Young lawyers are taking up the cudgels for detainees and riot victims

The lawyers' group drew members and point persons beyond Delhi as the anti-citizenship movement gathered steam across India
Help desks manned by lawyers from the Delhi Waqf Board as well as those from the Supreme Court Bar Association are visible at a government relief camp in the Eidgah and along the main road in Mustafabad. However, it’s an informal group of lawyers, which calls itself Lawyers for Detainees, that has been leading the rebuilding efforts.

The riots that ravaged Northeast Delhi early last week left over 50 people dead, a majority of them Muslims. Lawyers for Detainees has so far set up three legal aid camps in Mustafabad. Many Muslims who fled from Shiv Vihar, one of the worst hit places, sought refuge in the nearby Chaman Park locality. Inside a galli, a medical and legal camp attend to people all day.

Mishika Singh, a lawyer who set up a WhatsApp group to bring together lawyers nearly three months ago, says some of them were in Northeast Delhi when the riots took place. They were tackling emergency calls, helping register police complaints and FIRs, following up on medico-legal cases, making sure post-mortems were done in accordance with the law, bodies are released in a timely manner, and arranging ambulances. For the past week, they have started legal work for more than 500 people, guiding them in processing compensation forms, filing complaints, recording injury to property and individuals, tracking missing person reports, etc.

Delhi’s Aam Aadmi Party government had announced immediate relief of Rs 25,000 each for those whose houses were burnt in the riots. Singh says the response of the state administration has shown a lack of will. Initially, she adds, there was no clarity over the compensation forms. “We had compensation forms with us. But earlier this week, the government began accepting forms. So we are asking the claimants to go to the sub-divisional magistrate.”

Mohammad Tanveer, a tailor who rented a room in Shiv Vihar, left with his wife and 10-day-old son when paramilitary police were called in. They first took refuge along with many others at a stranger’s house in Chaman Park and later shifted to the relief camp at the Eidgah. “We hid in the dark for three days. We survived because we were locked in. The sounds of iron rods, blasts and abusive slogans of the rioters still ring in my ears,” says the 39-year-old in a quivering voice. Many like him are too afraid to return to Shiv Vihar and have been queuing up at the legal camp.

While the maze of lanes in the neighbourhoods appear like emptied war zones, the main road also bears the odd scars of damaged property that include businesses and schools. Workers at a plundered and singed sweet shop say the riots have left a sourness between Hindus and Muslims that will take time to heal. They are unable to understand why the violence occurred, they say.

“Everything was fine here on February 24. People were protesting (against the amended citizenship law) in Brijpuri Puliya. There was stone pelting at 7pm. An hour later, we all went home. Our shop was looted in front of our eyes. Police didn’t come till February 26. We now fear going to Muslim homes,” says Johny Pal, a worker.

 

 
The lawyers’ group, which offers services pro bono, has yet to collate its data, but all the complainants from Shiv Vihar are Muslims, says Singh. “People also fear there are bodies inside burnt houses. A couple of days back we were told bodies were thrown in a drain,” she adds.

Lawyers associated with NGOs such as activist Harsh Mander’s Karwan-e-Mohabbat and Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, students and civil society members have also collaborated with Lawyers for Detainees under the banner of Citizens’ Collective for Peace.

Nilesh Jain, a lawyer who works with activist-politician Yogendra Yadav’s Swaraj Abhiyan, was in the thick of things when detentions over anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) protests became routine in Delhi. A proposed march, under the umbrella of "We the People of India", from Red Fort to Bhagat Singh Park in ITO was denied permission by the police on December 18, 2019. A day later, before the march could begin, protesters were detained.

“People called us from various places including police stations in Mandir Marg, Chanakyapuri and Parliament Street. We responded by organising lawyers and forming a group,” he says on the genesis of Lawyers for Detainees. Initially, more than 250 lawyers were mobilised in the national capital. A majority were aged below 30. Calls soon came from Uttar Pradesh, where people were detained in places like Gorakhpur, Raebareli and Meerut. Jain also worked on a petition filed by the People’s Union of Civil Liberties in the Allahabad High Court, alleging police brutality on protesters.

People outside the camps at Chaman Park; the Supreme Court Bar Association has also set up help desks at the Eidgah grounds in Mustafabad; and inside the legal camp at Chaman Park

 
More cases followed in Delhi. “It became an everyday situation. Some were serial detainees,” Jain says, adding that at police stations in Northeast Delhi such as Seelampur, Nand Nagri and Shastri Park, the cases were more serious. Many were detained for 24 hours or longer. Police would also forcibly check the phones of detainees, call up their families, harass and in many instances release them only after they wrote a note promising they would not take part in protests against the CAA and the update of the National Register of Citizens, he claims. “At Shastri Park police station, people were detained because they went to Jama Masjid to protest during (Bhim Army chief) Chandrashekhar Azad’s rally in December. Photos of them standing peacefully with placards were cited as evidence against them.”

Lawyers for Detainees points out that detenues in Central Delhi, in areas such as Mandir Marg police station where they were allowed to “play badminton and sing”, were treated very well — although they comprised a large section of young protesters, just as in Northeast Delhi. The implication is that the working class is worse off than the privileged, even when the state clamps down on all protesters.

The lawyers' group drew members and point persons beyond Delhi as the anti-citizenship movement gathered steam across India.

 
Ishita Yadu, along with other lawyers based in Lucknow, has been educating protesters about their rights. Only this week, there was trouble at Ghantaghar where women have been leading an agitation. She alleges that the police attacked the protesters instead of taking action against the troublemakers who were produced before them. “The state machinery is able to exploit people because they are not aware of their rights.”

When asked about being in the line of fire, she argues, “Every writ that we file is supposed to be against the state. So fighting against the state is something that lawyers should not be afraid to do. Also, lawyers should not be afraid of the state response to something that is illegal. If something is illegal, it is illegal irrespective of who is perpetuating it.”

At a time when the police is being seen as prejudiced and state compliant in responding to anti-CAA protests, these young lawyers are offering hope to veterans too. But, as senior advocate Rebecca John says, “It shouldn’t surprise us. Access to justice for all sections is a part of the duty of lawyers, both under the Advocates Act and the Constitution.”

The women’s movement in India, she adds, has a long history of legal association with survivors of sexual abuse. “But this kind of configuration where many young lawyers are functioning pretty seamlessly is a moment to celebrate.”


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