The pressing need to enforce perjury laws in India as stringently as possible has been raised once again, thanks to the latest twist in the BMW hit-and-run case involving Sanjeev Nanda, the grandson of former Navy chief Admiral S Nanda. In 1999, Nanda allegedly mowed down six people in the capital. Initially, Sunil Kulkarni, one of the three eyewitnesses, identified Nanda as the person behind the wheel. Later, he changed his version to say that Nanda was one of the occupants but not the driver. In the latest twist, a sting operation has exposed that the defence lawyer, RK Anand, and public prosecutor IU Khan, who has now been dropped from the case, were working in concert to get Kulkarni not to depose against Nanda. Earlier, Manoj Malik, the lone survivor of the incident, also changed his stance to say that a “truck”, not a “car”, hit him.
Such flip-flops by witnesses are not new. We have seen similar instances of witnesses turning hostile in the Best Bakery and Jessica Lall cases. Perjury in India is routine because there is no fear of being jailed. Witnesses turn hostile under the influence of money and muscle power, intimidation and monetary inducements. A report by the parliamentary standing committee on home affairs pointed out that the conviction rate in criminal cases is as low as 10 per cent due to perjury by witnesses. Judges ignore false testimonies and refrain from filing separate cases because of the amount of pending cases.
While it is imperative that the judiciary becomes stringent on such renegades, blaming only those who chop and change their stand would not be right. One way of checking perjury is in the form of sworn depositions before a magistrate. If the witness then turns hostile, it will amount to perjury, with no defence possible, and the judge can convict the witness on the spot. It is also necessary that we put in place a witness protection programme and restore the autonomy of the police so that it does not have to face undue pressure from anyone. Public prosecutors, like those in the Crown prosecution service, need to be independent of the government and police. Last but not least, there are many loopholes in our criminal justice system that can be exploited by vested interests. These have to be addressed incrementally. The Nanda case shows that the process must begin without delay.