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Fear & loathing in Telangana: what's behind the lower judiciary's agitation?

A Saye Sekhar | Updated on: 10 February 2017, 1:49 IST

The ongoing agitation by Telangana's lower judiciary has put it on a collision course with the High Court of Hyderabad. The protest is aimed at righting the "discriminatory" distribution of judicial officers between Andhra Pradesh and Telangana.

Broken down, this crisis has three dimensions - administrative, judicial and political.

Also read - 8,000 Telangana judicial workers on indefinite strike, courts crippled

Administrative issues

For a while now, lawyers and judicial officers in Telangana have been pressing for the separation of the common High Court of Judicature at Hyderabad - as the Andhra Pradesh High Court was rechristened after the state's bifurcation in June 2014 - as provided for in the Andhra Pradesh Reorganisation Act, 2014.

The responsibility of shifting out what would be the Andhra Pradesh High Court lies with the Andhra and the central governments; the former needs to allot land for the new court complex while the latter is supposed to provide the infrastructure. DV Sadananda Gowda, the central law minister, has said the high court would be bifurcated as soon as Andhra provides the "necessary facilities".

The issues arising from the delay in separating the common the high court have seemingly trickled down to the lower judiciary.

For one, a majority of presiding officers in Telangana's courts are natives of Andhra. This has led judicial officers from Telangana to cry "discrimination", and prompted subordinate court advocates to up the ante against the "Andhra judges".

The High Court of Hyderabad had, through a notification on May 5, allotted 495 judicial officers to Andhra and 335 to Telangana. What caused heartburn among Telangana's legal fraternity was that 130 of the state's share of officers belonged to Andhra; they had been allowed to choose their postings and they opted for Telangana.

According to the Telangana Judges Association, there were 234 district judges in the undivided Andhra, and they should have been allotted on a 58:42 basis - 140 to Andhra, 94 to Telangana. The high court, however, allotted 84 judges to Andhra and 102 to Telangana, leaving 46 positions unfilled. Of those sent to Telangana, 72 belong to the neighbouring state.

While the high court has argued that the judicial officers can be posted in either state as the high court is not yet bifurcated, the agitators contend that pending bifurcation, judges must be allotted based on their "nativity".

Judicial logjam

To protest the "misallocation" of manpower, courts in Telangana have struck work since 6 June. But after 130-odd judicial officers went in a procession to submit a memorandum to Governor ESL Narasimhan, the high court had had enough.

The court was further incensed by the protesters' barb that it had "failed to live up to the trust". In a statement released to the press, the judges said they felt they were serving under the Andhra Pradesh High Court and "not under the high court of both states". They feared, the protesters added, that judges from Andhra would "interfere in the administrative and political matters" of Telangana. "We cannot work under Andhra judicial leaders." A few lawyers even attempted self-immolation to press their demand for "justice to judges of the new state".

On Tuesday, the agitation descended into ugliness when a group of agitating lawyers attacked the Additional District and Sessions Judge of Warangal KV Narasimhulu and vandalised his courtroom, all the while shouting "Andhra judges go back". The attack enraged lawyers in the neighbouring state, and they struck work Thursday and Friday.

Then, the high court cracked the whip. Holding the agitation as being "in contravention to the discipline and rules of judiciary", the court suspended the president and the secretary of the Telangana Judicial Officers Association K Ravinder Reddy and V Varaprasad, respectively. In all, it has suspended 11 judicial officers and as many law department employees for participating in the agitation.

The suspensions only inflamed Telangana's judicial officers, over 200 of whom proceeded on 15-day leave Wednesday.

On Friday, Acting Chief Justice of the High Court Dilip B Bhosale said the judicial officers must end their agitation immediately in the "larger interest" of the society. If they don't, he warned, the high court would have to make "alternative arrangements".

Political slugfest

The issue took political overtones when Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao of Telangana threatened to stage a dharna on the issue in Delhi. He also urged Sadananda Gowda to take "domicile as the criterion" for allotment of judges, only to be told the process was purely under the control of the high court and as such the central government could not intervene.

In a missive to the Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh Tuesday, KCR demanded that the high court be bifurcated urgently since the "tentative allocation" of subordinate judicial officers had ignited discontent.

The chief minister's support to their cause emboldened the judicial officers and the lawyers, who intensified their stir, and even persuaded retired high court judges belonging to Telangana to join in.

The protesters are now even taking aim at the high court. T Sriranga Rao, the convenor of the Telangana Advocates Joint Action Committee, went so far as to allege that judicial officers from his state were being discriminated against because 18 of the 21 Telugu high court judges had their "roots in Andhra".

Quite predictably, such attacks have invited a backlash from across the state border. Ascribing regional motives to the judges was "untenable and unjust", said leaders of the Telugu Desam Party, which rules Andhra, taking a moral high ground "in support of the judiciary".

Accusing the Telangana Rashtra Samithi of trying to politicise the issue, S Chandramohan Reddy, an MLC in Andhra, asked if the AP Reorganisation Act provided for Hyderabad to remain the common capital for 10 years, "where is the hurry for bifurcating the high court".

On the other side, K Kavitha, KCR's daughter, appealed the lawyers and judges to continue their agitation until the high court was bifurcated. The Nizamabad MP alleged that the central government was delaying the court's separation as a favour to its ally N Chandrababu Naidu.

The TDP's lone legislator in Telangana, A Revanth Reddy, pooh-poohed the call given by Kavita: "KCR touched the feet of the same Andhra judges and felicitated them at Ayutha Chandee Yagam."

Adding a twist to the tale, the central minister YS Chowdary, who belongs to the TDP, claimed Friday that the Andhra regime had already set aside land for the high court complex and even had it inspected by a central team.

Meanwhile, the leaders of the agitation, Gandra Mohan Rao, M Rajender Reddy and G Jitender Reddy, announced on Saturday that they would organise a "Chalo Delhi" march when the Parliament sits for the monsoon session. They demanded withdrawal of the provisional list of allotments done by the high court and urged the central government to appoint an "advisory committee" to devise guidelines for the bifurcation of subordinate judicial officers as per the AP Reorganisation Act, 2014.

Apparently, this drama hasn't yet climaxed.

Edited by Mehraj D Lone

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First published: 3 July 2016, 5:25 IST