New Delhi: “Protestors have been detained, lawyers needed at Kalkaji PS”. This was one of the first messages that started doing the rounds on social media on 15 December, after at least 40 students were detained following protests at Jamia Millia Islamia. Within an hour, several dozen lawyers reached the police station, demanding to meet those detained.
Since then, as protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act have spread across the country, such SOS messages have become a routine affair.
Hundreds of lawyers have joined forces to help the detainees, pooling in resources, running from pillar to post to meet them, consulting with the family members, and issuing advisories and explainers to inform protesters about their rights.
For 29-year-old Mishika Singh, it began with a message circulated over WhatsApp, stating that a legal team working under the supervision of senior advocate Prashant Bhushan would be present during the protests around Mandi House and ITO in Delhi.
She told ThePrint that she was informed of 30 lawyers being present on the spot, but on realising that this might not be enough, she created a WhatsApp group to gather resources.
“Within a few hours, we already had around 250 lawyers coordinating among themselves,” Singh said.
Once her number started being circulated, she began receiving calls from outside Delhi as well, and is currently in touch with lawyers from Rampur, Patna, Aurangabad, Lucknow, Muzaffarnagar, Gorakhpur and Bijnor.
Since then, these groups have been constantly buzzing, showing the lawyers’ preparedness to help protesters and detainees. So, when around 40 people, including minors, were detained after violence broke out in Delhi’s Daryaganj, lawyers were the first to reach the police station. However, after they were not allowed to meet the detainees, the lawyers toiled through the night, rushing to local magistrates’ offices and calling up senior police officers.
A few lawyers finally managed to get an order from a magistrate, who not only allowed advocates to meet the detainees, but also noted that detention of minors in a police station was a “flagrant violation of law”.
The entire process took close to 11 hours, Singh said, with everybody released around 6 am the next day.
Across political beliefs
Criminal lawyer Namita Wali, 29, told ThePrint that she marvelled at lawyers coming together just to help the detainees, keeping their political beliefs aside, because “they feel very strongly about the police brutality angle”.
Wali said, “I cannot emphasise this enough that lawyers who are helping out have very different stands on CAA and NRC… They are still keeping that aside and just helping out… I know for a fact that people who are working for this are not doing it for any sort of credit.”
“The major force behind this is a bunch of women who could understand that this is required,” she added.
Wali was also one of the lawyers present at the police station after the Daryaganj and Seelampur arrests, pulling out contacts and calling up authorities to help the detainees.
She has since tried to help several detainees and also issued advisories for what people can do if they’re detained. These include pointers such as “don’t resist arrest”, “stay away from violence” and “if your phones and personal belongings are being taken, always take a receipt”.
Neha Singh, 26, has also become a regular visitor to police stations after the detention of protesters in Delhi, as well as in Bihar, her home state.
After 11 people were injured during violent clashes between two religious groups at Phulwari Sharif area in Patna, she got in touch with lawyers in the state.
‘Like a tsunami’
Police personnel also feel that the mobilisation by the lawyers is unprecedented.
ACP Aman Yadav, currently posted in Gurugram, told ThePrint: “It is rare. We definitely haven’t seen something like this happen before in Haryana or even otherwise. It is usually noticed only in very high profile matters wherein a big lawyer might come forward.”
Yadav added that even though there had been some protests during the Jat agitation for reservation in 2016, but even then, lawyers did not come forward like they have this time.
A senior Delhi Police officer, who did not wish to be identified, called this unity among lawyers “like a tsunami in terms of everyone coming forward”. The officer said it seemed as though people, including lawyers, had “woken up from the bed”, and their support for the anti-NRC protests was making them come forward to help those who had been detained.
Behind the scenes
In addition to the lawyers working on ground are hundreds who are working behind the scenes.
Soon after the first few arrests, lawyers, who are used to writing detailed assignments and explainers in law school, wrote advisories and explainers for protesters.
One of the advisories listed down the steps to be taken if someone is detained, informing people of their rights post detention. Another explainer busted myths around the CAA and explained the law in simpler language.
Supreme Court advocates-on-record and a few senior advocates are also chipping in. Senior advocates Rebecca John and Nitya Ramakrishnan also appeared pro bono for protesters in the trial court.
Advocate-on-record Fauzia Shakil, who has been assisting these lawyers, highlighted the importance of lawyers coming forth to help people in the current environment.
“Freedom to protest peacefully is a fundamental right and if the state infringes this valued right, it is the duty of every lawyer to come to the assistance of citizenry,” Shakil told ThePrint.
Within WhatsApp groups, these lawyers routinely share resources, research and other information that might help those on the ground.
Law students express solidarity
While lawyers are playing their part on the ground, law students aren’t far behind.
Kunwar Shehzad, who chose to take up law at the age of 34 and is currently in his first year of law school, has also been meeting with the parents and relatives of those detained. He has been coordinating with the lawyers, updating people on the whereabouts of their relatives, and providing them with moral support.
Law students from various law schools across the country, including Bengaluru’s National Law School of India University, Kochi’s NUALS, Hyderabad’s NALSAR and Mumbai’s MNLU Mumbai have also issued statements opposing the police crackdown on student protests.
Pushback from within the community and outside it
However, it is far from a smooth ride for the lawyers on the ground, as they are facing immense pushback and ridicule for helping protesters and detainees.
Many lawyers told ThePrint that they have been receiving threatening calls from unknown callers from the time their phone numbers went public.
The Bar Council of India, the statutory apex body for lawyers, also chose to express solidarity with the police and armed forces, and called on the “leaders of the bar and young students” to play “an active role in diffusing the disturbances and violence in the country”.
“We are to convince the people and the illiterate ignorant mass, who are being misled by some so-called leaders (for serving their own political ambitions) the matter with regard to the Citizenship Amendment Act is under consideration of our Supreme Court, therefore everyone should await the decision of the Apex Court,” the Bar Council said in a press release on 22 December.
Soon after, a statement was released by another set of lawyers “strongly deprecating” the BCI resolution and clarifying that the BCI release did not represent their views.
“As advocates, our allegiance is to uphold the values of the Constitution and any violation of the same cannot go unaddressed,” the statement said.
(With inputs from Aneesha Bedi)