Vigilantism vs the rule of law: Justice driven by public opinion

Many a time media publicity prevents the miscarriage of justice and fast tracks cases.

The judgment in the December 16 gangrape (Nirbhaya) case and the lynching of seven people in Jharkhand on the suspicion of their being child lifters have apparently nothing in common. But beneath the surface, there lies a thread which connects the two. Incidents of lynching are becoming common. People, in a fitful rage and worn to a frazzle in the tedious legal system, dispense instantaneous justice, which dispenses with the requirement to undergo the rigmarole of a protracted trial. The public opinion dominates over the rule of law. Surprisingly, the court is also getting influenced by the public opinion. Justice Dipak Misra, in his judgment in the Nirbhaya case, has written: “It is manifest that the wanton lust, the servility to absolutely unchained carnal desire and slavery to the loathsome bestiality of passion ruled the mindset of the appellants to commit a crime which can summon with immediacy ‘tsunami’ of shock in the mind of the collective and destroy the civilised marrows of the milieu in entirety.”

How far does the public opinion influence the decision of the court and how far is it desirable? In Santosh Kumar Satisbhusan Bariyar vs Maharashtra (2009), the Supreme Court held that public opinion does play a crucial role during sentencing, and therefore, it is important for the court to declare that public opinion should not be a relevant factor for punishment given the dominance of media trials and political considerations while awarding death sentence. However, in Gurvail Singh vs Punjab (2013), the SC took a contrary view that public opinion is a relevant factor which influences decisions.

Before Nirbhaya, Kiran Negi was raped and murdered, perhaps more brutally than Nirbhaya, in the same Delhi but she is yet to get the final justice from the SC. In her case, the accused have been awarded death sentence by the trial court which the high court confirmed but the appeal is still pending before the SC even though it was filed before Nirbhaya’s rapists and killers filed the appeal. The Nirbhaya case was fast-tracked as it was in the media glare, but the kin of Kiran Negi are still waiting for justice. Kiran was gangraped and then injured fatally in a most barbaric manner. Her breasts were chopped off and a bottle was inserted inside her private parts and she was left in a deserted field wreathing in pain. She died after two days at the spot. Justice in this case is delayed because the media did not campaign for her and so the collective conscience was not shocked. Barely days after the SC’s verdict in the Nirbhaya case, the rape and grotesque murder of a 23-year-old woman from Rohtak raises many questions about the efficacy of the justice system. It is deeply disturbing, not only for the bestiality of the crime, but also for the baffling silence of the civil society which fulminated to the skies in the case of Nirbhaya. The Rohtak victim suffered almost the same barbarity as rapists pushed a sharp-edged weapon into her private parts and then killed her smashing her head with a brick. The question is: Will the accused be brought to justice expeditiously? It is important as in many cases justice is media-driven, but for it, justice would have eluded. Perhaps, this is the impression that gives a sense of impunity to criminals.

The trend is very worrisome that the incidents of mob lynching are increasing and that the public opinion plays a crucial role in the formal justice delivery system also. The gruesome lynching of Syed Sharifuddin Khan at Dimapur on March 5, 2015, who was taken out of jail by an impetuous mob of 4,000 people and dragged for seven km with stones being thrown at him continuously put a serious question mark not only on the role of the administration and the legal system but also that of the media, which is not able to differentiate between patriotism and macho nationalism. Unverified news about the citizenship of the accused added fuel to the flame and the shit hit the fan. Xenophobia for Bangladesh had its manifestation in macabre dance of death and scrimmage on the streets of Dimapur. Reports of lynching keep pouring in from different parts of the country.

Courts of law have to uphold the rule of law. They cannot act like a kangaroo court which decides according to its pre-conceived notions and the proceedings held are nothing but a façade to give it a simulacrum of fair trial. In Cambodia, the trial of Pol Pot and that of his brother Leng San by the People’s Revolutionary Tribunal in 1979 is a glaring example of subversion of justice. After a lengthy trial, they were convicted and sentenced to death in absentia. There are credible evidences that the judgments had been written beforehand. The word “kangaroo” suggests that like it, the process of justice also moves by leaps.

Many a time media publicity prevents the miscarriage of justice and fast tracks cases. Jessica Lal, Priyadarshini Mattu, Ruchika Girhotra, et al, would never have got justice but for the public opinion created by the media. Jessica’s killer Manu Sharma, acquitted by the trial court, was brought to justice by the high court only after the acquittal scared the hell out of people. Similarly, Santosh Singh, rapist and murderer of Priyadarshini Mattoo, was acquitted by the trial court. His father was a senior officer with the Delhi police and he was given the benefit of doubt. The appeal against the acquittal kept hanging fire in the Delhi high court for over six years on the facetious ground that documents which were in Hindi could not be translated into English. But as Priyadarshini’s father mobilised the civil society and hit the street with candle march and the media took up the cause, the accused was convicted within a record 42 days.

These are positive examples of the media activism and pressure of public opinion. But judgments and sentencing can only be on the basis of evidence, otherwise innocents may be arrested to calm down frayed public temper who will be made a scapegoat. However, there is another poser: What about those victims of equally brutal crimes who do not get media coverage, and so no public support? Don’t they deserve justice? Such victims are countless. Will the media and the court think of?

The writer is a senior TV journalist and author

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