The Karnataka High Court has turned 50. But the elegant building housing it is 138 years old. Incredibly, in the '80s, there was a move to demolish it
The decision of the then Chief Justice Mallimath in the early '80s to demolish the Attara Kacheri divided the public. Old Mysoreans were against the demolition, while those in the integrated areas were in favour. The State Government gave its consent for the construction of a new building in the place and the Urban Arts Commission too concurred, on condition that the new building be a replica of the demolished building. The new development intensified the Save Attara kacheri campaign.
As a concerned citizen, I discussed it with important citizens at the Bangalore Club. Our group had meetings with the then Minister for Public Works M. Chandrasekhar and the then Secretary K.C. Reddy. Both were not of much help. Matters came to a head when Advocate-General Narasimha Murthy, who occupied a wing of the Attara Kacheri, was asked to vacate it before the weekend. The intention was obvious: start the demolition over the weekend without giving us any opportunity to approach the courts.It was G.P. Shivaprakash, a lawyer later to become a judge himself, who not only kept me informed but offered to represent me asking me to get others to join me in a petition. I managed to get the support of B.V. Narayana Reddy, the grand old man of Mysore Bank, and S. Chandra Sekhar of the Raman Reserach Institute. The High Court stayed the demolition and a division Bench with Justices M.N. Venkatachalaiah and Vittal Rao pronounced its landmark judgment on August 16, 1984. It enunciated several important principles: on the question of locus standi in public interest litigation, legal limits on executive discretion, exercise of power to declare a building as a protected monument, judgment of aesthetic values as against compelling utilitarianism, and the applicability of the Preservation of Monuments Act, both to monuments under the ownership of the government and in private ownership.At that time it was one of the most important cases of its kind. In a packed court hall,Justice M.N. Venkatachaliah began his order by praising the petitioners "none of them has any collateral motives". The verdict went against us, but underlying the judgment was an obvious air of sympathy with our cause. We promptly appealed to the Supreme Court which ordered the State Government to reconsider the order and to take into consideration all material available, including the representation made by the petitioners, before arriving at a decision. Consequently, in 1985, the Government reversed its order and proceeded with repairs to strengthen the building.In retrospect, I understand the reluctance of people then to resort to public interest litigation (PIL) in stark contrast to what is happening today. The concept of a PIL is a departure from Anglo-Saxon jurisprudence on which the Indian system is largely based, Article 32 of the Constitution permitting courts to entertain them as an attempt to deal with India' socio-economic realities. The first PIL was by a lawyer on behalf of prisoners in Bihar held as undertrials longer than any sentence could have necessitated.
In the Karnataka High Court, the Attara Katcheri case was the first PIL case and till date the most unique. The case was agitated in the very building that was the subject of contention. Incidentally, whenever I entered the portals of the court those days, I faced a barrage of disdainful comments. "You stick to films. Leave the Attara Katcheri to us."In the light of all this, the judgment unequivocally upholding a citizen's right to "litigate a matter of public interest" was indeed remarkable. My only regret is that B.V. Narayana Reddy, who came to my aid at a crucial time, died a few weeks before the Government finally rescinded the demolition order. He would have been pleased to have gone with the knowledge that the battle for Attara Kacheri had been won at long last.M. BHAKTAVATSALA