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India's judiciary faces new bigotry charges

As always, the most vulnerable bear the brunt

India's judiciary faces new bigotry charges

Once again the judiciary in India faces grave charges of caste and religious bigotry in two major judgments in the eastern states of Bihar and Orissa. The judgments are yet another blot on the country’s legal system, which is dogged by prejudice against vulnerable sections of society – Christians, Muslims, the poor, and so on.

In Bihar, the state High Court on October 9 acquitted 26 people accused in a 1997 massacre of 58 Dalits in Luxmanpur Bathe village in Arwal district. The accused were members of the Ranvir Sena, an armed militia of the upper caste Bhumihar landlords who had the run of the province at one time.

Among the 58 dead were 27 women and 16 children; the youngest was one year old. Most Dalit families in the village were eliminated when these landless poor were shot on suspicion that they were sympathizers of Maoist separatists. The then Indian President K R Narayanan termed the massacre "a national shame", but the judges thought witnesses were not reliable and the accused deserved to be given the benefit.

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This was the third instance of acquittals, after verdicts in two similar cases in July 2012 and March 2013. The judgment, labeled “shameful” by political parties and human rights activists, scandalizes civil society and the Dalit community across the nation.

The second controversial judgment was in Phulbani, the headquarters of the district of Kandhamal in Orissa state, where judge R K Tosh sentenced seven Tribal and Dalit Christians to life terms for allegedly assassinating Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council) vice president Lakshmanananda Saraswati on August 23, 2008.

Saraswati’s death triggered a pogrom against the district’s Christian community, in which over 5,600 houses and 295 churches were burnt, 56,000 persons displaced, over 100 killed and at least three women, including a Catholic nun, gang raped.

Around 800 criminal cases were registered in different police stations of the district. Of these, charges had been made in some 500 cases, including 39 murder cases. Two fast track courts had been specially set up to “ensure justice and restore confidence” in the state government.

In the event, the various judgments did precious little to make people believe there was any justice in the state. First, in Bihar, the judges said they did not accept the statements of witnesses presented by the police. Many of them were present in the village when their relatives and friends were butchered, and had identified many of the accused. Based on their testimony a district court had sentenced the 26 in 2010, yet they were all acquitted this month by the High Court. 

In the anti-Christian violence, more people were let off than accused. Of 31 people accused of murder, only one was convicted on that charge. Most were allowed to walk free, while others received lighter sentences on lesser charges. One man, Manoj Pradhan, a member of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), was accused of involvement in more than half a dozen murder and rioting cases. He was sentenced to seven years on lighter charges, but immediately released on bail.

In each case, the judge chose either not to believe the witnesses or the police investigation. But jurists have noted that in the murder of the World Hindu Council leader, who for 40 years continued a tirade against the Church in Kandhamal, the judge put credence in the testimony of people who said they were not at the site of the crime, but heard snatches of conversation between the accused. The seven remained in jail for five years, repeatedly refused bail by the district courts and the High Court.

In reading the judgement, however, one sees that the judge appears enamored with the assassinated leader, referring to him by the reverential honorific of “Swamiji”. The judge then focuses his guns on what he calls Christian “missionaries”, using a bias that has no place in the judiciary.

“Swamiji combated fraudulent conversion by Christian missionaries and supporters of cow slaughter…. The missionaries, those who used charity as a façade for converting people away from their native faith, in alliance with Maoists are the perpetrators and conspirators of the assassination of Swamiji.”

Elsewhere in the judgment, he refers to a “church register” in which the conspirators are alleged to have noted in detail their plot to murder the World Hindu Council vice-president.

The Indian judicial system is rated highly internationally, despite the occasional allegation of corruption and vulnerability to political pressure. Yet allegations of caste and religious bigotry, and a bias against the poor, the Dalits and the marginalized, have tainted its criminal justice system.

The celebrated Indian historian, Ram Chandra Guha, noted in an article: “Prima facie, the justice system appears to be biased against the Muslims. The number of Muslim judges and senior police officers is miniscule. Again, while acts of violence by Muslims are quickly followed by the arrest and trial of the perpetrators [real or alleged], Hindus who provoke communal riots are treated with far greater indulgence by the law. This discrimination is violative of the rights of equal citizenship, and altogether unworthy of a country calling itself a democracy.”

Tribal and Dalit Christians in several states fare no better.

In the cases mentioned here, much hope lies in how the Supreme Court will rule when appeals are filed with it. But the Supreme Court has another urgent task before it to make judgments of various state courts rise above bias. The selection and training of the judges – at present most of them are from the elite caste and class groups, as indeed are the police – is an important area for the Supreme Court to act. It has the ultimate supervisory power over the High Courts and through them the district courts. It can, if it wishes to, ensure that blatant miscarriages of justice which embarrass the nation do not take place.

John Dayal is the general secretary of the All India Christian Council and a member of the Indian government’s National Integration Council.

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