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Monument to egalitarianism

Although the 180-foot-tall central tower of Calcutta High Court is 15 ft higher than the Ochterlony Monument or Shahid Minar in the Maidan, it does not look that lofty because of the massive bulk of the building.

Built in the neo-Gothic style inspired by the Clothes Hall or Town Hall at Ypres, Belgium, it has a magnificent row of columns facing the Maidan. Its capitals are exquisitely carved from Caen stone in a manner evocative of medieval churches in Europe. It is said that after World War II when Belgium was devastated by bombing an architect had come down to Calcutta to create a replica of the high court building in his own country.

Hemmed in as it is today by various buildings constructed around it today, it perhaps does not look as impressive as it was intended to be when constructed in 1862. In the 1950s, a huge plot belonging to the high court was handed over to the Bank of India. The quadrangle inside has lost its magnificence. It looks like a cage. The plaster statue of Justice in a sari is straight out of a Hindi film.

Even till a few years ago, trams used to trundle right up to the high court. In the early days, one could have lunch at Peliti’s, the most fashionable restaurant, for 12 annas. In those days the Assembly building was not ready yet, and from here up to the Eden Gardens it was all open space without any obstruction.

The Defence Building on Strand Road and the centenary building have been added. The huge new State Bank of India building looms behind it. The architecture of the smaller and elegant Bank of Bengal building, which was demolished, was in consonance with its surroundings.

(Top and above) Calcutta High Court. File pictures

Somendra Chandra Bose, who was articled in 1947 and after two years of training began to practise from 1949, took a tram ride from Harrison Road (MG Road). The cheap mid-day fare used to be two paisa per ride. Many European judges, who lived in Alipore, took the tram in the morning to join work.

“A strong breeze wafted even inside the high court building. In summers khus khus tatties used to be put up along the verandahs,” says Bose.

After Independence, the cases belonging to the different districts that were apportioned to East Pakistan across the border were sent to Dhaka High Court and suddenly there was a lot of empty space. Many of the Bar Association members left for Dhaka. Bose has over the years occupied the same seat in No 4 library, in which room then premier of Bengal Fazlul Haque and speaker of the Muslim League Nausher Ali used to sit.

The Bhawal sanyasi case holds the record for the longest hearing. Another sensational case was the Pakur murder case when plague bacteria brought from Pune was injected to kill one of the scions of the zamindari.

In the case involving detention of the revolutionary Niharendu Datta Majumdar, he was re-arrested in the high court building when court had released them in another case. This gave rise to a contempt action, as it was against convention to arrest a person on the court premises. But in the contempt case, the verandah of the court building was held not to be the court house. The convention, however, continued and during Emergency there were instances where the authorities avoided arrest of a person within the court premises.

In those days the Coroners’ Court used to be behind the high court. In many cases, people would spend thousands of rupees for a ‘natural death’ certificate in case it was actually ‘unnatural’.

Corruption was not unknown then. But earlier the high court was not in the public view. But then public interest litigation brought out things in the open.

Unlike many other courts, people have free access to the high court. One needs a permit to enter the Supreme Court. The composition of litigants has changed over the years. Earlier, zamindari and criminal cases and other high value litigation were heard here. Criminal trials stopped being heard here from 1973.

There was once a threat to gherao the high court in 1968 when the Joy Engineering case was being heard. Workers entered the precincts and began shouting slogans. DN Sinha was chief justice then and he sent word to the Registrar that it was impossible to continue proceedings there. Ajay Mukherjee was chief minister at that time and PK Sen was police commissioner. The police disbursed the crowd that had gathered.

The social impact of the high court has been quite significant. During the Raj, many white barristers used to fight cases on behalf of freedom fighters. So to cause inconvenience to the revolutionaries many of the cases were lodged in remote areas where it was not possible for the accused to get proper legal assistance. Nonetheless, the high court has become so accessible that litigants file cases on what may seem flimsy grounds.

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