Not Reliable or Satisfactory: India’s Criminal Justice and Judiciary Needs Reform

On 6 March, 122 persons—all of them Muslim—who were arrested two decades ago by Surat City Police under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) were released by a Gujarat court. The stringent charges invoked against them, and subsequent release, raises serious questions about our outdated criminal justice system and justice-delivery apparatus, writes MOHD NAUSHAD KHAN

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ON 28 December 2001, the Surat Police arrested 122 Muslims from Rajeshree Hall in the Athwa Lines area of Surat city in Gujarat. They had gathered to participate in a program under the banner of the All India Minority Education Board. On 6 March 2021, after two decades, a court hearing this case said the arguments of the prosecution were “not reliable or satisfactory”.

This is not the first instance where an acquittal has come after the accused have already spent the best years of their lives imprisoned. It has also become a habit to question the criminal justice system, demand reforms in the Criminal Procedure Code, and a transparent justice-delivery mechanism, after such instances come to light.

Experts feel that by ignoring the systemic barriers that have plagued the justice system for decades, the state is abdicating its primary duty to ensure that every citizen enjoys their Constitutional right to life and liberty. 

However, no steps are taken to ensure that innocent men and women do not face punishment in the name of due process of law. Those who have committed crimes should be penalised as per the law, but the justice system should not claim innocents as victims. One of the basic principles of the criminal justice system is that the benefit of doubt must always be extended in favour of the accused. A thousand culprits may escape, but even one innocent person should not be punished.

Brajmohan Saraswat, former Director General of Police (DGP), Uttar Pradesh, says, “Our criminal system is outdated and is based on faulty investigations and lies. The police is not trusted here, which is not the case in advanced countries. In our system, a confession made before a police officer is not admissible in courts. So, the police, to circumvent the evidence, do the job of ‘padding’ it up. You will find two or three people are witnesses in all the cases of recoveries pertaining to a police station. [Even the] courts are meant for the rich. Besides, when investigations are neither impartial nor fair, then their outcome is for anybody to guess.”

Many acquittals are pronounced after the accused has spent almost the full term of the maximum sentence that could have been levied for the crime he (or she) allegedly committed. “Acquittals after many years of unnecessary incarceration almost add insult to injury,” says well-known Supreme Court lawyer Sanjay Hedge. He explains why this is so: the determination of guilt or innocence becomes immaterial in such cases where much time has been spent behind bars or fighting a charge. Even the prosecution agencies, says Hegde, have come to understand that delay can be a prosecution tactic—so long as the courts do not grant bail. “But a speedy trial is a fundamental canon of the rule of law and delayed trials perpetuate inequity,” he says.

Raja Bagga, senior programme officer with the Access to Justice Programme/Police Reforms at the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, says, “Unfortunately, this [instance of 122 people from Gujarat] is not a typical instance but yet another illustration of the systemic challenges within the criminal justice system.” He says the system incapacitates the judiciary to dispense justice and guarantee the right to life and liberty as enshrined under Article 21 of the Constitution. In 2006, the Supreme Court, in Prakash Singh vs Union of India, directed the separation of two vital policing functions—law and order, and investigation.

“Fifteen years later, implementation remains elusive. The poor quality of investigation is a consequence of an understaffed, overworked, non-representative, inadequately trained and discriminatory police service working under the control of the executive,” says Bagga.

The India Justice Report 2020 revealed that more than one-third of posts in the higher judiciary and more than one-fifth of subordinate judiciary posts were lying vacant. Acute vacancies, combined with perennially huge backlog of cases means that trials often continue for years.

“According to media reports, in the case [of the 122 persons arrested in Surat], the trial went on for more than a decade, [was] adjudicated by five judges and handled by multiple public prosecutors,” Bagga says.

Many of the arrestees were released on bail after spending almost a year in jail. However, such a long-lasting trial would have an adverse impact on job opportunities, livelihoods, and they would also face tremendous social ostracism.

“While the State cannot compensate for loss of time, liberty and dignity, it is responsible to recompense the victims of the system by providing monetary and other forms of assistance, and ensuring accountability,” says Bagga.

Experts feel that by ignoring the systemic barriers that have plagued the justice system for decades, the state is abdicating its primary duty to ensure that every citizen enjoys their Constitutional right to life and liberty.

(Mohd Naushad Khan is a journalist and writer. The views expressed are personal.)

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