By IL Bureau
A group of young advocates from Punjab has set up a legal help desk at Singhu border to help arrested farmers and those believed to be missing. The five-member team from the Punjab and Haryana High Court is camping at the border where the farmers are protesting against the three farm Acts passed by the government.
This group, aged from 24 to 34 years, is easily accessible to the farmers. Ramandeep Kaur (age 24) said: “We are a team of 150 advocates. We have set up camp in three places and are currently working for 181 people. Out of these, 128 have been arrested and we are trying to get bail for them. The others are magicians.”
She said they were contacting their families to know the full details of those arrested and missing and were in touch with 60 families. “We are also collecting information from their friends and going to every vehicle at the site to raise awareness about our service,” she said.
They are also using social media and local news channels to disseminate their helpline numbers. Prosecutors say it is difficult to get case information online because of poor internet in the border areas and that FIR numbers continue to be sought over the phone.
The Sanyukt Kisan Morcha has reported that 21 people are missing after the Republic Day fracas. The men mentioned in the FIR have apparently not returned home. Members of the Bar associations of Punjab and Haryana staged a demonstration at Singhu border recently in support of the farmers, saying they would offer free legal aid to them. “Around 200 lawyers have come here,” said Sandeep Sharma Sweety, president of the Sonepat District Bar Association. He added that 15 advocates would visit the site from Sonepat daily. Virender Singh, an advocate and a member of the Bar Association, said they were helping many farmers named in the FIRs.
The Congress too has lent a helping hand to the farmers. The party has decided to send the chairmen of legal departments from Punjab, Haryana and Delhi to visit farmer leaders and help them in relief and redressal. It also passed a resolution stating that a committee of advocates from these departments would be formed in all districts of Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Delhi in the next 48 hours.
The resolution read: “Help the farmer organisations in preparing a list of missing persons by visiting jails and meeting jail authorities, police stations, and other authorities….The legal cells will consider filing petitions in the high court to challenge the systematic suspension of internet services in a large number of districts to scuttle peaceful protest of farmers.” The party has also decided to maintain close coordination among the lawyers of the four states to identify people detained by the Delhi police during the protests and inform their families about the legal options available to them.
Recently, Punjab Chief Minister Capt Amarinder Singh said that his government had arranged a team of 70 advocates in Delhi to assist the farmers who had been booked by the Delhi police. He also assured that he would take up the matter of missing farmers with the central government soon. Congress MP Pratap Singh Bajwa had urged Singh to use all sources to trace over 100 farmers who were missing since January 26. Citing the stone-pelting incident at the Singhu border recently, Bajwa, in a statement, also urged Singh to deploy Punjab police for the safety of protesting farmers there.
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According to official records, around 120 people have been arrested so far in connection with the Republic Day violence, while several others have been picked up or are reported missing. Several camps have been set up at the Singhu, Ghazipur and Tikri borders where pro bono legal aid is being given to the farmers. The advocates are making them understand the provisions under which a family member of theirs has been detained or arrested and helping them to locate the police station where their kin has been held.
At one such camp behind the main stage at Singhu border, called “Advocate for Farmers”, three lawyers attend to a farmer claiming that his 23-year-old son was missing from the protest site since January 30. The farmer, Chamkaur Singh (57), from Patiala, reportedly said: “He used to protest separately with his friends around the protest site and never slept with us inside our trolley. Suddenly on the morning of January 31, we noticed that he was missing and have been searching for him since then.” He said his wife had been crying since then and it had become difficult to get information about their son till they met these lawyers.
Another lawyer, Hasan Kaur Gill (26), from the Punjab and Haryana High Court, said that there had been a meeting of 2,000 lawyers on January 31 where it was decided that legal aid camps would be set up at the three borders as the police have started detaining and arresting people in connection with the Republic Day incidents.
The three advocates said that they were part of a seven-member team, which simultaneously coordinates with other teams deployed at courts, hospitals and police stations. “While three of us sit here and compile data of farmers who have been picked up, two of our team members travel from trolley to trolley, asking whether any person has been reported missing in the past few days. Following this, they call us, conveying the information,” one of them said.
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Another advocate, Sukhveer Kaur Brar (27), said that they had been facing challenges in dealing with these cases as the police was “not cooperating” in providing them information. “When we go to police stations with our clients seeking information about the FIRs lodged against them, the police refuse to give us the details and ask us to file an RTI. But how many RTIs can we file?” Brar asked. She said that she hailed from a family of farmers and understood the sentiments of the people at the protest site. “My parents encouraged me to take up their cases and even I felt strongly about it,” she said.
—The writer is an advocate in the Lucknow bench of the Allahabad High Court