Lawyers and police in India have had a mutually antagonistic relationship for as long as anyone can remember. I am not including the top senior advocates and IPS officers who, by virtue of their common caste and social background, have always enjoyed a cozy relationship. Rather it is the rank and file of the police forces and of the law profession who view each other with mutual suspicion, convinced that the other is a thug in robes/uniform. Suffice it to say that both have given the other plenty of reasons to arrive at this conclusion. However, when the police target a certain lawyer, it is almost inevitable that it is because of who they are representing in a criminal case.
It is tempting to classify the Delhi Police’s ill-disguised attempt at intimidating advocate Mehmood Pracha as a nadir of some sort. It happened, after all, to a prominent lawyer handling high-profile cases, including those involving the Muslim victims of the 2020 Delhi riots, in the heart of the national capital’s Nizamuddin East locality. To those familiar with the travails of lawyers fighting cases on behalf of “unpopular” accused, this will come as no surprise. That the police even bothered to obtain some cover of legality by getting a warrant from a judge for the search of the premises must rank as improved behaviour on their part. Adivasi rights lawyer-activist Sudha Bharadwaj is in jail for more than two years on trumped up charges in the Bhima Koregaon case, Shahid Azmi was shot dead in 2010 without anyone convicted yet, the late K.G. Kannabiran was beaten up by police repeatedly – all for the sin of doing their professional, legal, constitutional and moral duty as lawyers.
Pracha vs Police
The Delhi Police would have us believe that the riots in northeast Delhi in February were ‘orchestrated’ by the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) protesters to deflect international attention from the visit of US President Donald Trump. The infamous FIR 59/2020, based largely on “secret sources”, has been used to deny bail to a number of accused, many of whom are being represented by Mehmood Pracha who has consistently attacked the shoddiness of the investigation and poked holes in the police story. Should this case fall apart (the 17,000-page chargesheet notwithstanding), the Delhi Police and the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) would have egg on their faces. Even prior to the riots, Pracha had appeared for Bhim Army president Chandrasekhar Azad ‘Ravan’ and gotten him bail after the latter was arrested for taking part in anti-CAA protests.
Alarmed at the prospect of their incompetence and malice being exposed, the Delhi Police have retaliated in this crude and illegal manner.
The ostensible legal justification for the raid on Pracha’s office is a search warrant issued by a judge in respect of alleged offences related to forgery, cheating, counterfeiting, etc. in an FIR (212/20) registered by the Delhi Police’s ‘Special Cell’. The FIR itself has not been uploaded on the Delhi Police’s web portal, presumably because it’s “sensitive”. And so, it is unclear who the accused are and what are the specific acts alleged to be criminal. Interestingly, nowhere does the FIR say that Pracha is one of the accused or a co-conspirator in the set of offences. Material can be collected from those who are not accused in a criminal case, but the Evidence Act, 1872 limits what sort of material can even be introduced in court as “evidence”.
Specifically, communications between a lawyer and their client are considered ‘privileged’ under Section 126 of the Evidence Act, and cannot be introduced as evidence in court without the consent of the client. This applies not just to criminal cases and the accused therein but to all communications by a lawyer with their client. So, unless the Delhi police are alleging that Pracha had a hand in actually committing the offence, none of the material they are looking for will be admissible in court. The vague FIR, the broad nature of the material sought, and the obvious legal barriers that make such material worthless in court make one suggest that the FIR and the warrant were probably just flimsy legal justifications to intimidate Pracha for his work on the Delhi riots cases.
Justice is circumstantial
Police in India know that there are almost no consequences for their unlawful actions so long as they are following the orders of the ruling dispensation. The Tamil Nadu Police officers in Thoothukudi who murdered the father-son duo Jayaraj and Bennix in custody face charges in court but the officers in Hyderabad who murdered four rape accused will not, irrespective of the Supreme Court ordering an “impartial inquiry” into the encounter killings and seeking a report in six months. That was in December 2019.
Former Gujarat-cadre IPS officer Sanjiv Bhatt had to make a fatal political miscalculation in turning on his previous political masters, Narendra Modi and Amit Shah, to eventually face consequences for his unlawful actions. It took more than 30 years for the police perpetrators of the Hashimpura massacre to be convicted – after governments changed many times and the trial was shifted out of Uttar Pradesh.
To use the metaphors of this year’s runaway Amazon Prime Video hit Paatal Lok, Mehmood Pracha is one of the rare denizens of dharti lok, who by attempting to help the ‘denizens’ of paatal lok, has upset the ‘natural’ social order of India. In this ‘natural’ order, the criminal justice system is supposed to be used to put India’s protesting Muslims in their place. It is not supposed to be used to expose the truth of the events and incompetence of the police in preventing the violence as Pracha has so skilfully and successfully done so far. The raid on his office is also, therefore, an act of reprisal by a vengeful and frustrated police force.
Alok Prasanna Kumar is Co-Founder and Lead, Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy, Karnataka. Views are personal.