The case rests

Criminal justice procedures are entangled with political power and money muscle to ensure that the rule of law will not prevailJoginder Singh DelhiIt is customary for the political class to express routine alarm at rising corruption, but they are the partners in the same crime. Former prime minister, AB Vajapayee, stressed his government’s commitment to “zero tolerance of corruption” and confirmed that his government would not bring any pressure to bear on the working of the Central Bureau of Investigation or any other constitutional agency. This was on August 25, 2002. Zero tolerance has become a joke. Market-led liberalisation only created more opportunities for corruption. No new laws, policy reforms or new techniques of investigation were introduced. The backlog as on February 27, 2006 was as underSupreme Court                  33,635High Courts                   33,41,040Subordinate Courts   2,53,06,458The process of obtaining justice is seemingly interminable. The accused can take advantage of the cluttered cases to delay the nemesis, until either they or the key witnesses pass away. Investigation at the first step is often shoddy and especially in high-profile cases where loopholes are left as they are. The public is tired of having the big fish get away, or if caught being treated with kid gloves. However, the investigating authorities are not autonomous. They work keeping the legislature and judiciary in mind. The Chief Justice of India, while addressing a conference of Chief Ministers and Chief Justices of the High Courts on March 1, 2006 said, "The country's justice delivery system appears to be on the verge of the collapse. Not much has been done for the improvement of investigative and prosecution machinery. Significant suggestions for separation of the investigative wing from the law and order duties and changes in the rules of evidence still lie unattended.  The public outrage over the failure of the criminal justice system in some high-profile cases must shake us all up into the realisation that something needs to be urgently done to revamp the whole process, though steering clear of knee-jerk reactions, remembering that law is a serious business.”A fundamental flaw is the premise of criminal justice that witnesses will not lie under oath. Practically, the system cannot protect the witness from harassment. It cannot compensate the witness for the losses of livelihood in time spend at courts. To give a personal example, once I asked my wife to drop me at the nearest taxi stand, as the government staff car did not come in time for the flight to Kolkata. While coming back home, to the Curzon Road apartments, her car was hit by a rashly-driven bus. As I was away, I asked her to immediately report the case to the police. This happened in 1979. The case came up after eleven years. Defence asked her whether her eyesight was fine and whether she really knew driving, (though she had been driving for last ten years), and why did she not take preventive measures to avoid the bus hitting her car. In all this, she had no intervention, or help of the prosecutor. She told me that she was made to feel like an accused, rather than an aggrieved party.No one wants to be involved in a criminal justice procedure. They will not lend a helping hand to the police, or do their duty as citizens, unless they have a particular vested interest in the matter. A witness’s problems arise because he is unfortunate enough to be on the spot when the crime is being committed and at the same time  "reckless and foolish" enough to remain there till the arrival of the police, and still more unwise to become a witness.Sometime the witnesses incur the wrath of hardened criminals and are deprived of their lives or limbs. In fact, more high-profile a case, the more chances are there of the harassment of witnesses, as money is not a problem for the criminals involved. Expensive lawyers would point out the missing commas and full stops, and all they have to prove in the law are the missing links to pronounce that the case is not proved beyond a shadow of doubt. There is every possibility of miscarriage of justice in the reluctance of the public to appear as a witness. It has happened in many high-profile cases, where persons committing crimes have got away with it, as either money or muscle power or intimidation or using gangsters is not a problem for them. More than that, the political class, irrespective of their parties, has a biradari, a community, where they go all-out to protect each other. In Uttar Pradesh, a minister and a member of parliament were caught accepting bribe, on camera. There was an uproar, not on the corrupt practices, but as to why the sting operation was done. In Punjab, when a raid was conducted and a corrupt official was caught, the minister protested as to why his permission was not taken for conducting the raid, instead of appreciating the nabbing of the corrupt.The Meghalaya chief minister has ousted Community and Rural Development minister, Beckstar K Sangma, from his cabinet, as he was an accused in a multi-million central funds fraud in the Garo Hills. The catalogue of the politicians indulging in corruption would turn out bigger than the Oxford English Dictionary. Even after being convicted, politicians would like to enjoy, in jail, the perks, which go with their office. Even after being convicted, Bir Singh Mahato, Forward Bloc MP from Purulia in West Bengal, sought suspen­sion of his 10 years of rig­orous imprisonment in a rape case to attend a session of Parlia­ment, which was declined by the Supreme Court. The people expect all such cases to end in the conviction. They expect exemplary punishment, especially if the accused is highly connected or holds a high position either in the government, or is considered high profile in society. Despite the recommendations of several commissions and committees, no steps appear to have been taken either by the government to put the matters right, by providing witnesses protection or introduce plea bargaining where an accused person gets lesser sentence for truthfully confessing his role in a crime. Naturally, the investigating agencies feel demoralised, when all their efforts to get high-profile people convicted are reduced to muscle-flexing. Vigilant persons, seeking the Right to Information, can participate in good governance. They can help curb the excessive power of the rulers over society. An independent media, with responsibly conducted sting operations, will keep the ruling class vigilant. Pressure should be placed on a criminal justice system to deliver without fear or favour. It has to bring criminals to book, no matter their wealth or social and political standing. Only then can Indians can measure to Rabindranath Tagore's idea of a country where the mind is without fear and the head is held high.Joginder Singh is former director, Central Bureau of Investigation, India