Justice in the shocking case remains half-done, four years down the line. Such delays lead to erosion of people’s faith in the efficacy of the judiciary. This also calls into question the apex court’s strange priorities in dealing with issues of public importance
What happened on the cold night of December 16, 2012, was not a stray incident of rape. It was something unusual. The brutal Nirbhaya gang rape episode shook the collective conscience of the nation, angered the people, raised questions about people’s sense of security, especially women, and propelled the nation to come together – to protest, debate and introspect.
For the first time in the history of India, there was a united call for the need to put in place a stringent law to punish the perpetrators of heinous crimes like rape. People swung into action, there were protests and candle-light marches across the length and breadth of the country, on the streets, at Jantar Mantar and at India Gate in Delhi. Some people faced the brunt of water cannons and lathi-charge while they agitated.
The assault was brazen and horrific, so much so that it was an eye-opener for the judiciary, the legislature and also the executive. It made our parliamentarians summon Parliament to discuss the issue; laws were changed; new anti-rape provisions were enacted; several committees were formed to formulate speedier justice, various funds were created, a Government fell in Delhi (the perceived failure to maintain law and order being one of the reasons).
Despite so much having happened, four years down the line, neither have incidents of rape come down in the capital nor have the culprits been punished. Nirbhaya remains just in our memories. According to data from the National Crime Records Bureau, though there was an overall reduction in crime against women in 2015 as compared to 2014, but Delhi still has the highest rate of crimes against women. With 17,104 cases, the capital recorded a crime rate of 184.3 per one lakh female population. There can be no denial of the fact that incidents of rape may have actually gone up in the capital, but the flip side of the story is that post-Nirbhaya episode, more women now turn up to lodge complaints. Even so, the numbers are dreadful.
The negative side of the story is that the conviction rate in such cases offer no comfort. As per information from Delhi Police, the conviction rate stood at an abysmally low 29.37 per cent in 2015. Between 2011 and 2015, it touched a high of 49.25 per cent. This is despite setting up of several fast-track courts and the passage of strong anti-rape laws.
Take the Nirbhaya case itself. Despite clamour for speedy delivery of justice, the guilty continue to remain in jail, yet unpunished. An inadequate justice delivery system is at work. The delay has been on the part of the Supreme Court which has been sitting on this case since more than two years now. This can only embolden the perpetrators of the crime. By all accounts, given the laudatory urgency shown by the lower court and later the High Court, the apex court too should have treated this case as an exception.
The Justice JS Verma judicial committee that was appointed to prepare a report to suggest amendments to criminal law, to deal with sexual assault, submitted its report within 29 days of taking up work. Even the fast-track court and the High Court barely took eight months and six months respectively to give their verdicts. Undoubtedly, post this incident, the way culprits are being booked and arrested, points to the fact that crime incidents against women are being taken seriously, but the prevention of such crimes and the conviction rate is poor.
What was the point in fast-tracking the case when the Supreme Court had to thereafter sit over it? The incident happened on December 16, 2012. The very next day, three of the culprits were identified; they were subsequently arrested on December 18, 2012. The other two, which included a juvenile, were nabbed three days later. The case was taken up by a trial court, which began its work on January 17, 2013. The court took barely six months to award the death sentence to the culprits. In the intervening time, one convict, the driver of the bus, committed suicide in jail, on March 2013.
The verdict was then challenged in the Delhi High Court on October 7, 2013. For its part, the High Court took up the matter within 10 days and began hearing the case on a day-to-day basis. Six months down the line, in March 2014, the High Court upheld the fast-track court’s ruling, terming the offence as “extremely fiendish” and “unparalleled in the history of criminal jurisprudence”. It added that “exemplary punishment” was the need of the hour.
Meanwhile, things have moved on. The juvenile victim has served his time in a remand home and is now free. The release of the juvenile had led to another round of protests and turmoil, as it re-opened old wounds. The failure is not just on the part of the judiciary. A part of the blame must also be shared by the legislature for its failure to promptly pass the amendments to the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015.
Under the present scheme of things, the maximum punishment for a juvenile, who is guilty of such crimes, is a three-year term in a correction home. In the aftermath of this incident, a Bill was introduced to amend the juvenile justice Act, but the law remained stuck in the Rajya Sabha due to the inability of our Parliament to function – thanks to the frequent disruptions by the Opposition.
But nothing has moved the apex court to fast-track the case. The reason: It goes by the list of cases, and priorities to settle matters. The delay is inexplicable. What was the need for tougher laws, when justice had to be delayed? After keeping the case in cold storage for more than two years, the first hearing that took place was in April this year. Meanwhile, the perpetrators have been exploiting the legal system to drag on matters.
It’s not as if the top court does not go out of the way to hear high-profile cases on a day-to-day basis, when it thinks they require urgent hearing. For instance, in the unprecedented pre-dawn hearing, which went on for over an hour, the Supreme Court gave its final order clearing the execution of Yakub Memon, the 1993 Mumbai serial blast convict.
Many people, including Nirbhaya’s parents, are naturally distressed over the incapacity of the legal system. By all accounts, Nirbhaya’s was the rarest of rare cases and the apex court, like other courts, should have granted priority so as to send out a message loud and clear to the culprits of heinous crimes that, when it comes to matters of safety of women, the court is ready to keep rigidity aside and deliver justice at the earliest.
As things stand, justice in the Nirbhaya case remains half-done, four years down the line. Some years down, justice may finally prevail. But such delays lead to the erosion of people’s faith in the efficacy of the judiciary. This also call into question the apex court’s strange priorities in dealing with issues.