As one enters the high court of judicature at Allahabad, tables and chairs are strewn across an open space. The de facto one-table legal chambers coexist with a line of motorcycles. It is difficult to know who has encroached on whose territory here.
Lawyers in their black robes are chatting - to themselves and to litigants. Paan stain is visible on the staircases. The passages are taken over by small book stalls and clerks.
But even if the aesthetics do not quite convey it, it is difficult not to be awed by the history of the court.
Set up first in Agra, only to be shifted in 1869 to Allahabad, the court is celebrating its 150th year. Motilal Nehru argued here. It has been the site of some of independent India’s most crucial judgements - including the one which annulled Indira Gandhi’s election in 1975, eventually triggering the Emergency, or the Babri Masjid judgement more recently.
But the court is important not just because of the past, but the present.
It symbolises the political fault-lines that exist in the state - between the west and the east, and the challenges which would emerge if UP’s division became a political issue. It symbolises the tensions that continue to exist between the upper castes and the emerging backward castes. And it is a reflection of how in a region relatively devoid of opportunities, a single state institution can become a magnet for thousands and change a city’s economy.
Defining a city
The website of the High Court lists 15, 573 advocates in Allahabad - there are another 8000 advocates at the Lucknow bench. Senior advocate VP Srivastava tells HT Allahabad HC has another 10,000 clerks and over 6000 employees. On an average, a minimum of 5000 litigants - from across the state - are in the court premises for their cases.
“This is the largest judicial body anywhere in terms of the number of judges (160, of which a little more than half are vacant); territorial jurisdiction (all 75 districts of UP); and the population it serves (almost 20 crore according to the 2011 census).” The Lucknow bench of the court serves 13 districts.
The High Court faces challenges similar to the rest of the Indian judiciary - vacancy on the bench, and an extraordinarily large backlog of cases. Every lawyer complains of the pendency rates.
But the scale of the court shapes Allahabad.
When asked how the judiciary affected the economy in Allahabad, advocate Imran Syed - standing outside court number 10 inside the historic building - said, “Over 70% of the city’s economy depends on the court. A litigant comes, he takes a rickshaw or an auto, he stays in a hotel, he eats in a restaurant or from a street vendor, he pays lawyers, he gets stuff photo-copied. Lawyers buy property, we purchase books, we hire staff, we go out to malls and cinema, we shop, we buy cars.”
Every sector, Syed claims, is a beneficiary of the presence of the court.
Senior Allahabad journalist Anupam Mishra has an explanation for why law has emerged as such an attractive proposition for so many.
From across the state, especially east UP, students come to the Allahabad University. There are few employment opportunities except the public services, where seats are limited. Law then becomes a natural choice. “This is in some ways the only career option available to gain some professional and social status in this region.”
The bifurcation debate
But maintaining this hegemony will not be easy for Allahabad, for a demand for a separate bench of the court in west UP has emerged very strongly over the years.
Politics will determine the the debate over bifurcation. Before every election, politicians in western UP promise to their constituents that the region will be home to a new bench of the High Court.
2017 will be no different.
This is attractive to people who have to travel long distances to Allahabad for their cases - for instance, a Saharanpur litigant has to travel 752 kms to the court; a Baghpat litigant has to travel over 600 kms. It is also attractive because the arrival of a bench will have a multiplier effect on the regional economy. In some ways, the demand for a separate bench resembles the demand for a separate state in the west, which chafes at the domination of the east.
Meerut is the strongest claimant for the bench, with Agra a close second. The BJP MP from Meerut has already demanded a bench, and Union law minister Sadanand Gowda met west UP advocates to assure them the centre is keen on the issue.
But this has been resisted strongly by the bar in Allahabad. Reports that BJP president Amit Shah had backed the demand provoked a backlash from the court bar, who threatened to protest when PM Narendra Modi made a short visit to the court recently. BJP had to beat a swift retreat and deny the comments.
West UP lawyers claim this is because of the economic costs they would suffer.
But the president of the Allahabad Bar Association, Radhakant Ojha, says that is not the reason, “A united judiciary has more integrity than a divided judiciary. There is a united bar and a united bench and both control each other. In a smaller court, corruption is more rampant. It will hurt the system.”
Senior advocate Srivastava is also an author of a book against bifurcation. He argues that the constitution did not intend to create separate benches of the high court, while it left the option open in the case of the Supreme Court. He also cites a past SC judgement to claim that distance cannot become a reason to set up a separate bench. “The united court has a sanctity. Judges sit and deliberate; the jurisprudence is richer.”
Most however believe that the opposition is to maintain monopoly over clientele.
The Brahman domination
Politics and social churning impinge on the court in yet another way - the debate over caste.
The high court is seen as one of the last bastions of upper caste domination in UP. With deepening of democracy, reservations and the politics of identity, the control over the legislature and executive in UP has substantially shifted to OBCs and Dalits. The third organ of the state, judiciary, is where the erstwhile dominant castes continue to hold sway.
And this rankles. Suresh Chaudhary, a Dalit advocate, tells HT, “There would be, at most 300 Dalit advocates out of 15000. There has never, to my knowledge, been a single designated senior advocate in Allahabad who is a Dalit.” He recalls that last year, a Dalit stood for the bar association elections; his surname was Singh and everyone asked whether he was a Thakur. But as his Dalit identity emerged, support for him shrank. Indeed, the bar association has historically been dominated by Brahmans.
The established senior advocates feel this critique is not valid.
Ojha says, “Look, there should be no caste consideration in the designation of senior counsel. Earlier, law was an elite profession but it has already got democratised. Many people are coming from rural areas. I am a first generation lawyer, from a village in Pratapgarh. If there is merit, no one can block you now.”
He lists out the caste composition of the office bearers of his association - but with only a smattering of OBC advocates, it reinforces the perception of the caste inequities in the court in terms of representation. But as an educated class emerges among both OBCs and Dalits, it is only a matter of time that they will make their presence felt in judiciary, like they have in politics.