Radical overhaul need of the hour

In general discourse in India, we have a very ambivalent attitude to the police and to the law. We will more often than not make sweeping generalisations about how corrupt and inefficient the police are and match that with how the judiciary is our saving grace. Yet, we are almost always shocked when a person accused of a crime by the police is acquitted by our courts -- the roles between the police and the judiciary are then reversed. The idea of presumption of innocence is often sacrificed in a sort of atavistic desire for blood justice.

Eye opener: Not only does the Patrawala case cry out for 
implementation of police reforms, it also demands better coordination 
between investigators and the prosecution.

The sad truth is that we are both wrong and right in our ambivalence, demonstrated most sadly in the Adnan Patrawala case, where four people accused of murdering this young boy have just been acquitted by a sessions court in Mumbai. As this newspaper pointed out in its editorial yesterday, Maharashtra has a dismally low conviction rate -- 9 per cent. 

The onus then lies firmly on our investigation and prosecution system both of which are faulty and rarely stand up to the scrutiny of the law. The idea of forensic investigation is still nascent in India, no matter how it appears to be in TV dramas. Crime scenes are regularly contaminated and evidence is badly handled and destroyed. It would be unfair to only blame the Maharashtra police here -- the Aarushi murder case was not handled very differently.

The police also tend to rely on confessions despite them not being admissible as evidence. Regardless of our current admiration for people in uniform, India has a very bad reputation when it comes to custodial torture and no court will accept a confession so received. Witnesses are often tricky in court and quite as difficult as mere circumstantial evidence. All these boxes get ticked in the Patrawala case -- witnesses, confessions, circumstantial evidence.

Trials by public opinion or by the media can only go so far. But a case has to be proved in a court of law. In the case of Ajmal Kasab, the lone terrorist caught after the Mumbai 2008 terror attacks, the evidence was overwhelming and the police had very little work to do. The two people who the police did accuse were acquitted. The Kasab case underlines how inefficient we are even when faced with such enormous threat. And that is the reason why we have made so little progress in any of our terrorism cases. 

Both the politicisation of the police force and the deeply imbedded corruption has been discussed ad nauseam. Several reform committees have made suggestions and the Supreme Court has also ordered some of them -- greater accountability for one. Almost nothing has been done. Some, like separating the investigation and law order wings of the police are not impossible to achieve but will severely affect the current system of favours and handouts. 

The Patrawala case is one which cries out for implementation of police reforms. It demands better coordination between investigators and the prosecution. It is interesting that the state -- which has technically lost the case, not the Patrawala family -- has made no comment on the acquittals, having earlier assured the country that the right people had been caught. 

The re-opening of an investigation is not unheard of but requires the intervention of the higher courts. Jessica Lal, the Gujarat riots of 2002 and Alistair Pereira are some of the cases where the courts have been forced to intervene because of police or prosecutorial failures. 

The Malimath committee on reforms of the criminal justice system, 2003, starts with this quote from French writer Andre Gide: "Everything has been said already, but as no one listens, we must always begin again."
Time perhaps to go back to that again?

Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist. You can follow her on twitter @ranjona

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