Two decisions in two days by the higher judiciary have reaffirmed the common man’s faith in the country’s much reviled judicial system. In the first verdict on Thursday, the Bombay High Court not only upheld the conviction of 11 men for gang raping Bilkis Bano, a five-month pregnant Muslim woman fleeing from the worst ever communal carnage in Gujarat in March, 2002; it also set aside the acquittal of seven others – five cops and two doctors – found complicit in shielding the culprits. In the second judgment delivered today, the Supreme Court upheld the death sentence on the four persons convicted for the most unimaginably brutal and violent gang rape of Nirbhaya in a Delhi bus on a cold December night in 2012.
But the question that still remains unanswered is: have the ends of justice been met in both cases?
Given the sheer brutality of the Delhi gang rape case that predictably led to national outrage, Friday’s decision by the apex court to uphold the High Court verdict giving the death penalty to the Gang of Four was perhaps a foregone conclusion. If there ever was a case that met the ‘rarest of rare’ definition set by the apex court for the award of death sentence, this case certainly was one. There is little doubt that some incurable human rightswallahs would make a case for converting the death penalty given to the four beasts to life imprisonment. But as long as the death penalty is there in the statute book, there can be no argument that it was the fittest case for invoking the sparingly used provision. The regret, if any, would be about the fact that there isn’t a harsher punishment available under Indian law for the brutes!
The element of surprise, however, was contained in the Bombay High Court judgment a day earlier. In its sheer brutality, the Bilkis Bano case was hardly different from the Nirbhaya case. Just imagine a 19-year old pregnant woman being brutalized and then left for dead by a dozen-strong gang of frenzied, beastly men. And this, after seven members of her family, including her five-year old son, were butchered by the blood-thirsty mob. Just about the only two differences in the two cases one can think of are that Bilkis lived to tell her tale another day and a rod was not inserted into her private parts as was the case in the Nirbhaya gang rape. But then Bilkis had the mortification of watching, even while being raped, her five year old son murdered by the mob.
Giving reasons for not accepting the CBI request for death penalty to three of the 11 convicts, the Bombay High Court said in its verdict that “….we are of the view that it is not a case wherein the sentence imposed would be completely inadequate and would not meet the ends of justice.” It is possible that the CBI may go in appeal to the Supreme Court asking for the death sentence on the three leaders of the murderous gang. For all one knows, the apex court may yet uphold the appeal. But there is little doubt that the reversal of the High Court would not be on the firm ground that verdict in the Nirbhaya case rests. Judicial verdicts, after all, are not given on the basis of public outrage, but on cold, dispassionate assessment of the nature of the crime and the evidence presented in court.
While there can be debate over whether or not the Bombay High Court erred on the side of caution in refusing to accept the CBI plea for death sentence, its decision to set aside the acquittal of the seven others for their role in destroying evidence in an effort to ‘screen the offenders’ is unexceptionable. In convicting the seven, the High Court has served a stern warning to public officials who seek to derail – either of their own volition or by coercion – the course of justice.
The two back-to-back judgments, however, serve to highlight a malaise that has always affected our justice delivery system: inordinate delay. Coming as it did in five years, the Supreme Court verdict in the Nirbhaya case was uncharacteristically ‘fast’ by Indian standards. But then there is the whole charade of mercy petitions to go through, which can well take a couple of years more, before the culprits can be hanged. The Bilkis case, in contrast, is just half way through in its journey towards denouement. To put things in perspective, the Bombay High Court judgment on the 2002 case came full nine years after a special court convicted the ‘dirty dozen’ (one of which has died in the meantime). It could be another five, seven or nine years before it goes through the appeals process in the Supreme Court. Even assuming the fastest time-frame, it would be 20 years for justice to be finally delivered for Bilkis.
This has to change – and fast.