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April 12, 2000


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E-Mail this column to a friend Pritish Nandy

Justice delayed may not always be justice denied

I grew up in Calcutta in the turbulent Sixties. So I know exactly how wicked, cruel and corrupt cops can be. Particularly when they become politically aligned with parties in power.

Luckily, when I came to Mumbai 18 years ago, I saw the other face of the police force as well. I met officers who fought against the most difficult odds and refused to compromise. I encountered a constabulary that, unlike Calcutta's, was proud of its role as a law-enforcer. And now, when there is so little to distinguish between the political forces in the legislatures and the criminal elements on the streets who have mixed and merged into one unruly mafia, I can see how doubly difficult their job has become. Wherever they tread is a minefield and any case, however insignificant it may look to you and me, has the potential to explode in their face. For no one knows any more who is behind what.

In the circumstances, the media has a special and difficult role to play. Whether it is encounters with insurgents in the Kashmir Valley or it is inquiring into the betting scandal in cricket or simply trying to track down the mystery behind the murder of Priya Rajvansh alias Vera Singh, the problem is actually the same. The media puts far too much pressure on the police to perform. This actually results in the precise opposite of what the media tries to ensure: Justice. What you get, instead, is arbitrary, quick-fix, pop solutions that rarely survive serious judicial scrutiny. Or, for that matter, the demands of truth.

It may not sound terribly nice to say this, but from all accounts, the recent batch of insurgents killed in the encounter with the law-enforcers in Kashmir appear to be innocent local shepherds. The bodies exhumed seem to indicate this. They were certainly not the killers of the Sikh settlers in the Valley, as the police authorities had earlier identified them. It appears to be an unfortunate case of mistaken identity. Which means no justice has been done. Just one dastardly deed has been punished by another.

The betting scandal, on the other hand, could have easily done with greater circumspection and more in-depth investigation before the media pitchforked it into the headlines. India deserves more coverage in the Western media for its success stories, not its scams and scandals. The Priya Rajvansh murder case also appears to be a hurried probe and leaves too many loose ends dangling.

In all these cases the media, while showing its anxiety to get at the truth, has, through so much of pushing and shoving, achieved precisely the opposite. We have got instant results, true. But these results are of a dubious nature. Instead of resolving the crimes, they leave many questions unanswered.

For instance, while every patriotic Indian believes that Pakistan is sending in waves of insurgents across the border to promote terrorism, less than 50 per cent believe that the people who are shot down in these frequent encounters in the Valley are actually the guilty ones. Similarly, while everyone is convinced that there is a huge amount of gambling going on when the top cricket teams are pitted against each other, not many people are willing to buy the story that Hansie Cronje and his teammates are responsible for fixing the matches South Africa lost to India. These matches were genuine cliffhangers and the way they ultimately went was more likely to have been determined by divine intervention than hard cash exchanging hands through havala transactions by some faceless Indian shopkeeper on Oxford Street.

Shekhar Kapur was burning the telephone lines the other day, explaining to me how it was impossible for his cousins Ketan and Vivek to have murdered Priya Rajvansh, who had lived in with their father for several decades. Both, according to Shekhar, are too gentle to hurt a fly and the charge that they were out to grab the property after their father died is not just far-fetched but meaningless, because the place where they live is tenanted, not owned. But on the confessions of a maid, who could have been easily manipulated or threatened, the entire reputation of the Anand family has been trashed.

Without going into the specific merits of the case, all I am saying is that not many people I know are ready to believe what the police is alleging. Either it needs to put out a more convincing story or it needs to pull back and do some more careful investigation.

That brings me to the crux of the problem. Crime is on the rise everywhere and the media is always desperate for a great headline. The police is also under pressure to deliver quick results. So, under the pressure of difficult deadlines, both are hurting the ends of justice. What we get is not always the truth but some wonderfully juicy scandal that allures readers and television watchers, but could well turn out to be, eventually, a figment of someone's fevered imagination.

Kishen Kumar lying on a hospital bed somewhere in NOIDA to avoid a police interrogation may be a fantastic photo-op, but to see him as the canny mastermind behind the great betting scam on the cricket field seems as far-fetched as a gilli-danda player winning an Olympic gold.

But we are so desperate for scoops that when we cannot find one, we are ready to manufacture it. Which is why Manoj Prabhakar, who is not exactly a great cricketer, has built his entire career after being shunted out of the Indian team by suggesting through innuendo and wink-wink nudge-nudge that Mohammed Azharuddin and Ajit Wadekar had tried to bribe him to lose a series. The media, instead of seriously investigating the charge, has continued to give Prabhakar more and more inchage to vomit his bile. Each time, however, he refuses to name his bete noirs for fear of committing defamation.

The Chandrachud inquiry, which was held into the match-fixing charges, was so shabby and superficial that instead of laying all these suspicions to rest, it ended up further stoking them. The clean chit it gave to Indian cricket has caused it much more damage than Prabhakar's unsustained charges.

The point is not who is lying or who is speaking the truth. In our obsession for screaming headlines and pop justice, we are subverting the rigour, the discipline, the accuracy that goes into every successful investigation. We in the media are actually forcing the cops to take off their starched uniforms and assume the robes of magicians, to take out rabbits from their top hats at the drop of a kerchief. Otherwise we accuse them of wilful and deliberate negligence.

What is the result? Hysterical media stories. Easy justice. Pop stardom for policemen ready to take on the rich and the famous. The better known the victim, the more famous his torturer becomes. The obsession for headlines is ruining innocent families, destroying reputations built up over long decades, and benefiting no one but those who like getting their jollies off the screen or the newspapers.

Both the media and the cops, I am sure, are doing their best in a difficult and deteriorating environment. It is time perhaps to take the pressure off them. For that, we need a bit more circumspection, a lot more hard and careful research. We must remember the simple fact that it is the job of the media and the police force to track down the guilty. Not hunt down instant stardom for themselves.

Pritish Nandy

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