April 26, 2005

150 vs nobody

The lawyer I know well flew into town again last week. He comes rarely now, though he used to come here often. Always business class. Always put up in a suite at one of the finest hotels in the city. Over the years, he has shared many superb dinners there with us.

He is part of the prosecution team in the famous Bombay bomb blast case. While the case was being heard, he was in and out of Bombay regularly, arguing the prosecution's case, cross-examining witnesses. Those visits ended about 16 months ago, when all arguments in the case ended. So this was his first visit since then -- he was here to clear up some points for the judge.

Unfortunately, we couldn't manage our usual dinner together.

But they did come to me again, the points I have discussed with him often. The bomb blasts happened on March 12 1993, killing some 250 people. Within a year, over 150 suspects had been arrested and the trial had begun in a special court. Most of those 150 have spent the last decade in jail while their trial has rumbled on. For the last 16 months, they have continued in jail while the judge considers all the evidence and writes his judgement. (Presumably, that is what he is doing).

Now I have no way of knowing, but it seems plausible to me that His Honour will find at least some of those 150 suspects innocent. I ask for no sympathy for those he will find guilty. But who will compensate the innocent for the years in custody? How? More important, who cares?

And even so, there is something else here that is worse than innocents jailed for a decade. Three months prior to the blasts -- yes, prior, despite a deliberately spread and growing impression to the contrary -- there were weeks of rioting in Bombay, killing about 1000 people and destroying countless other lives. The carnage in this city in 1992-93 traumatized all of us who lived through it, and was every bit as horrible as what happened in Gujarat in 2002.

Yet twelve years later, there is no trial for the riots, none in prospect. There is no cause for me to ask the question I ask about the bomb blast trial: who will compensate the innocent for their time in jail and how? Because nobody is in jail accused of crimes during the riots, nobody of any consequence so much as arrested. All we have is the report of an official inquiry into the riots: not a trial, just an inquiry with no penal powers. And even that report has been viciously trashed by some, utterly ignored by others. Even though, like so many other futile inquiries into national tragedies, it identifies the guilty.

For most of the past decade, I've wondered about this, and discussed it with the lawyer over our delicious dinners. Here's my dilemma.

One act of ghastly terrorism has seen arrests, long incarcerations, a laborious but full-fledged trial involving lawyers flying business class and staying in expensive hotel suites.

The other act of ghastly terrorism has seen nothing.

Why? What explains this glaring contrast in our response to two great crimes?

If in the bomb blast case, I wonder who will compensate the innocent, in the Bombay riots I wonder who will bring justice to the victims, the families of innocent Indians killed. Who will punish the guilty? I don't like to admit it, but somewhere inside me I know the answer: nobody. Nobody will get justice. Nobody will be punished.

And since we seem content with this profound failure of justice (and others), I also wonder: what does this say about our Indian aspirations? You know: become a developed country, become a superpower, defeat terrorism, sit on that Security Council for all time to come, make this the Indian century, take your pick.

What does this say about us?

4 comments:

Gary said...

The Judiciary in India has collapsed. It is a farce. We are being delusional if we think that the law and order system is in place in india.

I do not think there is any difference between bihar and maharashtra or for that matter any other state.

We fool ourselves when we compare the states by their economic statistics.

For a case of a bounced cheque [I was issued one], I was told by a lawyer that it was a straight forward case and that justice would be immediate.

After accepting a advance of Rs.5000, she came for the hearing just once. Every time we were given a date of a hearing after 6 months.The lady lawyer than had to be reminded of the dates and she used to send amateurs for hearings at the cost of Rs.500 per hearing.

Once I went for a hearing, stood in a corner of the court from 11:00 am till 5:00 pm, only to be given another date. That was it. I never went again and forgot about the money.

And yes, over the years my pride of being a citizen of the largest democracy has evapourated.

Now the disillusionment with the system is of such proportions that I sincerely regret if a mob fails to lynch a rapist cop or a thief.

Does that say much about the faith in judiciary?

Sriram said...

Hence my belief that governments should stick to just two things atmost - national defense and law and order. With the limited resources that the Indian government has, how does it make sense for it to be running public transport, building toilets or doing social engineering?

Of course, increased focus and resources won't fix everything. But it is a necessary start. For the law and order itself to function well, I feel we need:

1 . Simple laws based on common sense, individual rights and fair principles.

2 . Transparent and speedy process of enforcing the same.

Vishnu said...

Dear Dilip,

You said Nobody will get justice. Nobody will be punished.

If you are so sure about this then what are you crying for? OR you just want to spread nausea?

One act of ghastly terrorism has seen arrests, long incarcerations, a laborious but full-fledged trial involving lawyers flying business class and staying in expensive hotel suites.

The other act of ghastly terrorism has seen nothing.


Then why talk about Mumbai and Gujarat? Why not about Kashmir? Carnage over there is not even noticed or discussed openly, by you or anybody... Let alone justice. Why not?

but it seems plausible to me that His Honour will find at least some of those 150 suspects innocent.

Why not all of them? Let's assume that Bomb-blasts never happened ! Thats it. What about victims of bomb blasts? Have you done any thing to bring justice to them? It is obvious that you haven't.

For most of the past decade, I've wondered about this, and discussed ……… my dilemma.

Remember who appointed Shrikrishna commission ! There is no dillema as such...Because you are tilted....Mr. Dilip...and so do your observations and writings.

RR said...

The previous government set up what are called 'Fast Track' courts to speed up trials. The reason was that there was a huge backlog of cases, and that owing to the resulting delays in the process of justice, undertrials in criminal cases were languishing in jails. When our new 'government' -- if it can be called that, given how some memebrs of it seem to be walking advertisements for fast track courts -- attempted to sabotage these courts by denying them funding, public furore ensured, and the 'government' had to beat a retreat.

It was precisely to one such court that the Best Bakery case went. And the court, in accordance with the mandate it was set up, heard the matter speedily. It acquitted all the 21 accused, arguing that the police did a shoddy investigation. It said that the police, under pressure to book some one and show 'progress' in the case, randonmly picked up some people from the neighorhood the bakery was located in.

The government -- Gujarat governemnt -- appealed in the High Court. The High Court struck down government's every single argument -- numbering more than thirty in all -- pleading for a retrial of the accused. It upheld the fast track court's verdict of acquittal.

Both courts had in a way affirmed precisely what some high-profile "human rights activists" were alleging: that the Gujarat police did not conduct proper investigations into the riots cases. Therefore, you'd expect the said "activists" to seize the courts' verdict as proof of their argument, and demand re-investigations into riots cases, including the Best Bakery case, right?

Wrong. The "activists" chose to repose immense faith in the police version. Never ones to miss an opportunity to shift goalposts, they insisted that the police did a good job, but that the court didn't!

The "human rights discourse", if you aren't very familiar with it, centers round projecting the brutal state -- and most often only the state -- as the violator of human rights of "little people". The state perpetrates these violations, the arguemnt goes, with its repressive arm, the police.

For this reason, the enemy #1 for "human rights activists" is generally the police. When our "government" proposed a ex-cop to the human rights commission recently, there was a loud noise from the usual suspects: 'how can a cop be guardian of "human rights"?' the objection went.

But strangely enough, in the Best Bakery case the "human rights activists" found police -- Gujarat's police -- to be trustworthy. There was no argument offered as to why the police version had to be treated as the gospel truth. A leading light of these activists, backed by a high-decibel media campaign and the recanting of the prime witness, moved the Supreme Court for a retrial. Which the Supreme Court granted, without so much as, as it turns out, a prayer from the prime witness herself for the retrial!!

And the so 21 (re)accused found their joy and freedom to be short-lived. They were hunted down and rearrested, and lodged in jail yet again.

Meanwhile, the Prime Witness does a volte-face, and reaffirms what she told the fast-track court: that the names of the accused were what the police decided to be, not what she told them.

"Human rights activists" change tack, and rally round their leading light. What this leading light said of the Godhra carnage bears mention, even if as a digression. It is worth repeating, for, do not forget, she is a "human rights activist". Justifying the burning of the people in the train, she said:

"you cannot pick up (this)incident in isolation. Let us not forget the provocation. These people were not going for a benign assembly. They were indulging in blatant and unlawful mobilization to build a temple and deliberately provoke the Muslims in India".

This was said, of course, on the night of the carnage, before the riots began, before, that is, the "human rights activists" would pounce on anyone who made the claim that the carnage was the provocation for the subsequent riots.

On the intervention of this high-profile "activist" and the noise made by her media godfathers, then, 21 acquitted people are arraigned yet again. The re-trial -- the jury is still out on whether this one is fair -- is meandering on.

Twice-acquitted people are languishing in jail as we speak. An attempt has been made on their lives by a mafia outfit, the same outfit that is said to be behind the Bombay blasts. I have no way of knowing accurately either, but if the current progress is any indication, his honour will have to find, all over again, that at least some of those twice-acquitted people are innocent. But who will compensate the innocent for the years in custody?

How come no "human rights activist" is speaking up for them?

And let us not forget that a train carnage preceded the Best Bakery events. It traumatized too all those who lived through it, was every bit as brutal as the Best Bakery case, and yet, it is not even a blip on the "activist's" or media's radar screen.

What explains this glaring contrast in our "activists'", and media's, response to two great crimes?

What does this say about both, our "activists" and our media: could they both be crooks using each other to project a sophisticated image of themselves, an image some of us seem to have swallowed uncritically?

What does that speak of our justice system, of our courts which order retrials resulting in twice-acquitted people getting imprisoned yet again, without so much as an affidavit from the prime witness to the effect that she faults the earlier trial, and that she desires a retrial?

How come no retrials were ever sought in the Radhabai Chawl case, in whcih case were too all the accused were acquitted, on the grounds that eye-witness accounts are not enough to secure a conviction?

It is said that in ancient India, the treatment meted out to an accused in a crime depended on what caste he belonged to. A brahmin would of course be given the benefit of doubt, and often his assertions were taken at face value, a privilege that those lower down the caste order did not enjoy.

Are we witnessing the emergence of new brahmins?