Vigilantes & the law

A steady drip of major lapses combined with minor lapses over a period is chipping away at the credibility of various government agencies

When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth,” Sherlock Holmes famously said to Dr Watson. Most of us do not have Holmes’ sense of logical reasoning, nor his facility to adopt almost any disguise, nor his familiarity with forensic science to solve difficult mysteries. But that has hardly been a deterrent as we play detective tracking the sordid saga of Ram Singh, the prime accused in the infamous Delhi gangrape case.

Was it murder, suicide or assisted suicide? As I write, there are dozens of unanswered questions about the unusual circumstances leading to the death of 33-year-old Singh, allegedly the leader of the gang responsible for the rape and eventual death of a young woman last December. The savagery inflicted on the woman and on her male friend inside a moving bus in the heart of India’s capital set the nation ablaze with anger. Demonstrations and vitriolic debates followed. Now we are talking legal reforms. But there is a twist in the tale. One of the five in the dock for the assaults was found dead in his cell at the Tihar Jail. The preliminary autopsy report by a team of three doctors at the All-India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) suggests death by hanging. A magisterial enquiry has been instituted. Singh’s family suspects foul play. Several statements by the Tihar Jail authorities have kept the conspiracy theorists busy. This is likely to go on for a while.
We may or may not ever get to know the whole truth behind the death of Ram Singh in India’s highest security jail. But this case illustrates a more uncomfortable truth — the state is turning out to be its own greatest enemy. Ram Singh died an unnatural death under the state’s watch, the third such case in 15 months in Tihar alone. Home minister Sushilkumar Shinde calls it a “major lapse”. But a steady drip of major lapses combined with minor lapses over a period is chipping away at the credibility of various government agencies. As a result, even the good work that is done is generating less goodwill than it could or should. Repeated dereliction of duty by various state agencies is helping erode whatever is left of the public’s confidence in institutions and structures mandated to dispense justice in this country.
Indeed, we are witnessing two parallel trends. On one hand there is increasing impatience with the rule of law and the procedures to be followed, a rising clamour for vigilante-style instant justice. On the other, many institutions meant to uphold the rule of law are often seen flagrantly violating due process, adding to the cynicism.
In the Delhi gangrape case, it was negligence and the flouting of the rule of law by various government institutions which led to the horrific incident — the transport department allowed the bus to be run without a permit; policemen failed to note that it had tinted glasses though this is prohibited. Several police control room vans allowed it to pass through, with the victims inside. The rest of the story is too well-known to be repeated. But the death of Ram Singh has brought the spotlight back on the absolute urgency to have effective monitoring mechanisms. Without that no law or policy, no matter how wisely and comprehensively crafted, will deliver the intended outcomes.
There are several recent examples of how pivotal agencies are undermining public faith in the country’s criminal justice system. Earlier this month, two policemen in Tarn Taran, Punjab, thrashed a girl who had sought their help after being harassed by a group of men. The cops were arrested only after the issue triggered a media furore and the Supreme Court issued a notice to the Punjab government seeking its reply on the incident.
In another case, a girl kidnapped from Ahmednagar, Maharashtra, earlier this year, and rescued from a brothel in Shirpur in Dhule, told the Pune police that the Ahmednagar police did not register her complaint and a senior police officer assaulted her fiancé and her, claiming they were trying to register a fake case.
Or take the prison system, currently the hot topic. Unnatural deaths in a high security jail predictably create a huge stir. A total of 1,332 prisoners were reported dead in India’s jails due to natural and unnatural causes during 2011. Of them, 88 were reportedly due to unnatural causes. But even in the case of “natural deaths” there is evidence to suggest that the state does not carry out its obligations to those under its watch. The National Human Rights Commission noted as early as 1999 that nearly 80 per cent of deaths in jails were due to tuberculosis. It prescribed initial and periodical medical check-up of all inmates. Has this been done? Can it be done in the hugely overcrowded and insanitary environment in which inmates are forced to stay? Tihar has around 12,000 inmates, double the number it was built for.
The only information about jails that comes from the authorities is how inmates are becoming accomplished painters, musicians, designers and so on. No one can possibly object to such attempts at rehabilitation. But even occasional visitors know that for the vast majority of inmates, the real conditions in jails are vastly different.
Which brings one back to the basic issue of monitoring. Without monitoring of all the systems that are being put in place to ensure justice, we will go nowhere. One can argue that if the lack of monitoring and supervision plagues all agencies in the country, we cannot expect miracles in prisons and police stations. But making sure that justice is not only done but seen to be done is about following drills. The choice is clear — either we believe in the rule of law, fight for it, and uphold the legitimacy of our institutions, no matter what the challenges. Or we give into the cynics who scoff at due process and allow advocates of instant justice to take over.

The writer focuses on development issues in India and emerging economies.

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