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Move over Game of Thrones: The P&H bar council is embroiled in an epic turf war

The posts of chairman, secretary and Bar Council of India (BCI) member at the Punjab and Haryana bar council (PHBC) remain ambiguously occupied after turf wars resulted in a police complaint, an allegedly forged resignation letter, rebukes and intervention by the BCI, an allegedly improper election and allegations of goons attacking the state bar council office.

A week ago on Monday (19 September) the Indian Express reported that 15 members of the PHBC had convened a general body meeting and elected a new chairman, secretary and BCI member from the PHBC: Lekh Raj Sharma replaced Rajat Gautam as chairman, Rajeev Kaswan replaced Parvesh Yadav as secretary and CM Munjal replaced Amit Rana as BCI member.

However that meeting on 18 September was held despite BCI chairman Manan Kumar Mishra’s written orders to the PHBC to not hold any meetings and pass any resolutions until 22 October 2016.

On 19 September the Tribune India also reported that Rajat Gautam had submitted a complaint to the senior superintendent of police in Chandigarh, alleging that a group of lawyers barged into the council office by breaking open its locks, and that when he entered the bar council office he saw his name plate replaced by the name plate of Sharma.

However days before the 18 September meeting, Gautam had challenged before the BCI a 10 September letter signed by 15 PHBC members to convene a meeting on 13 September to discuss “the behaviour” of Gautam and PHBC secretary Parvesh Yadav.

BCI’s first order to PHBC

The BCI was first dragged into the PHBC’s internal power struggle on 31 August, when 15 members signed an allegedly illegal resolution to remove Yadav from the post of secretary and elect Kaswan to that post.

Yadav challenged this resolution before the BCI, which accepted the challenge on 9 September.

In his 9 September order, BCI chairman Manan Kumar Mishra stated that the resolution removing Yadav could not be considered a resolution as it did not result from a meeting that was called after proper notice, quorum or agenda setting.

The 9 September order further stated: “What I find from various records that for last 4-5 years, the Bar Council of Punjab and Haryana has become a den of unnecessary controversies and disputes.”

Mishra noted in the order that the names for the posts of chairman, secretary and member at the PHBC could only be settled last year due to intervention by the Punjab & Haryana high court and the BCI

Mishra stated: “Now, it appears that again 1 or 2 members have changed the side for obvious reasons, the dirty politics and groupism.

“Really such events are disgusting and very dangerous for the health of the institution.”

With that order Mishra served notice on the 15 signatories to the 31 August resolution, and on Gautam, Yadav and Rana, to appear before a committee of BCI co-chairmen S Prabhakaran and Bhoj Chander Thakur, and executive committee chairman Apurba Kumar Sharma.

In the interim this order restrained the PHBC from:

  • taking the 31 August resolution on record,
  • or convening any meeting, or
  • considering any agenda for passing a no-confidence motion against any of the elected office bearers of the PHBC, without the BCI’s permission.

BCI’s second order to PHBC

Just a day after this order was passed on 10 September, another letter was circulated in the PHBC to convene a meeting on 13 September to discuss Gautam and Yadav.

The letter was signed by the same 15 members who were signatories to the 31 August resolution.

Gautam challenged this letter before the BCI

Mishra accepted the challenge on 12 September with the following order:

“Apparently, this papers has been prepared and is an afterthought, just to create some grounds for removing the two petitioners from the post of Chairman and Honorary Secretary of Bar Council of Punjab & Haryana.”

Mishra added that members acting against the BCI’s 9 September order to the PHBC may even be liable for professional misconduct. He stated:

“I take very serious note of the action of these respondent-members, who it appears, are bent upon to capture the office of State Bar Council by hook or crook. It is made clear that if any member or the respondent makes any attempt to do so and/or to act in contravention of the Bar Council of India’s resolution [on passing of no-confidence motion against bar council office bearers] his conduct will be treated as a professional misconduct and the Council may disqualify such members from contesting any election of Bar Association or Bar Council in future.”

BCI: Strike three

However, the threat of professional misconduct charges and two BCI restraint orders did not dissuade the allegedly errant PHBC members from calling a meeting again.

On 13 September, a letter signed by PHBC vice chairman Parupkar Singh Ghuman called another meeting of the PHBC members.

Gautam also challenged this letter before the BCI and on 15 September Mishra passed an order warning Ghumman of serious action against him.

Mishra stated in this order:

“From the present letter dated 13th September, 2016 it again appears that Vice Chairman, Bar Council of Punjab & Haryana has adopted another devise to create ugly scene in the State Bar Council on 16.9.16.

“Under the afore mentioned circumstances, I restrain the Vice Chairman from issuing any such letter or convening any such meeting and if any such meeting is convened or held at the instance of Mr Parupkar Singh Ghuman, this Council may take stern action against him as it may amount to a clear violation of the orders passed by this Council...

“Such members do not appear to be entitled to hold any responsible post in any State Bar Council.”

General body meeting and re-election

Ignoring the three BCI orders restraining PHBC members from convening meetings until 22 October 2016, the PHBC then convened a general body meeting on 18 September.

Legally India has seen contradictory SMSes sent to lawyers enrolled with the PHBC from the PHBC telephone ID, calling the meeting on the one hand and warning that there would be no meeting, on the other.

Gautam circulated an SMS from the PHBC ID at 4:11PM on 18 September, stating that no meeting of the council was called that day and “some persons having vested interest have sent messages self-styling themselves to be office bearers. Kindly ignore these false messages”.

The meeting was nevertheless held, followed by the Express report the next day of the election of a new chairman, secretary and BCI member, and the Tribune report about Gautam filing a police complaint after his office was taken by force.

Ghuman told Legally India that on 18 September Gautam walked into the general body meeting and handed over his resignation letter, as he realised that he had already lost a majority in the PHBC “due to his bad policies”.

Allegedly forged resignation letter
Allegedly forged resignation letter

But after Gautam changed his mind about his resignation the next day, he allegedly sent “goons” to the PHBC office premises, according to Ghumman. “It was very unfortunate and bad for the reputation of the council so we got the press involved,” Ghumman commented.

Gautam’s term officially only expires on 23 August 2017 but we have seen a hand-written resignation letter purportedly signed by Gautam, requesting that his resignation be accepted with effect from 18 September 2016, as he did not want to continue in office “due to personal reasons”.

That resignation letter was dated 18 September, however on 13 September Gautam had already addressed a printed letter to 15 PHBC members, alleging that his resignation letter was forged. Gautam stated in this letter:

“I have not submitted any resignation and any act or proceedings in relation there to would be illegal and request all of you to desist from interfering and putting hurdles in the smooth functioning of the Bar Council in the larger interest of the legal fraternity and not to act in any illegal or unauthorised manner.”

Gautam forwarded a copy of this letter to the BCI as well. He did not respond to calls for comment on phone and by messages since yesterday.

Gautam had addressed this letter to 15 members, including Munjal, Sharma, Kaswan and Ghuman.

Munjal, Sharma and Kaswan were not reachable for comment.

200 goons

On Tuesday (20 September), two days after the general body meeting, lawyers enrolled with the PHBC received text messages from the PHBC ID that despite his “removal”, Gautam was “issuing licences”, “playing fraud” and that the state bar council office was “under control of goons armed with deadly weapons situation grave every [advocate] to condemn”.

The goons were allegedly 200 in number. One such message stated:

“look at the action of Mr Rajat Gautam, despite having lost majority and resignation he tried to occupy Bar Council office with 200 goons by lowering down the status of lawyers at large shame on him.”

Sharma told Tribune India that of the total 25 executive members of the PHBC, the majority of 15 members lay with him while only seven supported Gautam and three members are not participating. Therefore Gautam should “morally accept the mandate as we believe in democracy”.

Gautam, in turn, commented to the paper that as per rules passed by the BCI, a majority of 18 members of the general house were required to initiate a no confidence motion, and to remove an office bearers a majority of two thirds of the strength, i.e. 21 members is required.

According to the PHBC’s website Gautam is still the chairman and Yadav and Rana are, respectively, the secretary and the BCI member.

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