Reason to rejoice

Public confidence in India’s criminal justice system has received a boost with justice finally being done in the Jessica Lal murder case. The supreme court has reaffirmed the life imprisonment verdict handed out to Manu Sharma by the Delhi high court. The road to justice in the case has been long and tortuous. This, despite the fact that it was an open and shut case. The victim was shot dead by Sharma in full view of scores of witnesses. One would have thought then that the conviction would follow soon. But this was not to be with Sharma, the son of a politician and a former Union minister, using his money, muscle power and political clout to tamper with evidence and intimidate witnesses. Every trick in the book was used to squash the case. A trial court acquitted him, triggering public outrage. But perseverance in the path of justice by Jessica’s friends and family backed by civil society defeated Sharma’s plan as they appealed to the Delhi high court, which found him guilty and awarded him life imprisonment. Sharma then appealed to the supreme court. His brazen violation of parole norms a few months ago drew attention to his continuing clout, raising concern over whether he would be able to apply pressure to swing the supreme court verdict in his favour. Monday’s verdict indicates that the county’s apex court has stood firm in upholding the cause of justice.

The supreme court ruling provides closure on a murder done 11 years ago. But some of the issues the case triggered remain alive. The case underscored the fact that the cause of justice cannot be enhanced simply by having a powerful judiciary. It drew attention to the need to put in place a witness protection programme so that witnesses can come forward and bear testimony without fear. Little has been done in the years since to put in place such a scheme. While the supreme court has on occasion intervened — as in the Gujarat riots cases, for instance, to enable witnesses to testify without fear, what the country needs is more than ad-hoc help.

For millions in this country who have believed that battles with the rich and powerful almost always go in favour of the latter, the verdict is reason for celebration. It is a reminder that the small man or woman can still hope to win if s/he pursues justice through the courts.

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