After months of impasse with violent interludes of repression and resistance, the people of Bhangar agitating against the forcible setting up of a high-voltage power grid on agricultural land were just beginning to see a ray of hope. Most of the arrested activists had come out on bail, even those detained under the draconian UAPA. There were tacit overtures from the administration for negotiations. The agitators made it clear that they were serious about the same. Their struggle committee called a rally on 30 July, whose foremost demand was “a peaceful solution to the Bhangar problem through dialogue with the committee”.

However, if the authorities and the ruling party were serious too, they must have had some extraordinary ideas about how to prepare the ground for peace talks. Even as the jailed activists – locals as well as solidarity movement organisers Kushal Debnath, Sankar Das, Sharmistha Chowdhury and Pradip Singh Thakur – were getting bail by ones and twos, the police started began a fresh round of arrests. Strange stories were being leaked out in the media about the gravity of their “crimes”.

Ichha Mollah, arrested on 27 July, for example, was claimed to have been responsible for “calling in” Sharmistha and her comrades from “outside” to “mislead and instigate” the villagers against the power grid project.

From the same day, cordoning of the area by armed cadres of the ruling party intensified, making it impossible for the villagers to go out for their livelihood. One of them was caught and beaten by the goons when he had gone to buy medicines for his ailing son just because he was a resident of Machhibhanga, a village at the core area of resistance. As evening descended, gunfire and country-made bombs started raining on the villages of Machhibhanga, Khamarite and the neighbouring villages. The attacks have been continuing, with the police standing as mute spectators. The villagers are scared of even sending their children to school.

Meanwhile, a stranger story was revealed in course of the bail hearings of Chowdhury and Thakur at Calcutta High Court.

In his judgement dated 27 July 2017 in the case of Sharmistha Chowdhury and another versus State of West Bengal and others (CRR 602 of 2017 with CRR 1341 of 2017), Justice Joymalya Bagchi made the following observations on the earlier orders of the judicial magistrate of Baruipur court extending the period of detention of the petitioners under UAPA and denying them statutory bail:

“On perusal of the order dated 6th April, 2017 passed by the learned Magistrate, I found that the order was written by different hands and had called for a report from the judicial officer as to circumstances under which such order came to be recorded in such manner. Report received from his end revealed a very disturbing state of affairs. The Magistrate upon receiving the prayer for extension of period of detention from the Investigating Agency had dictated the order to the ASI of Police attached to the General Registrar section and upon giving such dictation had merely affixed the word ‘allowed’ to the said order. The step taken by the Magistrate in outsourcing the recording of judicial orders to officers unattached to his Court particularly to a police personnel is an issue of grave concern. It amounts to a gross breach of the constitutional mandate of separation of executive from the judiciary and strikes a fatal blow to the independent functioning of judicial institution and preservation of fairness in administration of criminal justice. That apart, the contents of the aforesaid order patently expose utter non-compliance of pre-requisites in the matter of extending the period of detention of an accused charged of offences under the UAPA Act in term of Section 43D(2) of the said Act.”

Perturbed by this practice of the lower judiciary, Justice Bagchi passed a set of orders exercising his powers of superintendence for future guidance of the criminal courts:

  1. Judges/Magistrates shall record orders strictly in terms of Rule 183 of the Criminal Rules and Orders (Sub-ordinate Court Rules), 1985.
  2. Alternatively, in view of the technological advancement and the availability of personal computers/laptops to the judicial personnel, they may also transcribe their orders on the computers and take a print out thereof and upon affixation of their signature thereto, the said hardcopy shall be treated as a valid transcription of the order passed by the said court.
  3. Under no circumstances, any judicial officer shall take assistance of any external agency particularly police officers in the matter of recording and/or transcribing orders of the Court.
  4. Any breach of such duty shall invite departmental proceeding so far as the judicial personnel is concerned.

He entrusted the registrar general of the high court to circulate these directions to all judges and magistrates for necessary compliance. Not only that, he advised the director, State Judicial Academy, to impart necessary training to judicial officers for recording their orders duly in future.

If implemented properly, the guidelines will have a positive impact on the functioning of the lower judiciary all over the country. Civil liberties activists can help to ensure compliance by keeping a close vigil and bringing it to the notice of the respective high court wherever they find any departure.