NAVAZ KOTWAL, Hindu 29, October 2006
IN our courts justice is always one hearing away. So it never comes.
Here is a fast track court. The case began in early 2004 but the fourth judge is hearing the case today. He came a couple of months ago but has not found time to get to the matter. Perhaps he has not read the papers. Perhaps they are lost. Perhaps there is other business on his mind. Perhaps this. Perhaps that. We can only conjecture while we wait hat in hand for something to happen. Two weeks ago the witnesses were once again present but his honour did not hear the matter. Today the investigating officer and a witness have left all their other work to await the court's pleasure. Still nothing.
The court itself is a place of fragrance and delight. The sickly sweet perfume of urine pervades every corner. The heat makes the scent rise up across the hard benches past the paan stains and the thick smell cannot escape through the dust encrusted wire mesh on the windows. Our public buildings aptly reflect the neglected systems they house.
Today we are late. I am anxious. When I arrive the witness is not here. The investigating officer is not around. His honour arrives. We see him go into his chambers. Peons and clerks run about him like little minnows. They carry files and boxes and of course his honour's tiffin. He walks into his chamber at the back of the court. Through the torn curtain we can see him sit down and pick up the paper while his tiffin is laid out. All done, the clerk waits respectfully in anticipation of helping his honour with small services while he eats. Paper finished, his honour finishes lunch and rests head back for a few minutes. The files lie unopened. About a hundred people in court await his ascension.
He comes. I spy the investigating officer who is the witness of the day. I keep the witness quiet by my side. A hundred appearances have not calmed his anxieties. With all of us present there is at least a 50 per cent chance that there may be a hearing today.
Proceedings of the law
The day's proceedings begin. We are slated somewhere in the middle. Case after case, the motion of law goes on. The case number is shouted out. Two or three lawyers jump up and wave to their clients at the back. Everyone jostles to let them through. The court clerk, typist and judge are bent in whispers; a calendar is being looked at. The word "next dates" escapes the huddle. By the time the witnesses and victims reach the bench, it is all over. A date somewhere between a month and six weeks now stretches before them until the next hearing. They bow respectfully before the majesty of the law and leave.
The hearing has taken maybe 30 seconds of court time and perhaps 30 hours of witness time — preparing for the hearing, chasing up the lawyer, making excuses to get the time off work, finding a way to get to court. It's taken as much money as most can afford to fix up the lawyer, get papers copied, affidavits attested, and transport paid. All for this one brief shining moment of justice.
Yet another adjournment
All morning only two cases were heard for about 10 minutes each. Our matter is taken up after lunch break. Neither defence counsel nor public prosecutor is present. The accused present the court with an application for adjournment. They have their reasons: defence counsel is ill. The judge looks around and calls for the prosecutor and when he turns up asks if he opposes an adjournment. He does not. He is happy to accommodate his brother-in-law. The judge then looks up at the accused for the first time and tells them severely to be sure to be present at the next date and not be late in court.
He then tries to sort out the next date to continue the matter. There are under trial prisoners involved and he has to be careful to keep the date near. Thirteen days later is decided. The investigating officer now jumps up. It is festival time. He has law and order duties that would compel him to keep away from court. He has already been available three times before. Now he absolutely cannot come on this new date. The judge is in a dilemma. There are under trial prisoners involved. No long date is permissible. However, the law has been respected. On paper it is all fine. In reality there has been no effective hearing for the last two months.
Remains of the day
It is now near 4 p.m. The court day is over. We have been there since 11 in the morning. We've had a cup of tea each. On the way home my witness has his usual hundred questions. He asks earnestly if "fast track" means that the court quickly gives dates to the parties without hearing them. He asks why the prosecutor did not sit through the trial and why he left the court whenever he wanted. He asks why the defence lawyers were not there to protect their clients. He asks why the investigating officer can dictate the dates. He asks why the judge does not come into the court on time. He asks if he can please talk to the judge and explain how much it costs him to come to court each time. He wants to tell the judge how much he has suffered since the murders. He wants to tell him of the pain and sorrow of living through these times. I look at him dumbly. Does he really still believe in the system? His eyes are clear and honest. He believes justice is just one hearing away … and it will probably always be.
Navaz Kotwal works with the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative to help the victims of the Gujarat riots get justice.