That it will take more than 300 years to clear the backlog of cases in Indian courts is proof enough that our criminal justice system is sick, stagnant and in urgent need of a complete overhaul. So, the Vajpayee government needs full credit for beginning the process. A committee was set up, a couple of years ago, under Justice V S Malimath to examine changes and its report came, coincidentally, at the time that justice was finally done in the Uphaar Cinema case and just before the fourth anniversary, last week, of Jessica Lal’s horrific murder. Both cases draw attention, in different ways, to the glaring flaws in our justice system.
In the Uphaar case it is shocking that it took six years to establish that the 59 people died because of criminal negligence on the part of the cinema management and the Delhi government. It was clear from day one that nobody would have died had the cinema followed safety rules but because the wheels of Indian justice move at the pace of our national vehicle — the bullock cart — it took six years for justice to be done. And, if the Ansal family and the guilty officials decide to appeal it could be many more years before justice is really done.
In Jessica Lal’s case the situation is even more tragic because justice may never be done. She was shot dead in a Delhi bar in full view of several people. It was on the basis of their statements that the police built their case against Manu Sharma and he, himself, fled the crime scene and remained on the run for days, something he would have been unlikely to do had he been innocent. But, as time went by, witnesses to the murder suddenly became unable to identify him as the killer so he is already out on bail and will probably remain free and go on to a long and successful career as a politician.
This will not be possible if one of the changes suggested by the Malimath committee is implemented, that a statement made before the police be admissible in court as evidence. As someone who would love to see Jessica’s killer rot forever in jail along with the reptiles who burn their wives alive for reasons of insufficient dowry it is with considerable hesitation that I criticise this suggestion. But, as someone who also knows that the Indian police have ways of getting anyone to confess to anything I find the idea of giving them more power frightening. To get a lawyer’s perspective I discussed this recommendation with Rani Jethmalani who said she approved of it because of the number of killers who had escaped punishment in the dowry death cases she has handled. The confession will be videotaped, she said implying that torture to extract confession would be difficult. But, the police have other methods. I know of any number of cases in which the victim has been terrorised into confessing to whatever the police want because they have produced before him his wife or children and warned him that they would end up dead if he did not cooperate. On videotape all that the judge will see is the confession.
So, in my view, it’s a disturbing recommendation as is the recommendation that we should abolish the presumption of innocence till found guilty. The Indian police is, as we know, lazy and inept when it comes to investigation so if they are absolved even of the responsibility of proving guilt it is frightening to think of the number of innocent people who will be found guilty.
What worries me most about the Malimath report — at least what I have seen of it in the press — is that it appears to have paid too much attention to making life easier for the police and not enough to making it easier for seekers of justice. Why should the judiciary not be made to explain, for instance, why the justice system moves at bullock cart pace? Why are cases admitted that would be thrown out in other countries? Why does it take so long for a judge to decide whether a case should be admitted or not?
Personally, having been dragged to court by officials on the silliest grounds I would also have liked to see the committee suggest ways of preventing Indian officialdom from clogging up the system. More than sixty per cent of civil cases in our courts involve some government department or other. Should there not be severe strictures against those who waste taxpayers money on silly cases?
And, equally severe strictures against judges who admit cases because of political pressure and conveniently forget cases against politicians for the same reason. Think of the absurdity of that poor young Tehelka reporter spending six months in jail while Sukh Ram has still not been convicted for corruption despite being found with Rs 3 crore lying about his home in cash. How many years ago was that? And, what happened to those cases against Narasimha Rao’s relative who spent more than a hundred crore rupees of our money on fertilizer that never arrived from Turkey?
The committee mentions the need to improve infrastructure but appears not to have noticed that the average Indian courtroom is an insult to the ‘‘majesty of the law’’. In Mumbai’s Esplanade Court it is not unusual to find stray dogs and cats wandering about the corridors and in a court in Ujjain I once ran into a cow. There is so much wrong with the justice system that mere tinkering will solve nothing what is needed is a complete overhaul.
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