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Above: The J&K High Court has been striving to keep judicial functioning close to normal

Though it has tried to work with a semblance of normalcy, the appearance of threatening posters by militants on the High Court premises has ensured that security is beefed up and entry restricted

By Pushp Saraf

Although more than two months have passed, the legal sphere in J&K is smarting, like every other public activity, under the emotional after-effects of the Union government’s August 5 decisions to strip the state of its special status and demote it to two Union Territories.

The state High Court has been striving to keep judicial functioning as close to normal as possible, especially of its Srinagar wing. It is up against certain challenges which are not of its making such as the detention of Mian Abdul Qayoom, president of the powerful Srinagar-based Jammu and Kashmir High Court Bar Association (JKHCBA). This has deepened the legal fraternity’s anguish in the Valley, impacting judicial work. Besides, the movement of litigants has been affected by traffic restrictions and the absence of public transport.

The two wings of the High Court—Jammu and Srinagar separated by the mighty Pir Panjal range—present contrasting pictures. In Jammu, it continues to be smooth sailing with the willing participation of all concerned in the judicial process. In Srinagar, the difference is stark. The overwhelming majority of lawyers in the summer capital have been staying away from the Court for two reasons: to register their protest against the arrest of Qayoom, other leaders and colleagues and to express solidarity with other agitating sections of society against the virtual abrogation of Article 370 and the abolition of Article 35-A. Another detained colleague is Nazir Ahmad Ronga, a prominent advocate and former JKHCBA chief. Qayoom and Ronga have been kept in custody in separate jails in Uttar Pradesh after being flown out of the state along with separatist leaders.

According to the latest reports emanating from Srinagar, security around the High Court complex, close to the normally bustling Jahangir Chowk in the heart of Srinagar, has been strengthened with the deployment of additional force. It was already well-guarded. More care is being taken while frisking people and vehicles entering the Court premises. The number of close circuit television cameras is likely to gradually go up. A plan is afoot to restrict entry to only litigants carrying recommendations of their lawyers, though it is not clear how militants and separatists who have been averse to the use of violence would be dealt with. Security forces may face an ironical situation as and when called upon to honour authority letters issued by legal practitioners who are currently in prisons for apparently espousing the causes of anti-national elements.

Such measures are deemed necessary following the emergence of threatening posters on the Court premises. Placards in Urdu have expressed anger about J&K becoming “a police state” and warned of retaliatory suicide strikes: “Masala Kashmir—Taqat Kay Muqablay Mein Taqat” (Kashmir issue—force begets force); “wild laws have taken over humane laws” and “judiciary has been rendered completely defunct”.  An unheard-of organisation called the “Jammu and Kashmir Fidayeen” is alleged to be behind the posters. Understandably, the experienced among the security personnel are taking no chances. They have watched the growth of armed militancy in the Valley marked by the sudden emergence of militants and their outfits under new names.

J&K High Court Chief Justice Gita Mittal has referred to these posters in her reports to the Supreme Court in which she elaborated on the steps taken to ensure optimum functioning of the High Court and district courts. She said: “On September 7, posters threatening suicide attacks on the judiciary were found pasted in the HC complex at Srinagar. Security of all courts in the state was immediately taken up with state security agencies.” The result is the ongoing security measures and discussions to beef them up.

The spotlight had been on the hindrances in the functioning of the Srinagar wing of the High Court, with Supreme Court Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi asserting on September 16 that it was “very, very serious if people are unable to approach the High Court”. His remark that he would visit Srinagar was widely welcomed (“The healing touch”, India Legal, September 30, 2019).

Chief Justice Mittal’s report is self-explanatory. The employee attendance in the High Court which had come down to just eight percent on August 5 had gone up to 63 percent on September 25. The statistics given by her lead to a comparison of the work done by the Srinagar and Jammu wings of the High Court from August 5 to September 27, underlining the prevailing scenario.

In Srinagar, 11,391 cases were heard, 498 cases disposed of and 487 fresh cases filed. In Jammu, it was 14,073, 1,153 and 1,043, respectively. Habeas corpus petitions constitute the bulk of fresh appeals in Srinagar challenging the detention of people under the Public Safety Act (PSA) and other laws. As for the district courts in 22 districts, it has been stated that they disposed of 30,107 cases as against the fresh filing of 15,533 cases from August 5 to September 24. Earlier on August 29, the High Court had fielded a spokesperson to deny a report that justice had been postponed due to the lockdown.

Inquiries reveal that government departments are, by and large, regularly represented in the Srinagar wing of the High Court. In quite a few matters, the petitioners have been pleading their own cases. It is in the technicalities of drafting a petition that they face problems in the absence of lawyers. Several cases have been postponed for this reason. Those filing habeas corpus petitions for activists, politicians and separatists are being extended help by the Qayoom-headed Bar Association. For this purpose, the Bar has exempted its members from the general advice “to abstain from work in protest” against the arrest of their president and other colleagues as well as to exhibit their support for the situation prevailing “outside the court premises”. Besides Qayoom and Ronga, the names of Fayad Sodagar, president of the Anantnag District Bar Association, and Abdul Salam Rather, president of the Baramulla District Bar Association, have been mentioned in a release issued by JKHCBA stating that they have been held under PSA.

The judiciary and society in the Valley had gone through a worse situation in the initial years of militancy in the late 1980s and early 1990s.  They experienced a shock when a retired judge, Neelkanth Ganjoo, was shot dead in Srinagar’s busy Hari Singh High Street in broad daylight on November 4, 1989. He was targeted for having sentenced Maqbool Butt, founder chairman of the secessionist Jammu-Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), to death way back in August 1968 for having killed a police inspector, Amar Chand, in 1966. The sentence was upheld by the Supreme Court in 1982. Butt was hanged in Delhi’s Tihar Jail on February 11, 1984, and his body was buried in the jail premises. This happened five days after British Kashmiri militants kidnapped and killed an Indian diplomat, Ravindra Mhatre, in Birmingham on February 6, 1984, demanding Butt’s release and ransom.

The murder of Ganjoo was clearly planned to turn Butt into a cult figure. Hardly evoking any popular mention for long, Butt had become a rallying point for young militants after his execution and the assassination of the judge was meant to strengthen the myth built around him. Militants continue to observe February 11 as Maqbool Butt day every year. Ganjoo made a supreme sacrifice for having done the job he was honour-bound to do as a district and sessions judge presiding over a special court set up under the Enemy Agents Act. His body lay unattended for hours as the militants had issued a warning of serious repercussions for those extending help to their victims.

In his magnum opus My Frozen Turbulence in Kashmir, former J&K Governor Jagmohan remarked about Ganjoo’s killing: “The objective was not only to dramatise the ascendancy of the subversives but also to instill fear in the minds of the judiciary. The signal did not go unnoticed, as the subsequent behaviour of the local judiciary showed.”

The tale three decades ago was of a blood-spattered era. Presently, there is no violence. Yet, judicial work is hampered as are other normal activities with local society displaying unprecedented unity in quietly asking questions to the ruling establishment about its unilateral August 5 decisions and subsequent actions.

The silence is deafening.

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