More equal than others

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The alacrity and promptness with which Salman Khan was granted bail after his conviction by a Mumbai Sessions Court is testimony to the fact that money and power speak a very powerful language in India. What about those under trial prisoners who languish for years in jail because there is no one to post bail?

A Bollywood superstar in an allegedly inebriated state runs his car over five people sleeping on a pavement. One succumbs to his injuries while the others are injured. The case hangs fire for thirteen long years till a sessions judge puts a lid on it by finding the actor guilty of all charges levied against him by the prosecution, and awards him five years rigorous punishment besides a fine. The visual media goes on an overdrive and panelists on news channels declare that justice has prevailed and that the judgment had proved that everyone including the rich and powerful are equal in the eyes of the law. In a dramatic denouement on the same evening that the judgment had been delivered, the actor’s legal team makes a beeline to the High Court seeking extension of the bail as the order copies had not been delivered to them. It is granted. Two days later, the same court suspends the sentence and admits an appeal against the conviction.

Laymen and legal luminaries are stunned at the alacrity with which things had moved and express their opinion that even the aam aadmi (common man) should be able to have his cases heard and bail granted in record time as in this case. And therein lies the rub. Nearly three lakh under trials, most of them hailing from poor and deprived backgrounds are languishing in dingy jails across the country, suffering the worst kind of privation and misery. They have no idea when their cases will come up for trial and have no access to the bail amount or lawyers who can argue on their behalf. Seeking justice and securing it is after all a costly affair in this country.

In several cases, these under trials have been in prison for far longer durations than the maximum period of imprisonment that their crimes would have fetched them. There are any number of lawyers who would argue pro bono for them. But so large are their numbers that even this becomes an Utopian dream.

More than three thousand Sikhs were massacred in the nation’s capital Delhi in the aftermath of the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards. Thirty one years later many of the killers still walk free on the streets of Delhi. Some who were charge sheeted have died even before they could be brought to justice. The Jessica Lal case where the son of a former Union Minister gunned down a model because she refused to serve him a drink too could be brought to a logical conclusion only because of a furore in the media. At least in these cases one can rest content that though justice was delayed, it was not denied. In most cases the prosecution is unable to wrap up the cases because the defence has in its arsenal several weapons that could effectively stall the path to justice. Intimidation of witnesses, bribing them to testify in favour of the accused, dragging cases for inordinate lengths of time in the hope that some of the witnesses might even die before recording their statements are all the tricks in the book that are often resorted to by those who have money and muscle power. In the absence of a strong Witness Protection Act, witnesses can rarely summon the courage to testify and where such testimony is to be made against their own bosses or those who can play havoc with their lives, they often turn hostile.

Judicial reforms therefore are the need of the hour. Every Indian citizen irrespective of his or her caste, creed, religion or social status is entitled to equal treatment under the laws of the land which does not discriminate in any way between the rich and the poor. However, there are umpteen instances where the affluent class or those who have connections in the right places have been able to hoodwink the law by taking advantage of the loopholes. This needless to add is patently unfair and unjust and should change, and the sooner it happens the better for all concerned.


journalist

C.V. Aravind

The writer is a Bangalore-based freelance journalist.

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