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Friday, July 30, 2004

Our print and electronic media regularly saturate us with news about a rather well-known fugitive and how he manages to keep himself outside the grasp of our police.  Everyone - including his family, his ‘fans’ and supporters and even friends from the media - seems to know where he is hiding.  Except, of course, the law enforcement agencies.  He is seen everywhere.  But then he is found nowhere.   He manages to meet people publicly, conduct business openly and even gets directly in touch with VIPs and VVIPs.

No, I am not talking about that Veerappan of sandalwood and elephant tusks, kidnapping and whiskers (they graduated out of the moustache category long ago).  I have someone else on mind: Shri Shibu Soren, the recently axed (ex-ed, that is) Union Minister of State.  He is also an incumbent MP in the 14th Lok Sabha, elected from the Dumka constituency on a JMM party ticket.  Soren ignored a court’s order to surrender and face trial in connection with the massacre of 11 people that took place in 1979, in a place called Chirudih located in Jharkhand.  So the magistrate issued an arrest warrant against him on July 19.   That was when this latest episode of the drama had begun.  By going ‘underground’ and eluding the police, the (then) Union Minster has successfully managed to lower his level to that of notorious fugitives like Veerappan.

Soren has also been involved in the famous JMM bribery case during PV Narasimha Rao’s reign in Delhi.  Reportedly, six cases have been filed against him, three of which are for murder.  He has been continuously evading arrest, or been on bail since the past 25 years!  Frankly, Shibu Soren is not the first politician to face such a situation.  There were and still are, dozens of Indian politicians who faced criminal charges and still ‘did fine in public life’.   Instead of running away, he could have followed their lead.  For all we know, he is innocent and honourable. He has impressive political record of mass mobilization and enjoys wide public support. In any case, we must presume he is innocent, until proven otherwise. But he should have submitted to the court’s orders, acquired bail and should have then started working hard on proving his innocence, during the trial.

But the very fact that a prominent public figure, a six-time MP and a Union Minister escapes arrest and trial clearly shows that even he has no confidence of getting a fair deal from either the police or the courts.  This is not surprising:  in this Chirudih massacre case alone, the authorities took over 25 years to go after the accused even as they permitted the entire investigation process to acquire deep political overtones.  This episode is yet another indictment of not just our criminal investigation system but also India’s justice-delivery framework.  Both suffer from extremely serious deficiencies and are unable to inspire confidence that a citizen submitting to the due process of law would be delivered a fair deal.  The operative words here are:  ‘fair’ and ‘due process.’  These notions compose the foundation on which the pillars of law-and-order and justice are built.  In turn, these pillars rise to support the very structure of our democracy itself.

To prevent that structure from failing, our criminal investigation system must be repaired immediately.  Under the present system, our politicians can and often do twist those (reputedly) long arms of the investigating and prosecuting authorities.  Many politicians, once they are elected, successfully pressurize the government to withdraw cases against them. This is precisely why persons with criminal antecedents fall in love with political offices, in the first place.  The first step towards cleaning this mess is also the most important one:  crime investigation must be insulated from the tanaav and dabaav of politics.  Our elected representatives should not interfere with the routine functioning of the crime investigation agencies and prosecuting bodies.

The framework of judiciary in our country also needs immediate and wholesale reforms of fundamental nature.   The first of which must be the setting up of a subordinate court structure that can deliver timely justice to millions of desperate Indians.   Next, this justice-delivery system should be made to develop immunity against corruption and subversion of the due process.  How can this be achieved?  Only by ensuring that the entire trial process is highly transparent and easily understandable even by the layperson.

These transformations must be coupled with fundamental political and electoral reforms, so that criminal elements cannot find their way into legislative or executive positions of influence.



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