were also not spared. Advocate Sudha had tears welling when she narrated to us some of the events of that day. Women lawyers were abused and called prostitutes. Advocate Kayal had to remain for about a week in Apollo Hospital to recover from the injuries she sustained. She has not yet completely recovered. The tailoring shop Ali and Sons which makes uniforms for the lawyers, the Dolphin Xerox which is used by lawyers, were also attacked by the police. Some employees in these shops received minor injuries. The violence continued till 7 pm.
The brutality of the police knew no bounds. The crèches at the Family Court and Lawyers Chambers were attacked and doors and windows broken. Even libraries were targeted with the office of the Advocate’s Association and the Madras Law Association building bearing the brunt. There was extensive damage to the Madras Law Association where a Sony TV, two Xerox machines, a library hall and granite tables were destroyed. The manager of the association Mr. Rajaguru aged 60, received a head injury. Three other employees were also beaten. Many court employees were also badly beaten. One woman employee told us that she found the police carrying away some documents from the record room.
Some journalists who happened to be there on that day were also attacked. Karthik Babu of the daily Tamil Osai, Jothimani and Sethuraman of Makkal TV, a reporter from Nakkeeran and a photographer of Tamil Sudar are some of the victims.
More than 200 vehicles, both two and four wheelers, were broken with various degrees of damage. More than the damages, we are extremely concerned about the fear that has crept into the psyche of the lawyers and the court staff. The photograph of a young lawyer Sudhakar standing on the sunshade with folded hands found in a Tamil bi-weekly will move anybody’s heart. Advocate Gini Immanuel told us that when he was in custody he heard the police insulting the lawyers as ‘ Quota Advocates’ in obvious reference to the benefit of Constitutionally guaranteed reservation benefits enjoyed by some of them.
About 83 advocates were admitted initially in the General Hospital but were later shifted to various private hospitals in the city on the same day by a court order. Apart from this, many of the injured got themselves admitted in private hospitals on their own accord and a number of the injured took treatment as outpatients. The court order also released all the arrested lawyers.
It is highly regrettable that a section of the media has portrayed the incident as an equal clash between the lawyers and police and that both were seen hurling stones against each other. Initially, some of the lawyers might also have thrown some stones at the police. After the police started their brutal attack the mood among the lawyers was to search ways of escape. They were terrified and wanted to protect themselves from the attack. They were running here and there in search of places to hide. Meanwhile, the B4 police station inside the High Court complex was burnt. Our team is of the opinion that given the circumstances prevailing at the time, it was not possible for the lawyers to have done it. The police station was burnt after 4.30 pm when a huge attack force was deployed around the station and at a time when bleeding lawyers were running all over to save themselves. The possibility of lawyers indulging in arson at that time is very remote. The High Court bench comprising the Acting CJ Justice S.K. Mukhopadhyay, Justice Dhanabalan and Justice K. Chandru had observed in its order that some women lawyers at that time itself had denied that it was done by the lawyers. There are also doubts that the police themselves might have done it. This should be probed separately and those guilty are to be punished.
We are deeply concerned at attempts of the State and the police to isolate some of the young lawyers who were in the forefront of the struggle. As they are also members of some human rights organisations and lawyers associations which had fought against police excesses in the past they are now being portrayed by the police as gang leaders against whom many criminal cases are pending. A section of the media has also uncritically swallowed this discourse let loose by the intelligence wing of the police. We were shocked to see a reputed English daily carry a news item describing these young lawyers as the “Gang of Twenty“ accompanied with photographs of three lawyers. We feel this is unethical journalism and does not speak well of the Fourth Estate.
OUR OBSERVATIONS AND DEMANDS
1. If lawyers, a section of society that is aware of the law and rights, are treated in such a brutal manner in a metro city like Chennai, we are really worried about the plight of ordinary rural folk from the marginalized sections in Tamil Nadu. In a democratic polity, increasing power to the police without any accountability is a matter of serious concern. A photograph of the D.I.G Mr. Krishnamurthy walking around with a pistol in his hand pointed towards agitating lawyers in Madurai was published some time back in many vernacular news papers. This is sure evidence of the heart of the Tamil Nadu police department being rotten.
2. Why should special units like Swift Action Force, which are usually deployed to control big riots, be brought inside court premises and that too in such a large number? It should be remembered that the advocates had withdrawn their struggle and were attending courts on that day. Who is responsible for the deployment? Who has ordered the attack? The State govt. has not furnished answers to these questions, some of which were raised by the Supreme Court. The apex court has also not pursued these questions. It is highly ridiculous that on behalf of the Tamil Nadu govt. it was submitted in the Supreme Court that only 147 police personnel were deployed and out of them about 122 were injured on Feb 19.
3. Why has Tamil Nadu govt. and the police not shown the same interest in arresting Subramanya Swamy for his casteist abuse as they had exhibited in pursuing the case against the young lawyers in the assault case.
4. We welcome the appointment of Justice Sri Krishna commission by the Supreme Court. Justice Sri Krishna is well known for his integrity and fair-mindedness. We also welcome the decision of the Madras High court Advocates Association to cooperate with the commission.
5. The govt. has transferred of some police officials. The apex court has also ordered some transfers. Merely transferring officials who were responsible for the brutal attack is not sufficient. The following police officials are now identified as being behind the attacks:
(i) K. Radhakrishnan, Police Commissioner, (ii) T. Rajendran, A.D.G.P (L&O), (iii) A.K.Viswanathan, Additional Police Commissioner, (iv) Ramasubbiramani, Jt. Commissioner, (v) Sandip Roy Rathore , Jt. Commissioner, (vi) Sarangan, Deputy Commissioner, (vii) Prem Anand Sinha, Deputy Commissioner and (viii) Pannirselvam, Deputy Commissioner. These police officers must be suspended and criminal proceedings initiated against them.
6. Steps must be taken to see that the fear that has crept into the hearts of lawyers and court staff is removed. The guilty police personnel should be punished and the extensive property damage duly compensated. Cases should be filed against all those who had damaged the court properties under Tamil Nadu Public Property Damages Act. The Chief Minister and the Law Minister should take responsibility for this attack. No cabinet minister had visited the High Court complex till today.
7. Attempts to isolate some of the agitating lawyers and branding them as “gang leaders” must be immediately stopped.