Since Monday, the Calcutta High Court has been the centre of a protest led by lawyers affiliated to the Trinamool Congress against Justice Rajasekhar Mantha. Protesting lawyers have alleged that Mantha has displayed political bias in his orders in ruling in favour of the Bharatiya Janata Party leaders and criticising the state government.
This protest is one among several protests that have happened at the High Court in the past couple of years, where Trinamool-backed lawyers have alleged bias against the state ruling party by the judges and have also attempted to boycott proceedings. This has led to the unusual situation of the High Court becoming a site for the continuing battle between the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Trinamool Congress in West Bengal.
‘He is a disgrace’
On Monday morning, posters were put across Calcutta High Court and near Mantha’s residence calling him a “disgrace in the name of judiciary”.
The poster listed several grievances against Mantha. First, he had removed the “rightful protection” accorded to Maneka Gambhir, Trinamool Congress leader Abhishek Banerjee’s sister-in-law. Gambhir is being interrogated by the Enforcement Directorate in a coal smuggling case. On January 6, Mantha had refused to extend the protection given to Gambhir against coercive actions taken by the Enforcement Directorate.
Second, he had “pardoned all criminal cases against Suvendu Adhikari” and stayed investigation and future first information reports. In December, Mantha had stayed 17 first information reports lodged against Adhikari and ordered that for any new complaints, the court’s permission would have to be taken. Previously, in 2021 as well, he had passed similar orders.
Suvendu Adhikari is the leader of the Opposition in West Bengal and the face of the state BJP.
While passing his order in December, Mantha had noted that the “police machinery…is out to completely stall the public life and personal liberty of the writ petitioner [Adhikari]”.
After this order, TMC leader Kunal Ghosh criticised Mantha, saying that “the manner in which Justice Mantha gave Suvendu Adhikari protection and immunity from all past and future FIRs was undemocratic and biased”.
Alongside the posters, several members of the Bar Association at the Calcutta High Court sent a letter to the Calcutta High Court Chief Justice Prakash Shrivastava complaining that Mantha has “fallen short of his usual standards in recent times”. The lawyers also requested the chief justice to “liberate him from his current responsibilities”.
Further, several lawyers, allegedly having connections with the Trinamool Congress, also blocked entry to Mantha’s courtroom, resulting in Mantha’s court being disrupted.
Meanwhile, there was a split in the Bar Association regarding boycotting Mantha’s court. On Monday evening, a resolution signed by advocate Sonal Sinha, an assistant secretary of the Calcutta High Court Bar Association and an affiliate of the Trinamool Congress, was sent to Chief Justice Shrivastava. The resolution took note of the letter against Mantha and the “tensed situation inside court premises” and said that lawyers have “unanimously resolved” to “abstain from judicial proceedings before…Mantha”.
However, the next morning, several other members of the Calcutta Bar Association released a new resolution countering the previous one. The new resolution said that the boycott was called without proper notice to all members and that the Monday resolution was “illegal”. The new resolution also asked Chief Justice Shrivastava to issue criminal contempt against those involved in the act.
“The miscreants are trying to create a pressure upon the judiciary,” the resolution read. The resolution was signed by Bar Association vice president Kallol Mondal and two other members. Mondal contested the Bar Association election on the Bharatiya Janata Party’s support in December 2021.
“Justice Mantha is hearing cases where people are aggrieved by state action and because he is passing orders in favour of petitioners, Trinamool Congress people held a demonstration,” Calcutta Bar Association President and former Congress MLA Arunava Ghosh told Scroll.in. He added that the Monday protest was not called officially by the Bar Association.
However, lawyers involved in calling for the boycott maintain that their resolution was done following proper procedure. “The majority of the members have passed the January 9 resolution. There is no significance of any other resolution,” said Bar Association Treasurer Joydip Banerjee, speaking with Scroll.in. Banerjee is affiliated with the Trinamool Congress. He further said that “there were some anomalies” with Mantha’s court, however, those issues are now pending before the chief justice of the Calcutta High Court.
“We are not inclined to discuss it [Mantha’s judgements] in the press,” he added.
The Bharatiya Janata Party legal department at the Calcutta High Court also released a statement on Tuesday condemning the attack by lawyers “owing allegiance to the Trinamool Congress” and called for “strong steps” against such lawyers.
While the Bharatiya Janata Party is blaming the Trinamool Congress for the protests, the state ruling party has denied any association with it. However, Trinamool Congress leader Saugata Roy added that “one needs to find out why such things are happening. Why is a section so aggrieved with Justice Mantha’s orders”?
However, now the boycott has been called off. The court has resumed normally and action has been initiated regarding these incidents. Mantha has initiated criminal contempt proceedings against those who disrupted his court. The police have also registered a case and have started investigating who had put the posters against Mantha.
Several such instances have happened in the Calcutta High Court against judges who have given judgements in political cases.
In April last year, lawyers belonging to the Trinamool Congress protested in front of Justice Abhijit Gangopadhyay’s courtroom and blocked lawyers’ entry into the courtroom. Gangopadhyay had directed that the Central Bureau of Investigation investigate an alleged corruption in the recruitment of primary school teachers in West Bengal.
This scam has resulted in a huge political upheaval in the state, resulting in former minister Partha Chatterjee and other state officials getting arrested. This protest also led to an urgent meeting between West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and Jadgeep Dhankar, the then governor of the state. Justice Gangopadhyay, in a rare move for a sitting judge, even gave a television interview in September defending his actions.
Previously, in June 2021, the chairman of the West Bengal Bar Council, Ashok Kumar Deb, who is also an MLA from the Trinamool Congress, sent a letter to the chief justice of India asking that Justice Rajesh Bindal, the then chief justice of Calcutta High Court be removed. In his letter, he had alleged that Bindal was unfairly acting in the interest of Bharatiya Janata Party regarding allegations that several Trinamool Congress leaders were taking bribes.
In July 2019 as well, lawyers who were on the state government’s panel had boycotted proceedings before Justice Samapti Chatterjee of the High Court. The lawyers alleged that Chatterjee was not giving a fair hearing in a case regarding a no-confidence motion filed by members of the Bharatiya Janata Party. After this boycott, the Bharatiya Janata Party accused the Trinamool Congress of undermining the judiciary.
“There have been protests against judges earlier also, when Communist Party of India (Marxist) was in power [in Bengal],” said Shameek Sen, associate professor of law at the West Bengal National University of Juridical Sciences, Kolkata. “But, the frequency of [such] protests have increased.”
This was part of a pattern where there is an increased spotlight on the courts. “The implications [of such actions by court] are far greater,” Sen explained. “Today, when you open newspapers the front page is filled with what the judges have said.”
Since people have started taking a lot of interest in what the courts are doing, he believed the government’s response to the judge’s actions have also increased.