//Justice in shambles

Justice in shambles

Vijay Sanghvi Delhi, Hard News Media

On January 3, 2007,  Santosh Dhanvare, an under-trial, who is below 25 years, pulled out his shoe in anger and hurled it at the lady Judicial Magistrate 1st Class S M Soni when she refused to accept his plea for recording his confession in the theft case registered against him in July 2004. He was  apparently agitated at the postponement of his hearing, thirtieth time to yet another date.

Santosh and Rajesh Mehta were arrested by the Surat Police in July 2004 and lodged in the jail on charges of petty theft. Since then they had appeared in the court for more than thirty times but each time were sent back with a new date for their court trial. More often the prosecution could not produce its witness leading to a new date. Of late even the court appointed lawyer as the two accused had no money to pay for a lawyer who also failed to turn up. On that fateful Wednesday, Santosh expressed his plight and offered to readily make his confession of the theft so that his case could be settled there and then without a new date. But Soni refused to entertain his plea on the grounds that neither the prosecution witnesses were present and nor the court appointed lawyer for him in the court. She posted the case to a new date.

In anger Santosh hurled his shoe at her. The shocked Soni left her seat for her chamber. The policemen came rushing to drag him out from the box and took him back to jail. The senior police officials slapped another case against Santosh for committing an offence against the  magistrate.

Under-trials are brought to the court by an indifferent police escorts. The accused are made to walk to the court in chains in small district towns or in a van along with several others in the metros. The escort does not know the crime of the accused nor does he care to find out… His relationship with the escorted person is totally impersonal. Under-trials are made to sit on grounds with their hands and legs chained and await their turn. As the turn comes, they are led to the box for the accused and face the magistrate. Most often the poor accused or under-trials have no lawyer as they cannot afford money to pay. As you pass the Patiala court or Tis Hajari court, you would come across the familiar site of several chained accused sitting on grounds in the lane reserved for them to wait for their turn. The scene would remind you of the slave bazaars of the eighteenth century when slaves in chains were brought from Africa to Jamaica to work on sugarcane fields for their new masters. They looked healthy as the slave trader had a interest in fetching better price by keeping his commodity look healthy.

The tyrannical system prevailing in the district courts can be felt only when seen and suffered by oneself. Words cannot explain it. The magistrate is the final arbiter. No one can speak out of turn unless called upon. Any attempt to present the case by the self is futile as most presiding officers have their own methods, and often harsh ones, of dealing with such ‘recalcitrant.’

More often magistrates have other pressing engagements or assigned duties that come suddenly. Hence they would not be in position to attend to cases listed for the day in their court. On rare occasions the magistrate would give new dates before attending other duties so that those who were listed for the date would know when they were expected to come. Else they have to make rounds of the court clerk to find out when their case would come up again. With  hundreds crowding up, it is not an easy task. A casual visit to the courts in Patiala House or Tis Hajari in Delhi would bear out

There are more than half-a-million persons accused of petty and minor crimes who are languishing in various jails or police custody for more than two years in different parts of the country, especially in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. These are old statistics as new statistics are yet to be compiled. They languish as they cannot afford to seek bail. They are unable to pay for their bail. Hence more often they do not resist the police application seeking their remand.

Only last year a person was released on the high court’s order after he had spent 38 years behind the bars though his crime was apparently petty. The jail authorities could not even produce records to show why he was arrested, by whom and for what crime and kept in the jail for such a long time. He had lost his sense, purpose and direction of life. He did not know where he was and why he was there. Under the court orders, the city hospital was taking care of him for months but no one knows who would take care of him — the jail authority, the hospital and health authorities or the state administration after the dazzle of the media shifted from this case?

Does Parliament have a role in preventing such a gross injustice to millions of people, who are made to languish for years — and some of them even for life time? But then parliamentarians have to find not only time but also vision beyond nitpicking that they are engaged in for the past few decades. Vision they have not displayed and time they have utilised mostly in stalling proceedings on trivial issues and in public trading of charges. The problem of distortions that has not only crept in but has also corrupted nearly the entire judicial system at the lower levels has so far not been raised in either House.

What role the Supreme Court has in eradicating these deformities and distortions? One can hope it would have as active a role in the judicial reforms as it had in correcting the situation caused by illegal commercial establishments operating from residential areas in Delhi though the firm corrective measures did affect many lives and livelihoods. The Supreme Court could certainly suggest the remedy since the Parliament has no time and appoint monitoring committees to ensure implementation of its judicial reforms programme in letter and spirit in every court.

Every one has a role if we do not want another Santosh to hurl his shoes at the magistrate in the open court. He hurled shoe not at the magistrate but at the system. The magistrate was merely a symbol of his anger and of his rage of helplessness. He could not fight the system but he could hurl his shoe at it to show his frustration. That is what we have converted the system into.

Santosh in his words, “I am a poor rickshaw puller living in a slum area in Surat. I have never stolen anything. Yet a case was slammed on me of stealing four thousand rupees. But nothing was recovered from me. I had no money to hire a lawyer. The court appointed one but he rarely put in appearance when I was brought before the court. Each time, I was given a new date.

“My father died after I was put in jail in July 2004. My mother was washed away along with my jhuggi in the unprecedented floods of last year and there is no trace of her. I have no place to go. So I told the magistrate that I want to confess even though I have not stolen any money. I want an end to my ordeal of Tarikhs. But she refused to accept my confession. I did all I could in my desperation because I wanted an end to this charade of Tarikhs. But now new charade will begin for the second case that they slapped on me.”