Sit back and savour a class act

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  • Published 24.06.11

Calcutta, June 23: Forget the half-closed door, forget the steady stream of visitors, forget the incessant murmurs and forget the occasional flashes of temper.

The best class in Bengal in a long time is in session now in the courtroom of Justice Saumitra Pal, arraying two of the best legal minds in the state against each other.

Anindya Mitra and Samaraditya Pal are not just two of the best-known barristers in Calcutta, they are also friends outside the court and veterans of many a battle. Sometimes against each other, as in the current Singur case, and sometimes on the same side, as in a steel company’s coal case in which they appeared against the then government.

Both are experts in money suits and company law.

In the Singur land case, the senior counsel for the Tatas must give his best shot against Mitra who will be expected to dip deep into his formidable arsenal to defend the government as its advocate-general.

Not for nothing did the second day of the hearing see many law students among the spectators soaking up the courtroom session that often became a lesson in jurisprudence.

In the first two days, the courtroom witnessed more of barrister Pal — since he had moved the writ petition — and flashes of Mitra. The two days of hair-splitting and incisive arguments have already established a fine tradition of debate rarely seen in legal circles in the city in recent times.

If barrister Pal drew a distinction between the permanence of the State and the transitory nature of governments on the first day to contend that the agreement with Tata Motors still stands, today was the turn for the word “forthwith” in the new law the government has notified.

Almost 30 minutes were spent dissecting the word and explaining its implications.

“Section 3 of Clause 4 of the act stated that Tata Motors Ltd and all vendors shall ‘forthwith’ restore vacant possession of the land kept in their possession in favour of the district magistrate, Hooghly. The word ‘forthwith’ is very confusing. What exactly does the government mean by the word ‘forthwith’?” barrister Pal asked the judge, glancing over the top of his spectacles.

Pal, who habitually chews gum to soothe his throat, contended that the word should mean “within a reasonable time” and not “immediately” as the government appears to have presumed. Such a presumption would amount to violation of the Constitution, he felt.

“The government gave no time to Tata Motors and seized its properties kept in the Singur factory (almost immediately after the act was notified in the gazette). This incident is against the provisions laid down in Article 14 (equality before the law),” he said.

Later, a senior lawyer explained that Article 14 of the Constitution states that the State shall not deny any person equality before the law or the equal protection of the laws within the territory of India.

“What barrister Pal must have meant was that by arbitrarily taking away the land, the Tatas were not being given equal protection of the laws of the country,” the lawyer said. “For instance, if a state makes a law for only one person and arbitrarily snatches away his car, he is not being given the right to protect himself by first approaching a court to prevent this from happening.”

Barrister Pal today added that if the provisions of any law went against that of the Constitution, the legislation could be invalidated.

Although Mitra is yet to launch his full-fledged defence, the courtroom had a glimpse of what was to come. Speaking at the end of today’s hearing, Mitra, in a tone louder than his usual style, challenged Pal’s claim.

“What Pal is saying is not mentioned in his petition. In the petition, he has expressed the apprehension that Tata Motors would be dispossessed whereas in the oral submission he said it has already been dispossessed,” Mitra said.

The distinction gave the courtroom its moment of mirth.

Justice Pal enquired: “You mean to say Tata is in possession? The question evoked laughter in the courtroom.

Justice Pal also showed his gentle but stern side when Kalyan Bandopadhyay, Trinamul MP and the lawyer assisting Mitra, objected to barrister Pal’s reference to a statement attributed to the chief minister yesterday.

During the submission, barrister Pal had said: “Yesterday, the CM said the Singur land belonged to her government and her government will decide what will be done there. She should not make such comments when the issue is pending before the court for disposal,” Samaraditya Pal said.

Bandopadhyay then stood up and said: “The allegation that Pal was making was not mentioned in his petition. So the court should not hear the allegation.”

Justice Pal asked barrister Pal to sit down and then told Bandopadhyay: “I will pass the judgment. During the passing of the judgment, I will consider what is written in the petition and what is not. So you need not worry. Please don't interrupt and let Pal speak.”

Advocate-general Mitra also tried to pick holes in Pal’s interpretation of the word “forthwith”. “Pal is trying to convince the court that the government did not give his client time to vacate the spot and seized its property soon after the publication of the gazette notification. But that is not true. Gazette notification about the law was made on June 20 and the Hooghly district magistrate issued the notice of possession to the company on June 21.”

Like in any delectable courtroom battle, repartees were also not on short supply. When Samaraditya Pal claimed that the media had information that “looting and pilfering” were going on in Singur, Mitra said: “So, the media is encouraging you to fight against us.”

Samaraditya Pal replied: “You are also being encouraged by the media.”

On one occasion, barrister Pal raised an objection and said Mitra should not intervene during his argument. “A running commentary is going on from this side,” Samaraditya Pal said, pointing towards Mitra. “I am feeling disturbed.”

Mitra, along with Kalyan Bandyopadhyay, shot back: “So he (Pal) will decide what we will do and what we will say.”

However, during the recess, the lawyers on both sides were seen engaged in friendly banter.