The acquittal on December 22 by a Delhi Court of Irshad Ali and Maurif Qamar, who were under trial and incarceration for over a decade on serious charges including sedition, followed by media reports and even the editorial condemning the entire episode, will enrage human rights defenders. The media highlights speak eloquently about the sad state of affairs in the criminal justice system in India.
While we smart under the banner of SMART policing, the other hand is the dark, but real world of torture, false implication, illegal arrest, illegitimate custody, long, expensive fight against injustice — all indicative of the collapse of institutions. The Irshad Ali episode is not just a symptom, but a disease that has engulfed and crippled the systems. There are several outstanding islands of excellence in the criminal justice delivery in India, but they get subsumed into the ocean of torture and illegality so rampant, prevalent and institutionalised.
The core issue is the untold suffering that the victims of torture and their family members are subjected to. Thousands of victims of torture remain subjugated to the illegal dictate of the incompetent law enforcers. They have no voice and suffer in silence. This is the major reason why atrocities continue unabated. It is time the silence is broken and the institutions of criminal justice system are made rights-oriented and accountable to rule of law. This should be the starting point of smart policing.
How do we go about it
There are three important aspects in addressing the issue. The first is strong action against the violators. The Government, the senior police leadership, including Intelligence agencies and statutory agencies like the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), should take immediate steps in extending deterrent action including adequate compensation by the violators to the victims. The second step is to ensure accountability of the investigators and supervisors. Third is the most important issue of skilling the investigators and supervisors.
There are good models in the country in respect of punishing the offenders and violators in the police system. The fact that the violations committed by the officials of Delhi police and Intelligence Bureau was established on evidence by the Centreal Bureau of Investigation (CBI) is a testimony to the checks and balances in the system.
For instance, in the infamous espionage case of 1994, involving top scientists of Isro, wherein the State police arrested several persons under the Official Secrets Act, the Supreme Court had castigated the State police investigators, appreciated the CBI investigation – which established that the entire case is false – and awarded token compensation of Rs 1 lakh to the all the persons arrested by police. Further, the NHRC awarded Rs 10 lakh to the scientist, wrongfully arrested by the police.
No torture persists without the connivance or complicity of the supervisors. Their acts of omission and commission remain a fundamental reason why torture persists in the police systems, including the Intelligence and investigative wings. The vicarious accountability of the supervisors needs to be established, if systems have to be improved. Collusive corruption and collusive torture are the bane of the system. Sweeping of the steps starts from the top. Public opinion counts a lot. Elected representatives have an important role in this. Courts of law cannot be silent spectators when torture comes to their notice, but should come down heavily and institute a criminal case against the violators and award exemplary compensation to the victims of torture by those who torture. If this becomes a system, the change towards reduction of torture can be effective.
The question is why police and Intelligence agencies should indulge in torture. The reasons normally cited include race against time, overwork and short-staff. But the crucial factor is lack of skills of the investigators. Criminal investigation is a professional business, involving several disciplines of science and technology and professional skills of interviewing, interrogation, observation, listening, documentation, presentation, technology-integration and forensics utilisation among others. The question is how many such capable investigators we have? Even the prime investigative agencies like the CBI and the NIA (National Investigation Agency) are hiring officers from paramilitary forces as investigators.
Most of the State police training academies are in a primitive stage, without adequate infrastructure and human resources. Often the official sent here as a punishment is the last one to take any interest in training oneself and others. The general pattern continues on physical build-up and less on intellectual growth. There is heavy focus on knowledge creation, but seldom on skilling. Therefore, the police officers who graduate from such academies are in a semi-skilled or unskilled state. This remains a major impediment. Since there is no outside interference in the skilling aspect, the onus remains on the police leadership. The role of political leadership in allocation of funds and selection of leadership for running academies is far from satisfactory. Most of the investments in police modernisation have been in infrastructure and very less in skilling investigators.
Skilled professional investigators will be the first to avoid torture. Torture, in any form or degree, is the weapon of the weak, unprofessional and incompetent. It is the art of the absurd, the weapon of the untrained. The best criminal investigations in the country have been completely devoid of torture, usually called third degree. A professional investigator confines to the realm of first degree, interrogation per se and the second degree, ie confrontation. These are scientific tools in the investigative armoury of the professional. Unless our investigators are professionally skilled, the dream of smart policing will remain a dream; many an Irshads will continue to be tortured and the collapsed system will keep limping.