Friday, March 10, 2006

one eyed justice : By Khushwant Singh

All over the world the goddess of Justice is shown blind-folded holding evenly balanced scales in one hand and a sword in the other. The meaning is quite clear: Justice does not discriminate between people according to their status in society or wealth and is even-handed in using the sword of punishment to those who break the law. It is time we made this figure conform to the reality of justice as it exists in our country.

We should take off her blind-fold to let every Indian see she is blind in only one eye and one side of her scales is lower than the other, and the sword smites only the poor and the helpless. Pick your own examples: Jessica Lall was shot in the head in view of dozens of people. The murderers were identified but these persons resiled from their statements. Without doubt they had been bought over by the prime accused whose family had money and political clout. All the accused went free. It was a disgraceful miscarriage of justice. But it has many precedents.

Zahira Sheikh of Baroda saw nearly a dozen of her relatives being murdered in front of her eyes. She swore she would not marry till she saw all the murderers hanged. Then a paunchy pistol-toting MLA, a follower of Chief Minister Narendra Modi, arrived on the scene, gave her wads of currency notes and told her to go back on her statement. Poor Zahira who seldom had Rs 18 in her pocket must have argued with herself: “My dead relatives will never come back to life; so why shouldn’t I take the money and live comfortably.” She lied on oath and betrayed the trust of the one person who had staked her safety to get justice for Zahira — Teesta Setalvad. Teesta had the acquittal orders set aside and Zahira hauled up for perjury. Teesta should be a role model for all Indians.

Go back a few more years. A young son of rich parents ran over six men sleeping on the pavement under his car and killed them. He fled but the police tracked him down. He should have been jailed, his licence confiscated and made to compensate the dependents of the men he killed. Instead of going through the rigmarole of endless hearings in a criminal court, the family squared the police (ever-ready to accept bribes) and relatives of the dead.

Go back still further in time to the most heinous crime of recent times which triggered off violence and bloodshed in many parts of our country and abroad. I refer to the destruction of Babri masjid in Ayodhya. Everyone in the world who watched the event on television saw who was seated on the dais, goondas armed with pick-axes hacking the domes of the mosque; heard the exultant cries of victory when it came down; Uma Bharati embracing Murli Manohar Joshi, with the prime perpetrator of crime L.K. Advani and Kalyan Singh looking on. The next day Bal Thackeray of the Shiv Sena and leaders of the Bajrang Dal issued statements taking credit for pulling down the mosque. Anyone punished? Don’t be silly. On one side was the future prime minister, deputy prime minister, education minister, chief ministers of UP and Madhya Pradesh and many powerful politicians. The scales of justice were heavily loaded on their side. So no one has been brought to justice to this day.

Is there anything we can do to mend this sorry state of affairs? A few changes in the law would help. First is to ensure that criminal cases are concluded within a specified period; I think two years should be the maximum limit. Second, no one charged with homicide should be let out on bail, particularly if he is wealthy or influential. The third is to see that witnesses to a crime who change their statements are not merely declared hostile and allowed to be cross-examined by the prosecution but immediately charged with perjury by the trial court and if unable to reconcile their conflicting statements, sentenced to imprisonment. If any good is to come out of the public indignation over the unpunished murder of Jessica Lall, the perjury of Zahira Shaikh and the other cases, the law must be changed, sooner the better.

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