Crime and Punishment

Two judgements—one in Ben-gal and another in Gujarat. And in both cases civil libertarians have reasons to get worried about the way Indian criminal justice system is degrading for different reasons. In Bengal it is the case of Chhatradhar Mahato, while in Gujarat murder convicts who are out on bail are threatening the retired judge who delivered the judgement of conviction.

Mahato was a leader of a mass upheaval which could be a model of the most-spoken ‘participatory democracy’. Instead he has been put into life imprisonment by a lower court. He was arrested in September 2009 by the then CPM-led Left Front Government under the draconian UAPA, framed with false charges. It was condemned by all democratic forces and Opposition too. But the then Opposition—Trinamul Congress—ironically though, coming to power, followed the same track of LF.

The historic Lalgarh Movement in Junglemahal, was an experiment in direct democracy and Chhatradhar was the moving spirit behind that experiment which could have strengthened the pillars of justice, equality and fraternity.

In the Gujarat scenario, threats issued to retired judge Jyotsana Yagnik are very serious.

Ms Jyotsana Yagnik, who, in her capacity as special judge had, in August 2012, convicted former Gujarat BJP minister Maya Kodnani, former Bajrang Dal leader Babu Bajrangi and 30 others in the 2002 massacre  of 97 Muslims in Naroda Patiya. Ms Yagnik has received at least 22 threat letters since the verdict, as well as blank phone calls at her home. The 62-year-old judge has informed the Supreme Court-appointed Special Investigation Team about the threats and phone calls, but instead of strengthening her protection, the saffron government in Gujarat has scaled down her security cover.

The SIT convenor and Additional DIG of Police has denied knowledge of the letters, according to the news-report. Meanwhile convict Maya Kodnani, condemned to life imprisonment as principal conspirator in a massacre, has been out on bail since mid-2014, and convict Babu Bajrangi, sentenced to imprisonment till death is now about to enjoy three months bail for medical treatment.

The Indian criminal justice system is being politically degraded with every passing day. With regard to the violence in Gujarat in 2002, there have been instances of several encounter-accused policemen being re-instated and cases against them being quietly dropped. Meanwhile in Maharashtra, there is no sign that the murderers of Narendra Dabholkar and Gobind Pansare will ever be caught. In Bihar, the acquittals of those accused of massacring Dalits in Shankarbigha and Bathani-tola show that the justice system is incapable or unwilling to punish those who commit mass crimes. Now an upright judge being threatened, whilst murder convicts guilty of heinous crimes are out on bail, and suspended policemen obtain reinstatement.

An onslaught on justice is taking place in broad daylight. It is now clear that the Modi-led government finds India's criminal justice system and independent judiciary to be an obstacle blocking its long-term plans. The incidence of prejudice in the courts is nothing new—the 1984 pogrom inaugurated a new era in the erosion of Indian justice. The Bharatiya Janata Party led NDA government has given impetus to this process. The ideological hooligans of the so-called 'Sangh parivar' are convinced they are above the law. Corruption does not merely have monetary implications. The erosion of judicial independence taking place before the eyes of public is also corruption. Building trustworthy public institutions is a prolonged process that takes decades. But they can be destroyed very rapidly, especially when state power is used covertly or openly.

By undermining the citizens' faith in a fearless judiciary, the elimination of law will threaten the very foundations of the democratic state. All elected representatives should remember that the Constitution is the fundamental statute of the Indian Union, which protect Indian people from violent and tyrannical behaviour by criminals and/or persons in power. If they keep silent in the face of the ongoing sabotage of justice, MP's and MLA's shall be betraying their oath of office.

Vol. 47, No. 47, May 31 - June 6, 2015