When some lawyers stood up and offered the nation a ray of hope

When some lawyers stood up and offered the nation a ray of hope

While festivity and cheer hung in the air in Bengaluru and across the world on the last day of 2020, it was business as usual in a small office in commercial Shivajinagar. A group of lawyers and staff in Manthan law firm were poring over documents, strengthening their cases against the government, which has been relentless in its attack on its opponents and had neglected the poor...

While festivity and cheer hung in the air in Bengaluru and across the world on the last day of 2020, it was business as usual in a small office in commercial Shivajinagar. A group of lawyers and staff in Manthan law firm were poring over documents, strengthening their cases against the government, which has been relentless in its attack on its opponents and had neglected the poor and deprived.

Sitting behind posters of Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, Che Guevera, a handcrafted sculpture of B R Ambedkar, and poetry (Unka Darr – Their Fear) of Gorakh Pandey, advocate Maitreyi Krishnan was planning a different kind of celebration — a resistance convention celebrating the Bhima Koregaon victory and demanding the release of jailed human rights activists for the New Year.

It would be three years since the grand celebration on New Year’s day commemorating the 200th anniversary of the battle of Bhima Koregaon — wherein Dalits as part of the British army had defeated the army of Peshwa Baji Rao — had triggered violence and later led to the hounding and arrest of the activists even while those accused of instigating the violence were said to be still “missing”.

For Krishnan and two of her colleagues at Manthan, Clifton D’Rozario and Raghupati S, members of the Communist Party of India (Marxist–Leninist), the case was one among many in which they fought the state machinery for the rights of unorganised sector workers and the poor and oppressed classes who do not have proper access to the legal system.

Be it the farmers’ protests or labour unrest or workers’ union protests, the Manthan team has always been on the ground collecting information and helping them with legal aid. They represent cases filed by labour unions, the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) among others, and charge a nominal fee for their service. But not all cases. Sometimes they work pro-bono and do not charge for their service.

Krishnan says working with teams on the ground helps them connect with the people and understand the ground realities better.

And they have been getting results too. The Karnataka High Court in December stayed the state government’s decision to drop criminal prosecution in 61 cases against elected representatives and ministers, a case represented by Krishnan.

In another instance, where shanties of migrant workers were demolished illegally based on the orders of a civic authority official, the Karnataka HC asked the state to disburse compensation of ₹14,100 to each family in addition to ₹29,000 to be given to each family for rebuilding the sheds.

A landmark moment for them came early last year when Manthan, along with other law firms such as Alternative Law Forum and Reach Law, challenged the Hubli Bar Association’s resolution refusing to represent three Kashmiri students booked in sedition cases for allegedly raising “pro-Pakistan” slogans.

The High Court rapped the Bar, saying it would not hesitate to initiate criminal contempt proceedings against lawyers who shouted slogans and prevented advocates from filing bail applications for the accused, forcing the association to withdraw its resolution. The three students were released on bail months later.

“The (Hubli Bar Association) lawyers were not just saying that they would not represent the accused, but ordering others not to represent certain people. It’s so improper and offensive. Legal representation is a fundamental right,” Krishnan stresses.

Advocate Maitreyi Krishnan says legal representation is a fundamental right | Photo – Prabhu Mallikarjunan

2020 – When many showed their real face

While lawyers like Krishnan and Rosario have been taking up cases for the poor and marginalised for years, 2020 has been an especially challenging year for them.

Ever since the protest started in December 2019 against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and National Register of Citizen (NRC), Krishnan says the gross violence carried out against the common man and protesters by the state, curtailing their civil liberties only made them stronger in their determination to fight back hard.

“It’s everybody’s responsibility to ensure justice to those affected. Civil liberties have always been curtailed but it’s been taken to really absurd heights by this regime (BJP),” she contends.

The manner in which the Supreme Court has ruled in many cases has upset many this year.

When thousands of migrant workers walked back home due the lack of government aid in the wake of the job loss due to lockdown, the apex court in April refused to entertain a plea immediately requiring the government to safeguard their rights. A month later, the court went on to accept the government’s contention that there were no migrant workers walking back home and that it was only a temporary crisis triggered by “fake news”.

Yet again, the court dismissed a public interest litigation (PIL) seeking the quashing of sedition charges against parents and teachers of Shaheen School in Bidar, Karnataka, who were booked after the school children staged a play that was allegedly critical of the contentious CAA and Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

And later, it shocked the nation by entertaining contempt cases against senior advocate Prashant Bhushan, even if to let him go with an apology and a fine of ₹1. This was followed by a strange trend of law students filing petitions seeking contempt action for satirical comments about the judiciary on social media.

Advocate Clifton Rosario addressing a gathering at Bhima Koregaon | Photo – Special Arrangement

A modest lifestyle

For Manthan and lawyers and law firms like them, fighting a biased judiciary that supports a strong-armed state, has been a normal.

Working on a shoestring budget for 13 years, Krishnan’s team knows that they may not earn much from the cases they take up, and yet they are determined to fight and lead a modest life. The firm does not take up cases from corporates or managements as they cater to the socio-economically oppressed.

Advocate Muhammad Niyaz Ahmed in Mangalore who is part of the Advocate Association for Protection of Civil Rights Karnataka and has been practising for 20 years, still moves around in a bike and lives in a rented house.

“When our clients are daily wagers, how can we expect them to cough up ₹20,000–30,000 as fees? So we go by the socio-economic condition of the person and charge accordingly,” he says.

Senior advocate BT Venkatesh at Reach Law, who defended the late Gauri Lankesh — who was murdered by right wing activists in broad daylight — for over 20 years, fought for anti-CAA protesters booked for sedition.

One of his prominent clients was Nalin Balakumar, a student who was booked for holding a placard that read “Free Kashmir” during an anti-CAA protest held at Mysore University.

Venkatesh has represented the minors who performed in a political play at the Bidar school against the CAA. And later the arrest of Koppal poet Siraj Bisaralli took centrestage. He also fought for the three Kashmiri students in Hubli and activist Amulya Leona in Bengaluru, who all were arrested during the anti-CAA protests. In all of these cases, HC made scathing observations and Venkatesh secured bail to all.

“More than anything, passion sustains us. I do not want anything except books, a vehicle to travel, an office space, and a rented home to live in. Unlike many, we don’t chase money,” he says. “The beauty of the profession is, when we do good work, there are people who recognise and appreciate.”

Senior advocate BT Venkatesh at Reach Law has defended the late Gauri Lankesh — who was murdered by right wing activists in broad daylight | Photo – Special Arrangement

Venkatesh cites the example of Hubli cases where he says despite the Bar Association’s resolution, there were at least 60 advocates across the state willing to represent the Kashmiri students and praised the local police for extending protection to those representing the case.

“There is a degree of civility in the thinking here in Karnataka,” he says.

Venkatesh says he has observed that these days, in a welcome move, even those graduating from prestigious law schools, spending lakhs on their studies, are willing to take up pro-bono cases for the poor.

But all this comes with an added difficulty in the form of an opinionated press and judiciary. “Our work has to be of a high standard. An extra amount of work, time, and energy is required to prove our case right,” he says.

To sustain itself financially, his firm conducts training programmes and tries to create an online database on topics of law, society, and legal framework and challenges in English and Kannada. The team will also start this in other languages like Telugu and Malayalam and Hindi soon.

In COVID times, technology helped lawyers like Venkatesh to look at alternative avenues beyond representing their clients, to share and brainstorm on various topics.

“I have about 100 lawyers who are just one phone call away in Karnataka. And there are about 240 lawyers with 10-15 years of experience who are part of our network. Today we are trying to create online resources with the help of technology,” he adds.

Abused by the system

Not everyone is lucky to continue their work unharmed or untouched by the forces of government. As the year came to a close, the Delhi police raided the office of a senior advocate Mehmood Pracha who represented several anti-CAA protesters. The police alleged that Pracha instigated a man, Irshad Ali, to depose “falsely” in a northeast Delhi riots case. While Pracha denied the allegations, he says there were other reasons why the government targeted him.

Pracha’s clients include terror accused and people like former IFS officer Sanjiv Chaturvedi who is fighting corruption against the government. He says the government does not like who he represents and he’s seen as a problem hampering their agenda.

“The entire lawyer community feels that it’s a direct attack on the justice system. Had the entire lawyer community not stood up for me, they (the government) would have manipulated the case and branded me as a terrorist,” he says.

Delhi police recently raided the office of senior advocate Mehmood Pracha who represented several anti-CAA protesters | Photo – Special Arrangement

Avani Chokshi, a young lawyer at Manthan, feels that such acts by the police and the state are an indication of furtherance of the oppressive state. “We need to have a system where lawyers can represent clients freely.”

Pracha who’s represented National Commission for Women and National Commission for Minorities, says he took up pro-bono cases after he fought the case of Syed Muhammad Ahmed Kazmi, a freelance journalist and founder-editor of Media Star News who was accused in the 2012 Israel Embassy Attack case, where his client got bail despite being booked under the stringent Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967.

“That case opened my eyes and I took up pro-bono cases after that. We cross-subsidise such cases with other cases as a full-service firm. We are not raising money from outside,” he says, even as he feels that this regime is blatant in suppressing the Constitution and their opponents.

Every government has tried to suppress their opponents and the Constitution. But, Pracha says, this government is harsher compared to all others. “They do it without shame, in a crude and direct manner. They are acting like a mafia.”

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