Who is responsible for this murderous justice system?

[This is an AHRC Statement.]

Seldom does just one verdict betray the rot that permeates the judicial system right from the policing to judiciary. The Supreme Court of India’s recent verdict on 24 September, 2016 was one such verdict. In acquitting death row convict Dhal Singh Dewangan, a resident of Chhattisgarh, the verdict exposed the façade that passes off for forensic investigation in India, the shoddiness with which lower judiciary deals with evidence and the denial of justice to those most in need of the same- the poor and the marginalised. The judgment, sadly, also exposed the bitter truth that despite all the occasional outrages over this or that gory crime, there is hardly any momentum for justice system reforms in India.

Even a most cursory look at the circumstances of the cases expose the travesty of justice- for both the accused and the victims. The Sessions Court in Durg of Chhattisgarh had convicted Mr. Dewangan for the murder of his wife and 5 daughters in 2012. The High Court of Chhattisgarh had later upheld the verdict in 2013 and confirmed the death sentence. The Supreme Court’s verdict shows that they both did it on the basis of only circumstantial evidence, that too such one which did not establish a “complete chain of evidence”.

To begin with, the accused was found lying unconscious in his house with all others dead, killed by sharp weapons to be precise. The police rushed him to the nearest primary health centre (PHC) and yet did not place anything on record about his status- whether he was faking it and if not, then what made him unconscious. Not a very brilliant example of investigation, isn’t it?

Further, the police failed to seize the clothes the accused was wearing immediately after reaching the site of the crime. Even more interestingly, the seizure memo records that the accused was wearing a “Istamali’ (later explained as a Lungi, an Indian version of wraparound, though both are not the same) while arrest memo showing him wearing “full pant and shirt” adding “nothing found on the person of the accused except clothes worn by him”. What is missing here is when did the accused change his clothes as police itself had found him unconscious and rushed him to the primary health centre! The police have even failed to examine the constable who accompanied the accused to the PHC to explain the anomaly.

Yet, the worst in the investigation was yet to come. The police had not collected any finger prints at the crime site- not from the house and not even from the iron knife found there and claimed to be the weapon used for committing the murders! Just the thought that this fact slipped the attention of all- the police which failed to take fingerprints and the judges at first sessions and then high court who still awarded death sentence to the accused should send a shiver down the spine of those believing in rule of law and its corollary- protecting the life and person is the responsibility of the state and thereby law enforcement and delivering redress of judiciary, if the law enforcement fails to do that.

The Supreme Court, therefore, was absolutely correct in reaching the conclusion that the evidence produced did not “form a complete chain of evidence as not to leave any reasonable ground for the conclusion consistent with the innocence of the appellant nor do the circumstances exclude every possible hypothesis except the guilt of the accused.” So it was in setting aside the conviction and ordering the accused’s immediate release if not wanted in any other case.

However, the judgement leaves many more questions than it answers, such a shoddy status of investigation in India being capable of taking people to gallows being first and foremost of them. Equally important and discomforting question emanating from the judgement is the denial of justice to the victims. They would never get justice now as the judgement hasn’t took the investigation to task and ordered it for reopening the case. A woman and her five daughters are now killed, but apparently by no one.

And then, the case is more a norm and not exception. The all-India conviction rate in 13,25,989 cases under IPC crimes tried in 2015 stood at less than half 46.9%. Take the petty crime cases with plea bargain away and it would be far worse. Yes, bulk of this conviction rate comes from slow justice system forcing scores of undertrails admitting to their guilt irrespective of having committed the crime or not, after spending more time in jail than the total sentence the crime carries. To put it in proper figures- despite being under continuous media and civil society gaze after the infamous Delhi gang rape cases in 2012, the conviction rate in rape cases tried in 2015 stood at just above 29%- or almost half of overall conviction rate, and even abysmal 19.8% in attempt to rape cases.

Only thing sadder than this is the fact that no one would even seek justice for them, there would be no “No one killed mother and 5 daughters” campaigns, no one would take out candle light processions for them, no one would be screaming in studios of news channels about the crime against women. And this would be not because their lives are so insignificant, so incidental to Indian society, at least the often very well meaning civil society activists part of it.

It would be because despite all their claims on the contrary, right to redress and justice being the very core, the hinge on which all other rights rest is something they miss more often than not.