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Saturday, March 20, 2004

In response to Lok Satta’s call, a frail old man walked into our office with incriminating evidence against a prominent politician. It was deeply troubling that this old man, at the very fag end of his life had to approach Lok Satta for redressal of a grave injustice. It speaks volumes about the failing state apparatus. However, I was happy to see the old man’s determination to seek justice. There were many such persons who came forward with valuable information – some of them even braving considerable risk – about the criminal backgrounds of prospective candidates.

As we poured through this information, it confirmed our long held belief that our criminal justice system is falling apart. Sifting through the evidence, I found that many politicians had numerous cases – some of which included murder – to their ‘credit’. It is possible, that sometimes an honest person is falsely implicated in a criminal case. But I am astounded by the fact that a prominent politician was implicated in 41 criminal cases! Every time there is a murder in his village or town, this politician is a suspect. However, our criminal justice system ensured that the “honour” of this politician was restored by acquitting him in all cases through “due process of law”.

The status quo cannot be allowed to continue as the citizens are paying a heavy price. A senior police official narrated a painful incident – a girl was brutally raped and killed. When the case came up for hearing, the parents of the girl turned hostile, and the accused went scot-free!  The parents turned hostile probably under duress; or they could not withstand the long drawn out judicial process. Whatever might be the reason, the incident clearly demonstrates that the failure of criminal justice system is gradually assuming intolerable proportions.

The reasons for this are fairly evident. The police personnel who have to attend to a wide range of functions – from regulating political rallies to VIP security and traffic control – should also look into murder cases. As a consequence, our police personnel have neither the time nor the skills to properly investigate the crimes.  To compound the misery, our judicial process is excruciatingly slow, which wears down the complainants, and discourages them from approaching courts.  Further, perjury has become endemic. It has become a common practice to deploy tutored witnesses during trials.  All this prompts an individual to approach a local thug for settling the disputes, who then emerges as a person with influence and political contacts.

If this is so, then what prompts political parties to nominate criminal candidates? Today, all major parties are ideologically similar and do not have a strong cadre base. In this context, the political parties have to depend on local thugs and have to invest vast financial resources to generate electoral majorities. Over a period of time this dependence has increased substantially and the ‘goonda’ of a ‘mohalla’ gradually emerged as a respectable leader of a political party.  We should now reverse this process. The question is how?

Disclosure of antecedents of candidates and public pressure on political parties will certainly help.  But we need to do more. First, there is an urgent need to revamp the police functions of the state by separating the crime investigative responsibility from other duties like maintenance of law and order. Further, the crime investigation and prosecution wing should be insulated from unnecessary political interference. Second, it is imperative to create local courts to decide on petty cases in a time bound manner. This will reduce the burden on the higher judiciary, thereby helping them to adjudicate the cases pertaining to grave offences quickly and justly. And finally, the internal structure of the political parties should be democratized, which will instill confidence and strengthen the cadre of the political parties.

There is no point wringing our hands in despair.  We need sensible and practical steps to clearnse our politics and improve governance.  Criminalization of politics is no exception.