The Allahabad High Court did something on Monday that was completely unusual. It not only delivered a judgment that was critical of the majoritarian government that rules in Uttar Pradesh, it did so after taking “suo moto” action – meaning the court did not wait for someone to even file a petition.
The court had seen the Uttar Pradesh government putting up banners in several parts of Lucknow on which were displayed the photographs, names and addresses of people involved in the protests against the Citizenship Act amendment.
Though none of these people had been convicted by a court, the government had gone ahead and placed their details on these billboards in a bid to “name and shame” them. The inclusion of their addresses suggested something more sinister.
Considering the violence that has been unleashed in various parts of the country against CAA protesters and the fact that the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party has led calls to “shoot the bloody traitors”, the inclusion of personal details also made the billboards a breach of privacy that could have very real, very dangerous outcomes.
“We are having no doubt that the action of the State, which is subject matter of this public interest litigation, is nothing but an unwarranted interference in privacy of people,” the court said.
In response, the state – which was unable to point to any legal provision that allowed it to put up these billboards – focused its energy on insisting that the court did not have the powers to take up the case by itself.
Here the court’s comments should come as an indictment – not just of the state, but also of constitutional courts around the country, including the Supreme Court, that have urned a blind eye to the state’s deliberate trampling all over civil liberties and fundamental rights.
“Where there is gross negligence on part of public authorities and government, where the law is disobeyed and the public is put to suffering and where the precious values of the constitution are subjected to injuries, a constitutional court can very well take notice of that at its own,” the bench said.
“The Court in such matters is not required to wait necessarily for a person to come before it to ring the bell of justice. The Courts are meant to impart justice and no court can shut its eyes if a public unjust is happening just before it.”
If only this were true.
The fact is, even in this matter – Uttar Pradesh’s unleashing of violence and intimidation against the CAA protesters and Muslims in general as retribution – the courts have not stepped up to the task of holding the state accountable. While there are now many instances of courts finding the police’s actions egregious and the High Court asking for accountability, there is no sense that the Chief Minister Adityanath’s government has been chastened.
Indeed, many hours after the Allahabad High Court made it clear that the billboards would have to come down, they were still standing in Lucknow.
This shame-faced display of impunity in the face of direct, unambiguous orders from the Allahabad High Court is as clear a declaration as can be that Adityanath’s government is not bothered about applying the rule of law.
It is thus doubly necessary for the judiciary, at whichever level, to assert itself. Here is a government that is on the face of it going far beyond where the law would allow it to travel, and refusing to listen to specific directions.
From the Supreme Court down, the higher judiciary needs to send the message to the Uttar Pradesh government that simply riding high on the wave of majoritarian politics does not give it carte blanche to undermine the rights of citizens. As the bench said, “The Courts are meant to impart justice and no court can shut its eyes if a public unjust is happening just before it.”