Considering the unrestrained use of force by the police on violent protestors and innocent lawyers alike within the court halls and on the premises of the Madras High Court, it was but natural for the Supreme Court to be deeply concerned and order a probe by retired Supreme Court judge B.N. Srikrishna. Yet, to reduce the pitched battles between the lawyers and the police on the court premises on February 19 to an “unauthorised” police lathicharge would be to take a partial, not complete, view of the events. The police action in the court no doubt merited serious concern and urgent response. But to consider only the police excesses, ignoring the circumstances and the situation prevailing on the court premises on that day, and to pin the entire blame for the happenings on the police personnel will be wholly unfair. With a police station already established and strengthened by a judicial order within the court complex, the police did not need permission from the court for their presence on the premises. The strength of the police was increased on account of anticipated violence, not only in view of the strike and protest demonstrations by the lawyers on the Sri Lankan issue, but also because of the attack on Janata Party president Subramanian Swamy by a group of advocates inside a court hall on February 17. According to the account of the police, they moved into the court buildings in pursuit of advocates who were attacking them with stones and bottles.
Yet, other than advising the lawyers to return to work and to refrain from shouting slogans on the court premises, the three-judge Bench of the Supreme Court had nothing to say about a section of the advocates indulging in violence that set off the whole sequence of events and provoked the police action, and the arson, including setting fire to the police station. While it has been quick to order the transfer of four senior police officers, and institute an enquiry into the police action, it has been content to let the law take its slow-moving course so far as the lawlessness of a section of the advocates is concerned. Policing the police remains a serious concern in Indian democracy, and the same is true of bringing lawyers within the purview of law. The lawyers are yet to withdraw the strike despite repeated appeals by the Supreme Court. In the context of the Madras High Court, sections of lawyers have, taking advantage of their proximity to the judiciary, defied the law with little fear of the consequences. It would be unfortunate if an impression were to be created that the judiciary can be persuaded to protect the sectional interests of lawyers rather than uphold the rule of law in its entirety. Or that the rule of law stops at the gates of the High Court even as lawlessness takes hold of the premises.