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India Judicial System – Fat cats and underdogs

The wheels of justice moved swiftly to save a matinee idol from spending even a few minutes in prison, while thousands of poor undertrials are left languishing in jails far beyond the maximum punishment awardable for their crime.

By- Flavia Agenes


The first week of May witnessed significant developments within the criminal justice system that will have far reaching impact. At one end, the ministry of women and child development seemed to be at loggerheads with itself, sacrificing the rights of children in order to presumably protect the rights of women. At another, the class tilt of our justice delivery system was in full display. The wheels of justice moved swiftly and efficiently to save a matinee idol from spending even a few minutes in prison, while thousands of poor undertrials are left languishing in jails far beyond the maximum punishment awardable for their crime. The third was a fairly low-key affair — the filing of a chargesheet against a high-ranking police officer, Sunil Paraskar, for raping a model, whom the media had earlier projected as a tainted character whose credibility had been suspect. An eventful week indeed!

Of these the most disturbing and the one which will adversely impact the rights of the most vulnerable section of our society — the poor and marginalised child-adult — is the amendment to the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Bill, 2014, passed in the Lok Sabha, permitting the prosecution of children in 16-18 age group as adults in regular criminal courts for certain heinous crimes.

The joint select committee had rejected an earlier version of this bill and had strongly opposed the lowering of the age of juvenile offenders. The Justice Verma Committee, set up after the gruesome Delhi gangrape case, had also declined to concede, despite overwhelming public pressure. But the minister was adamant, driven by emotions rather than logic. The rationale was that an adult type of crime needs an adult type of treatment. The justification offered was “women’s rights” though several women’s groups had opposed this move.

During discussions, Shashi Tharoor, a Congress MP, pointed out that this bill will embarrass the government in international fora as it violates the minimum standard set by the United Nations for the administration of justice to a juvenile. A point made by several MPs was that the child who is picked up and tried will always be from the poor and marginalised sections, who has been denied a chance of a decent childhood and instead of giving him a helping hand the law will only penalise him. This was overruled by the ruling coalition. We will now have to wait and see its fate in the Rajya Sabha.

Meanwhile, the class character of our justice system, which the MPs referred to, was in full display in an unrelated and media-hyped event — the conviction of Salman Khan for five years for killing a poor labourer through drunken and reckless driving, in a 13-year-old hit-and-run case, by the sessions court in Mumbai.

The superstars of the legal fraternity joined hands with superstars of Bollywood to condemn the judgment as excessive and to applaud the verdict of the high court, which suspended the verdict and bailed out the superhero. Admitting an appeal against conviction and granting a stay of the sentence is in the fitness of things. What was spectacular was the speed with which the wheels of justice move for the rich and famous to save them from the ignonimity of going to jail even for a few hours.

What was always known within legal circles but became obvious to the public at large that day is that our courts are swayed more by the status of the lawyers appearing before them than the merits of the case itself. It almost seemed that “justice” depends upon the lakh of rupees spent on legal fees and in airfares of the legal luminaries, as their presence in court will determine not just the outcome, but also the speed in which “justice” will be done. Into this legal system tilted towards the rich, we will be placing our juveniles from poverty-stricken backgrounds, to fend for themselves in their fight for “justice”.

Instead of hailing the sessions court’s judgment as just and fair, as one that reinforced the basic constitutional mandate of equality before law, media reports seemed to indicate that grave injustice had been meted out to the superstar by this conviction. It was no one’s case that a poor labourer had not died or that the judge had been “approached”. The argument rested on an illogic, that the actor had been unfairly punished only because he is a star! He deserved leniency, he ought to have been set free to amass his crores, entertain the masses and continue his charity, even while the family of the dead and injured are left to languish without any support. If someone had to be punished, the driver had been kept ready, waiting in the wings, to take the blame and the judge ought to have considered it!

The class bias in the comments made by his supporters was abhorrent. They blamed the dead for living a dog’s life by sleeping on pavements and obstructing the right of the superhero to driving recklessly in a drunken state. It was all the victims’ fault.

I am not surprised. The very same class of socialites had also stood by the actor (much less popular and, hence, the hype too was scaled down to that extent) Shiney Ahuja when he was convicted of raping his domestic maid. It must have been with consent was the general consensus for, after all, she was a lowly maid. The comments almost seemed to imply that the actor might have actually done her a favour by raping her!

It is in this context that the third event of the week becomes significant, the filing of the chargesheet in the case of the alleged rape and molestation of a model by a high-ranking officer, the additional commissioner of police, Mr Paraskar, who had control over 20 police stations. The media was quick to indict the model, doubt her character, exaggerate the discrepancies in her statements and project her as full of falsehoods and out to discredit a morally upright Indian Police Service officer. It was, many insisted, an affair gone sour. The application for anticipatory bail was moved on the very day the FIR was lodged and a stay was obtained. The defence strategy was well crafted to project the young woman as a liar and to sway judicial opinion during the hearing of this application, despite several contradictions in the sworn affidavits of the accused, from denying any acquaintance with the defendant to a plea of consensual sex.

No one seemed to question why a 26-year-old aspiring model was in a consensual sexual relationship with a 58-year-old police officer, especially since she interacted with him in his official capacity, while pursuing a complaint about an escort service (read prostitution racket) site which had her name and photograph due to which she was getting obscene calls.

Why would a rape victim give gifts to her abuser, was the only valid question. The answer to this riddle can be found in another similar case which came to light recently, where another model was raped by junior officers in a police chowki under the threat of implicating her in an immoral trafficking case and a large amount was demanded as an extortion fee to extricate her from the clutches of this draconian law. Through this case the nexus between pimps and police in the city has been exposed. Perhaps it is just coincidental that the chargesheet in the Sunil Paraskar case was filed within a week of this incident coming to light.

One cannot predict how and when this case will end, but at least it is moving in a direction that will infuse some hope for the underdog at the mercy of our criminal justice system.

The writer is a women’s rights lawyer

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