Looking at our reaction to the Maria Susairaj-Emile Jerome judgement, I have a suggestion to make. Let’s dismantle the judiciary, turn courthouses into museums and pack off judges to retirement homes. After all, with media stalwarts aided by such civil society gems as Mahesh Bhatt, Suhel Seth etc doing such a great job of trying and sentencing cases, why bother with mere judges?
Hours after a sessions court judge ruled guilty — Maria for destroying evidence and Jerome for culpable homicide — and handing down the maximum sentence possible of three and 10 years respectively, the pack was howling at the gates. ‘Killer walks free’ Times Now shouted. At NDTV, there was much chest-beating over the “propensity to turn everything into a tamasha”. Outside the studios, Neeraj Grover’s friends were organising vigils with placards declaring: “We want justice, not judgement.” Indeed.
We will never know what happened that night in May 2008 when Jerome stabbed Neeraj to death and Maria then helped dispose of the body after it was hacked to pieces. However, we do know that a judge has studied the facts of that tragic night. He has examined the evidence presented to him by the state prosecutor and the police. And he has concluded that this was not a case of premeditated murder — Jerome did not storm into the flat with a weapon; he grabbed a kitchen knife — that this was a ‘crime of passion’, that there were extenuating circumstances and, therefore, was culpable homicide, a lesser charge than cold-blooded murder.
In any civilised system, justice works on the presumption of innocence. Of course, judges make mistakes. At play is human error or even something more sinister — political pressure, money or witnesses turning hostile. But for media attention, there would have been no justice for Jessica Lall. It was a Tehelka sting by journalist Harinder Baweja that showed how the accused, Manu Sharma’s father had influenced three eyewitnesses to retract earlier statements. The uproar led to a re-trial and justice was finally done.
But does every case merit an uproar? Are we now so cynical that we assume that judges are simply incapable of dispensing justice? Are we now a society that demands ‘justice’ — that is, punishment rather than judgements? Is every trial from Aarushi Talwar onwards to be conducted by insinuation?
The problem goes deeper. We believe that our politicians are crooks. We assume that big business can never be honest. We suspect the media. Now by questioning every case that grabs our imagination, we seriously undermine our judiciary. We may not have a perfect system. Who does? You only have to look at what happened to Dominique Strauss Kahn to realise New Delhi is not that far from New York. Yet, for all its flaws, we have a system that works. Don’t like a judgement? You have the right to appeal, a right that the Maharashtra government has already set in motion.
But judges, all too human, can also be influenced by the court of public opinion. Harangue a judge long enough and he or she is bound to wonder if a harsher sentence might not be more appropriate. When this happens you have judgement by popular sentiment not necessarily under the clinical light of the statute books and hard facts.
As Indians we can be emotional, given to bursts of outrage and temper. Certainly the manner in which Neeraj’s body was disposed of causes revulsion. Certainly Maria’s press conference attempt to shore up public sympathy is obscene. Certainly Maria’s lawyer Sharif Sheikh’s defence (the body was not hacked into 300 pieces but only three) is puke-inducing. And certainly the announcement by film-makers of movies with Maria as a possible lead is sickening.
But put aside the emotion and ask only one question: do we really want to infect every high profile case with this level of drama? Then why bother with a judicial system at all? We can have nightly trials under the glare of television spotlights or the glow of a candlelight vigil. After all, there’s nothing like a jolly good hanging to keep the mob happy and TRPs high.
Namita Bhandare is a Delhi-based writer
The views expressed by the author are personal