In a police state, the police and other government institutions exercise extreme control over civil society and its liberties. Sanjay Hegde, an advocate in the Supreme Court and a civil rights defender, warned that India was becoming one. The context was the naming of Gautam Bhatia, a lawyer, in the first information report by the Delhi Police against the journalists and associates of the news portal, NewsClick, under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. One of the charges against NewsClick was its alleged funding by Chinese money and compliance with two Chinese telecommunication companies, both being investigated by the Enforcement Directorate. Mr Bhatia — his identity is ambiguous in the FIR — is alleged to be the ‘key’ person in a conspiracy to set up a legal community network to arrange for a ‘spirited’ legal defence of these companies, the money from which was supposedly being used to destabilise India’s sovereignty, unity and integrity. But every individual, as
Mr Hegde pointed out, however heinous their crime, has the right to be defended in court just as it is the right and the duty of lawyers to defend them. A lawyer could not be arrested for doing his duty.
The Delhi Police’s FIR is both sweeping and vague. It does not directly identify Mr Bhatia as the lawyer in question; perhaps conspiracy is invoked to charge him not for his alleged defence but for conspiring. Incidentally, in this context, Mr Hegde recalled the arrest and the imprisonment of Sudha Bharadwaj and Surendra Gadling, both lawyers, in the Bhima Koregaon case. All these arrests under the UAPA and similar laws in which bail is difficult suggest that lawyers engaged in defending civil liberties and constitutional rights may gradually be drawn into the police net through alleged associations with ‘anti-national’ conspiracies unless their peers stand up to protect the independence of legal practice. The Delhi Police, which reports to the Union home ministry, could be testing the waters; hence the FIR’s vagueness. The charge against the lawyer in this instance might sharpen if no one questions it. It is urgent that resistance against the continuing assault on the independence of judicial institutions and the right to practise law freely and without fear comes from not just lawyers but also the people.