Criminal Injustice System

Published: Nov 22, 2011, 07:18 IST | Sushant Singh |

This week falls the third anniversary of the dreaded 26/11 terror attacks on Mumbai when Pakistani terrorists held the city hostage for three days

This week falls the third anniversary of the dreaded 26/11 terror attacks on Mumbai when Pakistani terrorists held the city hostage for three days. There will be remembrances, there will be peace-marches, there will be TV discussions, and there will be op-eds and columns. Many will lament our diplomatic failure to bring the perpetrators -- protected by the Pakistani establishment -- to book, and rightly so. A lot of focus will also be on our internal security establishment: how promises made after 26/11 remain largely unfulfilled. While new NSG hubs have been created, most other elements of Mr Chidambaram's "new architecture of India's internal security" have to still see the light of the day.

Just not enough: With the third anniversary of the 26/11 attacks
rolling around, it is time to not just remember, but take a long hard
look at the loopholes in our criminal justice system

These are all valid lacunae in our system and they need to be highlighted. But one aspect which will be glaringly ignored again is the abysmal state of our criminal justice system. We can mock the Pakistani judicial system for stalling the 26/11 trials, but what about the time taken by our courts to bring the case to a closure? Ajmal Qasab remains alive today, and with the number of protracted legal mechanisms available to him, it will certainly be a few more years before he finally pays for his horrendous crime.

Qasab's is not the first case where justice has been delayed. Mrs Indira Gandhi's assassins were hanged five years after her assassination. Rajiv Gandhi was blown up by a suicide bomber in 1991. Those convicted for that ghastly crime have still not been sent to the gallows. If this is the situation in high-profile cases, imagine the state of routine criminal cases in our country.

'Justice delayed is justice denied' may be a cliche, but that doesn't make it untrue. Quality of justice suffers not only when an innocent person is punished or a guilty person is exonerated but when there is enormous delay in deciding criminal cases. The situation is indeed grave. India has nearly 2,50,000 pre-trial detainees in overcrowded prisons. In fact, as many as seven out of every ten Indian prisoners are pre-trial detainees. Moreover, there are currently around 27,000,000 pending cases in Indian courts.  In one particular case, a man was held in pre-trial detention for 54 years, even though the maximum sentence for his crime was only 10 years.

Besides the huge pendency and inordinate delay, the system suffers from a very low rate of conviction. Only nine percent of the accused were convicted under the IPC in Maharashtra in 2010. When chances of convictions are remote, crime becomes a profitable business. Law and order situation has deteriorated and the average citizen seems to have lost confidence in the criminal justice system. 

The foundation for the criminal justice system is the investigation by the police. Unfortunately, the investigating officers are not given training in interrogation techniques and lack sophisticated investigation skills. Lack of coordination between the investigation and the prosecution makes things worse. This is a major cause for the failure of the system.

What is needed to be done is known to all: simplify judicial procedures and practices; bring about synergy among the judiciary, the prosecution and police; make the system simpler, faster, cheaper and people-friendly; and restore the confidence of the common man.

Two decades ago, a former Chief Justice of India warned that the criminal justice system in India was about to collapse. Over the years, many committees have submitted a number of reports on reforming the criminal justice system. Few reforms, however, have been implemented. Justice Malimath Committee, in its 2003 report on reforming the criminal justice system, actually began with this quote from Andre Gide: "Everything has been said already, but as no one listens, we must always begin again." Let us then begin to reform the criminal justice system -- to ensure that every innocent person is protected and every guilty person is punished expeditiously.

Sushant K. Singh is Fellow for National Security at the Takshashila Institution and editor of Pragati-The Indian   National Interest Review.

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