Violence in Patiala House

Republic versus nation

By Mukul Kesavan
  • Published 22.02.16

The violence in the district courts at Patiala House, where goons attacked journalists, teachers, students and senior lawyers over consecutive hearings, was variously described by the police commissioner and BJP spokespersons as a 'scuffle', as 'jostling' and as a law-and-order problem. The minister of state for home affairs, Kiren Rijiju, pressed by an anchor, accepted that it was wrong but stayed on message, arguing that it was not of the same order as the seditious sloganeering heard on the JNU campus on February 9. The first was a fracas, the second was an existential threat to India. To focus on the thuggery in Patiala House, therefore, was a form of deflection, an attempt to change the subject, to sideline Mother India.

This is a useful argument also known as the Deewar gambit where no matter what the question is, 'mere paas Ma hai' is the right answer. Its message is clear: the metaphorical dismemberment of Bharat Mata on a campus is not to be equated with rowdiness in a lower court.

It isn't hard to mock the incompetence and bias exhibited by the government, its supporters and the Delhi Police over the last week. From the home minister's curious bid to establish guilt by association by publicizing a tweet dubiously attributed to Hafiz Saeed, to photoshopped pictures of Kanhaiya Kumar standing in front of a map of a balkanized India, to the concocted video energetically touted as proof positive of sedition, the government has spared no effort to nobble a student and tar his university.

But even as journalists focus on unpicking the farrago of half-truths that make up the government's case against Kumar, the Bharatiya Janata Party's argument about the relative significance of the two cases shouldn't go unanswered. Plainly put, the breakdown of the machinery of justice at Patiala House is, by an order of magnitude, a greater threat to the life of the republic than the slogans calling for the destruction of India on the JNU campus.

The Patiala House Court lies in the heart of Lutyens's capitol, just off the India Gate Circle. It might be a lower court, but it is housed on the republic's finest real estate. Consider what happened here. The first day that Kumar was to be produced before the judge, groups of lawyers forced reporters, JNU students, and teachers out of the court room and then assaulted them within the premises of the court complex. O.P. Sharma, a BJP MLA from Delhi, was caught on camera stomping on and kicking a prone man. Some of these assaults were filmed and they happened in the presence of policemen who did nothing to prevent them. The Supreme Court instructed the Delhi Police to ensure that the next time Kumar was produced in court, he, his counsel and the press were adequately protected. The apex court took upon itself the oversight of this lower court case.

The next time round, Kumar himself was assaulted as a police party escorted him through Patiala House's gates. Inside the court he was attacked again. Remarkably, these attacks were led by the same men who had been captured on camera during the first assault. In spite of having been recognized and named the first time round, they hadn't been interrogated or arrested. When the Supreme Court was informed of the mayhem, it despatched a special team of senior lawyers under police escort to report on the matter. When the team arrived, it was heckled and abused, and had things thrown at it. Kumar's team of lawyers had to hide in the court premises for hours for fear of being attacked.

A gang of lawyers defied the Supreme Court's instructions with impunity and were allowed to do so by a police commissioner who seemed more concerned with their well-being than with the safety of the defendant and his lawyers or the explicit instructions of the apex court. They were allowed to turn the Patiala House Courts complex into an arena where the basic processes of justice were turned into violent farce. The Supreme Court acknowledged that the defendant could not be expected to apply for bail there because repeated violence by goons in black coats and starched bands had made it a no-go area.

Till the time of writing, the offending lawyers had ignored three summonses to appear before the police. The police commissioner had made no attempt to arrest them. This wasn't because they had gone underground like the students wanted for sedition; no, they were parading themselves in public, shouting Vande Mataram, glorying in the notoriety they had earned by beating up reporters, bystanders and Kanhaiya Kumar, confident that their political sympathies would protect them from the laws that they were sworn to uphold.

Government spokesmen often speak of the menace of Maoism, specifically its violent and sometimes effective challenge to the authority of the State in India's hinterland. In Patiala House, a bunch of lawyers successfully established a zone of lumpen liberty within shouting distance of the Supreme Court, of Parliament and the great secretariats of the Indian Union.

In the twilight of the Mughal empire, the grandly styled Shah Alam barely controlled its capital. "Sultanat-e-Shah Alam az Dilli ta Palam" was the Farsi doggerel that mocked the emperor's pretensions. The distance between Parliament House and Patiala House is considerably smaller than that between the Red Fort and Palam. Does this mean that the political writ of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his pomp doesn't extend to the India Gate Circle? No, Mr Modi's power is intact; it is the authority of the republic that has suffered a check. The lower judiciary and a rabidly chauvinistic mob collided and the mob won because one of the republic's sinews, the police, controlled by the Union government, chose not to challenge the mob or to arrest its leaders.

Last Thursday, one of the ringleaders of the Patiala House assaults, Vikram Singh Chauhan, was felicitated and garlanded by hundreds of lawyers in the Kakardooma Courts in Delhi. Five years ago, lawyers in Islamabad rained rose petals down on the man who had killed Salman Taseer, former governor of the Punjab. Malik Mumtaz Qadri assassinated Taseer because he had opposed Pakistan's vile blasphemy laws, which are routinely used to target that country's vulnerable minorities. It's worth recalling in this context that O.P. Sharma, the BJP MLA who assaulted a sympathizer of the Communist Party of India, had doubled down on his violence and declared that he would have shot him if he had had a gun. Even if this was rhetorically meant, Sharma felt free to say it because he knew that his hyper-nationalism had the blessings of his party, the BJP.

When vigilante 'justice' is publicly celebrated by majoritarian mobs and winked at by complicit policemen, the rules by which republics live, shrivel a little. If this happens often enough, republican institutions begin to defer to a bullying nationalism. Few people dare challenge the blasphemy laws in Pakistan today because supine courts, a pandering Parliament and a corrupt army are owned by a bigoted nationalism. The nation state in Pakistan is in rude health but its republic is a rusted hulk, corroded by an Islamist nationalism that makes republican fellowship impossible by reducing citizens to believers.

The Indian Constitution didn't define a nation, it designed a republic. When politicians begin to use a super-heated nationalism to bypass republican processes and intimidate republican institutions, they risk turning a benign political body into a brutal leviathan. It isn't railing students, spitting into the wind, who threaten India. The integrity of the republic is menaced by the lawyers who subverted justice in Patiala House, the policemen who stood by, the politicians who connived at this, the spokesmen who urged us to ignore institutional vandalism and the demagogues who beat nationalist drums for profit.

After the events of last week, the constitutional ground on which Patiala House is built, is soft underfoot. We should be careful; perfervid nationalism is a swamp where republics go to die.