The narrative starts like a bad joke: Guy walks into a bar and asks for a drink…But this is India, and a bad joke can easily be knocked on its head and turned to tragedy in seconds. And that’s exactly what happened when Manu Sharma walked into a bar in Delhi, on 29 April 1999 and a short while later, Jessica Lall died from a bullet that blasted her head, in one side, out the other. The ensuing murder trial illuminated the police’s remarkable incompetence, witnesses that were bought like whores, and shocking connivance between politicians and the justice system. But the narrative did not end when Manu Sharma, key accused in the Jessica Lall case, walked free: the narrative, in fact, just got off to a snarling start.
A people’s movement may begin in a single and stunning act of defiance.
Rosa Parks, in the racially charged fifties of America, refused to vacate her seat for a white passenger at the bus conductor’s command. “When that white driver stepped back toward us, when he waved his hand and ordered us up and out of our seats,” Parks said, as she summoned her memory of that charged night, “I felt a determination cover my body like a quilt on a winter night.” Unknowingly, her dignified resistance instigated a civil rights movement that went on to transform race relations in America.
Whilst the Jessica Lall case gave us no singular hero, it offered us a litany of villains: corrupt cops; forensics experts; a key witness, Shayan Munshi, who went back on his statement. Although this analysis suffers cynicism, it is open to correction: for what ensued in the wake of Manu Sharma’s acquittal was a public uproar no one could have predicted. Candle night vigils, impassioned media commentary and electronic advocacy signalled the outrage of generation that refuses to sit in the back of the bus. (In addition to the Jessica Lall case, recently proposed amendments in the Right to Information Act were also aggressively challenged by a populace hungry for accountability from a government that aims to dodge the same.)
In the wake of Manu Sharma’s acquittal, no single person experienced determination cover their body like a quilt on a winter night: but how could you miss the determination of an entire nation?
Perhaps that’s why amendments to the Code of Criminal Procedures, tabled in Parliament this season, are significant to ongoing debate: the Law Commission’s recommendations, in its 177th report, are various and variously constructive but key amongst them:
l Offering the prosecution a right to appeal a judicial order.
l In all offences punishable with 10 or more years imprisonment, including offences for which death sentence can be awarded, the police shall have the statements of all important witnesses recorded under Section 164 by a magistrate.
The Malimath Committee Report of 2003, with a cunning instinct for urgent legal transformation, proposed a shift from the British adversarial system — wherein the guilt of an accused has to be proved beyond reasonable doubt — to a continental, inquisitorial one, wherein the truth has to be established. Therefore, if the paradigm shifted, it would move from establishing Manu Sharma’s innocence to unearthing Jessica Lall’s killer. Amongst the Malimath Committee Report’s numerous suggestions:
l Formulation of a witness protection programme and victim support service is necessary.
l Greater participation needed on the part of the victim in the trial, including the right to produce evidence, pose questions to witnesses, and be heard in respect of granting bail to the accused.
Although perjury is already an offence (hence Zahira Shaikh of the Best Bakery Case was sentenced to prison), turning hostile is not (hence Shayan Munshi is out rubbing shoulders with other members of the India is Snorting sangam). Consequently, Indian legal machinery has to be tuned so as to hold witnesses to their word; moreover, how do you prevent a witness from going back on an initial statement?
The reinvestigation in the Jessica Lall case is commendable but its conclusions might ultimately seduce our despair: what will come out of it? If anything, the failure for justice to manifest in this case must prevent future mutilations of the truth. Key modifications in the CrPC Code may make it difficult for folks like Shayan Munshi to go back on their initial statements: this will not only save the time for law enforcement officials but also speed up the course of justice.
Along with enforcements on civilians, it is no less important to monitor police procedure. Are statements, for instance, recorded under duress? Was an investigating officer acting under orders from a top ticket politician keen to cover his son’s shabby ass?
Can amendments in the CrPc Code make room for broad sweeping surveillance and bring accountability to the investigating process?
To question ideas on truth, in a political climate of lies, leaves you fumbling with didactism: you speak at the cost of moralizing, and moralizing comes with a whiff of superciliousness. But certain risks you abide, as an artist and as a citizen, to petition civic engagement. Twenty-something India parties in the face of old school, lives-in-sin, wears skirts so short you couldn’t dry a teacup with some of them. But this India also rallies against file noting in the Right to Information Act, lights a candle for Jessica Lall, and after the party, a lounge remix of Tracy Chapman comes on the dial. “Talking about a revolution…sounds like a whisper…”
So, the narrative continues, just as the reinvestigation in the Jessica Lall case continues, and this new narrative lends to the rage of an old country; obligates state machinery to the evolutions that reflect a generation’s conscience; and solicits moral dignity for the difficult and dangerous job being human is all about.
(The writer is the author of The Last Song of Dusk)