Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Danger of Rash and Hasty Investigations

Almost unnoticed by main stream media, the Supreme Court of India, pronounced its judgement in the case of Satyavir Singh Rathi Vs State through CBI, on 02 May 2011. Considering the importance of the crime underlying that case, media’s near silence was rather surprising. Or is it that the story has lost its power to attract readership/viewership? But I think that story needs to be told, for various reasons.

In recent times, with multi-crore scams tumbling out one after the other, people of India are increasingly adopting a liking for the vigilante kind of justice system. If we peruse the social media (and the TV debates), this demand for instant action and impatience with legal process is very much visible. Nobody wants to wait till investigations are conducted. As soon as the ‘Breaking News’ appears on any channel, people and media begin yet another round of ‘system bashing’ and demand immediate arrest and jailing of the accused. They don’t even spare those already condemned to death by courts- seeking their immediate hanging.

While I can understand some of the frustrations among people and the need for media to fan those frustrations, I am concerned about the long-term impact of these developments on our judicial system. Freedom of investigators is not something absolute- it has to be restricted by the rule of law and its procedures. Otherwise, we will end up with false encounters and kangaroo courts, by the time we ensure all our corrupt politicians are brought to book!

Coming back to the Satyavir Singh Rathi case- it is not likely that any of us who were aware of the facts of the case at the time of its happening might have forgotten it. On 31st March 1997, at about 2.30 pm, a police team of 13 armed officials headed by ACP Sathyavir Singh Rathi surrounded a Maruti Esteem car that stopped at a signal towards Barakambha Road in Connaught Place, Delhi, and shot dead two of the occupants of the car on the spot and critically injured the third passenger. Police gave out the version that they stopped the car as they had information that a notorious criminal carrying a price on his head was travelling in the car, they shot at the car in self defence when they were fired upon by the occupants; and that they had recovered a 7.65 mm pistol that was used to fire at the police party.

However, it did not take much time for the details to emerge. The incident was a case of mistaken identity, gross negligence and callousness on the part of the police. Police on receipt of information, that a criminal named Mohd. Yaseen, was visiting the area had identified one of the occupants of the car, Jagjit Singh who was a Sikh with no turban but a trimmed beard, as the said Mohd. Yaseen. Though they had Yaseen’s photo in their hand and ample time and opportunity to verify the identity the person, they did not do so. Instead, they stopped the car and shot down the occupants, who were nothing but a local businessman and his two visitors, without any provocation whatsoever. Further, as per the investigation of CBI (which was instituted only after public pressure as the Delhi Police was doing everything possible to save their own personnel involved in the case) it was also proved that the 7.65 mm pistol was only a subsequent plant by the police to corroborate their self-defence theory, after they understood the grave error they committed.

The trial went through the normal process. The accused policemen maintained their defence mainly of the theory that it was an action in self defence. The accused (except those who were not prosecuted for lack of evidence on their direct involvement in the shooting) were sentenced for murder, by the trial court and the same upheld by High court. In the special leave appeal, the Apex Court issued its final verdict, upholding the sentence to each of the accused. The Court held that “The possibility of a hefty cash reward and accelerated promotion acted as a catalyst and spurred the police party to rash and hasty action”.

While justice is done in this case the fate of various similar cases are still to be decided. Police have, time and again, been found to use highhandedness in dealing with investigations or otherwise, as is evident from the number of false encounters that got reported. Eliminating a suspect, even on flimsy reasons, for hefty cash reward and accelerated promotion or even to meet the public pressure or appreciation of their political masters, is rampant. So is the third degree methods used for obtaining information and collecting evidence from the accused.

If anybody has any doubt about the effectiveness of the extra-constitutional methods of police to cause miscarriage of justice and to crucify innocents, I suggest they read the two books named, ‘The Confession” and “The Innocent Man” by John Grisham. It would show how these things are rampant even in advanced countries such a USA.

Unless the society is vigilant and the police are subjected to strict procedural controls, the medicine can easily cause more damage than the disease itself! Let Police exercise their enormous powers completely subject to the majesty of law, so that you and I do not end up as victims of their eagerness for hefty cash rewards and accelerated promotions. Once standards are deviated it would take a long time to bring them back into practise. Remember, the atrocities of Emergency? Let us not sacrifice human rights in our quest to bring the corrupt politicians to book. Let us not make them the cause for even more serious damage than what they have already caused to our nation!

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