Issues arising from verdict

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Issues arising from verdict

The Godhra judgement, as we await the sentencing on March 1, 2011, does not exhilarate. Instead it raises serious questions, for time and again, high-profile criminal cases in the country have been falling flat in the courtrooms. The Godhra train carnage in its final stretches was investigated by the Special Investigation Team led by R K Raghavan, a former director of Central Bureau of Investigation appointed by the Supreme Court. Of the 94 charged with conspiracy, two-thirds walked out free, including two persons mentioned in the media as key conspirators - Maulana Hussain Umarji and Mohammad Hussain Kalota. They were not exonerated but let off for want of evidence.

How seriously deficient the prosecution was is evident from the acquittal of two persons dubbed the key conspirators. Key conspirators are the hub; the others are the spokes of the wheel, its rim being the conspiracy. How did the main actors not get conviction but others did? How does the entire case stand proven, with the loose ends of key conspirators out of it? Which means the investigators did a poor job, including allowing a certified blind man remain on the list of accused; he was one who needed a companion to go out with.

When Faeem Ansari and Mohamed Sahabuddin, the alleged Indian hands in the 26/11 terror attack on Mumbai too were set free because the police did not adduce corroborative evidence, the Maharashtra DGP S Sivanandan at least asked the force to introspect.

Maulana Umarji, once named key conspirator, now free.  Photo by Daxesh ShahWe have not heard even such palliatives from Gujarat. It would appear to me that had Ajmal Kasab not been caught red-handed by a brave policeman, the case would have not stood up in a court. Like after the 1993 Mumbai blasts, hundreds would have been rounded up. Pakistan would have not batted an eyelid and India would not have had a weapon to beat it with. It would have remained a whodunit; innocents would have been picked up with the attendant miscarriage of justice.

Shoddy investigations give rise to two possibilities. One, a guilty person could walk free which causes serious injury to a civilised society for it would enthuse more crime. Two, an innocent could get punished which is against all cannons of not just criminal-justice system but also morality. And assuming that the 63 released were innocent - not let off just for want of evidence - then issues of human rights arise. I think the demand for compensation for wrongful arrest and long incarcerations is justified, the investigating officers being asked to pay from their pockets.

Third degree culture

Such failures are caused by lack of professionalism of a force sans self-respect but filled with arrogance. The impunity with which they can pick up a man and turn him into a convict but fail to prove the guilt of a criminal allows them lot of leeway. Everyone in authority seems to be happy with any conviction, for they can be filed away as statistics. Nothing could be more irresponsible. The third degree, not investigative capabilities, seems to drive the working culture of the force, whether in the local polices, their elite CIDs or even the CBI. 

Use of third degree is a pretence of investigation. A person terrified with police brutality would confess to everything and anything which become the basis of prosecution. Police don't distinguish between a suspect, an accused and a person who can assist by giving clues - all are rounded off and ill-treated, probably in the knowledge that given their own inadequacies, the punishment in the lock-up during the pendency of the probe itself is the only rough and ready retribution for the cases won’t anyhow stand in courts. Knowing a person is guilty is one thing. Proving it is another.

When cases monitored by the apex or a high court too fail, the risk of these institutions falling into disrepute becomes strong. There already are issues in public domain about judges' involvement in venality and even white collar crime. It has to be understood that a court supervised investigation does not mean judge does the policeman’s work; the court believes that having to report periodically to them ensures a moral burden of probity on the investigators. But policemen have for decades got away with concocted cases, often built around the confessions extracted by third degree.

We are not talking about pickpockets and petty thieves here though the culture stems from the belief among the policemen at the cutting edge that if not for an extant case, the accused would have been, being habitual criminals, involved in one undetected case or the other. A punishment on any pretext could help clean up the streets. But big ticket cases like Godhra, the Arushi Talwar murder, the Ghatkopar bus blast case in Mumbai in 2002, the Mulund train bombing in 2003, the Saqueeb Nachan case, the Malegaon blasts, et al are of far serious a nature to be casually dealt with. The list can be embarrassingly long and from across the country.

Media-police incest

Sivanandan termed the police raids on fuel adulterators a ‘farce’ to ‘satisfy the media’ because the police are not empowered to deal with that issue. Actually, this strengthening incest between the media and the police is visible. The game appears to be to summon and grill, and then take people in for custodial questioning, repeatedly seek extensions, delay charge sheets, and shamefacedly accept acquittals. The media plays up, implying that a big shot - for instance D Raja in the 2G scam - has been “jailed” were punishment enough. Satyam’s Ramalinga Raju is a case in point but the public is expected to be satisfied that he “is being punished”. As if that were enough.

A combination of poor investigation and poor substantiation in the courts are the apparent causes. The investigative agencies and the prosecutors at every level need to introspect on this and change their ways. Confidence in both is by now shaken, not just with regard to Godhra. This is not good. But quite scary indeed.

(The writer is a Thane-based commentator on public affairs.)

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