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Keeping my feelings against the Death penalty aside, the verdict in the Nithari killings comes as a shock to me. It is not that I thought either of them to be innocent, but the idea of giving the harshest punishment meted out by law to them is what I’d like to question.

Perhaps the best portrayal of the death penalty and why it must be abolished is Albert Camus ‘s essay titled “Reflections on the Guillotine” in Resistance Rebellion and Death. I myself was spellbound when I read that essay and I’d recommend it to all my readers.

After 1981 and the cases of Bachan Singh v. State of Punjab and Machi Singh v. State, the death penalty as a form of punishment has now been held to be the exception rather than the rule. To mete out a sentence of death, there must be reasons given by the judge and the circumstances of the case must be rarest of the rare.

The idea of rarest of the rare is also to remove any possibility of the innocence of the accused and that the circumstances of the death were so grave in nature that is called for a sentence of death. It is the former aspect that I’d like to look into more. The gravity of the offence is beyond dispute.

Glanville Williams in The Proof of Guilt, a study of the English Criminal trial wrote that the idea of beyond reasonable doubt conveys the message that any single or meek possibility of the accused not committing the crime must be considered, if not for the guilt then atleast when speaking for sentence. Such factors mitigate the sentence that can be meted out to the accused and the foundations of the English system (now India) rest on such presumptions.

The point that I’d like to put forth is that if the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) gave a clean chit to Mohinder Singh Pandher, then this should have acted as a mitigating factor as to his sentence and he should not have been given the death penalty. What does it say of our criminal system when the judge disregards the report of the investigating authority and pronounces guilt on his own inhibitions of the facts and circumstances ?

Could the judge have been a victim of the pressure surmounted by the media in this case ? Rationality and reason says that Mr Pandher should have been given a sentence of life considering this mitigating factor and not a sentence of death (the guilty being left out of question).

We saw the treatment of such cases in Manu Sharma’s trial, Nitish Katara’s case and now this may possibly be added to the list.

Apologies for this delayed post. However, quite fortunately, the last Part of this three-pronged series coincides with two seminal events/publications.

1. CJI K.G. Balakrishnan’s piece on “Terrorism, rule of law and human rights” in The Hindu (Opinion Page).

2. The Union Cabinet’s nod for NSA Amendments and a new Investigation Agency.

KGB’s write-up/analysis of our contemporary security predicaments has been posted in his official capacity as the Hon’ble Chief Justice of India, and is remarkable for that very reason. The highest judicial officer in this country has clearly expostulated the need to maintain our constitutional ethos in place. He elucidates upon the role played by due process and rule of law in protecting human rights, even at a time when the nation is blinded by rage against a terror attack that left India reeling.

Adherence to the constitutional principle of ‘substantive due process’ must be an essential part of our collective response to terrorism. Any dilution of the right to a fair trial for all individuals, however heinous their crimes may be, will be a moral loss against those who preach hatred and violence.

On the other hand, the Union Cabinet has given the green signal to proposed amendments in the National Security Act, 1980 and a new Anti-Terror Investigative Agency (Part II of this series had enlisted the major provisions in the prospective legislation). In a chaotic post-Mumbai period when public sentiment and ire has been directed largely against the political class, it is important that the Government does not resort to populist methods to assuage this anger. A new and shiny array of ‘tough’ anti-terror laws might seem to be the perfect panacea to our security problems, but in reality they are nothing more than knee-jerk reactions.

Tougher anti-terror laws have had a chequered history in this nation’s democratic regime. Yet, they continue to be hot favourites among people and institutions who want a change in the Government’s attitude towards terror. Indeed, I remember a discussion in one of our Criminal Law classes at Nalsar where the topic in question was the efficacy of anti-terror laws like POTA, ULFA etc. The debate invariably spun around to the “Human Rights v. National Security” perspective, with a visibly emotional law professor eventually closing the arguments thus:

Those who might find favour with the concept of due process, and justiciable rights for the terror -accused will never step down from their ideal ivory towers till they lose a little finger in a blast or attack.

Surely, she spoke for a sizeable portion of the populace, who truly believe that India’s anti-terror must be incisive and deterrent to all who wreak havoc in its villages and cities. Take Qasab’s case for instance; the Mumbai Bar Association has forbidden its members to take up his defence. Does his obvious involvement in the terrorist attacks mitigate a constitutionally guaranteed right of legal aid? Doesn’t the lawyering community rush to defend the super-rich and mighty from all sorts of civil,criminal and commercial indictment, even when evidence is blatantly against them? Why treat Qasab exceptionally then? Is it because terrorism is an evil more equal than the other evils which plague civil society? Certainly, we have to draw the line, before the rule of law goes flying out of this polity’s windows.

The POTA has an abysmal conviction rate of 2%, and has hardly produced the desired results. The new face of terrorism does not operate like other societal crimes, and ‘deterrence’ is hardly any reason to come up with multi-fanged laws. That the terrorists in the Taj and Trident-Oberoi had no intentions of negotiating with the Government, and came readily prepared to die, must teach us an invaluable lesson. If the purpose of all anti-terror laws is to preserve public order, then we must embrace a systematic procedure to collect evidence, grant fair trials and opportunities. Without these safeguards, the law will never strike at the root of terrorism, for all the wrong people would be behind bars then.

Arundhati Roy wrote a blistering piece in Outlook India last week, and she says;

It was after the 2001 Parliament attack that the first serious questions began to be raised. A campaign by a group of lawyers and activists exposed how innocent people had been framed by the police and the press, how evidence was fabricated, how witnesses lied, how due process had been criminally violated at every stage of the investigation….The Supreme Court upheld the death sentence of another of the accused, Mohammad Afzal. In its judgment, the court acknowledged that there was no proof that Mohammad Afzal belonged to any terrorist group, but went on to say, quite shockingly, “The collective conscience of the society will only be satisfied if capital punishment is awarded to the offender” Even today we don’t really know who the terrorists that attacked Indian Parliament were and who they worked for.

The rallying calls against anti-terror laws must not be mistaken to be a blind push for seemingly facile human rights, but a warning against the nightmarish future of citizens losing faith in its own legal regime.

(This post forms the second of a three-part article. The next one attempts to debunk the myth of tougher terror laws).

The overwhelming public response to laxities in handling terrorist attacks and security threats has prompted the Government to formulate a proposal for a federal anti-terror agency. The proposal, incorporated as an amendments to the National Security Act, 1980 is expected to be tabled in the upcoming Parliamentary session. The Bill, currently in its nascent stages, has not been placed before the public yet; we’ve relied solely on secondary sources to analyze the amendments.

The changes to the existing law include

  • Setting up of a National Security Authority that will take charge of administration and supervision of all investigation of terrorism-related crimes across the country
  • The Authority, comprising a Chairman and five members, will be responsible for prosecuting the accused
  • The appointment of a Security Commissioner (a high-ranking IPS officer) in each State, who will report directly to the Authority
  • Stringent Bail provisions
  • Fast-track Courts
  • Death Penalty (no surprises here)
  • Freezing of assets and bank accounts of those accused and their overt and covert sympathizers and sponsors
  • Punishment for those found guilty of raising funds or sponsoring terrorist acts, conspiracy, harbouring terrorists or threatening witnesses

While the attempts to usher in reform are perhaps well-intentioned, the proposed changes do not seem to be a radical digression from the extant system. The introduction of a National Security Authority will merely augment excessive bureaucratization, the very lapse currently being highlighted post-Mumbai. The Authority seems to be quasi-judicial, with powers to prosecute the accused. In this regard, it is important to note that the framework seems to base itself on the ethos of Tribunalization. While the main purpose of creating alternative judicial forums is to expedite the process of justice delivery, the same attitude cannot be adopted in an issue of such magnitude. Quasi-judicial authorities or fast-track courts are not the solution to tackle terrorism, as it involves a long, extended process of collecting evidence and arriving at conclusions. The allegations raised towards the accused will be, no doubt, grave – it is important that the veracity of claims is brought out through extensive investigation and not speedily dismissed. Missing the target will not only fail to curb terrorism, but also reduce the public’s faith in the legal machinery.

One may question the role of the Security Commissioner in each State; are they acting as officers of this quasi-Court? Will their findings and observations be treated as evidence? Is the State Police involved in assisting the Security Commissioners? What difference does such appointment bring about, apart from adding an unnecessary intermediary? These are questions to which the Government must respond. The onus upon the establishment to effectively tackle terrorism cannot be guised in the form of knee-jerk reactions.

The other provisions seem to belong to the macho-class of anti-terror laws. They have been advertised as tougher, more stringent norms to curb the menace of terrorism. However, tough does not mean efficient, as my next post will hope to convince.

(To be continued…..)

For starters, I don’t intend to be prophetic in my evaluation of the recently concluded Gujjar Community-Rajasthan Government wrangle. However, I cannot help but observe, quite candidly, that the whole situation serves as a dark episode in the history of civil liberty movements in this country. The reasons for such analysis are not too far to seek.

For a moment, let us relive the influence of caste in shaping the political, cultural and even geographical history of India; caste as an index continues to affect our public policy, be it through coalition governments or affirmative action, and hence is a critical determinant of the upward/downward mobility that the Indian citizen attains in life. Central and State Governments, have throughout the course of post-Independent India, engaged in active programmes that seek to mitigate the wrongs of historical discrimination meted out to various castes. One may indeed argue that the whole gamut of events has only recently, acquired a political twang. Caste-based violence still continues to be a haunting reality in rural India, with incidents of isolated and systematic torture frequently surfacing in the news.

Taking such grim reality as the backdrop to this article, it is important that we understand the repercussions of granting ‘special, backward community’ or ‘ST’ status to Gujjars. Not because the additive 5% would increase the ever-burgeoning basket of reservations in the quota system, but because the 5% so granted was the direct and immediate consequence of untoward and violent rebellion against the State. Of course, the million-dollar question is always going to be whether the Govt. was right in granting such privileged status to the community? Nonetheless, the finer aspect of the issue still remains: Was the Govt. right in acquiescing to the violent methods of the Gujjars in granting reservation? The next logical question would then be: Is not the Govt. setting a bad precedent, effectively indicating that ends can be achieved through such caste-based violence? The answer, unfortunately, is a loud and thumping Yes.

(To be continued.)

My criminal law professor made the following statements in class today;

1) 90% of the acquittals in the country happen because of the lack of evidence even though the people have committed the crime.

2) People in the parliament bomb blast and bombay blasts are being acquitted because of the lack of evidence.

3) Jessica lal and Priay darshini Mattoo resulted in disasters at first because of the lack of evidence.

All this happened, as can be observed in the evidence class. I am in a legal institution, one of the best I must say, and am taught to believe that the law is a failure. Such teaching comes from irrelevant facts. Its not just my teacher, but distinguished law people in the Country like Madhav Menon who make such statements and the parliamentarians sitting at the centre blindly trust them and make the law.
For example: The 142 law commission report says that Convicts are acquitted because the law is not strong. This baseless statement was then used as a justification for bringing in plea bargaining in the Country. Madhav Menon states that the conviction rate in the Country for lesser crimes is as low as 40 % where as the NCRB report states it to be 73.2% in Delhi alone. The Parliament says that Convicts are roaming about freely in the Country.

If you observe the examples above, you will see the usage of the word convict by these law makers. Well, you are a convict only is you have been held guilty by a court and not when you allegedly commit a crime. Such usage has made the common man loose faith in a system that is merely applying procedure. We jump to joy to see a man being convicted but the same is not seen if an alleged convict who is innocent is acquitted. Even though Bhagwati and Krishna Iyer made statements like “its more important not to convict an innocent man than to let a criminal go free”, we don’t seem to follow them anymore. I sometimes feel bad for Manu Sharma. Perhaps he was really innocent and got convicted because of the role of the media and the pressure of the public.
So then there needs to be a way in which crime is reported in the Country. Be it the newspaper or teaching the law. Information must be precise and not a bundle of ridiculous statements that most people would readily believe. As I write this, I feel bad for most of my class who would now be thinking that the criminal system is ‘crap’ and most Convicts roam free.