Lives scarred by years spent in prison for crimes never committed; families destroyed; the republic’s promise of justice frayed — with these consequences of the hideously flawed investigation of the 2006 Malegaon bombings, we have all become familiar. It isn’t enough, however, to lament what happened. Instead, the Central and state governments need to provide granular answers to the questions that have emerged from Malegaon. Just how was it, for instance, that Maharashtra’s criminal investigators incarcerated innocent men, leaving the perpetrators free to strike again? Why was the evidence not revisited when a separate investigation threw up leads linking the bombing to “Hindu terror”? Who in authority authorised prosecutors to defend their error in the face of this new evidence? These questions go to the heart of the police system, for what happened in Malegaon is true to a disturbing pattern. There is a mass of evidence that suggests the men convicted for the July 2006 attacks on Mumbai’s train system were innocent of the crime. Internal police documents revealed by this newspaper last year showed investigators in Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh believed the bombings were carried out by men in their custody, not those convicted. However, prosecutors in Maharashtra have refused to revisit the case. Himayat Baig stands convicted of the 2010 bombing in Pune — though, in 2011, police in Delhi arrested a separate group of men they said had carried out the same crime. That did not, however, lead to a reappraisal of the case.
Though it seems improbable that this pattern could be the outcome of anything other than egregious police misconduct, wilful wrongdoing is impossible to prove without an investigation. That is unlikely to happen, for there is no political will to uncover the truth. Even though these criminal failures of policing took place on the watch of a Congress government, the BJP has proved just as tenacious in defending them as its predecessor. For its part, the Congress is interested only in levelling accusations of communal bias at the handling of investigations by the BJP, not a full and honest accounting for past mistakes. This should not surprise: Ruling parties want loyal police forces, and loyalty comes at a price.
How India ought to proceed is no mystery. For one, cases of wrongful arrest must be mandatorily investigated, responsibility assigned, and institutional rectification initiated — all this, in the full light of day. In democracies across the world, police autonomy has gone hand in hand with police accountability, enforced by bodies like the UK’s Independent Police Complaints Commission. In addition, systems have been put in place to compensate those who suffer miscarriages of justice, without putting them through the harassment of proceedings in a civil court. The price of not doing so will be deepening distrust in the law, and in the criminal justice system — a far more lethal wound to India than that any terrorist could inflict.