Integrated development, politics and social empowerment in India and beyond

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Jamila Verghese
Books written by B G Verghese

Books written by B G Verghese

Books written by B G Verghese

The echoes of the Best Bakery case had not died down when the Jessica Lall judgement sparked a nationwide protest following the acquittal of all the accused for lack of evidence as witnesses turned hostile.

Best Bakery to Jessica: Between Hope and Anger

The judgement on the Best Bakery case redeems justice in Gujarat. But what of Jessica Lall?

By B G Verghese

Sahara Times, 1 March, 2006

The Special Court’s verdict in the Best Bakery case has done something to redeem justice in Gujarat. In what was certainly the most obnoxious statement made by anybody at the time of the Gujarat holocaust was Mr Narendra Modi’s broadcast over Doordarshan in which he told the terrified victims of the pogrom: “If you want peace, do not ask for justice”. The stark message was that crime should go unpunished, with political purpose triumphing over constitutional guarantees and due process. That was the beginning of the disgraceful story of aborted justice, with the full connivance of a hopelessly compromised state machinery cynically manipulated by its political masters and their ideologues.

The verdict will give heart to those still bravely struggling for justice in Gujarat against continuing harassment and intimidation. It also brings home the need for both whistleblower and witness protection. Those who stood firm in doing their duty and protested deviations from what was right and just, as enjoined by their oath of office or plain civic duty, were penalised and humiliated. And witnesses, even hapless victims among them, were suborned, Zahira Sheikh and others of her family being prime examples. 

The echoes of the Best Bakery case had not died down when the Jessica Lall judgement sparked a nationwide protest following the acquittal of all the accused for lack of evidence as witnesses turned hostile en masse. This has been a familiar denouement in cases of heinous crime involving the rich, wealthy and influential or those with muscle power who, between them, have repeatedly taken over the system. It is the poor who get punished and pushed around.

Preceding these two cause celebre were cases of elected politicians with criminal charges against them, avoiding arrest, securing anticipatory bail and then going on to spend quality time in jail or medical wards, ruling the roost as undertrials, holding durbars and planning further strategies with their goons. Simultaneously, a series of recent sting operations have revealed MPs and MLAs shamelessly on the take in a variety of ways. Altogether, these events in close succession have produced a sense of public outrage. While this is all to the good and shows that the nation’s finer sensibilities have not been totally blunted, it is not enough. And this is because the debate has almost exclusively focussed on the symptoms and not the disease. It is to this that attention must turn.

Retrials and asking for the scalp of derelict police officials and others are immediate palliatives. Underlying the rot is the collapse of the criminal justice system. The police and related investigative agencies have been subverted by the criminalisation of politics and politicisation of crime. Blatant political interference with regard to police appointments, postings, promotions, transfers and investigation has undermined the integrity of the force. Corrupt police officials have struck their own deals and compromised with criminal elements. There are, of course, many honourable exceptions, but not everybody is able to withstand pressures or temptation.

The answer is not to blame the police but to reform it. The problems have been analysed threadbare. Yet, despite the labours of numerous police commissions, Central and State, going back to the National Police Commission, their key recommendations have been wilfully shelved. There are strong vested interests in maintaining the status quo. The proposal to give the police autonomy in managing its lower cadres and the establishment of an independent security commission for the promotion, transfer and supervision of its higher echelons, as a shield against political interference, has remained a dead letter, and with it the ideal of a citizen-friendly police.

A high-powered committee has now been appointed by the Government under Mr Soli Sorabjee to draft a new statute in place of the Indian Police Act, 1861. It is not charged with making fresh recommendations but to review earlier recommendations and incorporate them in a new Bill that can be enacted. This will avoid nth time reconsideration of well laid out and long awaited lines of action and expedite overdue legislation. Will this be done? 

There is some danger in drafting a “comprehensive Bill” that seeks to cover every aspect of reform. It has often been used as a dilatory tactic and to obfuscate key issues. Therefore, far better the Committee first recommend a short amendment Bill specifically focussing on police autonomy. This is absolutely central to reform. Other recommendations could then follow and be incorporated sequentially. The States would need to amend their Acts in line with the Central model. But amendment of the parent Act will pave the way for action down the line.       

Witness protection has been accomplished elsewhere in a variety of ways. The Best Bakery judgement, by charging Zahira Sheikh and others with perjury in repudiating their own earlier sworn evidence, is a power the judiciary wields but has rarely used. However, beyond punishing perjury, it would be desirable to protect witnesses who stand by their statements.

The Supreme Court has put a bar on further sting operations pending a decision by it on the Amar Singh phone-tap case. Here again, there has been increasing resort to sting operations because due process has not been allowed to run its course. Corruption charges against officials or politicians cannot be prosecuted without bureaucratic or political clearance at higher levels under the so-called “single directive”. Such sanction is seldom accorded and the single directive has provided cover for dubious persons and transactions. There must be a built in mechanism of independent public prosecutors who are mandated instantly and automatically to launch prosecutions on the basis of adverse findings by designated investigative authorities.

It is not enough to exult over a single Best Bakery judgement or campaign for “Justice for Jessica”. The rot must be fought and the “system” changed. Police reform is the key to reform of the criminal justice system and good governance. The just-adopted UN Convention on Corruption – which India has signed but is yet to ratify and then incorporate in its statute book – could help the country repatriate persons wanted for embezzling funds and laundering sleaze money in secret accounts abroad. Should Indian ratification of this most useful international instrument in waging a global war on corruption be delayed ?

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