The murder of Akhil Gupta, a key witness in a rape case against self-styled godman Asaram in Muzaffarnagar, has once again exposed the Indian criminal justice system’s failure to protect witnesses in high-profile cases.
Gupta is the second witness in the case to be killed after Amrut Prajapati, another aide of the guru, who was shot dead in June last year.
Gupta is said to have stayed in the guru’s ashram for a long time and shifted to Muzaffarnagar after two women accused Asaram and his son Narayan Sai of raping them.
The attack took place late on Sunday evening when he was returning home from his shop.
Family members of Gupta told the police that he was presented as a government witness by Ahmedabad Police in the case of sexual assault lodged against the controversial godman as he had worked as a cook in his Ahmedabad-based ashram.
Gupta’s death is not an aberration; the Indian legal system is replete with instances of witnesses or accused dying under mysterious circumstances.
As many as four people involved in the 2010 multi-crore National Rural Health Mission scam in Uttar Pradesh died under similar circumstances, including Lucknow deputy chief medical officer Dr YS Sachan, who was an accused in the murder of two other doctors.
Shyam Bihari Sinha, the kingpin in the fodder scam in which former Bihar chief minister Lalu Prasad was convicted by a Ranchi court last year, was also found dead.
Ashutosh Asthana, the prime accused in a provident fund scam allegedly involving judges, died in jail while Sadiq Batcha — aide of former telecom minister A Raja — allegedly committed suicide in 2011 while investigations were on in the high-profile 2G-spectrum allocation scam. These were SC-monitored cases.
Witnesses are the eyes and ears of justice. One needs a witness to testify for even a document to be admissible in courts as evidence.
However, unlike the US and many other countries, India does not have a witness protection programme, a fact that besides endangering a witness’ life, adds to the miscarriage of justice in many cases. A witness is important not only to file a chargesheet but also to secure a conviction, which remains dismal.
According to the National Crime Records Bureau, the conviction rate in India dropped to 38.5% in 2012 from 62.7% in 1972. The conviction rate for serious crimes such as murder, rape and robbery, stands at 35.6%, 24.2% and 28.6% respectively.
In a report to the government in 2006, the Law Commission recommended that a witness be given a new identity at the instance of the public prosecutor and if need be, even relocated with his dependants until a trial is completed.
Former Delhi HC judge RS Sodhi said, “It may not be feasible to protect all the witnesses in all the cases. But we should certainly protect witnesses in cases involving the high and mighty where they are generally under threat. It is equally important to record their testimony at the earliest and finish the complete the trial as soon as possible.
The government can ensure witness protection by introducing a law or by simply implementing recommendations of various bodies. All it needs is the political will to do so.