INDIA: Who is responsible for this murderous justice system?

Seldom does a verdict fully betray the rot that permeates the judicial system from policing to the Judiciary. The Supreme Court of India verdict on 24 September 2016 counts as one such verdict. In acquitting death row convict Dhal Singh Dewangan, a resident of Chhattisgarh, the verdict exposes the façade that passes off as forensic investigation in India, the shoddiness with which lower judiciary deals with evidence, and the denial of justice to those most in need of the same: the poor and the marginalised. The judgment also exposes the bitter truth that despite all the occasional outrages over this or that gory crime, there is virtually no momentum for justice system reforms in India.

Even a cursory look at the circumstances of the case exposes the travesty of justice, for both the accused and the victims. The Sessions Court in Durg of Chhattisgarh convicted Mr. Dewangan for the murder of his wife and 5 daughters in 2012. The High Court of Chhattisgarh later upheld the verdict in 2013 and confirmed the death sentence. The Supreme Court’s verdict shows that both courts did it on the basis of circumstantial evidence, and that too without there having being established a “complete chain of evidence”.

To begin with, the accused was found lying unconscious in his house with all others dead, killed by sharp weapons to be precise. The police rushed him to the nearest Primary Health Centre (PHC) and yet did not place anything on record about his state of consciousness and health, i.e. whether he was really unconscious, and, if so, what had rendered him in that condition. Not a stellar example of basic investigation and record keeping, is it?

Further, the police, on arriving at the site of the crime, failed to seize the clothes the accused was wearing. Interestingly, the seizure memo records that the accused was wearing an “Istamali’ (later explained as a Lungi, an Indian version of wraparound, though both are not the same), while the arrest memo show him wearing “full pant and shirt”, noting also that “nothing found on the person of the accused except clothes worn by him”.

When did the accused change his clothes, given the police itself had found him unconscious and rushed him to the primary health centre? The police have even failed to examine the constable who accompanied the accused to the PHC to explain the anomaly.

The worst in this shoddy investigation was yet to come. The police did not collect any fingerprints from the crime site, not from the house, and not even from the knife found there, which was claimed to be the weapon used for committing the murders!

Just the thought that this fact slipped the attention of all – the police which failed to take fingerprints and the judges, at the sessions and then the high court, who still proceeded to award the death sentence to the accused – should send a shiver down many a spine.

Those that believe in the rule of law and its corollary – that protecting life and person is the responsibility of the state and thereby law enforcement – and those that look to the Judiciary as an institution that delivers redress, should be alarmed by the facts of this investigation and the nature of this judicial process.

The Supreme Court arrived at the conclusion that the evidence produced did not “form a complete chain of evidence as not to leave any reasonable ground for the conclusion consistent with the innocence of the appellant nor do the circumstances exclude every possible hypothesis except the guilt of the accused.” And, it follows that the Court set aside the conviction and ordered the accused’s immediate release, if he is not wanted in any other case.

However, the judgement generates more questions than answers. The shoddy status of investigation in India, capable of taking a person so close to the gallows is the first and foremost one. Equally important and discomfiting question emanating from the judgement is the denial of justice to the victims. They would never get justice now, as the judgement hasn’t taken the investigation to task, ordering the police reopen the case. A woman and her five daughters have been killed; this fact remains; only now, no one committed the murders.

The case is more norm than exception. The all-India conviction rate in 13,25,989 cases under IPC crimes tried in 2015 stood at less than half: 46.9%. Take the petty crime cases with plea bargain away and it is far worse. Yes, the bulk of this conviction rate comes from a sluggish justice system forcing scores of under-trials to admit guilt irrespective of their actual culpability; they are forced into this predicament after having to sometimes spend more time in jail than the total sentence of the crime they are accused of carries.

To put it in proper figures, despite being under continuous media and civil society gaze after the infamous Delhi gang rape case in 2012, the conviction rate in rape cases tried in 2015 stood at just above 29%, i.e. almost half of the overall conviction rate, and an even more abysmal 19.8% in attempt to rape cases.

Only thing sadder than this is the fact that no one would even seek justice for them; there will not be “No one killed mother and 5 daughters” campaigns; no one will take out candle light processions for them, no one would be screaming in studios of news channels about the crime against women. And this would not be because their lives are insignificant, incidental to Indian society. It would be because the right to redress and justice are at once both the core, the hinge on which all other rights rest, and the blind spot, the very thing that Indian society and civil society fail to see.

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AHRC-STM-148-2016
Countries : India,
Issues : Democracy, Freedom of expression, Human rights defenders, Institutional reform, Judicial system, Prosecution system, Rule of law,