By Ali Abbas:
“Justice? You get justice in the next world, in this world you have the law.”
– William Gaddis.
On a very usual day in office, I got a call from my father. In a grim voice, he informed me that our 25-year-old tenant had filed a case against us. He accused all male members of the family of forcefully extracting rent, harassment and attempts to vandalise his belongings. Most absurd was the claim that we had leased our property to said tenant for 100 years. We were left with no option but to fight back. It has been four years now.
Though I had already started feeling frustrated and helpless, it was far less than what one of my relatives had to go through who fought for more than 20 years to finally win his case, or far less than what thousands of other citizens face when their cases go on for years.
But people in India have more trust in the courts than their democratically elected governments. With a history and reputation of taking bold decisions, courts are the hope and strength of commoners in the country.
The following are some judgements from the recent past which left me in awe of our judiciary.
The Supreme Court banned the open and common usage of red beacons on cars by politicians, bureaucrats and even by private individuals. The Court said the it reflects a “Raj mentality.” Now, only high dignitaries holding constitutional posts can use red beacons when on duty while those engaged in emergency duties can use blue or multicolour lights.
In another landmark judgement, the Supreme Court recognised transgender people as the third gender for the first time. It also directed governments, both at the centre and at the states, to recognise them as educationally backward and consider reserving seats for them. Hopefully, this will help to end the discrimination against transgender individuals.
In 2014, citing the auction process as illegal and arbitrary, Supreme Court cancelled the licences of 214 coal blocks. This was done even after the private miners’ argument that cancellation will cause an estimated loss of 4.4 lakh crores and will hit investors’ confidence.
And Sahara India Chief Subrata Roy is still wasting away in Tihar Jail for the failure to pay a bail amount of 10,000 crores.
The humanistic approach, free legal aid to weaker sections of society, public interest litigations (PIL) and low fees to fight cases are some of the features which make our judicial system strong and approachable.
However, even with the best features, Indian judiciary is far from the best. People perceive courts as the long route to justice and think of it as the last resort. According to the National Judicial Data Grid, as on 16th February 2016, there were 2,09,11,662 cases pending in Indian courts out of which 69,55,415 are civil and 1,39,56,246 are criminal. Considering the enormous amount of pending cases, in 2010, Andhra Pradesh High Court judge V.V. Rao said it will take 320 years to clear the backlog of pending cases.
Many exploit this weakness of our justice system as a tool to harass the justice seeker. Consider the never ending pursuit for justice even after 32 years in the 1984 anti-Sikh riots case. Nearly 3,000 members of the Sikh community were killed after Indira Gandhi’s assassination. Or the Babri Masjid demolition case, the aftermath of which claimed the lives of more than 2,000 people, mostly from the minority community.
Or take the Uphaar cinema fire case in Delhi. It took 18 years for the case to reach its end. Annoyed by the number of years it took and the unsatisfactory judgement the court pronounced, Neelam Krishnamoorthy, the mother of the young victims of the tragedy got back at the Indian judiciary with her comment, “Looking back, I think I made a mistake. I should have picked up a gun and shot the culprits, pleaded insanity in court and I might have been out by now. Maybe that would have been justice.”
While these are criminal cases, the condition of civil cases is equally bad. For example in my case, there has been no hearing from the last one year. It was the fifth time we pleaded with the judge to take the case forward.
Highlighting this weakness of Indian courts, many movies are made in Bollywood. One such epic movie was Damini, where it’s the rapist’s lawyer who finds it more convenient to defend his client in court. That’s because in a court of law, it is easier to mould and twist facts, and pressurise, influence and break witnesses. If not anything else, one can keep delaying the proceedings hence delaying the judgement. As the famous dialogue of Sunny Deol goes, “tarik pe tarik milti rahi hai, lekin insaaf nahi mila my lord, mili hai toh sifr yeh tarikh (we keep setting dates for the next hearing, but do not get justice delivered).”
Last year, the judiciary surprised most of us when actor Salman Khan got acquitted by the High Court in the 13 year long hit and run case. Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu Jayalalitha was cleared of all corruption charges after 18 years. Ramalinga Raju, founder of Satyam, got bail after one month by the sessions court after being convicted in a trail court for an accounting fraud of 7000 crores.
It casts doubt in our minds. Does our judicial system behave differently for rich and influential people? A study conducted by National Law University students with the help of the Law Commission reveals that out of 373 death row convicts over 15 years, 75% of them belonged to weaker sections of society. A shocking 93.5% of those sentenced who recieved the death sentence for terror offences were found to be Dalits or from religious minorities.
A court of law does not work on emotions or popular sentiment. Neither does it matter whether you’re rich or poor. It pronounces judgement based on facts, logic and the evidence produced. All you need is to get a sharp lawyer on your side and support from police and witnesses to get the desired judgement.
So, it was on a usual Sunday recently, when my father got a call from one of the respected members of our locality who is also part of the local peace committee. He arranged for arbitration between us and the opponent. After a few negotiations and certain compromises, our opponent handed the keys to us, with which we got our property back after four long years. Referring to the courts, or ‘ada-lath’, as an addiction (‘lath’), he prayed, “may God save people from hospitals and courts.”