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A group of lawyers fighting for the rights of the oppressed now find themselves bearing the brunt of the State machinery. The Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group, which started operations in 2013, is now staring at a forced exit from Chattisgarh.
Nearly always at the receiving end of the State, the summoning of their landlord on flimsy grounds by the police, seems to have been the final straw.
Speaking to Bar & Bench, JAG-LAG founder and lawyer Isha Khandelwal, said that their priority right now is to ensure that their clients are not deprived of legal representation. This may prove to be difficult given a recent resolution passed by the Bastar Bar Association, a resolution that appears to be even more legally unsound than the previous one.
As per this resolution, all lawyers who had entered into any agreement with JAG LAG would have to severe ties within ten days or be debarred. In effect, any lawyer siding with JAG LAG in the Bastar region runs the risk of losing his or her practice.
Isha also says that though they were always expecting the State to pressure them, it is the speed at which things happened that has proved to be the most shocking aspect of the entire episode. She also noted that things at the ground level have become worse.
Very quickly indeed.
Malini Subramaniam, a journalist with Scroll.in, has also been forced to leave. Earlier this month, her house was gheraoed by members of the Samajit Ekta Manch, chanting slogans and accusing her of being a Maoist. When she tried to file an FIR, specifically mentioning the names of two individuals, Subramaniam found that the police were simply not interested in pursuing the matter. And her lawyer in this case? Isha Khandelwal.
The threatened are not limited to lawyers and journalists. Five days ago, two unidentified men attacked activist Soni Sori while she was returning from Dantewada. A few days earlier, she had gone to Raipur to file a complaint against SRP Kalluri, the head of the Bastar Police. Sori is now currently in Delhi, undergoing treatment in the intensive care unit. According to this report, the attack was due to Sori raising an allegedly fake encounter in Jagdalpur district.
But Sori is unlikely to give up, as are the lawyers of JAG-LAG.
Isha says that they have received tremendous support from the legal community. The Indian Association of People’s Lawyers, an organisation based out of Nagpur, has released an open letter condemning the acts of the Chattisgarh police. The letter reads,
“Such intimidation and blackmail by the state of lawyers and those who support them amounts to obstruction of the administration of justice as it an attempt to deter lawyers from performing their roles.”
The Indian Legal Aid and Awareness Network, a coalition of sorts of legal aid societies in different law schools, has also published an open letter condemning the Chattisgarh government.
The statement reads,
“We condemn the violation of their right to practice the law and the obstruction of their efforts to promote avowed constitutional goals of legal aid and access to justice in a region of turmoil. We condemn the action that shall result in the denial of legal aid to those who need it the most, those that no lawyer in the region would represent given the political situation.
Amidst all this, the team at Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group continues to search for the right way out. Says Isha,
“What hurts the most is leaving our clients. We can’t leave them behind.”