INDIA: Dead criminal justice system haunts the living

A 21-year-old woman committed suicide by hanging herself on 28 January 2016. In her suicide note the woman wrote about the most obvious and the ugly truth of India: that of losing faith in the country’s criminal justice process.

She wrote: “Please mummy, papa forgive me. I will not get justice anymore, nor will I be able to move forward in life … whenever I go to court on the date I am called, the judge is not present in court … If I die, nobody will call me a prostitute anymore.”

A doctor and two police constables had raped the woman at the Lal Bahadur Shastri Hospital in Bhilai, Chhattisgarh state, in June 2014. The victim was at the hospital to consult the doctor. It is alleged that the doctor admitted her to the hospital, drugged her, and while the victim was under the influence of the sedative, along with two police constables, raped her. It is alleged that the assailants then threatened the victim: should she complain about the incident, they would make public a video they have recorded of the rape.

The victim, a student, hence did not inform her family about the incident for about six months. When the victim, with the support of her family finally approached the local police to file a complaint, the officer at the police station slapped the victim, accusing her of peddling lies. However, the police eventually registered a case against the doctor and the constables. The police later arrested the three accused; they are reported to be in judicial custody.

Unfortunately for the victim her ordeal did not end there. The accused started threatening the victim, the witnesses, as well as the victim’s family members. Despite repeated complaints to the court where the case was pending, the court failed to intervene. Worse, the judge was protracting the proceedings, by posting the case to dates on which he had decided to take leave. It is this fact that the victim has mentioned in her suicide note.

In addition to the accused in the case, the public prosecutor in-charge of the case also is accused of threatening the victim. The suicide note reveals that the lawyer had informed the victim that “… the judge is sold out for money. “

This is just one among the thousands of such rape cases reported from India. What makes this case a little different is that the victim took the extreme step to commit suicide, after writing a suicide note, in which she has indicted the entire criminal justice framework of the country.

Analysing this case, one can see how the nation’s criminal justice system can be held as much responsible for the death of the victim as the three accused men who allegedly raped her in 2014. In fact, assaults upon women recur in India because the assailants, through experience, know that the nation’s criminal justice system can be easily purchased to save them from punishment. If the police, prosecutor, and the judge are not available for sale, the system is thoroughly inept and incapable of proving guilt to render punishment.

It is no more news in India that a large number of judges, prosecutors, and police officers are corrupt. Everyone in the country has very low expectations about the country’s criminal justice apparatus because of this. People either try to avoid being in a situation that involves the criminal justice process, or if involvement is unavoidable, try their best to bargain and purchase the services by bribing those who run these institutions. In other words, there is a realisation in ordinary people that for the letter of the law to be experienced they need to bribe the system. In such a setup, the spirit of the law is already dead.

The dead criminal justice system of India therefore benefits only the rich and powerful. They can misuse the process of the law at their whim.

No national or state government in India in the past 67 years has tried to address this problem. In fact, justice institution reform has never been a policy for the government. The policy of Indian governments about the country’s justice reforms is to have no policy. And, neither is it a subject of public discussion, nor a matter of importance for the Indian civil society.

Often it is thought that the problems that have smothered India’s criminal justice process emanate from the absence of adequate corruption control. This is due to the lack of adequate understanding of the complex matrix of the country’s criminal justice process. In fact, it is corruption that cannot be controlled in a country where the criminal justice process is dead.

India’s criminal justice system is dead because the vital elements that are required to run an effective justice process like adequate resources, accountability, and professionalism are all absent in India’s institutions. The process totters on, post-death, propped up as a façade by those who continue to gain from it, in the form of prestige, power, or lucre.

It reflects best the predatory nature of Indian society, used by the powerful against the poor. This explains why India’s police stations and courts resemble medieval dungeons, where ordinary people fear to go.

The organised and empowered Indian civil society, one of the freest in the world, has failed, most appallingly, to comprehend and address this predatory criminal justice process. Those who lead the debate do not truly represent the ordinary Indian, despite claims.

This is also reason why India lacks adequate public debate about the dead criminal justice institutions that haunt its majority, and force some of the victims to end their lives.