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The witness can be a victim

In India's courts, it takes a lot more than just courage for a witness to not turn hostile, writes Sejal Shah.

india Updated: Sep 19, 2006 03:19 IST
Sejal Shah

Bina Ramani’s recent arrest does not send out positive signals. For all her hostility and the alleged crime of forging papers, the alleged removing of blood and non-cooperation, Ramani is perhaps one of the best witnesses the police have in the Jessica Lall case. Yet she was arrested for forgery.

Hostile witnesses have faced tremendous criticism in India. There has been much lament over how we fail in our duty and do not speak out against crimes.

When Shayan Munshi turned hostile in the Jessica Lall case, he was shredded to bits for being uncooperative. Columnists pontificated on how ashamed they were that this young man did not come forward. And that he was a coward not to stand up in one of the most blatant crimes in recent times.

There is certainly no glory in being a coward. But being a witness is not rewarding either.

This is not in support of the witnesses who have turned hostile. But there is space to present the reality that witnesses in India face.

A few years ago, I was asked to give a statement by the police during the investigation of the Shivani murder case. Shivani, a journalist with The Indian Express, was brutally murdered in her flat in Delhi in 1999. I was a journalist with The Week at the time and knew Shivani well. We had spent three months in London on the Chevening Scholarship and shared the same flat. Shivani, who was married then and pregnant, was close to IPS office Ravi Kant Sharma. After she was murdered, I was questioned several times about her alleged affair with Sharma.

The investigating officers  flew down from Delhi to Mumbai to record my testimony, based on which I was to be a witness when Sharma was arrested for the murder. I was asked to be present at the Delhi High Court.

I must admit I was not exactly cooperative initially. There were several reasons for this. I was busy with my career and did not have the time to go to Delhi and spend days in the court. I was also warned by well-wishers against threats that could follow.

In a nutshell, many would say I was irresponsible and a coward. But finally, good sense prevailed and I agreed to appear in court.

I discovered that it is not easy being a witness in our country. I was told that if the date is postponed, it could be a few days before I would be questioned by the court. I was briefed by the public prosecutor on what questions I would be asked and that the defence lawyer would be tough.

From the word go the whole experience was extremely unpleasant. The atmosphere in the court is intimidating. The accused are all present in the court supported by their lawyers. When I entered the building, Rakesh Sharma’s wife and daughter were already waiting in the corridor. Understandably, their vibes were negative and their stares cold and angry.

Inside the courtroom, apart from the public prosecutor and some police officers, the atmosphere was hostile.

Everything was geared to make me hostile. I didn’t have any supporters but the accused had their entire family present. When I had to give testimony, I was asked to identify Sharma in court. I had to turn around and point my finger at him as he stood in line with other accused. He was not pleased, to say the least.

But what followed was worse. There was a verbal barrage as a volley of questions were thrown at me by the defence lawyer. Understandably, he was doing his job — to unnerve me. At one point he screamed at me for talking softly and I could hear snickering from the wife and daughter. I yelled back at the lawyer and asked him to speak to me politely and then kept my tone raised throughout the testimony.

The questions were meant to confuse me. At one point, his line of questioning became personal. That Shivani and I were partying a lot in London and that there was smoking and drinking. It was a moral attack on both of us.

At every point, I felt more like an accused than a witness. I felt intimated. Nothing was done in the court to make the witness comfortable. In fact, I felt that the accused and his family members were enjoying this verbal attack against me, the ‘criminal’.

During the break, Sharma’s daughter verbally abused me  using expletives. When I complained to the judge about what happened and how threatening and intimidating it was for me, he asked me to file a written complaint. I pointed out that if, within his own court, a witness is threatened and abused, how can he expect witnesses to come forward? I did file a written complaint but have no clue what happened to it.

The whole experience made me bitter and angry.

But when I see people ensconced in their secure, comfortable homes and offices twittering about how witnesses like Bina Ramani and Shayan Munshi are cowards, I know that out of these people very few — maybe nobody — would come forward to be a witness. And the Jessica Lall case is far more intimidating and involves a larger conspiracy than the case I was involved in. The ramifications of the case are far wider and threats to witnesses far more real and dangerous.

There is no sympathy or empathy for witnesses. It is a task to just be part of the entire legal proceedings. It involves a huge amount of time. We don’t even have the time to register simple complaints. And frankly, who needs the hassle?

Being a witness involves interrogations, spending days and sometimes years in courtrooms. And the legal process doesn’t function keeping in mind your convenience. It involves being aggressively interrogated by lawyers and your personal and professional lives being dissected in public. And above all, it makes you vulnerable to threats. You are intimidated at every point and often have to travel to a different city.

The need of the hour is a witness protection programme, cooperative police and sympathetic courts. But most of all, witnesses need the respect that accompanies realisation that a person is in court because he wants justice for the victim. He does not want to be treated as a criminal or, as in Bina Ramani’s case, be arrested.

The writer is a filmmaker and a former journalist