The criminal justice system of the country is “virtually collapsing” and “as it is slow, inefficient and ineffective, people are losing confidence in the system”. This was stated by the Justice Malimath Committee (2000-2003), which had been constituted to recommend reforms in the criminal justice system. Thanks to certain lobbies, the salient recommendations of the Committee were never implemented. Meanwhile, the system continues to go down a slippery slope.
There could be no greater indictment of the system than the fact that the Supreme Court had to intervene in a case of alleged rape to ensure that justice was done to the victim. Under normal circumstances, it should have been possible for the matter to be disposed in a satisfactory manner at the thana level. However, there was complete failure at all levels of administration, particularly in the police.
The facts about the Unnao case are as follows. A minor girl is gang-raped, allegedly by an MLA, Kuldeep Singh Sengar, his brother and accomplices, on June 17, 2017. The police register a case of kidnapping, but the MLA is not named in the FIR. On April 3, 2018, her father is brutally assaulted, allegedly by Sengar’s men, for refusing to withdraw the complaint. The police, in a bizarre twist to the case, arrest the her father for alleged illegal possession of firearms. She attempts to immolate herself outside the chief minister’s residence on April 8, 2018. The very next day, her father dies in judicial custody. There is widespread outrage. On April 12, three days after her father had succumbed to the injuries, four days after her attempted suicide and more than nine months after the gruesome incident, a case of rape is finally registered against the MLA under the IPC and Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act. The MLA is not arrested even at this stage, and the case is handed over to the CBI.
The CBI arrests Sengar on April 13, 2018, but the travails of the aggrieved family do not end. The family is said to have sent 35 written complaints to the police and administration over a period of one year, saying they would be targeted by the henchmen of the jailed MLA. But police do not take any effective action. On the contrary, they register an FIR against the woman, her mother and uncle on December 27, 2018 for having submitted forged documents to show that she was a minor at the time of the alleged rape. On July 12, 2019, the woman and her relatives send letters, among others, to the Chief Justice of India, alleging that the MLA had threatened them with dire consequences if they did not settle the sexual assault case with the accused. And, on July 28, 2019, the car in which the woman was travelling is rammed by a truck under suspicious circumstances. Her two aunts are killed. The woman and her lawyer, who was also in the car, suffer grievous injuries. The security personnel provided to her inexplicably did not accompany her during the journey. The truck’s number plate was found defaced. The woman is presently struggling for life.
Sengar, who was in the BSP and then in the Samajwadi Party before getting elected on a BJP ticket in 2017, is in jail, hoping to be released on bail one day and then, perhaps, acquitted for want of evidence.
The handling of the case by UP Police has been, to say the least, disgraceful. The sequence of events clearly brings out that the local police was hand in glove with the politician, trying to protect him at every stage and causing harassment to the woman and her family. Senior officers in the home department cannot escape responsibility either. The case dragged on for nearly two years. There was enough time to diagnose the problem and take corrective action. However, that was not done. Supervision was inexcusably lax and complicit. It was regrettable on the part of the police to have said, even before forensic examination, that the car crash prima facie seemed to be an “accident”.
The CBI has not covered itself with glory either. It is true that the agency filed chargesheets as far back as July 2018 — one charging the MLA with abduction and rape and a second one charging four people of the murder of the woman’s father. A third chargesheet was filed against the legislator for planting weapons on the woman’s father. The CBI should have taken steps to ensure that important witnesses were not intimidated, much less eliminated. And why could trial in the chargesheeted cases not begin?
Fortunately, the Supreme Court issued a slew of directions on August 1, transferring the trial of rape and other related cases to Delhi and ordering that the trial be completed within 45 days. It has also directed the CBI to complete investigation into the accident case in 14 days and ordered the UP government to pay an interim compensation of Rs 25 lakh to the survivor. The CRPF has been asked to provide protection to the victim, her family and the lawyer.
The Supreme Court has been trying to depoliticise the police. It gave directions which, if sincerely implemented, would have insulated police from external pressures. Why are the states being allowed to trifle with them? The apex court needs to introspect if the monitoring and implementation of its directions has been adequate.
Similarly, the Witness Protection law has yet to be passed by the Centre. It has been on the anvil for several years. It should be enacted without further delay.
The writer is chairman, Indian Police Foundation