Odisha Govt silent as High Court turns into battleground

In an unfortunate unfolding of episodes, maybe the first of its kind in the country so far, lawyers who deal mostly with history-sheeters wrote an unjust chapter in the legal history of Odisha. They have closed most courts of the State for a continuous 61 days (still counting), crippling justice system in the State. It seems they took ‘justice delayed is justice denied’ too seriously on an issue they called their own and too frivolously for scores of people packed in jails only as accused. The government, however, remained unmoved even though the impasse was due to a fight between police personnel reporting to Home department headed by CM Naveen Patnaik and lawyers.

Repercussions started showing soon after the courts stopped functioning across the state. Proceedings were stalled, cases came to a standstill, arrests continued though bails never came by and prisons welled up beyond capacity. Already a part of the judiciary in the state was on protest path since long for a western Odisha bench of High Court. Like medical practitioners, the executive and the legislature members, lawyers too are under an oath to uphold dignity of the profession and serve people. They surely did not stand by the oath.

For information, 4600 cases are pending in Odisha with the figures rising from 1.67 lakh to 1.71 lakh in these two months thus increasing the number of jail inmates. While Keonjhar sub-jail is accommodating 674 inmates while its capacity is to handle 604 inmates, Choudwar presently houses 1325 (728), Athagarh 97 (37), Banki 38 (22) and Salepur 215 (206). Only from today, camp courts started in a few jails like Cuttack, Berhampur, Rairangpur and Sambalpur with the burgeoning number of cases. As per latest reports, as many as 270 accused in custody were granted bail by the camp courts across the State.

The episode began on August 28, when a lawyer Debi Prasanna Pattnaik was allegedly beaten up by policeman in public glare in Cuttack. Even though the Crime Branch of Odisha Police had arrested two persons including a Home Guard, the lawyers continue to demand arrest of other four accused involved in the attack and unless that is done they will resort to cease work. And the rest is history.

After a few days of the protests, the Supreme Court directed the lawyers to refrain from the agitation and the Bar Council also intervened, but the lawyers were implacable. As situation kept worsening, Union Petroleum minister had also sought the intervention of the Chief Minister to resolve the issue at the earliest. OPCC chief had also requested the CM to find a solution to the issue.

However, the CM and his Law minister were far from resolving the stalemate. No effort, neither any inclination to sort out the deadlock was made by anyone in the government. Rather, the BJD-led government made its legal cell to withdraw from the stir on Saturday last when the lawyers met for one more time to decide on future course of their protest. Today, the result was for everyone to see – the protests turned violent with one group of lawyers trying to force enter the High Court premises to resume work and another not allowing them to. Each blamed the other and outsiders made hay. Women law practitioners alleged being heckled by government’s own Biju Yuva Vahini, while BJD spokespersons avoiding tough questions on why the state did not iron out the issues through discussions, once again put the blame on Opposition parties for aggravating the matter.

Four terms in power brings in a false sense of invincibility in the party cadres as much as its chief but it is also true that a state that has been seeing all its vital organs in the form of teachers, nurses, doctors, farmers hitting streets to make the government listen, has become inert. If the government has failed the people, the lawyers too are no exception. It’s never too late – the ball is in both their courts and remains to be seen who hits and who misses.