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This article has been written by Neeraj Salodkar, pursuing a Certificate Course in Advanced Criminal Litigation & Trial Advocacy from LawSikho.

Introduction

Article 14 of the Constitution of India says that “The State shall not deny to any person equality before the law or the equal protection of the laws within the territory of India.” This provision can be interpreted that the State shall not prefer any one person or a community to another. If this provision is followed in the letter and the spirit, there shall be no discrimination and preference by the State of its subjects. But unfortunately, that is not the case. In fact, we are far from it. 

The Indian judiciary is renowned for its delay. The situation of restraint and lockdown has aggravated this situation further. To this date, around 4 crores cases are pending in the Indian judiciary. When a person inadvertently gets mixed up with the system, there is no coming out of it. The person loses money, reputation, and, most importantly, time. What does he gain? Justice? No, next date. 

Some case studies

In the Indian context, many Indian celebrities and superstars have had brush-ups with the law. Sometimes they come unscathed; sometimes they don’t. Salman Khan is one example. He has mostly come unscathed. 

A brief study of Salman Khan’s criminal court cases: 

Blackbuck case

  • Alleged incident transpired in 1998. He was also arrested and set free on bail. 
  • Some skirmishes regarding false affidavits. Charges dismissed by the Court. 
  • Acquitted under Arms Act in 2018. (State appeal is pending)
  • Convicted for the Blackbuck poaching case. Sentenced to five-year imprisonment in 2018. Set on bail. (Salman Khan’s appeal is pending) 

Culpable homicide case

  • Alleged incident occurred in 2002. He was arrested and set on bail. 
  • Charge sheet was also filed in 2002. Various applications were filed challenging the said charge sheet. 
  • Charges were framed in 2006. 
  • Trial held in 2011-2012. 
  • Charge changed to culpable homicide, not amounting to murder in 2013. Case transferred to Sessions Court for a retrial. 
  • Trial started afresh in 2013 by the Sessions Court. 
  • Convicted in 2015 by the Sessions Court and sentenced to 5 years. 
  • Acquitted by the High Court. 
  • Maharashtra Government filed an appeal against acquittal. 

There are many more examples like Sanjay Dutt, Shiney Ahuja, etc. Rhea Chakraborty is the latest example, but she suffered more due to her celebrity status.  But what can be observed from the above case study of Salman Khan? The law is slow and tedious. The Blackbuck incident allegedly occurred way back in 1998. We are presently in 2021. That is almost 23 years. What has happened till now? One conviction and one acquittal, that too by the lower courts only. This matter will go to the High Courts, then after that to the Supreme Court. If I had to bet, it will go on for 23 more years. Even if he is convicted, he will claim the defense of old age (he will be in his late 70s or early 80s), and shall be set free. Is this justice? The answer is a stark no. 

The way forward

This is the main part of this article. Many would be expecting and suggesting that there should be a massive change in the law. Some elaborate legislation should be brought into force. But for once, think if you actually do need any reform? If yes, what will it be? It is literally impossible to legislate a law for superstars and celebrities. The very idea of it is antithetic to the idea of justice and equality, as propounded by the Indian Constitution. 

Suppose we do make a law that tries to reform the present situation. Following will be the issues: 

  1. How will we define a ‘Celebrity’ or a ‘Superstar’?.
  2. It will not pass the arbitrary test laid down in Article 14 of the Constitution. 
  3. Will the law amend the procedure for how we deal with this group of individuals or will there have to be changes made to the substantive law? Both seem unfeasible. 

Whenever there is anything amiss with the system, everyone blames the law and the Parliament. They complain that there are not enough laws to deal with the situation. Unfortunately, almost everyone is wrong. The paucity of laws is mostly never the answer to the maladies of society. A law that creates any kind of special or adverse treatment to the superstars or celebrities is against the idea of equality and justice. 

By saying that no new law is required, I do not mean that there is no need for reform and that nothing can be done. Plenty can be done, but not by changing the law, but by changing its implementation. 

Following are some of the places where improvement can be made: 

Selective listing of matters

There have been consistent echoes from the stakeholders in the judiciary and especially from the upper echelons of the judiciary that the Registry of High Courts and Supreme Court is ‘Selective.’ It means that the Registry allegedly gives preference to the matters of the celebrities. If this is true, it is an egregious violation of the fundamental right of equality. Recently, the President of the Supreme Court Bar Association, Dushyant Dave, wrote a letter to the Secretary-General of the Supreme Court, strongly protesting against the ‘extraordinary urgent listing’ of the Special Leave Petition filed by the Republic TV Chief, Arnab Goswami, in connection with the 2018 suicide case. Dave wrote the following: 

“The serious issue here is selective listing of matters that the Registry under your leadership is indulging in for the last eight months during Covid pandemic. While thousands of Citizens remain in jails, languishing for long periods while their matters filed before the Hon’ble Supreme Court are not getting listed for weeks and months, it is, to say the least, deeply disturbing as to how and why every time Mr Goswami approaches the Supreme Court, his matter gets listed instantly1.” 

Listing of matters is a serious issue. Thousands of litigants languish in prisons for months without getting a proper date. I am not saying that even celebrities and superstars should suffer because of this infirmity of the Indian judiciary. The system needs to be improved from the ground up. No special treatment to anyone. 

Training police officers

The police are a part of the executive and a very crucial facet of the criminal justice system. Their job is to investigate, find evidence, apprehend the accused persons, prevent crime, maintain the cells for prisoners, etc. When an accused person is apprehended, he is first kept in police custody. Afterwards, he is taken to the Magistrate, where it is decided whether to keep him in police custody, judicial custody, or released on bail. The accused cannot be kept in police custody for more than 15 days. (Section 167 of the Code of Criminal Procedure) But it has to be noted that 15 days is a long period. The police have the power to make the life of a personal heaven or hell in 15 days. It has been reported that celebrities get comfortable life in prisons. If the right palms are greased, celebrities and moneybags get Television, Air conditioners, home-cooked food, etc. Obviously, this is illegal, but who will find if the law enforcers are themselves bribed? Therefore, it is imperative that the police are trained in this aspect. The police should not mistreat common people and treat celebrities favourably. 

It is also crucial to train police officers in the art of investigation and the knowledge of the law. It is a common misconception that only lawyers need to know the law. The police officers need to be skilled in the substantive and procedural law of the country. It happens several times that poor and botched-up investigation results in delays and eventual acquittals. Therefore, it is important to train police officers. In India, there is no specialized course for police officers. The minimum requirement is graduation. Therefore, people graduate in any random course, give the police examination, and become police officers. The problem with such a system is that all those years spent in graduation are wasted. Doing BA, Bsc, Bcom, BE is nugatory for the work that is presented before the police. These courses take up almost 3 to 5 years of a person’s life but unfortunately do not contribute to a police officer’s productivity. Imagine a person being specially trained for doing police work for 3 to 5 years. We will have super cops! 

Adjournments

The dilatory tactic is a phrase that means using methods to delay something. In the court, dilatory tactics are used by unscrupulous lawyers to extend the matters. As seen from Salman Khan’s case, it is obvious that dilatory tactics were used. The Blackbuck matter is twenty-three years old and still going on. The hit and run matter is 18 years old and still going on. It took the judiciary 3 years to frame the charges. Six years to start the trial, which eventually was transferred to the Sessions Court because the lower court did not have the jurisdiction. The case was again tried, and Salman Khan was then convicted. He was acquitted within one year. According to section 309 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, every inquiry or trial shall be continued day to day until all the witnesses in attendance have been examined, unless the court finds the adjournment of the same beyond the following day to be necessary for reasons to be recorded. It is obvious that this rule was not followed in Salman Khan’s case. If it had followed, the case would not have lasted for all those years. 

To put a curb on such delays, it is actually essential to amend the law. In almost all the comparatively later laws (laws that were passed after 2010, like the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code, Companies Act, 2013, etc.), the statute itself provides for a time-bound manner in which the proceedings need to be completed. But unfortunately, there is no such time-bound manner provided in the Code of Criminal Procedure. 

Strong anti-graft mechanism

Bribery is a huge issue not only in India but also in the world. When celebrities are involved, the money and stakes are high; there are bound to be moral lapses on the part of the public authorities. This needs to be in check. Although the Lokpal and Lokayukta Act, 2013 has been brought, it does not seem to have made the required effect that was actually expected out of it. 

Conclusion

Reforms are important, but they need to be made with a pragmatic and analytical mind. Being manifestly and overly emotional does not work. Public demands like changing the law for celebrities do not stand the constitutional test. But this does not mean that there can be no changes. Instead, changes should be made from the ground up, not just for the celebrities or the superstars, but for everyone in this country. I find it befitting to quote Ranjan Gogoi, the Ex-Chief Justice of India: 

“Who goes to the Court? You go to the court and regret. It is those who can afford to take chances, like the big corporations, only go to the courts.”

Even the Ex-Chief Justice of India feels that only the people who have a lot of money can take a chance to go to the courts. When the head of the Apex Court of the country feels like this, it is obvious that there is something amiss with the entire system. 


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