Two reasons cause me this week to ignore the campaign speeches of Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi and write instead about the judiciary. The first is a judgment that came from the Delhi High Court last week on the affairs of the most exclusive private school in India that is funded by us taxpayers but provides admission almost exclusively to children of high officials and political leaders. I salute Chief Justice N V Ramanna for his strictures against the Sanskriti School. He said, “What is the necessity for various state governments and ministries including the Defence Ministry and the Reserve Bank of India to fund the school run by officers’ wives?” These ‘wives’ are all married to bureaucrats and the Chief Justice made it clear that he disapproved of them trying to ‘create a separate island for children of these bureaucrats’.
This school has been a scandal from day one because public land and taxpayers’ money were appropriated to provide fine education to the children of men and women who provide for the citizens of India the worst schools in the world. This column has commented on this before, but for the most part the outrageous misuse of public money and public land that went into building the Sanskriti School has gone unnoticed, until now when a judge has sat up and taken sharp notice.
The second reason for my saluting the Indian justice system is on account of the brilliant new film Shahid that tells the tragic story of a brave, young lawyer in Mumbai who was killed for trying to ensure that innocent Muslims did not rot in jail because of falsely being labelled jehadi terrorists. The film poignantly makes the point that the Indian justice system may move at the pace of a bullock cart, but more often than not justice is done in the end.
Now since the Supreme Court itself pronounced — in the contempt case against the former Army chief — that it welcomes criticism, I shall take the liberty to draw attention to serious flaws in the system that show no signs of rectification. The most obvious of these is that the Indian justice system moves so slowly that justice is often so delayed that it stops being justice. We would not need the myopic new communal violence Bill if the courts worked more swiftly to punish those who kill in the name of religion. We do not need new laws to control riots. We need the justice system to implement existing laws more effectively.
The Home Minister recently ordered state governments to be careful about jailing innocent Muslim youths in the name of preventing terrorism, but would he not have done better to say that no innocent person should be in jail? In India’s jails, those who are under trial constitute 66.4 per cent of all prisoners and some remain under trial for minor offences for years. If this is because India has too few judges, then why do we have too few judges? If it is because the procedures and the legalities of our courts remain pre-modern, then why is this so? If it is because the State makes too many frivolous cases against too many people, then again we need to know why frivolous cases are admitted at all.
The justice system has in recent years worked swiftly to send politicians to jail for alleged corrupt practices and this is good. It needs to work as swiftly to punish officials for dereliction of their duties to the people of India. If officials in charge of completing major infrastructure projects started being jailed for procrastination and needless red tape, we might see some sign of the urgency needed if India is to build the transport networks and public utilities without which we remain a backward country.
At this point may I humbly submit that the Supreme Court has contributed towards the current economic downturn by cancelling contracts and imposing prohibitive restrictions on the mining of iron ore and sand. The Chief Justice of India himself noted recently that the blanket ban on sand mining was wrong. It has caused a huge shortage of sand in the construction industry. Decisions of this kind are much better left to governments.
What the honourable judges alone can do is put the judiciary’s house in order. And because this has not happened, there is a backlog of 3.2 crore cases in Indian courts that experts calculate could take more than 300 years to clear. There is no reason why computers and video cameras should not be used to speed things up, no reason why courts should continue to use obsolete English as legal language, and no reason why court houses should reek of squalour and decay. So why is it so hard for change to enter those musty portals of justice?
Follow Tavleen Singh on Twitter @tavleen_singh