Sunday 10 February 2013

In India, jail bharo has become the only solution to crime (Sunday Times)

Justice Verma and Justice Leela Seth at a press conference after submitting his committee’s report to the government in New Delhi on 23 January 2013. PTI
uring the time when Richard Nixon was the President of the United States, began the acceleration of a policy within the US to prescribe "mandatory minimum" sentences for a variety of crimes, some as inconsequential as a pickpocketing or a sniff of marijuana. Some states brought in a "Three Strikes" policy, which locked up for life those offenders, who were found guilty of three separate crimes committed in serial order, no matter that the third infraction may have been minor. For four decades and more, the prison population of the US has soared, with its attendant financial and social costs. At the same time, crime in the country has consistently been higher than in locations such as Norway, which have a more forgiving attitude towards lawbreakers, and where a prison usually replicates the conditions of a resort hotel in other climes. Instead of prison being what it should be, the last resort of the state, when confronted with delinquent behaviour, it has become the first — and usually the only option — for the justice system in several presumed democracies. There was a presumption that India was different, but a recent Supreme Court judgement has made it clear that "life in prison" means precisely that. Life in prison. Such a verdict assumes there to be a zero possibility of redemption or a change in mindset, and creates an attitude of frustration and recklessness because no amount of good behaviour will make any difference.
Back in those slightly more liberal years when "life in prison" meant 14 years or less, there was an incentive for the prisoner to improve his skills and seek to ensure a level of societal adjustment which would preclude a return to his cellblock. Now that it has been decreed that he or she will be divested of almost all human liberties and rights for the entire remaining duration of a life, what incentive is there except to face each day with catatonic numbness? Such a permanent sentence is akin to civil death in the guise of a "life" sentence. 21st century India is moving closer to the US from the time of Nixon, in seeing "Jail Bharo" as the solution to crime. The Justice Verma Commission's draconian punishments and loosely defined criminal acts seem tailor-made for misuse by a corrupt police force. Of course, it needs to be remembered that Justice Verma (retired Chief Justice Verma, in fact) is the legal genius who discovered what may be described as the "Invisible Constitution of India," which apparently mandated that the selection of judges and other matters pertaining to them be decided in-house, without any but a symbolic reference to the government of the day. Since that time two decades back, judges have policed themselves and chosen their successors, beating back any effort at wider accountability. Justice Verma can have the immense satisfaction of knowing that his innovation of basing verdicts on the Invisible Constitution has produced a judicial system spotless in its integrity and lighting fast in its work ethic.
Final judgements in India take just four or more decades to complete, rather than hundreds of years. There are less than 2 crore pending cases in the courts and only 90,000 rape cases .
Final judgements in India take just four or more decades to complete, rather than hundreds of years. There are less than 2 crore pending cases in the courts, and only 90,000 rape cases, some of which linger on for so long that both the perpetrator and the victim have entered old age homes. There are thousands of laws that can be (mis)used to send an individual to jail. Justice Verma has created history in India by making the judicial system so perfect that even the media has been kept at bay, especially after the Rs 100 crore verdict in the Justice Sawant defamation case, when that (absurdly low) figure was decreed after a television channel showed a few seconds of the image of the wrong judge in a news report before correcting it in a grovelling manner over several hours and days. Had the latter penance not have occurred, the decree would probably have been Rs 1,000 crore. To those who believe that freedom of speech includes the right to find fault, India's Invisible Constitution provides an answer. By its ubiquity in 21st century India, art shows are being halted, garrulous sociologists are being silenced while sociopaths are being cosseted in juvenile homes. The exceptions to Article 19(1)(a) ensuring freedom of speech have become the norm, the way jail terms — for life, of course — and death sentences are being made the new norm in "liberalising" India, Richard Nixon would approve.

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