Kandhamal lesson: A stitch in time saves Nine

29th June 2010 must be considered an important day in the history of Indian judicial system. Not that some new law was promulgated on that day nor was any new judicial body set up. There was not even a major judicial structural change as well. Yet, what happened that day is something that would go a long way in restoring our faith in Indian socio-political structure. At the same time, it would help redeem the respect of Indian populace for our judicial system. It is on this date that in Kandhamal district Orissa, an important judgment was delivered that went on to sentence the powerful local politician and MLA from an important political party in matters related with communal riots. Read more

What is even more heartening is that the judgment was delivered by a fast-track court within a span of 2 years of the happening of the incidence. Manoj Pradhan, the influential leader of Kandhamal and a present-time MLA was supposed to be close to Swami Laxmanananda.

It was August 2008 that the murder of an important Hindu religious leader Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati and four of his aides had trigged a massive and highly damaging riot which went on for days (which has been alleged by many as being  a result of the deliberate laxity on the government’s part). The end result was what always happens in every riotous situations- the poor and the have-nots bore the brunt of the attack. While thousands of Christians were forced to leave their houses, the heat was equally felt by the poor Hindu tribal communities. It is alleged that Manoj Pradhan played a major role in instigating the riots and led it from the front, taking part in arson, murder and other heinous offences during the riots. Pradhan later got arrested and subsequently got his bail.

Meanwhile the matter came for trial before the Fast Court Track in Kandhamal district. Nearly two dozen cases were registered in different police stations in that period. In fact 17 cases were registered against Manoj Pradhan himself. So far decision in 12 cases related to him have come and he has been absolved in 11 of them. In the latest judgment he has been found guilty along with Pafulla Mallik and 14 others on charges of rioting, causing grievous hurt by dangerous weapons and arson.  They have been given 7 years of rigorous imprisonment each.  Thus five cases are still pending before him.

The judgment has been received by different people in different ways. There is a group that says that the punishment has been too less and lenient considering the heinous nature of the crime. They would have been satisfied if the maximum prescribed punishment were imposed on the accused. The other group has an exactly opposite view and openly claim that Manoj Pradhan was falsely implicated in the matter and he is completely innocent. They say that an appeal will be made in the Orissa High Court which shall help bring forth the truth. There are also the sufferers and the poor people who are too frightened to articulate any opinion in any way and for whom the only thing that matters is that such things don’t repeat again.

For a person like me and you, it would neither be prudent nor legal to comment on the judgment per se and give our own opinion, it still being in the judicial process. But one thing that really gives me immense satisfaction is the fact that justice (whether as acquittals or as convictions) is being delivered in these cases in a relatively fast manner, that too considering the fact that this is a highly contentious, political and religiously charged and emotive issue.

"Justice delayed is justice denied" they say but due to so many reasons this is exactly what is happening in our country in many cases. Look at the SPS Rathode case in Haryana. The incident took place in 1990 and the judgment was delivered in 2010. What meanings do such judgments have for all the concerned parties? Many a times the accused and the victim are dead and gone, at other times they are too old, helpless or weak as to suffer or rejoice the verdict. In short, it becomes a mere mockery and some kind of ritual. I recently read of a judgment related with Shibu Soren, the ex-Chief Minister of Jharkhand who was found not guilty in a murder case that related to late 1970s. So after more than 30 years it is found that Shibu Soren had not caused that murder. What relevance does such judgements have- in the eyes of the public, for the accused, for the victims, for the prosecution and even for the Judge who is delivering it?

What even pains more is that even Judiciary seems to have got affected by the media bug or the media pressure. An apt example would again be the same Ruchika case, where after 19 years, 40 adjournments, and more than 400 hearings, the court finally pronounced Rathore guilty under Section 354 IPC (molestation) and sentenced him to six months imprisonment and a fine of Rs 1,000. But the moment there was a huge uproar across the nation, another Court could deliver the judgment in less than 6 months sentencing him to one and a half years of rigorous imprisonment.

But to me, the Kandhamal case carries much more importance than Ruchika and Jessica Lal and all such cases because these are the crimes that are related with individuals while a riot is one which the general public has to face and suffer. Thus a judgment in one of the crimes related with riots has a much higher relevance and impetus to the masses and has much more message to convey. In such circumstances, if the crimes related with riots (religious, political, caste-based etc) are not decided in a swift manner, it gives a very bad message to the society and acts as a huge bolster to the other rioters. If there is not enough evidence against a person, leave him/her for good.

Otherwise convict the person to the equitable punishment that seems to be deserving. But to choose a middle path of lingering the matter for years in nothing but akin to becoming a party to the crime itself. If a Sikh riot of 1984, the Ayodhya events of 1992 or the Gujarat pogrom of 1992 are still pending in Courts, with no near chances of their getting decided (either way) then don't they act as potential precursors of future riots, giving such criminal mindsets an example to emulate and follow?

I sincerely believe that judgments in all such riot related matters must be delivered in a timely manner and swift (and correct) decisions must be arrived at in the minimum possible time, even at the cost of some criticism here and there (which any judicial pronouncement is bound to face anyway, because of vested interests and varying perspectives).

Amitabh Thakur
(The author is a senior Indian Police Service (IPS) officer, and President of National RTI Forum. Mobile: +91 94155-34526)