Delayed, denied, deficient

Charles Dickens, in his famous novel Oliver Twist had Mr Bumble, the unhappy spouse of a domineering wife, when told in court that "...the law supposes that your wife acts under your direction", disdainfully proclaim: "If the law supposes that," squeezing his hat emphatically in both hands, "the law is a (sic) ass, a (sic) idiot". The award of a five-year jail term for superstar Salman Khan for shooting blackbucks in a Rajasthan village in 1998, tales of nearly Rs 600 crore riding on him, his imprisonment for two nights, his subsequent bail and the media coverage on the throng of cheering celebrities visiting his Bandra residence looked like a poor drama with a shoddy script, typical of a Bollywood potboiler. First of all, it was an instance of too little, too late, in view of the inordinate delay. A ruling took 20 years, and should the matter be taken to the highest court, which is sure to happen, none knows when the final verdict would be delivered.

The trope that “justice delayed is justice denied” gets vindicated when we recall that the Liberhan Commission took more than 16 years to produce its report on the Babri Masjid demolition, a colossal miscarriage of justice in view of the fact that the delay rendered the prospect of bringing the guilty to justice practically impossible. Recently, the Supreme Court said it will entrust as many as 186 anti-Sikh riot cases from 1984 to a new Special Investigation Team (SIT) headed by a retired high court judge. It’s a pity that in the wake of the anti-Sikh riots in 1984, various committees and commissions -– the Marwah Commission, the Mishra Commission, the Kapur Mittal Committee, the Jain Banerjee Committee, the Potti Rosha Committee, the Jain Aggarwal Committee, the Ahuja Committee, the Dhillon Committee, the Narula Committee and the Nanavati Commission, one after the other -– set up by many governments, failed to bring the much-awaited redress and justice to the families of those that were killed during the riots. As late as in 2012, the CBI told a sessions court in Delhi that the then Congress government, its leaders like Sajjan Kumar and the Delhi Police had backed the massacre of Sikhs, a ‘known’ fact all the way.

In the past 33 years following the Bhopal gas tragedy in 1984, more than 20,000 people have died as a result of the leak. Tens of thousands of those exposed to the gas continue to live with its effects, some of which have been passed from one generation to another. Women and girls have been particularly afflicted, with frequent miscarriages, infertility and irregular periods. So widespread are these effects that medical researchers have referred to an “epidemic” of gynaecological diseases. In June 2010, 26 years after criminal charges were first filed, Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL) and seven Indian employees were convicted and subsequently sentenced to two years in jail and fined $2,200, while UCIL was let off with a fine of $11,000. A settlement in 1989 with each gas victim being finally awarded less than one-fifth of the sum allotted as per the terms of a settlement had set off gas victims to wage protracted struggles in their quest for medical relief and rehabilitation, compensation, environmental remediation and justice.

The Gujarat government under Narendra Modi had been severely taken to task by several international news media agencies, NGOs and human rights advocacy groups such as Human Rights Watch for its role in the carnage in 2002, even to the point of alleging its complicity in the riots. In the aftermath of the riots, when witnesses were seen to be threatened and sometimes even attacked, not only did the Gujarat government fail to pursue those responsible for the riots, but worse, it was also obstructing justice by its failure to protect witnesses. The Indian state has singularly failed to properly own up the pogrom by punishing the arsonists, rapists and rioters. And the subsequent riots show that the state has also failed to take adequate guard against communal riots. It is wishful thinking to consider that the Gujarat carnage – the apogee of communal violence in the post-Independence era – was probably the first and hopefully the last communal riot that was openly and unabashedly instigated and supported by the state government. 

And what compounds the judicial delay is the acute shortage of judicial manpower. In the last few months, lawyers have been resorting to agitations and strikes in Karnataka, West Bengal and Odisha to fill up the vacancies. With more than 2.8 crore cases pending in various courts across India, and with more than 60,000 matters lying before the Supreme Court, the problem is not exactly the high number of cases coming into the ‘system’ but of few coming ‘out’ that highlights the epic shortage of judicial manpower. The former chief justice of India T S Thakur lashed out at the Centre for delaying the appointment of judges and trying to bring the judiciary to a grinding halt and made an emotional appeal to rescue the judicial system from its enormous workload and chronic shortage of judges. It all fell on deaf ears.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi underlined the need for the government and judiciary to be “on the same page” to realise his dream of 'New India'. Any attempt to install ‘committed’ judges in the Supreme Court severely compromises its independence. Whether the PM was hinting at a “poodle” or a partisan judiciary is a matter of speculation, but the nub of the matter is, an overworked judiciary, deprived of both financial and human resources and crying for judicial reforms, reeking of institutional bias and corruption and standing vulnerable to political pressure, is hardly commensurate with the aspirations of a ‘New India’. It is the job of both the executive and judiciary to clear the air and establish a rule of law, order and justice.

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