Calcutta, Sept. 24: For 30 minutes today, a Calcutta High Court judge remained boxed in his car as he saw police hold up traffic in the Maidan area to allow a rally the right of way.
Another judge of the same court chose to walk and reached office earlier.
A few hours later, the police learnt that they were wrong in giving the demonstrators the right of way and holding up life in the city’s business district during peak hours.
In office around 40 minutes late, the first thing Justice Amitava Lala did was issue a suo motu contempt notice to the traffic wing of Calcutta Police, asking deputy commissioner M.K. Singh to appear in court next Monday to weed out a problem that had no place in “civilised society”.
“We are far more concerned about our right but not our duty,” the contempt notice read.
“Astonished” at how such a long procession (it was organised by the Adivasi Socio-Education Council) could be allowed during the peak hours “closing all entrances” to the city centre, Justice Lala said he had taken “judicial notice of so many persons leaving their vehicles and walking towards their destination”.
It is an “unfortunate situation in a civilised society”, he said.
This unfortunate situation is a daily situation in Calcutta, but Singh tried to defend the police action. “There was a huge crowd and the thoroughfare was blocked. So, the officers had no option but to stop the cars,” said the DC, traffic.
The incident that sparked the judicial initiative occurred around 10.10 am. Justice Lala’s car — along with hundreds of other vehicles — was stranded on the approach towards Akashvani Bhavan on its way to the high court, with a traffic sergeant stopping traffic for the rally to come and pass.
The judge’s personal security guard tried unsuccessfully to reason with the sergeant that cars could be allowed to pass till the rally appeared.
Justice Lala waited till 10.40 am and then reached the court. In the process, he was beaten to office by Justice Kalyanjyoti Sengupta who got off his car and walked to the court.
After reaching court, Justice Lala penned the contempt notice, called an assistant commissioner of the traffic wing and another officer who was in charge of vehicular movement in the morning and handed over the scorcher to them.
Taking the police to task for “compromising with the situation”, he noted how he had watched suffering judges, lawyers, court officials and litigants from his car.
“Valuable working hours are disrupted because of political processions and, sometimes, because of bandhs and strikes,” the missive said, adding that the judiciary could not remain a “silent spectator” to the chaos.
Even as he was admonishing the police for not dealing with the situation firmly enough, two more rallies were holding up life in the central business district. One was by an organisation claiming to champion the rights of the scheduled castes, the other was by the Bengal Primary Teachers’ Association.
Such was the chaos that two other judges — Samir Talukdar and Pronab Chattopadhyay — also sought an explanation from Singh. They let him off after telling him to prevent a recurrence.
The attempt at preventing a daily disturbance that Calcutta has been putting up with for decades is not the judiciary’s first. A public interest litigation, seeking a ban on rallies, was blocked by politicians of every hue on the argument that protest was a fundamental right.
Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee has talked often of keeping the city’s streets free of rallies, at least on weekdays, but had Justice Lala been passing through Esplanade a couple of days ago he might have got caught in a rally the chief minister himself was addressing. And Singh tried to argue as if today’s crowd was particularly unruly.
“The tribals were armed with traditional weapons and we tried to control them the best we could. Some ministers and the chief secretary were also caught up,” he said.
Singh also offered this information: “Of course, we escorted the cars of the chief minister and the chief justice out of the crowd.”