LAW RESOURCE INDIA

Why capital punishment must go

Posted in DEATH PENALTY, FUNDAMENTAL RIGHTS by NNLRJ INDIA on October 3, 2013
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The verdict of death for the bestial gang rape in Delhi last December is based on Supreme Court judgments, which stipulate that capital punishment will be imposed in “the rarest of rare” cases, where the community’s “collective conscience is so shocked that it will expect the holders of the judicial power centre to inflict death penalty” because of the abhorrent nature of the crime, which would include “the manner of the commission of the murder,” for instance, “if it was committed in an extremely brutal, grotesque, diabolical, revolting or dastardly manner,” or where the victim was “subjected to inhuman acts of torture or cruelty in order to bring about his or her death.”

Dangerous

There are several dangers in a process in which a life is taken because that is what the community wants, as in the Roman amphitheatre, where the mob decided if the defeated gladiator should die. Apart from turning the judiciary into a khap panchayat, how does this august fraternity commune with the community, or divine that its conscience wants blood? In the 21st century, flooded as it is with 24-hour television and social media on tap, outrage can be manufactured, reality distorted. Even when, as after the Delhi crime, the revulsion was real and widespread, how does the judiciary determine that those who were shocked would only recover with the deaths of those who had shocked them? Diplomats, who must assess the mood of the country they are posted in, take it as given that the media only partially reflects it, since the strident few drown out the diffident majority. An Embassy spreads its tentacles wide, speaking to and gauging the mood of people in different sectors, levels and locations, to understand what they really want. No judge can do this. What a judge takes as the collective conscience of the community can only be the slant carried by the media. To base decisions on life and death on this is injudicious.

Secondly, what is the community whose conscience the judge must tap into and channel into a pronouncement of death? For a sessions judge, it will presumably be that of the local community. If that judgment is overturned on appeal, it can either mean that the judge had misread that conscience, or that the High Court felt that the conscience of the larger community of the State did not want blood. If the Supreme Court reinstated the death sentence, this would presumably mean that the national conscience was at one with the local, but that of the State concerned was out of step with both. Which is the segment of the community to whose conscience judges must defer? Logically, it should be the one most affected, which would imply that no sentence of death from a sessions court should be overturned. How does a judge in the State or Central capital determine that the local community had not been galvanised into bloodlust?

But what would happen, for instance, in the cases that should shortly come to trial for the murders in the recent communal violence in U.P.? The most appalling cruelty is committed during communal riots. One of the criteria invoked in the Delhi judgment to justify the death sentence, the barbaric and revolting nature of the murder, would apply. In these cases, however there would be no collective conscience to consult, since the community is split in two. Each half would demand the death sentence for the murderers from the other community, but mourn its own murderers as martyrs if they were hanged. In these cases, therefore, where one of the criteria laid down by the Supreme Court conflicts with the other, which will prevail?

Nor should we forget that, while the use of torture to bring about death is rare in crimes committed by individuals, it is routinely practised by the army and the paramilitary in States wracked by political violence. Unaccounted numbers of Kashmiris disappeared into the maws of Papa-II, the infamous torture chamber run by the paramilitary in Srinagar. Those bodies that were recovered bore marks of the most terrible torture. Very large numbers disappeared forever. To say that the collective conscience of the Kashmiri Muslim community is merely shocked would be an insult. It has lived with rage, pain and a searing sense of injustice for two decades; its tormenters have escaped with impunity, because the collective conscience of the rest of the country has not even been stirred.

Across our subcontinent, in Manipur, similar cases abound, including that of Thangjam Manorama, taken from her home in Imphal late at night by a unit of the Assam Rifles, led by two Majors, tortured with a knife, forced into her genitals in the presence of her family, tortured even more brutally later, raped and shot. Her body was not received by dignitaries, it was found lying in a ditch. There have been many other killings like this, but this one, like the gang rape case in Delhi, set off a storm, leading to a “naked protest” by Manipuri women in front of the paramilitary camp. If any crime matched both the criteria invoked in the Delhi judgment, the bestiality of the murder and the collective indignation it produced, this one did. However, the officers and men responsible are immune because the army’s Court of Enquiry held they were all innocent.

Justice not blind

These communities, and the tribals in the naxal belt, will argue bitterly that justice is not blind; it sees who you are and where you come from and, in its scales, the collective conscience of the community only registers when it has political weight. If you are a Kashmiri or a Manipuri, your shock is gossamer.

One of the crimes that the Supreme Court has laid down as likely to shock the collective conscience of the community is a “murder committed in the course of betrayal of the motherland.” It appears murders committed in its ostensible defence do not shock. Patriotism is the last refuge of the serial torturer. If he walks free, though, why should others hang?

There is a further danger. Because public opinion is manipulated with modern technology, the outrage which the judiciary will interpret as an indignation that must be assuaged with blood can only be provoked by the technically adept, or those with the money to influence the media. The men sentenced to death in Delhi, and those hanged over the last year, were mostly from the poorest and most vulnerable sections of society. Neither they nor their families had the financial or technical means to harness the media or the social media in their defence. There is, therefore, an inevitable class bias built into a process where a judge pronounces the verdict of death on the basis of a public outpouring of rage, which the accused have no means of contesting.

The brutality that brings their crimes into the ambit of the rarest of rare is bred into their lives. They have gone to bed hungry as children, suffered illnesses without medicine, defecated in the open, been savaged on the whims of adults, treated like dirt. Compassion has never touched them. Life has beaten sensitivity out of them. Men forced to live like brutes will kill like brutes. When these men, society’s victims, find a victim, they take a lifetime’s frustrations out on him or her. Their murders and rapes are unlikely to be refined. Their brutality might appal a court and nauseate the middle class, by whose standards they are judged, but it is a product of what the community has made of them. This is what should shock the collective conscience of the community.

Lastly, and most troublingly, if a man is to be hanged because the judge feels that the collective conscience is so shocked that it will expect him to inflict the death penalty, can a trial be fair, with the accused presumed to be innocent until he is proven guilty? If, before the trial starts, society has already made up its mind, in the judge’s view, that it will only be satisfied with the death penalty, it has also determined who the guilty are. It is hard to believe that a judge can hear a case entirely on merits, and take popular sentiment into account only at the verdict. On the contrary, if it is now the law that a judge must impose the death penalty in cases where he has concluded that the community demands it, he would be shirking his duty if he were to absolve the men on trial, denying the community, whose servant he is, the satisfaction of a human sacrifice.

When the Supreme Court decreed that the death penalty should be imposed only in the rarest of rare cases, it tried, humanely and honourably, to prevent a rash of judicial killings, but the criteria it has laid down inherently lead to decisions that are, in every sense, fatally subjective. The road to the gallows might be paved with its good intentions, but on matters of life and death, the law cannot be so cruelly flawed.

Tarquin, Auden famously wrote, was ravished by his post-coital sadness. Is the “community” in India ever choked by a post-garroting remorse? Conscience is the uncomfortable reminder that we have done something wrong.

In a nation that aspires to be a modern democracy and claims to be a modern incarnation of the most ancient living civilisation, the death penalty is a barbaric anomaly. It is time the collective conscience of the community repudiated it.

(Satyabrata Pal is a Member of the National Human Rights Commission. These views are personal)

Measure for unconstitutional measure

Posted in CONSTITUTION by NNLRJ INDIA on October 3, 2013
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K PARASARAN IN THE HINDU

The ordinance seeking to amend the Representation of the People Act interferes with the exercise of judicial power

Bill LXII of 2013, namely, The Representation of the People (Second Amendment and Validation) Bill, 2013 is pending before Parliament. I examine here whether the Bill, when passed as an Act or its provisions promulgated as an Ordinance, will be unconstitutional or not.

Declared principle

The constitutional principle applicable in a situation analogous to this has already been declared five decades ago in the then sensational case of K.M. Nanavati vs State of Bombay (AIR 1961 SC 112). Mr. Nanavati was convicted for an offence under Section 302 of the Indian Penal Code. He held a very high position in the Navy and his services were considered necessary during the pendency of his appeal. In the bona fide exercise of power under Article 161 of the Constitution of India, the Governor of Bombay chose “[…] to suspend the sentence passed by the High Court […] until the appeal intended to be filed by him in the Supreme Court against the conviction and sentence is disposed of […]”

Mr. Nanavati preferred a Special Leave Petition before the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court ruled by a majority of four to one that both Article 142 and Article 161 being provisions in the Constitution should be harmoniously interpreted.

“[…] the order of the Governor granting suspension of the sentence could only operate until the matter became sub-judice in this Court on the filing of the petition for special leave to appeal. After the filing of such a petition, this court was seized of the case, which would be dealt with in accordance with law. It would be for this court […] to pass such orders, as it thinks fit, as to whether the petitioner should be granted bail or surrender to his sentence or to pass such other or further orders as this Court might deem fit in all the circumstances of the case.”

Therefore, the exercise of the ordinance-making power by the President under Article 123 of the Constitution of India in the present case will be unconstitutional. The proposed amendment to Section 8(4) of the Representation of People Act, 1951, by way of Clause 2 of the Bill, provides that the disqualification of an MP/MLA shall not take effect “if an appeal or application for revision is filed in respect of the conviction and sentence within a period of ninety days from the date of conviction and such conviction or sentence is stayed by the court.”

The proposed amendment to the proviso to Section 8(4) reads:

“Provided that after the date of conviction and until the date on which the conviction is set aside by the court, the member shall neither be entitled to vote nor draw salary and allowances, but may continue to take part in the proceedings of the Parliament or the Legislature of a State, as the case may be.”

No doubt the proviso will operate only when an appeal or application for revision is filed in respect of such conviction and sentence within a period of 90 days from the date of conviction and such conviction or sentence is stayed by the court. Subject to what conditions the stay will operate is a matter for the court to decide and the executive/legislature has no jurisdiction in the matter. It is exclusively for the court to decide and by way of a legislative device, the order of the court cannot be modified, varied, or altered as to what restriction will operate on the right of the member consequent on the order of court staying the conviction and/or the sentence. Moreover, in the event of a stay granted by the court without any conditions, it will operate unconditionally.

The aforesaid provision interferes with the power of the court to pass appropriate orders pending the appeal. Though there is no similar provision like Article 142 in respect of the High Courts, the position in law will be the same even in cases of appeals to the High Courts, as such exercise of power by the legislature would interfere with the judicial powers of the High Courts. Even a constitutional amendment will offend the basic feature of the Constitution viz., interfering with the exercise of judicial power.

Suspension of sentence

The exercise of judicial power in suspending a sentence/quashing by appellate courts is provided under Section 389 and 482 of the Criminal Procedure Code respectively. Therefore, an executive order or an ordinance or even an enactment to such effect will amount to interfering with the exercise of judicial power and, hence, will be unconstitutional.

In Indira Nehru Gandhi vs Raj Narain (AIR 1975 SC 1590), under the then existing practice, a single Judge of the Hon’ble Supreme Court exercised powers during vacation of the court. Hon’ble Mr. Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer passed interim orders pending Mrs. Indira Gandhi’s appeal against the order setting aside her election. The learned judge beautifully crafted the interim order to point out that she had two capacities, one as the Prime Minister and another as a Member of Parliament. He ruled that —

“(iii) The appellant-petitioner [as] Lok Sabha member, will be entitled to sign the Register kept in the House for that purpose and attend the Sessions of the Lok Sabha, but she will neither participate in the proceedings in the Lok Sabha nor vote nor draw remuneration in her capacity as Member of the Lok Sabha.

(iv) Independently of the restrictions under para III on her Membership of the Lok Sabha, her rights as Prime Minister or Minister, so long as she fills that office, to speak in and otherwise take part in the proceedings of either House of Parliament or a joint sitting of the House (without right to vote) and to discharge other functions such as are laid down in Articles 74, 75, 78, 88, etc., or under any other law, and to draw her salary as Prime Minister, shall not be affected or detracted from on account of the conditions contained in this stay order.”

It may be noted that the court did not permit her as a Member of Parliament to even participate in the proceedings. As a member, she could only sign the register kept in the House and attend the session. The Bill and the Ordinance, however, provide for disqualified members to also take part in proceedings pending the appeal.

In a particular situation where peculiar facts demand that in the interest of the nation, if the court is of the opinion that a disqualified member should be permitted to vote on a particular motion in the House, it may permit him/her to vote. This power of the court is also interfered with by the proposed amendment. There may be special circumstances like the nature of the offences or the peculiar facts of the case or the nature of the subject matter which may have to be voted in Parliament where the court may permit voting, akin to how a convicted person undergoing imprisonment may occasionally be released on parole for any good, compelling reasons.

That the court passes similar orders pending appeal in election matters is not a good reason to support the Ordinance/Act as that is the exercise of judicial power pending appeal which cannot be done by exercise of executive/legislative power.

The Bill, if enacted as law, and/or the Ordinance will also be violative of Article 14 of the Constitution as being arbitrary, discriminatory and irrational.

(The author is currently a Member of Parliament, Rajya Sabha, and former Attorney General of India)

Voter has right to negative voting: SC

Posted in CONSTITUTION, DEMOCRACY, FUNDAMENTAL RIGHTS by NNLRJ INDIA on September 27, 2013
SUPREME COURT OF INDIA

SUPREME COURT OF INDIA

In a landmark verdict, the Supreme Court on Friday held that citizens have right to cast negative vote rejecting all candidates contesting polls, a decision which would encourage people not satisfied with contestants to turn up for voting.

The apex court directed the Election Commission to provide ‘none of the above options’ at the end of the list of candidates in electronic voting machines (EVMs) and ballot papers to allow voters to reject those contesting polls.

A bench headed by Chief Justice P Sathasivam said that negative voting would foster purity and vibrancy of elections and ensure wide participation as people who are not satisfied with the candidates in the fray would also turn up to express their opinion rejecting contestants.

It said that the concept of negative voting would bring a systemic change in the election process as the political parties will be forced to project clean candidates in polls.

The bench noted that the concept of negative voting is prevalent in 13 countries and even in India, parliamentarians are given an option to press the button for abstaining while voting takes place in the House.

The court said right to reject candidates in elections is part of fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression given by the Constitution to Indian citizens.

It said that democracy is all about choice and significance of right of citizens to cast negative voting is massive.

With the concept of negative voting, the voters who are dissatisfied with the candidates in the fray would turn up in large number to express their opinion which would put unscrupulous elements and impersonators out of the polls, it said.

The bench, while reading out the operative portion of the judgement, did not throw light on a situation in case the votes cast under no option head outnumber the votes got by the candidates.

It said that secrecy of votes cast under the no option category must be maintained by the Election Commission.

The court passed the order on a PIL filed by an NGO, People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) which had submitted that voters be given the right to negative voting.

Agreeing with the NGO’s plea, the bench passed the path-breaking verdict and introduced the concept of negative voting in the election process, saying that it would further empower the voters in exercising their franchise.

The latest verdict is part of series of judgements passed by the apex court on the election process.

Earlier, the apex court had restrained people in custody from contesting elections.

The apex court has also ruled that MPs and MLAs would stand disqualified after being convicted of serious crimes.

The government has brought an ordinance seeking to negate the court’s judgement striking down a provision in the electoral law that protected convicted lawmakers from immediate disqualification.

A two-judge bench of the apex court had felt that the issue on negative voting needed to be adjudicated by a larger bench as there were certain doubts over the interpretation of the ruling passed by a Constitution Bench in the Kuldip Nayar Vs Union of India case relating to a voter’s right.

Under the existing provisions of Rule 49(O) of the Representation of People Act, a voter who after coming to a polling booth does not want to cast his vote, has to inform the presiding officer of his intention not to vote, who in turn would make an entry in the relevant rule book after taking the signature of the said elector.

According to the PUCL, Rule 49(O) was violative of the constitutional provisions guaranteed under Article 19(1)(a) (Freedom of Speech and Expression) and Article 21 (Right to Liberty) and violated the concept of secret ballot.

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MPs, MLAs to be disqualified on date of criminal conviction

Posted in CONSTITUTION by NNLRJ INDIA on July 11, 2013
SUPREME COURT OF INDIA

SUPREME COURT OF INDIA

THE HINDU

The Supreme Court on Wednesday held that chargesheeted Members of Parliament and MLAs, on conviction for offences, will be immediately disqualified from holding membership of the House without being given three months’ time for appeal, as was the case before.

 

A Bench of Justices A.K. Patnaik and S.J. Mukhopadhaya struck down as unconstitutional Section 8 (4) of the Representation of the People Act that allows convicted lawmakers a three-month period for filing appeal to the higher court and to get a stay of the conviction and sentence. The Bench, however, made it clear that the ruling will be prospective and those who had already filed appeals in various High Courts or the Supreme Court against their convictions would be exempt from it.

 

Section 8 of the RP Act deals with disqualification on conviction for certain offences: A person convicted of any offence and sentenced to imprisonment for varying terms under Sections 8 (1) (2) and (3) shall be disqualified from the date of conviction and shall continue to be disqualified for a further period of six years since his release. But Section 8 (4) of the RP Act gives protection to MPs and MLAs as they can continue in office even after conviction if an appeal is filed within three months.

 

The Bench found it unconstitutional that convicted persons could be disqualified from contesting elections but could continue to be Members of Parliament and State Legislatures once elected.

 

Allowing two writ petitions filed by advocate Lily Thomas and Lok Prahari, through its General Secretary S. N. Shukla, the Bench said: “A reading of the two provisions in Articles 102(1) (e) and 191(1) (e) of the Constitution would make it abundantly clear that Parliament is to make one law for a person to be disqualified for being chosen as, and for being, a Member of either House of Parliament or Legislative Assembly or Legislative Council of the State. Parliament thus does not have the power under Articles 102(1)(e) and 191(1)(e) of the Constitution to make different laws for a person to be disqualified for being chosen as a member and for a person to be disqualified for continuing as a member of Parliament or the State Legislature.”

 

Writing the judgment, Justice Patnaik said: “ The language of Articles 102(1) (e) and 191(1) (e) of the Constitution is such that the disqualification for both a person to be chosen as a member of a House of Parliament or the State Legislature and for a person to continue as a member of Parliament or the State Legislature has to be the same.”

 

The Bench said: “Section 8 (4) of the Act which carves out a saving in the case of sitting members of Parliament or State Legislature from the disqualifications under sub-sections (1), (2) and (3) of Section 8 of the Act or which defers the date on which the disqualification will take effect in the case of a sitting member of Parliament or a State Legislature is beyond the powers conferred on Parliament by the Constitution.”

 

The Bench held: “Looking at the affirmative terms of Articles 102(1) (e) and 191(1) (e) of the Constitution, we hold that Parliament has been vested with the powers to make law laying down the same disqualifications for person to be chosen as a member of Parliament or a State Legislature and for a sitting member of a House of Parliament or a House of a State Legislature. We also hold that the provisions of Article 101(3) (a) and 190(3) (a) of the Constitution expressly prohibit Parliament to defer the date from which the disqualification will come into effect in case of a sitting member of Parliament or a State Legislature. Parliament, therefore, has exceeded its powers conferred by the Constitution in enacting sub-section (4) of Section 8 of the Act and accordingly sub-section (4) of Section 8 of the Act is ultra vires the Constitution.”

 

The Bench said: “Under Section 8 (1) (2) and (3) of the Act, the disqualification takes effect from the date of conviction. Thus, there may be several sitting members of Parliament and State Legislatures who have already incurred disqualification by virtue of a conviction covered under Section 8 (1) (2) or (3) of the Act. Sitting members of Parliament and State Legislature who have already been convicted of any of the offences mentioned in sub-section (1), (2) and (3) of Section 8 of the Act and who have filed appeals or revisions which are pending and are accordingly saved from the disqualifications by virtue of sub-section (4) of Section 8 of the Act should not, in our considered opinion, be affected by the declaration now made by us in this judgment. This is because the knowledge that sitting members of Parliament or State Legislatures will no longer be protected by sub-section (4) of Section 8 of the Act will be acquired by all concerned only on the date this judgment is pronounced by this Court.”

 

However, the Bench said: “If any sitting member of Parliament or a State Legislature is convicted of any of the offences mentioned in sub-sections (1), (2) and (3) of Section 8 of the Act and by virtue of such conviction and/or sentence suffers the disqualifications mentioned in sub-sections (1), (2) and (3) of Section 8 of the Act after the pronouncement of this judgment, his membership of Parliament or the State Legislature, as the case may be, will not be saved by subsection (4) of Section 8 of the Act which we have by this judgment declared as ultra vires the Constitution notwithstanding that he files the appeal or revision against the conviction and /or sentence.”

 

The case that saved Indian democracy

Posted in CONSTITUTION by NNLRJ INDIA on April 24, 2013

SUPREME COURT OF INDIA

SUPREME COURT OF INDIA

ARVIND P DATAR IN THE HINDU

The judgment in Kesavananda Bharati v State of Kerala, whose 40th anniversary falls today, was crucial in upholding the supremacy of the Constitution and preventing authoritarian rule by a single party

Exactly forty years ago, on April 24, 1973, Chief Justice Sikri and 12 judges of the Supreme Court assembled to deliver the most important judgment in its history. The case of Kesavananda Bharati v State of Kerala had been heard for 68 days, the arguments commencing on October 31, 1972, and ending on March 23, 1973. The hard work and scholarship that had gone into the preparation of this case was breathtaking. Literally hundreds of cases had been cited and the then Attorney-General had made a comparative chart analysing the provisions of the Constitutions of 71 different countries!

Core question

All this effort was to answer just one main question: was the power of Parliament to amend the Constitution unlimited? In other words, could Parliament alter, amend, abrogate any part of the Constitution even to the extent of taking away all fundamental rights?

Article 368, on a plain reading, did not contain any limitation on the power of Parliament to amend any part of the Constitution. There was nothing that prevented Parliament from taking away a citizen’s right to freedom of speech or his religious freedom. But the repeated amendments made to the Constitution raised a doubt: was there any inherent or implied limitation on the amending power of Parliament?

The 703-page judgment revealed a sharply divided court and, by a wafer-thin majority of 7:6, it was held that Parliament could amend any part of the Constitution so long as it did not alter or amend “the basic structure or essential features of the Constitution.” This was the inherent and implied limitation on the amending power of Parliament. This basic structure doctrine, as future events showed, saved Indian democracy and Kesavananda Bharati will always occupy a hallowed place in our constitutional history.

Supreme Court v Indira Gandhi

It is supremely ironical that the basic structure theory was first introduced by Justice Mudholkar eight years earlier by referring to a 1963 decision of the Supreme Court of Pakistan. Chief Justice Cornelius — yes, Pakistan had a Christian Chief Justice and, later, a Hindu justice as well — had held that the President of Pakistan could not alter the “fundamental features” of their Constitution.

The Kesavananda Bharati case was the culmination of a serious conflict between the judiciary and the government, then headed by Mrs Indira Gandhi. In 1967, the Supreme Court took an extreme view, in the Golak Nath case, that Parliament could not amend or alter any fundamental right. Two years later, Indira Gandhi nationalised 14 major banks and the paltry compensation was made payable in bonds that matured after 10 years! This was struck down by the Supreme Court, although it upheld the right of Parliament to nationalise banks and other industries. A year later, in 1970, Mrs Gandhi abolished the Privy Purses. This was a constitutional betrayal of the solemn assurance given by Sardar Patel to all the erstwhile rulers. This was also struck down by the Supreme Court. Ironically, the abolition of the Privy Purses was challenged by the late Madhavrao Scindia, who later joined the Congress Party.

Smarting under three successive adverse rulings, which had all been argued by N.A. Palkhivala, Indira Gandhi was determined to cut the Supreme Court and the High Courts to size and she introduced a series of constitutional amendments that nullified the Golak Nath, Bank Nationalisation and Privy Purses judgments. In a nutshell, these amendments gave Parliament uncontrolled power to alter or even abolish any fundamental right.

These drastic amendments were challenged by Kesavananda Bharati, the head of a math in Kerala, and several coal, sugar and running companies. On the other side, was not only the Union of India but almost all the States which had also intervened. This case had serious political overtones with several heated exchanges between N.A. Palkhivala for the petitioners and H.M. Seervai and Niren De, who appeared for the State of Kerala and the Union of India respectively.

The infamous Emergency was declared in 1975 and, by then, eight new judges had been appointed to the Supreme Court. A shocking attempt was made by Chief Justice Ray to review the Kesavananda Bharati decision by constituting another Bench of 13 judges. In what is regarded as the finest advocacy that was heard in the Supreme Court, Palkhivala made an impassioned plea for not disturbing the earlier view. In a major embarrassment to Ray, it was revealed that no one had filed a review petition. How was this Bench then constituted? The other judges strongly opposed this impropriety and the 13-judge Bench was dissolved after two days of arguments. The tragic review was over but it did irreversible damage to the reputation of Chief Justice A.N. Ray.

Constitutional rights saved

If the majority of the Supreme Court had held (as six judges indeed did) that Parliament could alter any part of the Constitution, India would most certainly have degenerated into a totalitarian State or had one-party rule. At any rate, the Constitution would have lost its supremacy. Even Seervai later admitted that the basic structure theory preserved Indian democracy. One has to only examine the amendments that were made during the Emergency. The 39th Amendment prohibited any challenge to the election of the President, Vice-President, Speaker and Prime Minister, irrespective of the electoral malpractice. This was a clear attempt to nullify the adverse Allahabad High Court ruling against Indira Gandhi. The 41st Amendment prohibited any case, civil or criminal, being filed against the President, Vice-President, Prime Minister or the Governors, not only during their term of office but forever. Thus, if a person was a governor for just one day, he acquired immunity from any legal proceedings for life. If Parliament were indeed supreme, these shocking amendments would have become part of the Constitution.

Thanks to Kesavananda Bharati, Palkhivala and the seven judges who were in the majority, India continues to be the world’s largest democracy. The souls of Nehru, Patel, Ambedkar and all the founding fathers of our Constitution can really rest in peace.

(Arvind P. Datar is a senior advocate of the Madras High Court.)

A moment of triumph for women

Posted in CRIME AGAINST WOMEN, FUNDAMENTAL RIGHTS, GENDER, VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN, WOMEN EMPOWERMENT by NNLRJ INDIA on January 26, 2013

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By Kalpana Kannabiran Published  in THE HINDU

The comprehensive reforms suggested by Justice Verma and his colleagues will protect the right to dignity, autonomy and freedom of victims of sexual assault and rape

Starting with Tarabai Shinde’s spirited defence of the honour of her sister countrywomen in 1882, women’s movements in India have been marked by persistent and protracted struggles. But despite this rich and varied history, we have in recent weeks found ourselves shocked at the decimation of decades of struggle.

A transformation

At a time when despair and anger at the futility of hundreds of thousands of women’s lifetimes spent in imagining a world that is safe drive us yet again to the streets; at a time when our daughters get assaulted in the most brutal ways and our sons learn that unimaginable brutality is the only way of becoming men; at a time when we wonder if all that intellectual and political work of crafting frameworks to understand women’s subjugation and loss of liberty through sexual terrorism has remained imprisoned within the covers of books in “women’s studies” libraries; at a time like this, what does it mean to suddenly find that all is not lost and to discover on a winter afternoon that our words and work have cascaded out of our small radical spaces and transformed constitutional common sense?

The Report of the Committee on Amendments to Criminal Law headed by Justice J.S. Verma is our moment of triumph — the triumph of women’s movements in this country. As with all triumphs, there are always some unrealised possibilities, but these do not detract from the fact of the victory.

Rather than confining itself to criminal law relating to rape and sexual assault, the committee has comprehensively set out the constitutional framework within which sexual assault must be located. Perhaps more importantly, it also draws out the political framework within which non-discrimination based on sex must be based and focuses on due diligence by the state in order to achieve this as part of its constitutional obligation, with the Preamble interpreted as inherently speaking to justice for women in every clause.

If capabilities are crucial in order that people realise their full potential, this will be an unattainable goal for women till such time as the state is held accountable for demonstrating a commitment to this goal. Performance audits of all institutions of governance and law and order are seen as an urgent need in this direction.

The focus of the entire exercise is on protecting the right to dignity, autonomy and freedom of victims of sexual assault and rape — with comprehensive reforms suggested in electoral laws, policing, criminal laws and the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958, and the provision of safe spaces for women and children.

Arguing that “cultural prejudices must yield to constitutional principles of equality, empathy and respect” (p.55), the committee, in a reiteration of the Naaz Foundation judgment, brings sexual orientation firmly within the meaning of “sex” in Article 15, and underscores the right to liberty, dignity and fundamental rights of all persons irrespective of sex or sexual orientation — and the right of all persons, not just women, against sexual assault.

Reviewing leading cases and echoing the critique of Indian women’s groups and feminist legal scholars — whether in the case of Mathura or even the use of the shame-honour paradigm that has trapped victim-survivors in rape trials and in khap panchayats, the committee observes: “…women have been looped into a vicious cycle of shame and honour as a consequence of which they have been attended with an inherent disability to report crimes of sexual offences against them.”

In terms of the definition of rape, the committee recommends retaining a redefined offence of “rape” within a larger section on “sexual assault” in order to retain the focus on women’s right to integrity, agency and bodily integrity. Rape is redefined as including all forms of non-consensual penetration of sexual nature (p.111). The offence of sexual assault would include all forms of non-consensual, non-penetrative touching of sexual nature. Tracing the history of the marital rape exception in the common law of coverture in England and Wales in the 1700s, the committee unequivocally recommends the removal of the marital rape exception as vital to the recognition of women’s right to autonomy and physical integrity irrespective of marriage or other intimate relationship. Marriage, by this argument, cannot be a valid defence, it is not relevant to the matter of consent and it cannot be a mitigating factor in sentencing in cases of rape. On the other hand, the committee recommended that the age of consent in consensual sex be kept at 16, and other legislation be suitably amended in this regard.

Verma ReportVoices from conflict zones

Rights advocates in Kashmir, the States of the North-East, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat and other areas that have witnessed protracted conflict and communal violence have for decades been demanding that sexual violence by the armed forces, police and paramilitary as well as by collective assault by private actors be brought within the meaning of aggravated sexual assault. This has been taken on board with the committee recommending that such forms of sexual assault deserve to be treated as aggravated sexual assault in law (p. 220). Specifically, the committee recommends an amendment in Section 6 of the AFSPA, 1958, removing the requirement of prior sanction where the person has been accused of sexual assault.

Clearly a sensitive and committed police force is indispensable to the interests of justice. But how should this come about? There have been commissions that have recommended reforms, cases that have been fought and won, but impunity reigns supreme. If all the other recommendations of the Committee are carried through, will the government give even a nominal commitment that the chapter on police reforms will be read, leave alone acted on?

The Delhi case

The recent gang rape and death of a young student in Delhi has raised the discussion on the question of sentencing and punishment yet again. The first set of questions had to do with the nature and quantum of punishment. Treading this issue with care, the committee enhances the minimum sentence from seven years to 10 years, with imprisonment for life as the maximum. On the death penalty, the committee has adopted the abolitionist position, in keeping with international standards of human rights, and rejected castration as an option. The second question had to do with the reduction of age in respect of juveniles. Despite the involvement of a juvenile in this incident, women’s groups and child rights groups were united in their view that the age must not be lowered, that the solution did not lie in locking them up young. Given the low rates of recidivism, the committee does not recommend the lowering of the age, recommending instead, comprehensive institutional reform in children’s institutions.

The report contains comprehensive recommendations on amendments in existing criminal law, which cannot be detailed here except in spirit. The significance of the report lies, not so much in its immediate translation into law or its transformation of governance (although these are the most desirable and urgent), but in its pedagogic potential — as providing a new basis for the teaching and learning of the Constitution and criminal law and the centrality of gender to legal pedagogy.

(Kalpana Kannabiran is Professor and Director, Council for Social Development, Hyderabad. Email: kalpana.kannabiran@gmail.com)

By Kalpana Kannabiran Published  in THE HINDU

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India’s benign constitutional revolution

Posted in CONSTITUTION, COURTS, DEMOCRACY by NNLRJ INDIA on January 26, 2013

WE THE PEOPLE

WE THE PEOPLE

By Shivprasad Swaminathan Published in THE HINDU

How ‘We the People’ came to be the source of authority of the Constitution

This is the story of how and why the framers of the Constitution of India deliberately designed a procedural error in the adoption of the new Constitution with a view to severing the seamless transition of legal authority from the British Crown-in-Parliament to the new Republic of India. The deliberate procedural error consisted in a deviation from the Constitution making procedure prescribed by the Indian Independence Act, 1947 — the law enacted by the British Parliament granting India independence and formally authorising the Constituent Assembly to draft a Constitution for the newly liberated state. To be sure, the framers of the Constitution of India were not the first, and indeed they were not the last to deliberately incorporate such procedural errors in the process of Constitution making. The founders of the Constitutions of several other states including Ireland, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Ghana, which were being liberated from the British Empire, took such a step. In doing so, they were all motivated by the same goal: that of ensuring constitutional ‘autochthony.’

Constitutional autochthony

The etymological roots of ‘autochthony,’ which is not to be confused with ‘autonomy,’ are to be found in the Greek autos (self) and chthon (earth). The goal of constitutional autochthony is to deliver an indigenous Constitution, the source of whose ‘authority’ can be located in the new state’s own soil. The dominant academic view in the middle of the 20th Century was that autochthony could not be achieved simply by drafting an original Constitution or verbally invoking We the People as the source of its authority, for autochthony does not so much concern the content of the Constitution as its pedigree: the chain of legal validity authorising it.

This proposition found doctrinal support in the influential theory propounded by the legal philosopher, Hans Kelsen, which had it that it was inconceivable for a legal system to split into two independent legal systems through a purely legal process. One of the implications of Kelsen’s theory was that the basic norm (grundnorm) of the imperial predecessor’s Constitution would continue to be at the helm of the legal system of the newly liberated former colony despite the legal transfer of power, precisely because the transfer of power was recognised as ‘legal’ by the Constitution of the imperial predecessor.

On Kelsen’s account, only an ‘unlawful’ or ‘revolutionary’ act could ensure an autochthonous Constitution by rending asunder all continuity with the imperial predecessor.

Such break in legal continuity is automatically achieved where a former colony’s independence is won as the result of an armed revolution, as was the case with the United States of America. Independence in such instances is not granted ‘legally’ by the Crown-in-Parliament and the Constitution of the newly liberated former colony is in no way authorised by the imperial predecessor. The situation is very different where independence of a former colony is not brought about by armed revolution, but is ‘legally’ granted by the imperial predecessor. This was the case with India, Pakistan, Ireland, Sri Lanka and Ghana whose independence was the result of the British Crown-in-Parliament’s enactment of separate statutes of independence (Independence Act) for each of them. The statutes of independence also set up Constituent Assemblies authorising them to draft new Constitutions for each of these States. Following the constitution-making procedure stipulated in the statute of independence would have meant that the validity of the new Constitution could ultimately be traced to an imperial grant. The mere verbal invocation of We the People as the ‘source’ of authority in such cases would have rung hollow, apart from being jurisprudentially implausible since the source of authority of the new Constitution would continue to be the imperial predecessor’s Constitution. In such cases, it was thought that since there was no ‘revolution,’ one had to be deliberately made up in order to secure an autochthonous Constitution. Accordingly, as John Finnis argues, the framers of new Commonwealth Constitutions took great care to do something illegal “so as to make up a revolution, however contrived.”

Irish influence

The Irish were the pioneers in conceiving the idea of a benign legal revolution geared towards constitutional autochthony. Ireland was granted independence under the Irish Free State Constitution Act, 1922 enacted by the British Crown-in-Parliament which also authorised the Irish Constituent Assembly to draft a Constitution for the newly liberated state. Thus, the Irish Constitution of 1922 was not autochthonous.

Though it was drafted by an indigenous Constituent Assembly, its chain of legal validity could be traced to an imperial statutory grant. With a view to changing this state of affairs, in 1937 the Irish Parliament amended the Constitution by deliberately violating the procedure for amendment stipulated in the 1922 Constitution and put the amended Constitution for acceptance in a referendum. Going one step further, the Irish Parliament also repealed the Irish Free State Constitution Act, 1922 enacted by the British Parliament, though it was not empowered to do so. It is widely accepted that this successfully severed the chain of validity with the Crown-in-Parliament and ensured a truly autochthonous Constitution. The framers of the Indian Constitution appear to have rehearsed the Irish route to autochthony to the extent possible in Indian conditions.

Independence was formally granted to India by the Crown-in-Parliament’s enactment of the Indian Independence Act, 1947 though the executive decision to grant India independence was arrived at earlier in the Cabinet Mission Plan (1946). It was under the Cabinet Mission Plan that the Constituent Assembly was envisaged and charged with the mandate of drafting the new Constitution for India. This was legally recognised in Section 8 of the Independence Act. The Cabinet Mission Plan had envisaged that the new Constitution would be put to the Crown-in-Parliament for approval. Though the Indian Independence Act did not reiterate this requirement, it did specify that the new Constitution drafted by the Constituent Assembly would have to receive the assent of the Governor General of India, who would assent to such law in the name of the British Crown.

The framers introduced two deliberate procedural errors in the enactment of the Constitution of India in violation of the Independence Act: a) They did not put the Constitution to the approval of the either the British Parliament as envisaged by the Cabinet Mission Plan or the Governor-General as envisaged in the Indian Independence Act 1947; b) Following the Irish precedent, Article 395 of the Constitution of India repealed the Indian Independence Act — something the Constituent Assembly did not have the authorisation to do. In doing so, the framers not only repudiated the source which authorised them to enact the Constitution but it was also a denial, albeit symbolic, of Indian independence being a grant of the imperial Crown-in-Parliament. This ensured that the chain of constitutional validity did not extend all the way to the Crown-in-Parliament, thus delivering a completely autochthonous Constitution. In this fashion, We the People, through the members of the Constituent Assembly, came to be the ‘source’ of authority of the Constitution, rather than the authority being traceable to the Indian Independence Act enacted by the British Crown-in-Parliament.

Why did it matter?

This quest for autochthony is likely to come across to some as an abstruse quibble that shouldn’t concern anyone other than the most pedantic legal theorists. There were, however, two reasons why the framers of new Commonwealth Constitutions felt constrained to pay such close attention to it. Firstly, it was feared that the British Crown-in-Parliament could, however improbably, reassert its authority over the newly liberated state by repealing the statute of independence and abrogating the new Constitution. There was, of course, no immediate apprehension of the British taking such a step. All the same, the framers of new Commonwealth Constitutions would have found, as Geoffrey Marshall notes, merely prudential reassurances to be precarious pegs to hang their nation’s independence on. Secondly, for sentimental considerations, the framers would have been loath to let the new Constitution be grounded in an imperial grant or be assented to by the British Crown. They would have wanted the new Constitution to be truly autochthonous, stemming from the authority of We the People so that an independent future could, albeit symbolically, be insulated from a troubled imperial past.

(Shivprasad Swaminathan is Assistant Professor, Jindal Global Law School)

By Shivprasad Swaminathan Published in THE HINDU

Making laws work for rape victims

Posted in CRIME AGAINST WOMEN, GENDER, SEXUAL OFFENCES by NNLRJ INDIA on January 23, 2013

IMG_0593BY JONATHAN DERBY PUBLISHED IN THE HINDU

Conviction rates improve when teams of lawyers and social workers supervise progress of individual cases in a spirit of cooperation with officials

Today, the Justice Verma Committee is scheduled to release recommendations on ways to strengthen government’s response to crimes of aggravated sexual assault. There has been a lot of noise in the media calling for harsher punishment for rapists. The demands have only grown louder as details from the barbaric events of the December 16 gang rape and murder in Delhi come to light. While cries for chemical castration and even death for rapists stem from the brutality of the crime, they do not address the root problem: the criminal justice system does not function the way it is meant to function. In fact, the public’s frustration points to a decay of trust in the government’s ability to deliver justice and protect its people.

There have also been quieter, more reasonable voices in the media calling for a stronger, more sensitive, criminal justice system: one that delivers justice swiftly, gives rightful convictions and treats victims with dignity and compassion. While the substantive and procedural rape law is far from perfect, society’s frustration is not based on the inadequacy of the law, but on effective implementation of the law.

The law and reality

In fact, statutory law and Supreme Court and High Court judgments have established a solid legal framework that protects rape victims and requires government authorities to follow victim-friendly procedures. Protections under this legal framework include requiring lawyers and social workers for victims at the police station and for police to take statements in a setting that makes the victim comfortable. At government hospitals, there should be special rooms to examine rape victims, equipped with medical kits that doctors should use to examine the victim and collect crucial evidence. When the victim testifies at trial — vital evidence needed for getting a conviction — it should take place in the judge’s chambers rather than in open court, and whenever possible, before a woman judge. For children, there are even greater protections and accommodations, many of which have been codified in the recently enacted Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012. Unfortunately, there is a gap between this legal framework and practice on the ground.

Collaboration works

Of course, the success of any system comes down to the people who work within the system. The great majority of publicity about people who work within the criminal justice system, especially law enforcement officials, has been negative. Maybe the negative publicity is justified and brings needed attention to problems. But constant antagonism is counterproductive; it drowns out the good work countless police officials do every day. Good people dedicated to public service who work long hours for low pay without adequate training and resources. Yes, there are government officials — police officials, medical practitioners, public prosecutors and judges — who must change their attitudes and do their jobs better. At the same time, it is only human nature that if someone consistently hears negative criticism, they tend to become discouraged and desensitised to the feedback. Either they will sink to the level people expect of them or they will stubbornly refuse to raise their professional standards. There is a better approach that builds positive energy: civil society collaborating with government to strengthen the criminal justice system.

Long-term strategies should focus on changing the culture of the criminal justice system so that it is victim friendly and implements the law. But improving performance immediately merely requires government authorities to follow the law already in place. A mechanism needs to hold government authorities accountable when they do not implement the law, regardless of the reason: whether because they are uninformed, do not have a clear understanding of the law, or it is inconvenient to follow.

An effective way to hold government authorities accountable is to have a team comprising a lawyer and social worker, trained to handle cases of sexual violence, advocate for the victim’s interests at the police station till judgment. The team would work on the ground, advising on the law, supporting the victim and monitoring progress of cases. At first they will likely need to confront officials when the law is not implemented. But their broader approach would be one of a spirit of collaboration and cooperation.

In Delhi

In Delhi, the Rape Crisis Cell under the Delhi Commission for Women partners with non-governmental organisations to provide legal and social support to rape victims. The Delhi Commission for Women’s lawyers start providing oversight only at the trial stage. Still, the National Crime Records Bureau reports that in 2011, Delhi NCT had a 41.5 per cent conviction rate in rape cases compared to the 26.4 per cent national conviction rate. In both examples, conviction rates are higher This programme is a good model that provides advocates who represent the victim’s interests, while collaborating with government authorities to strengthen the criminal justice system.

When government authorities collaborate with civil society groups, the criminal justice system functions more effectively: government authorities are more likely to follow victim-friendly procedures, investigations and trials will move more swiftly and conviction rates will rise. When this happens, potential perpetrators will think twice before they aggressively harass women. Women and their families will have greater confidence to report sexual abuse; and society’s faith will steadily grow in the system meant to provide security and protect them.

(Jonathan Derby is a U.S. licensed attorney who has extensive experience in human rights at grass-roots level in India.)

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Justice Verma panel for umbrella law on sexual assault

Posted in CRIME AGAINST WOMEN, CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM, GENDER, SEXUAL OFFENCES by NNLRJ INDIA on January 23, 2013

VERMA PANELAditi Tandon in The Tribune New Delhi, January 22

Set up to review current laws on aggravated sexual assault following the brutal gang rape of a young girl in Delhi on December 16 last year, the Justice JS Verma Commission will submit its report to the government tomorrow. It will also make the report public.

The Home Ministry, while notifying the commission on December 24, 2012, had given it a month for the job. The committee has taken less than a month to scan hundreds of representations on the issue agitating the country. Before finalising the report, the committee comprising former Chief Justice of India JS Verma, Justice Leila Seth (former Chief Justice of Himachal HC) and Gopal Subramanian (former Solicitor General) met over 100 women’s representatives from across India.

Importantly, the commission expanded its area beyond the terms of reference the government set for it. The Home Ministry notification had asked it to “review the present laws to provide speedier justice and enhanced punishment in cases of aggravated sexual assault.” But the committee has looked at the context of sexual assault, including issues of human trafficking, missing children and beggary as factors behind crimes.

It is set to recommend a comprehensive criminal law amendment Bill that defines sexual assault to address penetrative assault as well as non-penetrative sexual offences such as molestation, stalking and stripping. Marital rape is also likely to be recommended for inclusion in the sexual assault law for the first time. Currently, marital rape is legal.

The panel is also expected to seek repeal of Sections 354 and 509 of the IPC which contain archaic notions of outraging the modesty of women and recommend their replacement with a clear gradation of non-penetrative sexual offences along with punishments depending on the violation of women’s bodily integrity.

For the first time, there is a possibility of security forces being covered as a separate category in the section of sexual assault law dealing with aggravated sexual assault. Section 376 (2) of the Criminal Amendment Bill 2012 which the government introduced in Lok Sabha last December doesn’t cover security or armed forces as a category under aggravated sexual assault and mentions only police, public servants, remand home in charges and hospital managements. The Verma panel will likely seek inclusion of armed forces and recommend waivers of prosecution sanction if they are accused of this offence.

On punishment, the committee’s view remains to be seen considering majority petitions argued against death penalty and chemical castration and sought quick justice and imprisonment ranging from 10 years to the rest of life for the accused depending on the crime committed.

Women’s groups unanimously opposed lowering the juvenile age from 18 years at present and called for accountability of states and Centre on care, protection and rehabilitation of juvenile delinquents. They, however, demanded lowering the age of consent for sexual engagement from the current 18 to 16 years.

In another expected recommendation, the commission will set to ask the government to make sexual assault a gender-specific crime insofar as the perpetrator is concerned. The current government Bill defines sexual assault as a gender neutral crime (meaning women can also rape and men can be raped).

“We argued that sexual assault be made gender-specific insofar as perpetrators (males) are concerned and gender neutral insofar as victims are concerned. Among victims, women, transgenders and other sexual minorities must be mentioned. The commission heard us favourably and examined linkages between government current economic policies and rising crimes against women,” said Vrinda Grover, top Supreme Court lawyer.

Sweeping measures

  • It will cover penetrative assault as well as non-penetrative sexual offences such as molestation, stalking and stripping
  • Marital rape is also likely to be recommended for inclusion in the sexual assault law for the first time. Currently, marital rape is legal
  • The panel is also likely to press for doing away with archaic terms like outraging the modesty of women and recommend their replacement with a clear gradation of non-penetrative sexual offences
  • For the first time, there is a possibility of security forces being covered as a separate category in the section of sexual assault law

 

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Going from Zero FIRs to e-FIRs

Posted in SEXUAL OFFENCES by NNLRJ INDIA on January 22, 2013

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BY APARNA VISWANATHAN PUBLISHED IN THE HINDU

The government must allow the online filing of first information reports in rape cases as that alone will ensure mandatory and automatic registration of complaints

On January 18, 2013, Delhi police chief Neeraj Kumar announced that Zero First Information Reports (FIRs) may be registered on the basis of a woman’s statement at any police station irrespective of jurisdiction. This means women can file an FIR at any police station and the complaint is required to be registered on the basis of the woman’s complaint verbatim. Mr. Kumar stated: “The woman’s statement has to be taken as gospel truth and a probe needs to be initiated on its basis.”

Important step forward

At the same time, the Delhi police chief announced a series of other measures such as the recruitment of 418 women sub-inspectors and 2,088 women constables, deployment of PCR vans outside women’s colleges, the provision that women can call 100 to seek assistance to be dropped home at night by a PCR van, and 24-hour police cover for areas around entertainment hubs with heightened security between 8 pm and 1 am. While the foregoing measures must certainly be welcomed as an important step forward towards making the criminal justice system functional, it is surprising that e-governance has not been utilised by the Delhi police as an important solution in a country which is considered the world’s leading provider of IT enabled solutions.

E-governance is the application of information and communication technology to delivering government services, exchange of information and integration of various stand-alone systems and services between the government and citizens as well as back-office processes within the government. Through e-governance, government services can be provided to citizens in an efficient and transparent manner, which is of desperate need in India.

As shown by the introduction of the Zero FIR, the starting point towards improving criminal justice is the filing of the criminal complaint itself. It is well known that the filing of FIRs, particularly for cognisable offenses, is an extremely difficult exercise — more so for a rape victim who has to ceaselessly recount the horrific event. Police stations often refuse to register FIRs for cognisable complaints, and innumerable rapes around the country go unreported. The victims then are forced to file a private complaint in court under Section 156(3) of the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC) seeking an order directing the police to register an FIR. The police chief’s announcement that the woman’s statement will be taken as the “gospel truth” is an important first step that will hopefully enable rape victims to register an FIR.

The police have often taken the view that, under Section 154 of the CrPC, complaints need to be investigated before the FIR is registered because the complaint could be a disguised civil or commercial dispute or a way of settling personal enmity. Complaints of criminal cheating and fraud are sometimes filed as a way of pressuring business associates to settle financial disputes or for personal grudges. However, this is highly unlikely to occur in the case of rape. In fact, there is no reason why all complaints for at least cognisable offences should not be registered as FIRs and then investigated.

While the Supreme Court has, in various judgments, taken contradictory views on the issue of whether the police are required to investigate a complaint before registering an FIR under Section 154 of the CrPC, it has repeatedly expressed its deep anguish over the failure of police to register FIRs, particularly in rape cases. Hopefully, the police will now register an FIR based on the woman’s statement as per the recently announced measures. However, the mandatory and automatic registration of FIRs can be ensured only through e-governance, that is, by providing for online registration of FIRs by citizens.

Tracking network

The online registration of FIRs was supposed to be implemented by 2013. On March 21, 2012, the then Union Home Minister, P. Chidambaram, stated in the Rajya Sabha that online registration of FIRs would be possible once the server and network connectivity was established by the end of 2012 or early 2013. However, the online filing of FIRs will be made possible only upon the implementation of the Crime and Criminal Tracking Network and Systems (CCTNS), an ambitious Rs. 2,000 crore project of the Home Ministry, aimed at increasing the efficiency and effectiveness of policing through e-governance by creating a state-of-the-art IT-enabled crime tracking system for investigation of crime and detection of criminals.

Under CCTNS, 14,000 police stations will be automated as well as 6,000 offices of higher police officials. The CCTNS is a platform for sharing real time information by law-enforcement agencies, which will improve identification of criminals and crime investigation. Funds in the amount of Rs. 418 crore have reportedly been released to the States/Union Territories and 4.54 lakh people have been trained. The CCTNS project was supposed to be completed in March 31, 2012. However, in June 2012, the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs (CCEA) extended the deadline to March 2015.

In November 2012, the Home Ministry began monitoring the status of the CCTNS project on a weekly basis and appointed 20 Joint Secretaries to monitor the progress of the project and ensure completion by March 2015. The delay in project implementation was reportedly due to the non-availability of common application software (CAS) and infrastructure problems. Since law and order is a State issue, issues of coordination between the States also contributed to the delay. However, it is unclear why the Indian government needs to implement a Rs.2,000 crore project before enabling online filing of FIRs. In view of the great national imperative in creating deterrence against rape, websites and e-filing mechanisms should be immediately created to permit e-filing of FIRs at least in rape cases.

The online filing of annual accounts and other documents was successfully implemented several years ago by the Ministry of Company Affairs. Various State governments have also provided for online filing of police complaints and online payment of traffic challans. The Himachal Pradesh Police have introduced an interactive portal called “Kanoon Vyavastha,” the first of its kind in the country, by which a police complaint can be filed online or by SMS. As per a report in the Financial Express, of 1,821 SMSs received, 22 FIRs were registered without the complainant having to visit the police station. Of these 22 FIRs, reportedly only one was related to a rape case. After the launch of SMS service in May 2010, 4,392 SMSs were received, of which 82 FIRs were registered. The complainant can check the status of the FIR online and post comments. The web portal is used for daily crime reporting, providing details of missing persons and vehicles and road accidents. Jalandhar reportedly has an online crime tip page where people can anonymously inform the police of a crime that has been committed. Similarly, Maharashtra has an e-complaint system for reporting minor crimes, that is, non-cognisable offences.

Simultaneously, with the introduction of Zero FIRs, online filing of FIRs at least in rape cases should immediately be implemented irrespective of the status of the CCTNS project. The introduction of e-FIRs will be an important signal to all criminals that rape will not go unpunished.

(Aparna Viswanathan is author of Cyber Law: Indian and International Perspectives (Lexis Nexis Butterworths Wadhwa 2012))

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