Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Justice neither done, nor seen to be done

(First published in The Pioneer on August 8, 2012)


Thirteen years ago, on a late chilly January night, a BMW car moving at reckless speed runs through a group of people in Delhi, killing six, including three policemen. The car was driven in an inebriated state by a youth in his early twenties, belonging to an influential family. The accused was brought to trial and convicted. The sentence: Jail term of a mere two years. The Delhi High Court passed this verdict and the Supreme Court upheld it. Will you call this justice? Ask any sane person and the answer will be in the negative. But for the learned judges of our courts, it certainly is.
Now, look at the gruesomeness of the incident to realise how the court rulings were not justice, but a joke in the name of justice — in fact, a farce. The prosecution laid it all before the courts: The car comes charging at breakneck speed towards the group which included three policemen on patrol who had stopped some people for checking their identities. It is midnight or thereafter. The vehicle hits them all. The impact is so terrible that the unfortunate persons are flung into the air. Some fall on the bonnet of the car; others dash against the windscreen. Some roll down and come under the car.
After a while, the accused halts the car, inspects the damage and rushes away, ignoring the cries of help from the injured and the dying persons. There are still some victims trapped underneath the vehicle; they too are dragged for a distance. The accused then takes the vehicle to the house of a friend. The car is washed there and evidence allegedly destroyed.
Now, study the submission of a witness who details the scene of the crime. He finds the head of one person crushed and the abdomen of a policeman ripped completely open, with blood flowing on the street. The mangled body of another constable too is noticed, with his right leg severed and lying at a distance of some 10 feet.
The perpetrator of this horrific crime, the one who snuffed out the lives of policemen performing their duty and innocent citizens, gets all of two years in prison. He is out today, having served his term. But there is no release from the trauma for the families of the victims. Have the courts done them justice? Go ask the surviving members, and you will know. The Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the ridiculously low two-year prison term also sends across a disturbing message to those who have lost their beloved ones to rash and drunk driving and are fighting a legal battle in the courts. Take a recent case: Some three months ago, a pregnant Kshama Chopra was returning home in a car after a routine medical check-up along with her husband and parents. Her vehicle was hit by a speeding BMW. The car she was in was tossed in the air and she died on the spot. The killer vehicle drove away from the site of the accident. While the legal trial is yet to begin, her shattered husband has already lost hope in the wake of the delays and the allegedly lackadaisical manner in which the police has been investigating the incident. In the end, even if the accused is convicted, he may well get away with a couple of years behind bars.
Let’s again return to the incident of three years ago. It’s important to trace the contours of the legal course that the case has taken to fully understand how justice (or the lack of it) has played out. The gruesome accident happened on the intervening night of January 9-10, 1999. The youth driving the car was Sanjeev Nanda, then 21, son of an influential businessman.  After the completion of the investigation, a charge-sheet was filed against him in the court of the Additional Sessions Judge, New Delhi. He was charged under various provisions of the Indian Penal Code, including Section 304. The trial court judge performed admirably by all accounts. Although the material witnesses presented by the prosecution turned hostile — let’s not get into the reasons, though we can well guess and the courts know it only too well — there was one who valiantly stood by his account and corroborated the prosecution’s claim. The trial court judge considered that witness as reliable. Moreover, the judge concluded that the accused should be held guilty under the more stringent Section 304 (Part II) of the IPC and sentenced him to five years in prison.
Aggrieved by the five-year prison term verdict, Sanjeev soon after approached the Delhi High Court in 2008. The High Court did two things: It set aside the statement of the lone witness — who had admirably not turned hostile — as being unreliable, and it converted the conviction from under Section 304 (Part II) to the less stringent Section 304A. Now, while the latter provision deals with ‘causing death due to negligence’, the former — which the trial court had applied — deals with ‘culpable homicide not amounting to murder’. The maximum sentence under the provisions of Section 304 (Part II) is 10 years imprisonment. In changing the Section under which he was convicted, the High Court slashed his term to two years. The prosecution was naturally unhappy and the matter arrived before the Supreme Court.
The apex court in its ruling subjects us to high-flowing rhetoric about the horrible nature of the crime, and upholds the trial court’s decision to convict Sanjeev under section 304 (Part II) of the IPC. But then, it also upholds the absolutely shocking two-year jail term the High Court had awarded. The Supreme Court says it was persuaded by certain ‘mitigating circumstances’ to maintain the small prison sentence, and that those were heavier than the ‘aggravating circumstances’ of the crime. And, what are those ‘mitigating circumstances’? Among others, Sanjeev has already served his two-year term; he is now married and the couple is blessed with a daughter; his conduct in jail had been exemplary. But, how does all this matter to the crime that he has committed? How does it even one bit justify his criminal conduct? Can these factors mitigate the loss and the grief that the families of the victims feel? Is this a fit closure for them?
It’s a good lesson for all would-be-convicts: Meet such criteria and you can be let off with a light punishment even if you have killed people and are convicted under Section 304 (Part II) of the IPC — or for that matter under any provision, however harsh it may be. Of course, the apex court has hastily added that the ruling need not be considered a precedent for similar cases in future, and that it has upheld the small sentence strictly on account of the ‘mitigating’ circumstances.
Well, crimes and criminals will always have some mitigating circumstance laced with heavy emotional quotient to quote in their favour. At times these may be reasonable; often they are diversionary in nature and succeed in their aim — as they did in the Sanjeev Nanda case.

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