Restricting rallies in Calcutta on weekdays is such a revolutionary idea that controversy was possibly unavoidable. But the manner in which it was imposed and the subsequent reaction of the Left Front to defy the order were both eminently avoidable. Indeed, the controversy is a poor reflection on the institutions and their ability to respond to situations.
When Justice Amitava Lala’s car was caught in a traffic snarl caused by a procession, he promptly hauled up Calcutta Police, more specifically the traffic policemen, for contempt of court. The Contempt of Court Act confers sweeping powers to the judges. In this country, high court judges have always been a sensitive lot and there have been occasions when notices for contempt of court have been served for erratic power supply to the court or because of cancellation of bookings for judicial officers in inspection bungalows.
Justice Lala’s decision, therefore, was not entirely unprecedented or unexpected. The police, on their part, did what contemners are expected to do in such cases. They humbly and respectfully tendered an apology and reiterated their absolute faith in the majesty of the judiciary.
Events so far had followed the usual script that had laid down that Justice Lala had two options before him, once an apology was tendered. He could let off the contemner after admonishing him or he could ignore the apology and ‘punish’ the contemner by imposing fines or by sending the contemner to jail or insist that the contemner be present in the court for the rest of the day.
But the judge decided to settle the matter once and for all and change the script. He ordered that rallies and processions in the city would not be taken out on weekdays, except between 8 pm and 8 am. He also designated three sites in the city where rallies could be held.
It was undoubtedly a popular order and the long-suffering Calcuttan welcomed it wholeheartedly. Critics, however, say the judge, by his order, penalised people whom he had not heard. Those he did hear, the police, were let off, while he imposed the ban without hearing the political parties or the trade unions or the state government, for that matter, who would be directly affected by the ban. To put it more simply, the court hauled up X for contempt and punished Y who did not even appear before the court.
Another ground on which the order could be challenged relates to the ‘relief’ granted by Justice Lala. Allowing rallies to be held between 8 pm and 8 am, it is being argued, is neither practical nor reasonable and actually amounts to a ban on weekdays. It is, of course, far from clear if a 6 pm to 6 am period would be more acceptable, reasonable and at the same time allow a better flow of traffic.
A third objection being raised is on the court’s decision to designate three sites in central Calcutta for holding rallies, all three sites located barely a kilometre or less from each other. Such a limitation, it will be argued, will unnecessarily prevent smaller gatherings in other parts of the city.
Finally, the court will be asked to clarify whether the restriction would include in its ambit religious processions that adhere to fixed dates. If an exception is allowed in the case of religious processions during the day, for argument’s sake, banning political processions could be construed as discriminatory.
What is also surprising is how lightly Calcutta Police got away by shifting responsibility to the politicians. While it is clear that permission from the police is required to take out processions and that such permission is ‘conditional’, it is not clear how the police actually go about granting such permission and the considerations that prompt it.
Once an application is received by the local police station or the police headquarters, do they get any feedback from police stations falling on the way' Indeed, has there been any instance when the police stepped in to modify the route, time or the date' Chances are that permission has been granted without any application of the mind and without weighing the pros and cons.
In the circumstances, the Left Front could have been justified in filing a review petition and seeking suitable modifications in the order. By launching a vitriolic attack on the judge, however, the Front chairman has only muddied the water.
The sound and fury emanating from Alimuddin Street is obviously calculated to increase pressure on the high court and amounts to contempt of court. But in publicly pressurising the high court, the Front chairman is not only setting a bad precedent, he is also hijacking attention from the real issue at stake.