Protecting Civil Rights of Lawyers Under Conditions of Hooligan Raj
On 22 March 2023 Sonu Mansoori, a 23-year-old Muslim law intern of tribal origin, got bail after being in jail for almost two months. She was granted bail by the Supreme Court of India because the Bajrang Dal, an RSS wing, and its supporters didn’t allow Mansoori’s lawyers to appear before the court of judicial magistrate and session or the High Court in MP’s Indore.
The first law graduate from a daily wage earner family, Mansoori wasn’t asking for any special favour. She just wanted what was her right as an Indian citizen. Albeit a false FIR had been registered against her, she was not seeking quashing of it. She only wanted that she be allowed to present her case before the court through her lawyers. Her lawyers were not allowed to appear before the district court or the High Court Bench in the city.
The Delhi lawyers, who went to Indore to file a bail application for Mansoori, were threatened and forced to leave the city. These lawyers realized that what they were against was something extraordinary: a communal hooliganism of the worst kind which was supported by the state government. Where there is state-supported communalism, those who advocate constitutional rights are labeled traitors.
Mansoori was arrested on 27 January 2023 from inside the court room. But she wasn’t arrested by the police, rather by the members of the Bajrang Dal (the lumpen front of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh or RSS). They frisked her without any authority to do so. Their allegations oozed of communal bias.
Mansoori was carrying Rs 1,25,000/when she was taken into custody. Those who frisked her were advocates and members of the Bajrang Dal. Those “learned” hooligans concluded that if the girl was carrying that much money it surely meant that she was a criminal. The Bajrang Dal members also accused her of video graphing the court’s proceedings. In January this year a movie named Pathan featuring a Muslim Bollywood actor was due to get released. For obvious reasons, the Bajrang Dal was against its release and carried out protests. During a protest they raised slogans against Prophet Muhammad. A Muslim man lodged a police complaint against the protestors. An FIR was filed. The man who was leading the crowd of the protesters was one Tanu Sharma.
After the FIR was lodged, his supporters feared that he would be arrested. So, they moved an interim bail application in the court. A Delhi based lawyer Ehtesham Hashmi came to the Indore District Court to oppose the bail. The local lawyers felt offended and tried to stop Hashmi from pleading in the court and Hashmi managed to file the objection with difficulty and return to Delhi.
The next day that is on 27 January 2023 a second bail application was moved in Indore court for the release of Sharma. Delhi-based lawyer Hashmi, unable to appear personally, requested his sister Nurjahan, an advocate in Indore, to keep an eye on the bail proceedings and update him on the matter. Adv Nurjahan sent Sonu Mansoori, one of her interns, to the court to check on the status. Mansoori is currently a student of LLB 3rd year.
As she was about to leave for the court Nurjahan requested Mansoori to also “collect a fee from a client on her way to the court”. That was how she was carrying Rs 125,000 in her pocket. In the court room, some lawyers who knew that Sonu Mansuri was Nurjahan’s intern, rounded her up. They not only searched the girl without the authority to do so but also made a video of their act. Afterward, an FIR under Section 419/420/120B was registered against Mansoori at Mahatma Gandhi Road Police Station. FIR no. is 38/2023.
Even though there was no prima facie crime, the FIR was registered and Mansoori was accused of cheating and criminal conspiracy. The complainant of the said FIR was an advocate named Surendra Singh Alva. One lakh rupee found in her pocket was enough for those with communal prejudices to pronounce Mansoori a member of a banned organization.
When Mansoori was arrested and produced before the court, instead of sending her to the judicial custody, the court thought it appropriate to send her to police remand. A person is sent on police remand only when the police expect to recover something from the accused. But it is worth mentioning that even in the FIR, there was no hint of such expectation by the police.
Today, even after two months, nothing has been ‘recovered’ from Mansoori. By sending her to the police remand, only enabled the police to beat her up in custody. Meanwhile advocate Nurjahan had to leave the city due to communal targeting. Initially Nurjahan’s name was not in the FIR, but it was added to it subsequently.
Given the extra-constitutional clout of the Bajrang Dal no one in the bar dared to come forward to apply for Mansoori’s bail. Failing to get a lawyer from the city, four lawyers from Delhi, Adv. Mohit Sood, Adv Padam Kumar, Adv Amit Srivastava and Adv Pratyush Nilotpal, volunteered to assist her. The writer of this note is Padam Kumar.
In Indore’s court premise, sensing the hostility, the team realized that it would be better if we inform the police about our presence in the city and ask for security. An intimation letter was sent to the DCP office without any positive response. The MG Road police station merely warned, “we will not be responsible if you are attacked”.
After this we went to the Bar Association of Indore District Court. Only one office bearer spoke to us. His name was Adv Panditiya. Even he requested us not to interfere in the case. He told us that the people there were mad and if we were to be attacked, the Bar Association could do nothing. He warned us that it would be better if we left Indore as soon as possible.
One of the two local advocates who were helping us in the case met with a road accident under suspicious circumstances and got injured. The other advocate also started receiving threatening phone calls. Nevertheless, we somehow managed to file the bail application.
After getting the application filed, all four of us went to the MG Road Police Station. There the police officer said in no ambiguous terms that, “we do not guarantee your safety.” We considered filing a petition in the High Court only a few metres away, but had to give up due to constant physical threat and stalking.
Back in Delhi, our team sought the help of senior Adv Tyagi who filed a case in the Supreme Court with the help of AOR Dr. Anil Bakshi.
Meanwhile Adv Hashmi died under suspicious circumstances.
However, the writ petition was filed on 11 February 2023. The case was to be presented before the Division Bench of Justice Rastogi and Justice Bela Trivedi on March 13. Three arguments took place in 10 days and on March 22, the court granted interim relief to Mansoori and granted her bail. The rest of the merits of the writ petition would be heard later.
Under such a situation it is natural to conclude that the rule of law and the constitution does not prevail in Indore which is dominated by extreme right-wing forces. It requires the Supreme Court to intervene and protect minimal rights of citizens, and that too at extreme risks for the concerned lawyers fighting for civil rights.
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