On May 22, 2014, a lawyer from Tis Hazari molested and attacked a Naga woman student at the Delhi University metro station. The assailant lawyer was nabbed and handed over to the police. The following day, when the statement of the survivor was to be recorded before the magistrate of the Tis Hazari court, a chilling series of events ensued. When the survivor entered the courtroom with her woman lawyer, they were subjected to intimidation by 10-12 lawyers, outraged by the "temerity" of the complainant to bring a case against a fellow lawyer. Several lawyers who represented the accused continued to intimidate the victim's lawyer and silence her arguments by shouting her down. In the presence of the magistrate, a lawyer slapped a friend of the victim. The police intervened and these male lawyers were asked to leave the courtroom, while the victim and her lawyer were asked to stay inside the courtroom in the interest of their safety.
The crowd of lawyers outside grew as they hurled abuses at the victim, her friends, lawyers and even the police. Under police escort the victim and her lawyer were first taken to the ground floor and then to the second floor to record her statement. However, the lawyers on the second floor attacked the police officer investigating this case, by tearing up his file. The victim and her lawyer were escorted to different courtrooms, at which point the lady lawyer rang up her friends for help. Each time they walked the corridors of the court they faced verbal intimidation by groups of lawyers. Ultimately, the victim's statement was recorded in this cacophonic context of terror and intimidation. She had to leave by the back door of the courtroom, escorted by the police.
A woman advocate, also from the North-East, who came to help was threatened, abused and humiliated. The mob now 40 or even 50 in number hurled hate speech at this woman lawyer, by using words which denigrated her as a woman from the North-East. And one lawyer slapped her. Her collar and gown clearly did not make her an equal — marking lawyers who are women and from the North-East as exceptional subjects whose rights are suspended with impunity. The outnumbered police, who were also threatened by the rioting lawyers, rescued them.
The victim's friends were chased out of the court, while a couple of her friends were severely injured. The lawyers grievously assaulted Mavio Woba, a friend of the victim and a student activist on the court premises in the presence of the police. These assaults are considered to be atrocities under our law, yet it would appear that in practice this law is suspended when it concerns systemic and targeted violence against the scheduled tribes from the North-East in Delhi.
Instead of holding the lawyers in criminal complaint, ensuring safe conditions of testimony and filing a police complaint against these male lawyers, the accused succeeded in getting interim bail. The message was loud and clear: stage a riot and secure bail. Equally, the lawyers seemed to think that violence is far more effective than using the art of defence in courts of law.
The photograph of Mavio Woba's bruised face is wounding since it is a lacerating testimony to the violence that constitutes the legal profession and courtroom culture in Delhi. Not only does the legal profession direct routine violence at women, the court is also converted into a macabre theatre of intimidation, violence and terror.
Such racist and sexist form of collective violence against victims, activists and lawyers of the North-East creates zones of exceptionalism in the heart of Delhi's legal system. The suspension of law inside a courtroom produces such sexual and racial exceptionalism. Surely, this is evidence of the impact of the circulation of the political culture of exceptionalism in the North-East, where cultures of impunity and immunity make women from the North-East vulnerable to routine and everyday forms of sexist and racist violence in cities like Delhi. Such violence communicates a message to all women from the North-East deterring them from resisting the routine sexual violence directed at them in our city.
When the bar protects its male members against charges of sexual harassment, assault, rioting and criminal intimidation, not to mention atrocity, as a matter of protecting its honour, it signals several pathologies of the legal profession. First, it abandons any pretence of representing women: be these judges, lawyers and their clients. Second, it suspends its code of ethics and rules of discipline. Third, by supporting unlawful violence by lawyers, it diminishes the profession and the dignity of court. Fourth, it substitutes the art of legal argument with the obscenity of violence. Fifth, it converts the court into a traumatic space of terror and humiliation.
Such violence by lawyers in court is obscene. It speaks of a systemic assault on the dignity of the legal profession, while severing justice from law completely. Courts are spaces where justice is sighted rarely, and in this instance, lawyers themselves assaulted law's promise of justice. Indeed, how do we expect women to testify against sexual violence if the court itself is converted into a theatre where unlawful violence displaces the promise of justice?
These events unfold alongside the Delhi High Court's decision to fine the government of Delhi for not implementing a serious campaign against sexual violence in the media, using sexual violence as a resource for doing politics and addressing an elite English speaking urban audience. The steps taken by appellate courts have yet to be taken seriously by the Bar Association, to whom some of us petitioned in the aftermath of the Delhi gang rape protests in 2013, to no avail. Complaint committees to redress sexual harassment and gender-based discrimination have not yet been constituted.
Surely legal professionalism demands an allegiance to inculcating cultures of constitutionalism, equality and dignity in our courts of law. This is not just a struggle that must be waged by students and lawyers from the North-East—rather it must be our collective struggle to translate transformative constitutionalism and dignity into the legal cultures that inhabits courts of law. Justice beckons all of us to institute her in our courts of law.
The writer is Associate Professor, Centre for the Study of Law and Governance, JNU