Police, public and prosecution

SHANTONU SEN

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THE police and public relationship is admittedly discordant and often unpleasant. At the heart of the relationship is the functioning of our police stations. Citizens approach a police station only when they have to and that is when they are victims of a crime. Upset, badly jolted and rattled, they hope to get some relief, and eventually justice. It is a painful commentary on the times, and the system, that more often than not, as victims of crime, citizens find their hopes dashed.

While citizen ire against the police is understandable, what is less often appreciated are the complexities and the infirmities of the process – from registration of a crime to its eventual prosecution. Today, nearly 30 million cases are pending trial. 96 per cent of all police cases launched on the complaint of affected citizens fail each year to provide relief to the complainants. Recently, speaking at a national seminar on judicial reforms, the President expressed serious concern at the state of affairs, pointing out that though the Law Commission expects the appointment of 50 judges per million population, the figure continues to hover at just over 10 judges per million population.

Others have stressed the need for the appointment of quality judges. Atul M. Setelvad stated, ‘Poor quality results in bad judgements, and more appeals.’ He finds judges unable to control proceedings or stand upto powerful members of the Bar, even cut through repetitive arguments. He bemoans the sheer waste of time where ‘more than half an hour in each five hour working day is spent only in giving dates!’ The next date could be seven months hence.

H.D. Shourie of Common Cause found that in Delhi each judge has a pendency of 2-3000 cases per court; that over 2.8 lakh cases are pending trial in the city’s subordinate courts. Anwar Kaur has been attending court for 14 years and can only cry in anguish: ‘Dates, that is all we get.’ Her husband, Navin Singh, was killed in the 1984 anti-Sikh riots. The average duration of the investigation and trial of an accused runs to four years, after which 96% of the accused are set free.

Most of us live in high-risk states. Delhi tops the Nation Crime Record Bureau (ncrb) list with a crime rate of 520 per lakh population per year. Lucknow alone, between September 1997 and May 1998, reported 119 murders, 73 kidnappings and 22 rapes. Mumbai in 1998 suffered 83 shootouts and 88 killings. Of the 88 killed, 57 had no criminal past. This is but a mere reflection of the reported and recorded crime. The state of Bihar reports only 90 crimes per lakh population per annum. Forget relief, evidently even investigation seems a far cry here.

It is reported in The Indian Journal of Public Administration (January-March 1998) that there were 11,704 police stations in the country. Delhi had the best-manned stations with an average of 100 men and 10 officers per police station. The annual expenditure per police station stood at Rs 1.10 crore per annum in 1998 (all figures pre-the Fifth Pay Commission). Notwithstanding this happy situation, reliance on private security has grown exponentially in the city. With the combined annual police budget for all states hovering around Rs 3000 crore, it is evident that the resource and personnel situation in most of our 11,704 police stations is abysmal. With the crime graph escalating and police stations semi functional, is it any wonder that the citizen is left to fend for himself.

 

 

Central to successful prosecution of a crime is its investigation, be it commonplace or heinous. Exposing all attendant features of the crime and identifying those responsible should be the end result of the investigation. This demands that the police should be familiar not only with rules, laws and guidelines but also skilled in the use of scientific and technical methods. The process involves the organizing and planning of the investigation, inspecting the scene of crime for investigation, collecting and verifying evidence, engaging in search and seizure, and so on. All this involves techniques of forensic photography, traceology, forensic ballistics, technical study of documents, scientific identification techniques, including DNA testing and so on. Finally, are the procedures and techniques of interrogation.

While the general procedure indicated above is common to all investigations, each crime demands the use of special methods and skills. This is where our system breaks down. For though our official records reveal a high percentage of success in crime detection or even crime prevention, many of these cases are thrown out by the courts. Evidently, either the figures for crime prevention and detection are vastly exaggerated, or else our police is clearly deficient in its ability to prepare a case for the subsequent legal process.

Partly, this is because most of our policemen are trained as, and are expected to be, generalists. They lack the skills for genuine detection and thorough investigation. Equally to blame is the slow process through the courts. With cases dragging on for years, sometimes by design, officers get transferred, evidence is destroyed, and prosecution loses out in the process of attrition.

The acute shortage of judges is one factor. More problematic is the trial procedure. The courts come into play as soon as the police accepts the first information report (FIR) and commences investigation. Though the court has a right to be informed of the process and progress of investigation, in practice this right is rarely exercised. In real terms, the court comes alive only when an accused is arrested and produced before it. In theory, this must be done within 24 hours of arrest. Yet, illegal detention remains routine with the courts turning a Nelson’s eye, unless, of course, the case is important.

The story, when the trial proceeds, is as dismal. Once the prosecutor steps in on behalf of the police, the investigating officer washes his hands off the trial. He invariably has new and urgent work. The prosecutor, without the investigators’ assistance, is unable to proceed and, in cahoots with the defence counsel, resorts to adjournments. The defence is pleased as the delay helps extend the client’s bail, as also weakens and destroys evidence. The citizen who lodged the fir watches in dismay and anger as his world starts collapsing. The anger against the criminal justice system grows. No wonder, some citizens seek justice, not through the police or courts, but by using the likes of a Dawood Ibrahim. Romesh Sharma is but a recent example.

 

 

On the one hand, police stations are semi-functional and the number of judges inadequate; on the other, police investigation procedures and findings are questionable. Witnesses often back trumped-up charges. The trial fails but in the process many years are lost. Even when the prosecution succeeds, the time taken for investigation and trial leaves all concerned fatigued and bitter.

The police-prosecution interface is in need of immediate remedial action for further delay may ravage social norms. Appointing specialist investigators, screened from interference and political directions is one step. Ensuring an adequate number of judges and courts is another.

Further, we should move to a system, like in Singapore, where not only is the trial held continuously, but before trial the prosecutor is required to go through the evidence (statements, exhibits, everything) with a fine toothcomb. He often drastically compresses the data and thereby speeds up the trial. All these, alongside financial autonomy and strict accountability may help in stemming the rot. Otherwise, anarchy will engulf us all.

 

Whither the CJS

The number of criminal cases pending trial against individuals in Delhi courts stands at a whopping 1,17,061 (154725 men, 8936 women, 729 children). About 50 sessions courts and 70 metropolitan magistrates are trying these cases conducted by only 60 public prosecutors and 54 assistant public prosecutors. While the number of investigating officers specifically allotted for assistance (pairvi) work is negligible, exceptions are made in some important cases where the pairvi officer is appointed by the deputy commissioner of police (DCP). In a metropolitan magistrate’s court, about 10 to 20 adjournments are routine during the trial; the average duration of the adjournment is usually about 3-4 months. In a sessions courts the period of adjournment could be between 10-15 months.

Among the pending cases, about 7558 relate to serious/heinous crimes out of which 12565 of the accused are on bail and 2339 in custody. Only where the offence is bailable, the police has the jurisdiction to release the accused on bail. In cases of non-bailable offence, only trial courts have the authority to grant bail. About 387 of the accused have managed to jump bail. There is no information available about those who are on bail and their involvement in fresh crimes.

* Data supplied by the Office of the Director of Prosecutions, Government of Delhi, January 1999.

 

The trial continues

I was the last prosecution witness. My evidence was recorded on 10 June 1998 in the court of K.K. Das, Special Judge, Guwahati. What was unusual was that I was deposing on events that had taken place 30 years earlier, in 1968.

The case was simple, involving the acquisition of a tea garden, the Lakwa Tea Estate, by the ongc for oil exploration and drilling. The estate was managed by S.N. Tantia, scion of the Calcutta Tantia family and the younger brother of R.N. Tantia, then treasurer of the Indian National Congress. The key figures on behalf of the ongc were Johnson, chairman ONGC and Brigadier K.S. Dhillon (retired), manager, eastern sector, ONGC.

The formula for working out compensation was well established, based upon the number of bushes, the manner in which they had been planted, yield per acre, and the profit/loss ratio. Dhillon and Tantia, in collusion with the SDO Sibsagar, Raja Ram Misra, in violation of set procedures, decided upon their own formula. In this they were helped by Johnson who was not prosecuted for lack of legal evidence. Overall, the Tantias received Rs 27,54,276 as compensation at the rate of Rs 31,000 per acre against a maximum of Rs 6,800 per acre in accordance with the settled formula. The officials concerned also avoided taking prior permission and ended up buying land which was mortgaged to the Grindlays Bank.

The ‘crime’ was discovered by Sachi Bhushan Dey, internal auditor, in 1970. Dhillon had by then retired but Johnson was still chairman ONGC. Given the enormity of the fraud and the political connections of the accused, the matter was discussed in Parliament and handed over to the CBI for investigation.

The CBI completed its investigation in 1972 and prosecuted nine persons (Dhillon, Tantia, Raja Ram and six others). The sanction for Raja Ram Misra’s prosecution was received in mid-1973. Dhillon challenged his prosecution. It took the courts 17 years to decide on the appeal and it was decided in 1990 that Dhillon would not be prosecuted. Meanwhile Tantia and six others had died. Johnson had left India in 1972. Raja Ram, since retired and ill, and another minor functionary of ONGC, now in his eighties, await trial.

The trial continues.

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