We need to invest in four wings of criminal justice system — police, prosecution, judiciary, prisons

Meeran Chadha Borwankar
Lokpal search panel holds first meeting

This joyous reception of an “encounter” and the police officers involved only proves that people have lost faith in India’s criminal justice system. (Image for representational purpose only)

The country is engaged in an intense debate on the heinous rapes and murders, the blatant use of force by criminals on bail and the sheer impunity with which they gangrape and then burn women. Shot at if they are too tired to dance and murdered if they want to live on their terms. One would have thought that the changes in the law and procedure post the December 2012 Delhi gangrape and murder case would curb the predators, but they do not seem to have any effect on them.

So shaken has the country been that rose petals were showered on the officers of the Telangana police that “encountered” the four alleged rapists of a doctor on the outskirts of Hyderabad. This has given rise to another debate about the actions of the police. While the woman on the street is happy that the “brutal rape” has been avenged and the parents of the deceased doctor and of the Delhi 2012 victim have expressed relief at the quick police operation, we must understand the full implications of the lure of “instant justice”.

The clamour for quick action — “teaching a lesson”, “on-the-spot justice” — stems from the fact that the criminal justice system has failed in the country. One main reason is the delay in trials. Even if a criminal is convicted, the appeals that follow lead to a further delay of more than five years. This has meant that citizens lose faith in the law and they hero-worship officers who “encounter” these criminals. They cite examples of the Delhi 2012 accused still in Tihar and Ajmal Kasab, who was hanged six years after the gruesome killing of innocent citizens in Mumbai. One taxi driver, while justifying the Telangana policeperson’s action, questioned me as to why we spent so much money on Kasab’s security. He also “informed” me that Kasab was served “mithai” in prison every day. He had no clue that I was chief of Maharashtra prisons at the time in question. This shows how rumours and misinformation further angers citizens who are already enraged at the late punishment to criminals.

And I understand their anguish. Last week, I received a summons from a special court in Mumbai seeking my presence at the trial of a criminal case. I had supervised its investigation as joint commissioner crime, Mumbai, in 2005. The case is still pending. The investigating officer informed me that he was now posted at a training institute and was not aware at what stage the trial was at nor was he aware that I had been summoned by the court. This is what is happening in most of the trials. They are so delayed that witnesses lose interest or do not attend hearings. Documents are lost, seized weapons are not traceable. The investigating officers get transferred and thus can not monitor trials. The complainant, after pursuing the case for some time, gives up.

There is a collective sense of resignation in the country. In this depressing scenario, we have a few shootouts by police, which are applauded because otherwise, nothing seems to be happening on the ground. This joyous reception of an “encounter” and the police officers involved only proves that people have lost faith in India’s criminal justice system. It also shows that the malady runs deep and recovery is so distant that shortcuts have become the preferred mode of execution.

Instead of succumbing to the band-aids, we have to use all our resources and energy in putting the system back on track. While police investigation and presentation by the prosecutors need to improve, it is the judiciary that must rise to the occasion. Session courts need to finish cases at one go, within a week or fortnight, and not hear them in the piecemeal manner they are doing currently. They need to clamp down heavily on adjournments. Similarly, higher courts must dispose of appeals within a fixed time frame. Expenses for more judicial officers and their staff should be met by the Centre and state governments jointly. If a rape accused is sentenced and his final appeal disposed of within a year, I see no scope for encounters or the public’s agitation. It is because justice has become a rarity and criminals on bail are burning girls after raping them that citizens have lost their patience.

For police, medical officers, forensic experts, prosecutors and judicial officers to work together as a team, it is essential that formal interactive sessions between them are organised. Regular training workshops will lead to an exchange of information, knowledge-sharing and mutual trust among different wings of the criminal justice system. Today, each works in a silo with hardly any collaboration. The result is a very poor conviction rate that may not attract the immediate attention of citizens but reinforces a general feeling of lawlessness.

While the emotional response of a parent who has lost her daughter to rapists is totally understandable, as a nation, we have to invest in long term-solutions. That means investing in all four wings of the crumbling criminal justice system — police, prosecution, judiciary and prisons. That we are not doing so is amply proved by the need for officers to take up guns for causes they feel will not get justice. It is a sad commentary that we have acknowledged and, in fact, applauded that we are a “banana republic”. India, after more than 70 years of Independence, needs to be the lighthouse for the rule of law. Let’s make that happen together.

This article first appeared in the print edition on December 13, 2019 under the title 'An encounter with injustice'. The writer, an IPS officer, retired as DG, Bureau of Police Research and Development.