The Bombay High Court Thursday asked Maharashtra Police to inform it about the measures that were taken to avert the bandh, which had been called by the then ruling Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) in October 2021 to protest against the death of farmers in Uttar Pradesh's Lakhimpur Kheri. The state-wide strike was supported by NCP's alliance partners Shiv Sena and Congress.
The court admitted the PIL filed by four senior citizens, including former Mumbai CP Julio Ribeiro last year seeking penalty on the political parties and compensation for those affected.
A division bench of Chief Justice Dipankar Datta and Justice Abhay Ahuja noted that bandhs are "unconstitutional" and sought to know if the police had complied with directions passed in a 2004 judgement delivered by Justice AP Shah.
According to the judgement, it was mandatory for the police to serve a notice on the political party calling for the bandh, inform them of its illegality and then take criminal action against those enforcing the strike.
"Mr. [Ramesh] Soni has also invited our attention to coordinate bench's decision in DG Deshmukh v. State of Maharashtra where under para 32 several directions were issued for compliance by political parties, organisations regarding call for bandhs. Regarding directions 32(3) 32(4) 32 (5)(a) 32 (6) 32(7)..We wish to ascertain from the State, DGP and CP as to what steps were taken in compliance with the judgement to avoid the bandh," the CJ said.
Declining interim relief to the petitioners on the ground that it would amount to granting final reliefs of monetary compensation, the court kept the matter for disposal on January 25, 2023.
In its affidavit, the State denied calling for the bandh. The Police Department's affidavit claimed that the NCP called for the bandh and it was supported by others.
The police machinery "immediately" took necessary steps to ensure that law and order situation is maintained throughout Mumbai District by providing additional bandobast of Police Force constituting Police Riot Control Units and additional manpower to man the streets, it told the court
During the hearing, Advocate Ramesh Soni for the petitioners submitted that there was no connection between the violence in UP and the bandh in Maharashtra. Even though the then Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi (MVA) ruling coalition claimed there was no cabinet decision to call for a bandh, according to press statements the bandh was sponsored by the parties in power, Soni argued. He pointed out the losses suffered due to the bandh and the hardships people had to go through.
The CJ noted that despite innumerable judgements calling bandh illegal, even lawyers still go on strike. "Do the lawyers not stike? A judicial order won't solve this… As a part of the judiciary, we cannot give moral lessons to the State Govt."
The petitioner said he was seeking setting up a compensation fund for deterrence. "There is a general trend in this country that people don't do anything but after retirement ... what did he do when he (petitioner) was in office? We won't pass futile orders. Those orders will never be implemented then you will come in contempt," the CJ said.
The court added that it couldn't sit to quantify damages while considering the petition under Article 226 of the constitution. In response, the petitioner said they were seeking a mechanism to quantify damages.
But the court wasn't initially convinced. "It has to be provided by law. We cannot even recommend this. We have to ensure that the rights are not trampled upon. This is the extent to which we can go."
In response, AGP Jyoti Chavan for the state submitted that the Maharashtra government had merely expressed solidarity with the cause of the farmers and not called for the bandh. "Police security etc was deployed. We have filed an affidavit by Under Secretary that it was not a Cabinet decision to call for the bandh."
She said only newspaper reports held the state government responsible, and called the reports just "bald allegations."
The bench then perused the media reports and the 2004 judgement of the Bombay HC in which Shiv Sena was directed to pay Rs. 20 lakhs to be deposited in a fund for a bandh called in 2003.
The directions passed in the 2004 ruling are as under:
1) It is declared that the enforcement of a 'bandh' or a 'hartal' would amount to an unconstitutional act, and any political party, organization, association, group or individual giving such call for bandh or hartal to force or intimidation or otherwise;
4) The concerned political party, organization, association, group or individual giving 'bandh' call will be served with a notice under section 149 of the Criminal Procedure Code. In the notice, attention will be drawn to the judgments of the Supreme Court and this Court regarding illegality of 'bandh'. The notice will clearly state that such a political party, organization, association, group or individual will be liable for legal action and compensation for loss of life, injury or for loss of livelihood due to 'bandh'.
5) We direct the State, District Collectors and all other officers of the State to ensure: a) that no political party, organization, association, group or individual can, by organizing a 'bandh', or by force or intimidation, stop or interfere with road and rail traffic or the free movement of citizens in city of Mumbai or State.
6) The police shall take appropriate action against the person or persons involved in such 'bandh' under provisions of the Indian Penal Code, Criminal Procedure code and Bombay Police Act, and submit action taken report in such cases to the Sessions Judge of the concerned District.
7) The general public shall be informed by issuing press note through print media and also through electronic media informing them about the preparations made by the police to deal with 'bandh' and for making people secured.