Shifting faces of innocence

Lalit Bhanot is facing trial in the Commonwealth Games scam. He was in jail for a year. Now he is general secretary of the Indian Olympic Association (IOA). IOA president Abhay Chautala, who is himself facing trial in a disproportionate assets case, defended Bhanot’s election by arguing that the charges of corruption against Bhanot have not been proved. Chautala said Bhanot’s election is as legal as the legislators’, ministers’ and chief ministers’ election, since most politicians have cases pending against them in courts. In the case of many offences, Indian law presumes innocence till guilt is proved. There are different tiers of judiciary and a court verdict can be challenged till the level of the Supreme Court. Cases drag in courts for long periods of time and justice is denied to the extent it is delayed.

Like other institutions, corruption has been found in judiciary too. Corruption in judiciary is cause for more concern and despair than corruption elsewhere because the wrongs done elsewhere are expected to be addressed fairly by the judiciary. So corruption in judiciary amounts to trying to clean dirty clothes with dirty water. But no institution is insulated from society. Corruption riddles the entire society in India. Society both services and is serviced by all the institutions of the country. It would be unreasonable to expect any institution to remain untouched by the corruption rampant in society.

It is quite possible in this scenario that a criminal who has not been proved guilty in the highest court will try to use his power and influence to not only secure his acquittal but also exploit the weaknesses in the justice delivery system and loopholes in law to prolong the trials. There are two possibilities in a court case against a person who has actually committed a crime. Justice will either be done, however long it may take, and the person proved guilty. Or travesty of justice may occur, and the culpable person may be wrongly proved innocent. No judiciary can be perfect. Human beings deliver justice and it is human to err. It is human to get corrupted too. It is quite possible for judiciary, therefore, to acquit a criminal either unknowingly or, in case of corruption in judiciary, unwittingly. Any institution stands on the foundation of the trust people have in it. The law and justice delivery system should inspire faith in people. The system will weaken and wither if people get reason to believe that it is not doing its job. 

Protected by the principle of presumption of innocence in the long period of trial against him, a criminal or law-breaker may hold positions of power and authority that enable him to make a big difference to the lives of many people. This amounts to a huge wrong inflicted on society whether finally the criminal is rightly convicted or wrongly acquitted. It is enormous injustice to the people of India if a rapist, murderer or thief, for instance, becomes a legislator or minister during the period the case against him takes its sluggish and labyrinthine legal route and he wrongfully enjoys the fruits of innocence because he has not been proved a criminal.

It is untenable in case of many offences to bar an innocent person with a court case against him from leading a normal life by presuming him to be guilty till proved innocent. But it is also wrong to enable a guilty person to be in positions that impact the lives  of many people because he is presumed to be innocent during the long period it takes to prove his guilt. A guilty person would always want to lengthen the period of his innocence. The untenability of a guilty person enjoying power and influence over others increases if he manipulates the law and the justice delivery system to elongate the period of his innocence and savour all the rights and benefits that come with innocence, including the right to be a high-ranking government official, legislator or minister.

There seems to be no practical way out of this situation. If the practice of presuming a person to be innocent till proved guilty can have unjust results, the opposite scenario of presuming guilty till proved innocent is unjust too. Delays in delivering justice can pronounce the injustice meted out to society in the case of presumption of innocence. There have been talks for a long time to reduce delays in handing out justice but nothing has changed on the ground.

The people of India have no way to find out how many criminals are roaming free as innocent persons while cases against them languish in courts. It is tough to be the people of India.

It is tough to believe in the adage ‘be you ever so high, the law is above you’. A nation draws on the faith its people have in it. Doubt in a nation’s ability to be fair and just to its people can be injurious to its health but it is tough not to doubt that the rule of law prevails all the time in the country.

Amit Shekhar is a senior journalist and columnist
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