In a first, the Aam Aadmi Party-led Delhi Government on Friday notified a policy to bring in a witness protection programme in “crucial” high profile cases. This may seem like a routine announcement to many, but it has far-reaching and wide-ranging implications. As of today, India has no comprehensive witness protection programme, and as the Vyapam scam has shown on many occasions, key witnesses have been found murdered, in rather mysterious circumstances. This reality exists despite the fact that in 2013, the Delhi High court had directed the government to frame a witness protection policy to provide guidelines and principles which the police, prosecution and executive agencies would have to follow in future cases.
Take the curious case of Vyapam. If examined closely one realises that it is not the first high-profile case to see deaths of those with access to key information. Just a few months ago, four key witnesses in the sexual assault trial of Godman, Asaram Bapu faced a murderous attack, and two of whom died. Akhil Gupta, the cook and aide of Asaram, was shot dead in Muzaffarnagar in January this year. Amrut Prajapati was shot dead in Gujarat in June 2014. The complainant’s husband and the Godman’s former Secretary managed to survive murderous attacks upon them. The number of deaths of those who were accused in the Vyapam scam – whose testimony and information could have eventually led to the kingpins of the corruption racket – has once again brought to the fore the absence of a robust witness protection program in India.
Witness protection has off-and-on been discussed in India, from 1958 onwards in various reports of the Law Commission. While the law provides for punishment for witnesses who turn hostile – as they are liable for perjury and contempt of court – it chooses to turn a blind eye towards the reasons why they refuse to give testimony. It is perhaps ironic that while offenders have legal and constitutional rights, the witnesses do not. When combined with the deeply entrenched nexus that exists in India between the wealthy, the politically powerful and a corrupt police force and judiciary, it is not surprising that witnesses refuse to come forward and testify.
This is a problem that has long plagued justice systems across the world, as crime, wealth and political power have existed in close connection with one another. This is the reason that legal systems across the world have developed Witness Protection Programs. United States, United Kingdom, Australia, South Africa, Canada, Ireland and Philippines are amongst the countries to have well-designed Witness Protection Programs. This is precisely the reason that India needs a Witness Protection Program. The AAP government’s witness protection policy is a welcome and commendable step in this regard.