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Priyadarshini: Now what?

As with nearly everything else in India, the Mattoo verdict was an episode, a single, happy event, writes Vir Sanghvi.

india Updated: Nov 15, 2006 16:32 IST

Like most of you, I shared in the urban rejoicing over the conviction of Santosh Singh for the rape and murder of Priyadarshini Mattoo. The Mattoo case — along with two others, the murders of Jessica Lall and Nitish Katara — has become a symbol of the unfairness of the Indian law enforcement and judicial systems.

In all three cases, the perpetrators were the children of influential men. In all three cases, the police were accused of colluding with the murderers. And in all three cases, the lower judiciary was shown up in all its sordid ineptitude.

But we should now not let things be. Tuesday’s verdict has far-reaching consequences for the police, the judiciary and for us in the media. There are questions we need to answer. And there are changes we need to initiate.

The most obvious consequences are those for the police. At no point in recent history has the reputation of the Delhi Police — and of the Indian police in general — been as tattered as it is today.

All of us accept that the police are poorly paid, badly equipped and that there is massive corruption at the lower levels. What we are less willing to accept is that the corruption extends all the way to the top, that entire cases are fabricated and that any influential person can subvert an investigation by using money and power.

And yet, over the last year, we have been reminded of this again and again. We have seen how the cops sabotaged the investigation into the Mattoo murder. In the Jessica Lall case, the behaviour of the police has been even more bizarre. Judging by the way the force is behaving, the real crime committed at Tamarind Court that night was not the murder of Jessica Lall but the running of an illegal bar.

I hold no brief for Bina Ramani or the third-rate Page 3-types who frequented her booze den, but let’s face it, the only reason she was able to run an illegal bar so openly was because the Delhi police were on the take. For this same police force to now get so self-righteous and to send teams to Goa at public expense so that Master Criminal Ramani can be apprehended for the crime of fudging some documents while applying for a restaurant licence makes me want to throw up.

What about Manu Sharma who continues to run his own bar, entirely legally, in Chandigarh? What about all the witnesses who have now been revealed — thanks partly to the Tehelka sting — to have been paid off? What about the so-called police scientist who suddenly invented a two-gun theory to get Manu Sharma off the hook? What about the cops who took Ramani’s hafta to allow her to run the bar?

Worse still, there is no accountability. The Delhi police look after their own. The CBI says that it had demanded action against many of the policemen involved in the sabotage of the Mattoo case. The Delhi police did nothing. All of us know who the policemen who shielded Manu Sharma were. And yet, they go from promotion to posting, from hafta to pay-off without the slightest sense of accountability.

Can any police force hope to earn our respect if it takes no action against the crooks within its ranks?

The judiciary face a similar crisis. It is all very well for the High Court to rail against the trial judge; to note what we already knew: that the Mattoo verdict went against judicial conscience; and to give us justice a full decade later.

But the same criticisms apply. The original verdict in the Mattoo case had the trial judge declaring that he knew that Santosh Singh was guilty but that he was acquitting him anyway. This, by itself, is pretty shocking. If you know that a man is guilty of murder, should you be setting him free? If you take the line that the judge thought the evidence was inadequate (his stated reason), then should he have announced that Singh was guilty? Either way, the judge’s comments made no sense.

Has the judiciary, so concerned with setting everything right with the rest of Indian society, done anything to ensure that such judgments do not recur? If the performance of the lower courts is so shameful to the lordships of the High Court, then shouldn’t we overhaul the trial system? Shouldn’t we at least take another look at the judge whose verdict was the subject of such scorn in the High Court?

But, of course, nothing will happen. As with nearly everything else in India, the Mattoo verdict was an episode, a single, happy event. The system, however, will remain the same. More murderers will walk free. And not all of them will have TV channels to bring them to justice.

The corruption of the police and the ineptitude of the judiciary influence the way we look at every single case. Let’s take the example of Mohammad Afzal’s death sentence. Those who believe he should be hanged say that his case was fairly investigated and that he was convicted by a court of law.

But what credibility can any investigation by the Delhi police have when the same force is shown to have fabricated and destroyed evidence in the Jessica Lall and Mattoo cases? And as for respecting the verdict of the courts, can any citizen not feel less convinced of the sanctity of judicial judgments after hearing what the High Court said about the Mattoo case?

And finally, there are questions for the media as well. Many lawyers I have spoken to believe that judges are increasingly swayed by public opinion. When there is a powerful media campaign, they say, the courts are often tempted to follow the media line, no matter how strong or weak the evidence. These lawyers attribute the Mattoo verdict to media pressure. They say that now, Manu Sharma might find the going far tougher.

I don’t know if this is true. But if it is, then it places an enormous responsibility on our shoulders. In all three cases — Priyadarshini Mattoo, Jessica Lall and Nitish Katara — we have abandoned our traditional impartiality and decided who the guilty parties are. We have gone from reporting the news to trying to change it.

In a system that is as rotten as ours, I am loath to say that we should go back to a neutered, neutral stance. We may have overstepped boundaries, but at least justice has been done. Equally, I am convinced that we cannot decide who the guilty parties in every case are all by ourselves. And that it is not our job to push for convictions.

So, just as the police need to work out how to regain their credibility and the judiciary need to take some time off from fixing the rest of India to try and fix themselves, we, in the media, need to redefine our role.

This victory is a cause for celebration. But it is also a time for introspection.

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