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The Story of Western Uttar Pradesh’s 35-year old strike on every Saturday for a High Court Bench

Uttar Pradesh is the most populous state of India. The state is divided into as many as 75 districts and spans an area of roughly 2,43,290 square kilometres. It has a population of roughly 20 crores and a population density of about 820 persons per square kilometre. The challenges faced by a State of such a huge population and area are unimaginable. In such a situation, imagine lawyers in 26 districts of the state’s 75 districts going on a strike every single Saturday.

The High Court of Allahabad has its Principal Bench at Allahabad and a Permanent Bench at Lucknow. The two cities are separated by a distance of roughly 200 kilometres. For the citizens of Western UP, a trip to Allahabad or Lucknow would entail travel of anywhere between 450 to 850 km.

A separate Bench for Western UP has been a long standing grievance of the advocates of Western UP. Since May 1981, every Saturday, the advocates of all 26 districts of Western UP refrains from doing any work as a mark of protest against the inaction of the Central Government.

Background

The call for a High Court bench to be set up in Western UP is not new. The demand was first raised by the then Chief Minister of UP, Dr. Sampurnanand in 1955. Many State Governments have thereafter repeatedly recommended the setting up of a Bench to the Central Government.

In fact,  in 1981, a Commission was set up by the Central Government under the leadership of Justice Jaswant Singh to determine the modalities, desirability and feasibility of constituting High Courts or benches of High Courts in different states. The Commission recommended the setting up of a circuit bench at Agra in Uttar Pradesh. The Commission also recommended the setting up of a High Court bench in Aurangabad in Maharashtra. Though the second recommendation was acted upon immediately, the bench in Western UP is yet to be created.

This was the reason for the Saturday strikes. “The decision was taken unanimously by all lawyers of West UP (through the Bar Association of districts like Agra, Meerut, Ghaziabad, Noida, Bulandshahar, Hapur, Aligarh etc) as a “token protest” against the abject callousness and utter disregard for the genuine grievances of the common people.”, says Pulkit Agarwal, an advocate based in Delhi who also practises in Noida and Ghaziabad.

“Lawyers don’t enjoy going on strike every Saturday since 1981 because ultimately, it is their own livelihood which is most adversely affected. But there is no other way of keeping this demand ongoing since despite this strike since 1980s, nothing has been done neither by Central Government nor by State Government to even propose a Bench for Western UP. This way, the Court runs 5 days a week resulting in slow speed of judgment.”, he adds.

Grounds for the demand

The advocates based in Western UP raise several grounds on which they base their demand for a High Court bench.

First and foremost on their list is distances and travel. As Deepak Raj Agrawal, a retired Public Prosecutor who now practises as an advocate in Meerut points out, the territorial jurisdiction of the High Court is such that all the districts of Western UP fall under the jurisdiction of the Principal Bench at Allahabad and not the Bench at Lucknow. Allahabad is farther away from the districts of Western Uttar Pradesh than Lucknow. The distance from Saharanpur, a district of Western UP to Allahabad is over 850 km. As Deepak Raj says, “People end up spending anywhere between 12-15 hours to reach Allahabad. From Meerut, there is just one direct train to Allahabad. The climate of Allahabad doesn’t suit the people of Western UP. The summers are too harsh and people from our region find it difficult to adapt to the climatic conditions in Allahabad.”

Pulkit adds, “Common people, especially those who are very poor can’t afford to incur the huge expenses relating to travelling more than 600-700kms or even more, for engaging a lawyer, staying in Allahabad. Neither is Allahabad on the airport’s map of this country nor there are many trains from Western UP to Allahabad in particular. In winters, the trains are usually late which ensures that a litigant ends up wasting an entire week in the whole process of reaching Allahabad, finding a lawyer, settling the draft, filing of draft and coming back to town from Allahabad. This causes immense inconvenience in each aspect.”

Ironically, as mentioned in Meerut Bar Association’s Facebook page, High Courts of other states such as Delhi, Punjab and Haryana, Himachal Pradesh are closer to the districts of Western UP than the High Court of Allahabad. Even the High Court of Lahore is closer than Allahabad!

Another ground raised by the advocates is the pendency. Allahabad High Court has the highest number of pending cases in the whole country, despite being the largest High Court in terms of sanctioned strength of judges. Increasing the number of benches will only help reduce the pendency. Given the size and population of the state of UP, it is only logical to have more benches of the High Court and more decentralization.

As Pulkit points out, “We all know that the crime rate in UP is among the highest. On top of that, there is no concept of anticipatory bail in UP, for the reasons best known to law makers only. So an accused cannot file anything before the Sessions Judge of his jurisdiction, he has to reach all the way to Allahabad High Court to save himself from arrest and get a stay on arrest by filing a Criminal Miscellaneous Writ Petition.”

Deepak Raj says that the expenses aren’t limited to travel and lodging and Allahabad. “The advocates practising before the High Court charge clients from West UP exorbitantly. If the normal fees charged by an advocate for filing a petition is around Rs.3,000, a client from West UP is charged as much as Rs.10,000 by the advocates in Allahabad.”

Government responses

Ever since 1955, when the demand for a separate bench of the High Court at Allahabad was first raised, many Chief Ministers and political leaders have reiterated the demand. Rajnath Singh, the Union Home Minister, had expressed his support for the demand when he was Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh. The present Chief Minister, Yogi Adityanath, had as an MP introduced a Private Members’ Bill in Parliament in 2015 seeking the establishment of a Bench of the High Court at Gorakhpur. A Bench in Western UP was also one of the poll promises of the ruling BJP.

Then what is still stopping the government from taking action? Deepak Raj says, “Politics in UP is dominated by the Eastern and Central parts of UP. By and large, the needs and demands of Western UP are not given much consideration by the ruling government.” He adds, “The present government’s initial responses were very encouraging. However, it appears that they have promised too many things and are finding it difficult to fulfill all their promises.”

It is also pertinent to note that Meerut was the strongest contender for the bench of the High Court initially, after the creation of Uttarakhand, Agra, Aligarh and Rampur, being more centrally located became contenders to be the location of the new bench. This led to disagreements within the Bar Associations in different districts of Western UP, giving the government and authorities further reason to postpone the creation of a new bench. “Certain elements created disagreements between advocates of different districts and played them against each other. However, that was a temporary phase. All Western UP Bar Associations have now come together with the demand for a bench in Western UP and are willing to support the setting up of the Bench in any of the 26 districts.”, Deepak Raj says.

So what is the solution to this age-old demand?

Sources say that there is a proposal to modify the territorial jurisdiction of the two Benches of the High Court of Allahabad to bring in the districts of Western UP under the jurisdiction of the Lucknow Bench. This will result in reducing the distance to be covered by litigants by about 200 km.

However, this is but a small consolation for the common people and the advocates of Western UP. Deepak Raj says, “The only solution to this problem is to divide the State, as proposed by Mayawati. This demand has been made strongly and consistently for the past 62 years to no avail. Uttarakhand was given statehood and given a High Court of its own. The only remedy to this violation of the Constitutional right to justice of the people of Western UP is the creation of a new state and the consequent creation of a new High Court for the state.”

Pulkit, however, believes there is no option but to set up a bench of the High Court in Western UP. “The term “justice at doorsteps” has been denied to the people of West UP since the last 62 years. It is in the interest of speedy justice that creation of bench is imperative for benefit of litigants which must be supreme. Only by the creation of a bench of high court in West UP, the people will be able to secure justice as intended by the constitution framers.” He adds, “The formation of a Bench in Western UP can be the best solution. There is a lot of space available for setting up a High Court in either Meerut or Agra or Greater Noida.”

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