Diary of a Judicial Officer – II

Circa 1999, Pune:

Twas a hot balmy day. I was presiding over a Court with over 20,000 criminal cases pending. It was housed in a British colonial structure with tall domes and extra spacious halls with a wide open corridor running along the entire structure outside the Court rooms. The furniture, though not British, was definitely of a bygone era – bulky ornate dais, heavy fans, heavy chairs. Despite the spacious structure, the Court room resembled an ocean of dusty papers. They were everywhere – in the passage, piled in 3 foot high bundles on top of all the cupboards along the walls of the court room. Some were falling out of cupboards. Even along the dais, there were stacks of files. Any one who entered the Court room, had to dodge the files strewn all over to take a step ahead.

The Court room was packed to capacity with half a dozen lawyers asking for adjournments, ‘mentioning’, as it is called in legalese. Just then, a flurry of activity took place at the entrance. An armed contingent of police escorted 3 accused persons into the Court. The papers were handed over to the clerk. The contingent then led the accused out into the verandah outside to wait for their turn.

Within a few minutes, recording of evidence commenced. Half way through, one of the police constables came in with a paper, presumably an application of some sort, and handed it over to the bench clerk, a young 30 something year old lady. After the case in progress was concluded, she handed it over to me. Sure enough, it was an application for providing clothing, cosmetics, soap, food and other sundry items to the accused from home. All this while, I could see that the accused in the corridor/verandah had been freed of handcuffs and were conversing on a mobile phone. The armed escort was standing around.

By that time, another witness was in the box and recording of evidence commenced. This also took time. At about half past 1.00 p.m, I opened the file and found that the accused had a history of attempt to murder a police constable, attempt to escape from custody by setting fire to a police vehicle, a conviction, an attempt to throw footwear at a judge who sentenced him and also attacking fellow inmates in the prison with deadly weapons. The accused were called out. Attendance was recorded. Considering that the articles demanded were not vital requirements nor affected the physical wellbeing of the accused, I merely passed an order directing that they be supplied to the accused in accordance with prison rules. The application was handed back to the accused for perusal. With this, I rose as the time was about 1.50 p.m.

Simultaneously, the main accused started shouting in most unparliamentary language that he required the articles like clothing and talcum powder in order to be properly turned out in Court whenever he was taken out of the prison. Triggered by this outburst, another co accused picked up a chair and hurled it at the dais. It missed my bench clerk by a fraction of an inch. The armed escort comprising of at least 6 policemen was also shell shocked. They were trying to pacify the accused. All this drama unfolded within split seconds when I had risen from my chair and took two steps towards the stair leading up to the dais. I retired to the chamber. The escort took the accused out of the Court room to the corridor. The shouting aggravated. A crowd of onlookers gathered. Seeing a ready audience, the accused started shouting even louder. The Ld. Prosecutor, also a lady, could not go out as the entire passage was blocked.

In those days, we junior judicial officers were not provided any phones or intercoms in our chambers. Sensing physical danger, considering all the staff was female, including my stenographer, the Prosecutor and myself somehow made our way out of the Court room to the office of the then Principal District Judge and reported the incident. He promptly took necessary steps and notified the higher police authorities. A complaint was filed by my bench clerk and the case was registered.

Throughout this incident, the armed police contingent just stood and watched. They did not even raise a little finger to stop the accused persons in any way, nor came to the help of the two lady staff members on the dais. All they tried to do was coax the accused persons to go out into the verandah. Really makes me wonder to this day as to what exactly is ‘law and order’ in this so called civilized society! Who are the culprits and who are the victims? Are we now so desensitized that such an incident takes place in a public place and not one of the so called protectors of citizens comes to their aid?

P.S: From that eventful day onwards, a permanent police chowky was set up in the Pune District Court precincts. The newspaper headlines, the next morning carried details, some actual, some embellished, about the incident. The case arising out of the incident ended in conviction.

 

Diary of a judicial officer: Circa 1996 Aurangabad. T’was was a gloomy dark day. It was pouring cats and dogs. The bar association had called for bandh for some reason, in support of one amongst many of its oft repeated demands. I don’t remember the exact reason. The Bar had circulated a circular to the effect that no adverse orders be passed as no Advocate would attend Court and all matters be adjourned. We virtuous judicial officers, of course, were required to be on the dais at 11.00 a.m sharp notwithstanding that there was no one there except our own staff. As one of the most junior members of the judiciary at that time, yours truly was also on the dais at the appointed time. I finished going through the daily board and calling out the names of parties. At the fag end, at about 12.00 noon, I saw an old shrivelled up, bent lady, hardly able to stand, hobbling into Court with a walking stick, held up on both sides by two youngish ladies. She somehow managed to walk up to the bench reserved for accused and sit down. There was a flurry of activity as the two young ladies tried to dry her wet head and wring her clothes dry as also their own. After a few moments realizing the futility, they also sat down. By this time, I had almost come to the end of my daily board. After a few moments, I asked them why they were there. One of the young ones answered that they were being hounded by the police and that a warrant had been issued against the old lady for having committed the alleged offense of throwing garbage on the street under some obscure Act. Seeing me addressing them, the old lady made a valiant attempt to get to her feet, but, no avail. She couldn’t stand up without support. I checked the case papers and found that the offense carried punishment of fine upto Rs. 100/- and that only a summons had been issued in routine course as the case was more than 10 years old at that time. I then informed them that the Bar had called for a strike and no Advocate would attend the Court and therefore, I would give them a date. At this, the old lady burst into tears and told me that she was willing to undergo whatever punishment the Court would impose and that she did not want to ever come back to Court again. I ascertained from her whether she wanted to plead guilty and also told her that if yes, she would be convicted. She answered once again in the affirmative, all the time weeping. I then asked her why she was crying. What I saw on her face was a strange mix of rage, desperation and helplessness. She then narrated that the police had been hounding her for the last 2 weeks, knocking on her door at all odd hours and making demands for not arresting her there and then and hauling her to the police lock up. She also told me some four figure amounts that she had paid the Advocate, best not specified, to represent her. After all this, she once again asked me to impose whatever punishment I wanted to and finish this chapter once and for all as the alternative for continuing harassment till the next date and also the monumental efforts required for bringing her to Court. She also pointed out that the two young ladies were her daughter and daughter in law respectively and that they had left their respective young ones at home, unattended, only to come to Court. Surprisingly, just then, the Learned Advocate on record rushed in, in a flurry and demanded that he be given a date as the Bar was on strike. I related whatever the old lady had told me to him and pointed out that she was insisting on pleading guilty and finishing the matter there and then. The Advocate on record most aggressively told me that I could not under any circumstances, accept the plea of the old lady and if at all I did that, he would complain against me to the Principal District Judge. All this while, the old lady was signalling me frantically not to listen to him and that he only wanted money. Once the Advocate’s tirade stopped with an ultimatum to complain against me, the old lady once again pleaded that I finish the case and free her from the clutches of the police as well as advocate. The crucial question was whether I should follow the old lady’s wishes or give in to the demands of adjournment of the advocate under threat of complaint against me – the ultimate weapon the members of the Bar hold against the poor, beleaguered, hapless members of the judiciary. The question was a difficult one as I was still a probationer, just seven – eight months into the judiciary. The prospect of ‘complaint’ was scary.. considering the stigma it carries amongst the elite members of the judiciary as well as staff. There is a hush hush discussion about how there are complaints against the concerned officers. There is a sudden pin drop silence whenever he/she enters a room. In other words, the punishment begins even before there is any procedure followed to verify the complaint. To come back to the episode, this prospect was petrifying, that too, at the nascent stage of my career. However, somehow, the old ladies hapless and harassed state, her entreaties to finish the matter, the Advocate’s belligerent attitude played out in my mind. The thought of how the whole family had to go through so much dishevelment in order to enable her to attend Court yet again compelled me to accept her plea of guilty. She signed the necessary form and waited with a defeated look for the sentence to be pronounced. In those days, we junior judicial officers did not have even a stenographer. Hence, I started writing down the order, all the while wondering how I would tackle the problem. Finally, I convicted her and put to use the Probation of Offenders Act and let her off on admonition. The Advocate went off in a huff, still threatening to file a complaint. The old lady’s visible relief and gratitude, somehow wiped out all the doubts in my mind. A sense of fulfilment and satisfaction, and also a sense of gratitude to the Lord for having placed me in a situation where I could provide some relief to a harassed old lady engulfed me. P.S: The Learned Advocate did not file any complaint.