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System that killed the verdict

The anger over Jessica verdict may finally amount to nothing more than media-fanned hysteria, writes Vir Sanghvi.

india Updated: Mar 01, 2006 18:28 IST

A young girl is murdered in a crowded restaurant in full view of 600 people. Eyewitnesses tell the police that they can identify the murderer. Six days later, the man suspected of pulling the trigger surrenders to the authorities in Chandigarh.

He has been on the run, he admits, but he makes a full confession admitting to the murder. Based on that confession and other eyewitness accounts, the police make a series of arrests. They pick up the men who helped the murderer escape, those who harboured him while he was in hiding and those who destroyed evidence. The case seems to be watertight.

Then, seven years later, every one of these people is acquitted.

Worse still, the men who have been acquitted and who have been living it up while out on bail anyway, show no remorse. Their earlier confessions are forgotten. And they prepare to continue to live the life of the well-connected and wealthy political underclass, their paths smoothed by family money and influence.

Is it any wonder that we are a nation outraged? Are you surprised that 95 per cent of respondents in a poll said that they believed that the rich and mighty can get away with murder in India? And don't you feel a surge of anger and helplessness at the sheer, glaring injustice of it all?

I know how you feel. Because I feel it too. I share your rage, your outrage and your determination that we must not let Jessica Lall's murder go unpunished. To allow that to happen would diminish us as a nation.

But here's where I part company with the rich-can-get-away with-anything hysteria. I think that we are wasting time on empty outrage. I believe also that we are missing many substantive points. And I suspect that the people who allowed these murderers to walk free are secretly rejoicing at our anger. They know that public rage cannot hurt them. And they also know that with the Indian middle class, all issue-based outrage comes with a sell-by date. By next month, we will have found something else to be angry about.

But first things first. Can the rich and powerful get away with anything in India? Well, yes and no. Our whole system is so biased against the weak, the poor and the helpless that of course the rich are at an advantage. You can run people over in a BMW, pay off their families and sit back, secure in the knowledge that some court will probably let you off.

Equally, the powerful do not always get away with murder. Sushil Sharma, the tandoori murderer, was convicted despite his political connections. Vikas Yadav is still in jail for the murder of Nitish Katara and a conviction seems a real possibility in that case.

Moreover, the rich are at an unfair advantage in nearly every society. I have yet to meet a man who does not think that OJ Simpson killed Nicole. But expensive lawyers got him off. Nobody I know thinks that Michael Jackson was innocent. But he bought himself an acquittal.

So let's stop going on and on about how the rich can buy them selves the verdict of their choice. This is and has always been true all over the world - at least to a certain extent. Let's also stop demanding a new trial in the case. Given the state of the evidence, I think any judge would have to acquit these thugs even if you and I know in our hearts that they are the murderers.

Let's focus instead on the things we can change. Let's fix responsibility for this fiasco. And let's change the system to try and ensure that it is not so easy to evade justice.

First of all, I think some heads have to roll among the investigators. Manu Sharma may have murdered Jessica Lall. But the Delhi Police murdered justice. They were probably paid off and deliberately sabotaged the case.

Tamarind Court, where Jessica was killed, was serving liquor without a licence to large parties. The local police station must have known about the violation but nobody did anything probably because the cops were bribed.

But after the murder, not only was no action taken against the DCP of the area but the man in charge of the police station - who had allowed this illegal activity to flourish - was made the Investigating Officer (IO) for the murder. Do you really believe that he could have conducted a fair investigation?

According to junior police officers, the two murderers (yes, yes, I know they've been acquitted but they are still murderers to me), Manu Sharma and Vikas Yadav were intercepted on the outskirts of Delhi by a police party. Senior officers asked the cops to let them off. Manu Sharma then surrendered, armed with lawyers in Chandigarh, and Vikas Yadav got anticipatory bail from a court in Imphal.

According to the trial court, there is a three-page handwritten note in the case file with the heading 'Direction/Instructions'. This was apparently written by the original IO and included a list of who was to be interrogated and what they should be made to say. For instance, Jessica's sister was to be asked to say she knew Manu Sharma (which she did not) just so that the police could establish a motive. The judge took a serious view of this approach and he was right to do so - obviously, the police had no interest in conducting a fair investigation.

In 2001, KK Paul, then joint commissioner (he is now the Commissioner), conducted a secret inquiry into the case. His report concluded that the evidence had been tampered with by the police: "There has obviously been a conspiracy between the accused and certain officials which is to be investigated." There was no investigation. The corrupt cops kept their payoffs. And the case died.

The defence's main argument was that even though the Delhi Police said that one gun was used, the bullets had come from two different guns. As nobody who was present that night saw two gunmen (till later when witnesses changed their stories) obviously somebody had substituted the bullets. And as obviously, this somebody was a cop.

But the Delhi Police have conducted no enquiry. They say they have no idea who did it. And once again, the cops have kept their pay-offs and killed off the case.

It annoys me that while public anger has been directed at the judiciary we have made no attempt to identify and punish the policemen who destroyed the case.

Not that the judiciary is without responsibility. It also angers me that while judges keep telling us what is wrong with Indian society, they make no attempt to put their own house in order. The sad truth is that the delays in the legal system make it impossible for anybody to get a fair trial in this country. This case took seven years - in any Western country, it would have taken a few weeks - and during that period, judges were moved, cops were transferred, evidence was tampered with and witnesses changed their stories. Had Vikas Yadav and Manu Sharma been tried within months of the murder, they would probably have been convicted. Seven years later, they were certain to be acquitted.

So why don't the judges, so fond of lecturing the government, put their collective foot down and demand some systemic changes in their own area? Don't they see the futility of trying to improve Indian society while their legal system denies justice to the country's citizens?

Much has been said about how witnesses turned hostile. I can understand how poor people can be bought off. I can also understand how witnesses can be intimidated by gangsters and terrorists.

But in this case, none of those circumstances applied. The people who told lies were, on the whole, well-off and not frightened. They changed their stories only because this seemed like the easiest thing to do. Why bother to do the morally correct thing when there is no benefit in securing justice for a dead woman? Far better not to harm Vikas Yadav or Manu Sharma who are still alive.

As the Best Bakery case demonstrates, judges can act against witnesses who perjure themselves. So obviously, we need systemic changes that make it more difficult for witnesses to turn hostile.

But we also need social sanction. The men who lied in court so that Jessica's murderers could walk free will now resume their normal lives. None of their friends will act as though they have done anything wrong. They will continue to work. Some of them will even feature on Page 3 again. And society will forget that they have Jessica's blood on their hands.

As long as we allow such people to walk among us and as long as Indian society treats morality as a mere flag of convenience, we will never be able to prevent witnesses from lying in court or from helping murderers evade justice. So, blame the police and blame the courts by all means. But let's not forget to blame ourselves.

My fear is that the outrage over the Jessica verdict will ultimately amount to nothing more than media-fanned hysteria, knee-jerk sms texting and a dozen angry editorials. Two years later, somebody else will kill a woman in full public view. And they will get away with it again.

So let's not waste the power of our anger. Let's not exhaust it on hysteria. Let's demand accountability. And let's demand some systemic changes.

First Published: Feb 26, 2006 16:21 IST