Now in its fifth day the struggle between thousands of disgruntled lawyers and the police has drawn the attention of the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu M. Karunanidhi who says he intends to fast until the two groups sort out their differences. The octogenarian politician is currently recovering from a spinal surgery in a local hospital and is apparently guilt-tripping both sides to stand down. He isn’t actually taking a stand to resolve the differences that have led to a “shoot on sight” by the police order and severe unrest around the High Court that has resulted in a destroyed police station and the burning of dozens of vehicles.
The lawyers outside the court are of two minds about the Chief Minister’s actions. One group of 300 lawyers has decided to follow his lead and start their own fast to shame the police into submission. Another group has kept on with its riotous activities and stabbed a police constable.
Meanwhile the courts have been shut down until next week when they will open up to record case backlogs and the business-as-usual approach that has made a travesty out of the Indian legal system.
The police have issued a shoot-on-sight order to kill any lawyer caught attacking public property in Chennai. The order comes as a response to a riot that broke out between the police and lawyers near the High Court on Thursday and Friday. During the incident hundreds of lawyers from the high court set fire to a police station, four city buses, several rickshaws and motorcycles. The cause of the riot is ostensibly because of the lack of government support towards the embattled LTTE in Sri Lanka, however the rage pent up by lawyers across the state to seek remediation in their cased through the law seems to be the underlying reason for the unrest.
To my knowledge, the police have not actually shot anyone, though there have been several newspaper photographs of bloodied lawyers who had been hit on the heads by riot police.
While I am not an expert on court politics in Tamil Nadu, it seems to me that it is a bad sign for the state of the government. Lawyers presumably have access to the wheels of justice and it is shocking that they would resort to violence rather than attempt to push their disagreements through official channels.
But their actions show that the legal system in India is badly broken. Cases languish in courts. And there is a backlog that can take decades to even get a hearing, and the near endless appeal process means that no decision is ever truly final. While the lawyers I know speak highly about the ideals of the legal system, they are hopelessly bogged down by its processes and rarely believe that courts can effective deliver justice.
With courts impotent, organized crime syndicates have flooded the market with their own brand of justice, and allowed underworld figures to adjudicate decisions on their own. I wrote about this happening in Bangalore for WIRED last year.
The current riots in Tamil Nadu (which are said to be spreading to Madurai and Trichy) are a natural outgrowth of the current system. If the law is completely broken, what incentive do lawyers have not to riot? When lawyers are reduced to street thuggery what does that say about the functioning of the state itself?
Of course the police’s current order to shoot lawyers on sight shows the low esteem in which the government holds the legal profession.