Kamini Lau, who upheld the right to protest, is a no-nonsense judge

Kamini Lau. Illustration: Ajay Mohanty
The courtroom of additional sessions judge Kamini Lau at Tis Hazari wears the look of a typical official space as a crowd waits patiently for the final order on the bail application of Bhim Army chief Chandrashekhar Azad. Clerks record testimonies of people in other cases, while a few policemen, lawyers and journalists chat among themselves.

A day earlier, on January 14, judge Lau’s dressing-down of the Delhi Police and assertion of the jailed leader's constitutional right to protest peacefully created a frisson of excitement among those who have been raising their voices against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA).

As the bespectacled judge walks in, the crowd rises and swarms around her bench. She quickly enquires about the police station in the vicinity of Azad’s home in Saharanpur, Uttar Pradesh, and lays out the conditions of his release, even as the latter’s counsel, Mehmood Pracha, pleads with her to not deny him a stay in Delhi for the next four weeks.

The judge with a reputation of being a strict, no-nonsense arbiter is swift and firm and even banters with Azad’s counsel like a schoolteacher would with an errant pupil.

Delhi goes to polls on February 8. Until a week after the elections, Azad, a Dalit leader popular among youths, can visit Delhi only for medical reasons after informing his local police station, the judge says. He shall not hold or organise any procession or dharna in the national capital, she says and asks, “Does he intend doing that?” The mood lightens and some in the courtroom laugh. “This is your right, but not till the elections are over,” Lau smiles.

They continue to exchange words for a few minutes. Pracha asks, “Will it be appropriate if a person who is supposed to be a leader of various communities is stopped from placing any opinion about the Delhi election?” “He can do that from there (Saharanpur). I don’t want any kind of violence here,” Lau retorts.

She won’t entertain requests for Azad to stay in the places named by the counsel, including the protest hub of Shaheen Bagh, Nizamuddin and Jor Bagh, and adds that “we have to maintain certain checks and balances”.

The Bhim Army had organised a procession from Jama Masjid in Old Delhi to Jantar Mantar last month. Azad was accused of instigating people and was sent to judicial custody in connection with protests in Daryaganj.

When Pracha expresses apprehension of the police misbehaving with Azad, Lau assures him. “After what you did yesterday... you went out and started making statements everywhere...,” she laughs, referring to her headline-grabbing remarks a day earlier.

She had ticked off the public prosecutor opposing the bail plea, asking him if he had read the Constitution. “You are behaving as if Jama Masjid is Pakistan. Even if it was Pakistan, you can go there and protest. Pakistan was a part of undivided India,” the judge was quoted as saying.

Judge Lau, who is in her mid-50s, comes from a family of lawyers and has been a part of the Bar and Bench at the Tis Hazari courts for nearly three decades. Her father retired as the standing counsel for the Delhi government, and her three siblings grew up to be advocates. She joined the judicial services in 1992. Apart from earning a name for speedy disposal of cases, she has also suggested chemical castration as a punishment for rapists in one of her judgments, considered triple talaq as invalid and has been charged with criminal contempt for questioning the judgments of a Delhi High Court judge.

Lawyers at Tis Hazari say she is a strict judge whose work culture is different from the others in terms of clarity on the status of pending matters or state of evidence. Her cases also see few adjournments, they add.

An advocate of criminal, civil and matrimonial cases at the courts complex, who does not wish to be named, says judges with a reputation of being hard nuts do not tend to be relief-friendly, and therefore their perception within the fraternity can be negative. A judicial relief or remedy is the means with which a court, usually in the exercise of civil law jurisdiction, enforces a right, imposes a penalty, or makes another court order impose its will.

“If there are 10 bail pleas in one day, in her court eight are likely to get dismissed. Some [judges] are very open to granting relief; in her case the conviction rate is higher,” he says, adding that lawyers are split in their stance on the amended citizenship law and, therefore, many of them are not happy with the bail to Azad.

Lau refused to give an interview for this article.

In the context of the ongoing nationwide protests against the new law, Lau’s stern words to the police were immediately met with admiration. Lawyer-activist Prashant Bhushan tweeted: “At a time when the Supreme Court appears to be in retreat, a judge of the lower courts shows a candle to their Lordships sitting there. It is judges like Kamini Lau who keep the flame of democracy & hope alive in the judiciary.”

But, because of the conditions imposed on Azad many felt her advocacy in an open court did not find expression in her final order that quoted Tagore’s poem, “Where the Mind is Without Fear”. It triggered speculation of a judgment betraying political pressure, with the advice to Azad to desist from disrespecting the Prime Minister.

Tripti Poddar, a lawyer practising in Delhi, points out that the higher judiciary has refused to interfere in matters relating to the anti-CAA protests. Last month, after the alleged police brutality on the campuses of Jamia Millia Islamia and Aligarh Muslim University, responding to student petitioners the Supreme Court asked them to approach high courts first.

Welcoming Lau’s remarks, Poddar says: “If you look at the anti-CAA movement, it is absolutely amazing and encouraging that a judge is willing to make these statements in an open court.”

“However,” she adds, “the unfortunate thing is that what a judge says in the district court has no binding power before the high court or Supreme Court, which is where these appeals will go and which is where the petitions against CAA and the violence against students are going to be decided.”

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