Jaya Bachchan declares in Parliament: Hand over the rapist and we ‘will deal with him’. The Rajya Sabha MP is angry because the Supreme Court has not held a single hearing in the year since it admitted an appeal against the death sentence handed down to four of the six rapists in the December 2012 gang-rape and murder case.
But what’s a mere year when you consider it took 40 for a trial court to sentence four men — a fifth died before sentencing — to life imprisonment for the murder of then rail minister LN Mishra in 1975?
Perhaps no other case exemplifies judicial delay as much as the Uphaar fire that claimed 59 lives and left 103 injured in 1997. Now in its 18th year, the case has undergone the tortuous route of magisterial probe, CBI inquiry, adjournments and 344 hearings in the first seven years alone.
The case’s timeline is instructive: Two years for the trial to even begin and a judgment in 2007 — following a rap from the high court to wind up the case — that found the 12 accused, including owners, Gopal and Sushil Ansal, guilty and sentenced them to two years’ imprisonment.
The Ansals immediately got bail — subsequently cancelled by the Supreme Court in September 2008. By December that year, moving with sudden and inexplicable speed, the high court upheld the conviction of six of the 12 but reduced the sentence to one year.
On appeal, two Supreme Court judges in March 2014 upheld the conviction but could not agree on the quantum of sentence. A three-judge bench was to have been set up to decide the punishment, but one year later, it has yet to be constituted. And that is where the matter stands.
“Were my children the children of a lesser God?” asks Neelam Krishnamoorthy, convener of the Association of Victims of Uphaar Tragedy who has not let the delays dampen her determination to wrest justice for the victims including her daughter, Unnati who would have been 35 and her son, Ujjwal, who would have been 31 today. “We would have been grandparents by now,” she says.
As Uphaar drags on, it’s tardiness-as-usual in deciding the 1998 case involving the shooting of blackbucks by actor Salman Khan or, for that matter, a separate 2002 hit-and-run incident allegedly involving the same actor.
If this is the speed of justice in high-profile cases, what of the anonymous litigant who soldiers on for decades with no hope of conclusion? What of under-trials who languish in jail without even being convicted? In 2014, following a law enacted by Parliament, the Supreme Court had to rule that those who had completed over half the maximum sentence of the crime they had been accused of would be freed.
Dilatory tactics by defence attorneys are one reason but, in large part, judicial delays are caused by the massive case backlog — as of 2009, 30 million cases in various courts. Chief Justice KG Balakrishnan made the startling admission that it would take 466 years to clear the backlog.
It’s not hopeless. Fill judicial vacancies, appoint more judges and set up additional courts, particularly at the village and district level. An all India Judicial Service could improve the quality of subordinate judges. Over 1,000 fast-track courts set up since 2001 have already disposed of more than three million cases. Simplification of procedures, including limiting adjournments, and junking redundant laws could also ease the pressure. But there’s no getting around the fact that inefficiency, lack of willpower and accountability and, even, corruption are factors that clog the system.
The judiciary remains the last hope of citizens. There has been no shortage of progressive and welcome judgments and activism — regulating the sale of acid, for instance. But it would be hubris for the courts to pretend that public faith and patience is not running out.
Bachchan’s outburst in Parliament echoes the sense of frustration that ‘justice delayed’ is both a cliché and a truism. As the public lynching in Dimapur shows, it is also a dangerous excuse.
The views expressed by the author are personal