The witness box was the last place a deputy commissioner of police would expect to start a week in. But that’s precisely where Calcutta Police traffic department head M.K. Singh found himself on a far from ordinary morning at Calcutta High Court.
Leading a three-member team of officers — in response to Justice Amitava Lala’s suo motu contempt suit after a traffic snarl resulting from a rally paralysed the city centre and held up the judge for over half an hour last Wednesday — Singh found himself being grilled for a full 45 minutes.
After his lengthy stint in the dock at high court’s room no. 10, the traffic police boss was handed down a landmark verdict that could prove a double-edged sword for cops, bound by the court to stop rallies and pushed by the political powers to let them pass.
Watched by a room full of people, straining to catch every word of a rare judicial suo motu contempt case against the city’s lawmen, the solitary support that came Singh’s way was from advocate-on-record Asim Kumar Chatterjee. He did step in occasionally to give a breather to the cornered top cop, but that was clearly not enough.
Admitting that Monday was one of his most harrowing days since he donned the uniform, Singh said much later that he was still “tense” and was “anxious to know” what exactly the court had ordered. “I was so tense during the hearing,” he said, adding that he could not catch every word of what Justice Lala said. “There was so much noise in the room,” he complained.
The crowd and the cacophony had started to build up since morning. If it was Justice Lala’s turn last Wednesday to be kept waiting by police failure to rein in a rally, Monday saw a slight role reversal. The police team arrived around 10.30 am, much before Justice Lala had finished dealing with another case on hand. But once Singh took his place, no time was wasted.
The first question Justice Lala threw at Singh — why things had spun out of police control last Wednesday — set the tone for the inquisition.
As Singh tried to explain why an unarmed police force had opted not to confront the mob of 20,000 — with several members of it brandishing tribal weapons — he was asked why the force was unarmed. The police, Singh said, had chosen to play it safe, rather than trigger more trouble.
As the judge started dictating his order, he found support from the crowded courtroom. An advocate stood up to announce that he had filed a PIL on the same issue, prompting Justice Lala to take note. And after the implications of the verdict began to sink in, praise for the judiciary rang through the corridors of Calcutta High Court.