In light of the news of J Jayalalithaa’s acquittal on 11th May, hot on the heels of the speedy bail granted along with a suspended sentence for both Salman Khan on 8th May, and B Ramalinga Raju on the 11th, the Indian justice system has received a great deal of attention, including by the public and the media, as also the social media.
Specifically, the issue that’s being raised is this: are civil liberties promised in the Constitution only available to those who can afford it?
The Jayalalithaa judgment is already under heavy criticism, with C.R. Kumaraswamy’s mathematical mistakes being brought to light. The Special Public Prosecutor, BV Acharya, went on record to talk about the serious prejudice in the case, and how they were denied an opportunity to make oral arguments at all, since there was no Public Prosecutor appointed in Karnataka. Additionally, the disproportionate assets calculated are apparently a result of snowballing errors throughout the judgement. This appears a travesty of justice, but with the political scenario there are doubts about how far the appeal follow-up will be. Jayalalithaa gave statements about “fire tempering gold” and “dharma prevailing” after the verdict, and she will soon be sworn in as the CM.
Salman Khan’s conviction and five years sentence was pronounced, and immediately his appeal for a suspended sentence was heard and passed, granting him permanent bail until the next decision after the appeal: a model ‘speedy trial’. The question is not whether procedure was followed in this case: being such a high profile case, there is no doubt the utmost attention will have been paid to such details.
If we take a look at the average NCRB statistics of prisoners under trial (individuals held in judicial custody while their trial takes place) for 2013, it shows that the average holding period is close to 3 months. To the other extreme, around 3,000 under-trials have been detained in jail for more than five years. It is in this context that these incidents are being judged, and this is why there is an outcry. These nameless, faceless people without access to legal help remain in jails for years as others like Ramalinga Raju—of India’s largest accounting fraud fame—can manage to find a battery of lawyers to help secure bail on depositing personal bonds of Rs.1 lakh and a tenth of the Rs. 5.35cr fine imposed. Maya Kodnani got bail on the grounds of ill health after getting the sentence of a 28 year imprisonment suspended.
In direct contrast, DU professor G.N. Saibaba, an outspoken opponent of Operation Green Hunt, has been denied bail twice, and been refused medical help and nutrition. The wheelchair-bound prisoner, allegedly linked with Maoist activities over a year ago, is still in custody. This is not about his alleged ties, or his guilt, or innocence. This is about civil liberties, and court procedure. The question that is being asked is, why does the creaky, lumbering judicial machinery of India seem to crank up to an almost Utopian speed when greased by money? And why can it not function anywhere close to this efficiency without help?