The Maharashtra Police has been asked to use state and central government employees as panch witnesses while investigating cases under the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. The step is aimed at improving the state’s conviction record under the Act, which in 2016 was 10.5 per cent.
The Protection of Civil Rights (PCR) department of the state police recently issued recommendations to that effect to units across the state. Panch witnesses play a crucial role when the police search homes and personal objects belonging to persons under investigation, are safeguards to ensure that evidence at a scene of crime is not tampered with and provide a guarantee from the police to the court that it hasn’t introduced any new material at a spot.
The crucial role of panch witnesses
The Criminal Procedure Code empowers the police to summon “reliable and reputable” persons residing in an area where a search of a property or raid is to be conducted, in order to witness the procedure and testify in court if called upon. It is only when such a person is not available in the area that the police may seek a person with a clean reputation from elsewhere. Failure to heed the summons to serve as a panch witness is punishable under law.
“We carried out a five-year analysis of trials in the state and found that most cases were resulting in acquittals because panch witnesses were turning hostile,” said Quaiser Khalid, Inspector General of Police, PCR.
Stopping the use of civilians as panch witnesses is one area the police has identified in its bid to arrest sliding conviction rates. “We cannot do anything if civilian witnesses turn hostile,” said Khalid.
If government employees who are examined as panch witnesses turn hostile, they face the threat of departmental action and punishment. “Government employees are more reliable as panch witnesses and are less likely to turn hostile. Once all units implement these recommendations, we will hopefully see more convictions,” Khalid said.
In addition, the police will now be required to record statements of complainants, witnesses and panch witnesses before a magistrate under Section 164 of the Criminal Procedure Code during the course of the investigation. This is to ensure that their statements recorded prior to the trial have legal validity.
According to data from the National Crime Records Bureau for 2016, Maharashtra ranks sixth nationwide on number of cases registered under the Atrocities Act. In 2016, 1,750 offences were reported against SCs and 403 against STs.