For years I have argued that India needs police-judicial reform more urgently than further economic reform. Virtually nobody with resources is convicted beyond all appeals. When wrongs are not redressed and the guilty not penalised, basic human rights are violated.Adverse economic consequences follow too. Competition, the
bedrock of economic growth, works by rewarding the most productive and penalising the sluggards. But if the police and courts are moribund, then the winners will be those that can flout the law with impunity, not those with high productivity.
Today, an even more important reason for police-judicial reform is the need to combat terrorism and its communal repercussions. We have recently heard that the verdict in the 1993 Mumbai bomb blast case will be delivered in early August. Imagine, this top-priority case has dragged on for 13 years, despite being heard by a TADA court, with supposedly fast-track procedures! So, do not mistake arrests by the police of suspects in the latest Mumbai blasts for quick action. This case too may take 13 years.
Muslim organizations claim that many arrested in the 1993 case will be found innocent. But having been locked up for 13 years, they may emerge as ripe terrorist material.
Besides, callous politicians now uses the police as a political tool. When Chief Ministers regularly arrest Opposition leaders on charges that never end in convictions, people see the police-judicial process as political theatre rather than a justice system. This has accelerated the criminalisation of politics.
A new, dangerous development is the emergence of terrorists as vote banks. Abdul Nasser Mahdani, chief accused in the 1998 Coimbatore bomb blast, is wooed by both the DMK and the Left Front. They seek the support of his People’s Democratic Party, a Muslim outfit floated by him after his earlier Islamic Sevak Sangh was banned. This will encourage other militant groups.
We have long witnessed criminals being wooed by political parties and given Cabinet posts because their muscle and money power fetches crucial votes. Elections are won and lost on swings of just 1% of the vote, so parties cynically woo every possible vote bank, including those headed by accused robbers and murderers.
Legal delays ensure that the accused will die of old age before being convicted, so parties virtuously insist that these chaps must be regarded as innocent till proved guilty. This is a sound principle in countries where most criminals are convicted. But it is a licence for murder in a country where nobody with resources gets convicted beyond all appeals.
Having wooed criminals, the logical next step is for political parties to woo terrorist outfits too. These may also command enough votes to swing some constituencies. Indeed, the more our polity gets communalized, the more terrorists of all stripes will become politically attractive. Why jail a terrorist who can win you the next election? Keep him on your side, otherwise his followers may switch to the opposition.
This is not idle speculation. In Uttar Pradesh, Minister for Minority Affairs Haji Qureshi announced a reward of Rs 51 crore for anybody beheading the Danish cartoonist who portrayed the prophet. This was incitement to murder and terrorism, yet was fully supported by the Chief Minister, who needs every possible Muslim vote in next year’s state election. Optimists will argue that this was mere rhetoric. Yet the day may come when rewards will be offered, openly or covertly, for killing Muslim hate objects like Gujarat Chief Minister Modi.
Politics apart, long legal delays (as in the Mumbai and Coimbatore blast cases) can fuel communal riots. If the law cannot quickly find and convict individual Muslims who have turned terrorist, then Hindus mobs will increasingly be tempted to seek vengeance against the whole Muslim community. And Muslims mobs will retaliate. The post-Godhra riots may then look like a tea party.
What police-judicial reforms do we need? First, we need an independent Police Commission, along the lines of the Election Commission, with all-India staff to investigate and prosecute crime. This function must be taken out of the hands of politicians. State governments can have separate forces for maintaining public order, but criminal investigation should be the job of a separate, autonomous police force. That will help move criminals (and possibly terrorists) out of legislatures and into jails.
Second, we need many more judges, and judicial procedures that ensure quick decisions. Justice delayed is justice denied.
Third, we need a law mandating the immediate hearing and disposal of all criminal cases against elected legislators. Today, criminals join politics to delay cases they face. But if these cases have to be disposed of before all others, criminals will avoid rather than join politics. We might even see some Cabinet Ministers resigning in panic and going back to crime.