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NOT MUCH OF A FORCE

In a recent case of child rape and murder, the Supreme Court acquitted the rapist and sharply criticized the police officer for shoddy investigation. The court also ordered that in cases of acquittal arising from poor investigation, the errant officers would have to be taken to task. It has further directed state governments to set up standing committees to examine acquittals, identify aberrant officers and initiate departmental action against them.

The apex court directives, though welcome, do not break new ground. State police regulations embodied in police manuals and standing orders contain instructions of examining carefully each acquittal and initiating corrective action when lapses in investigation are highlighted. Unfortunately, this directive is usually followed in the breach. Rarely is departmental action instituted against aberrant police officers. The Supreme Courtís directive is thus likely to remain in limbo.

At present, less than 40 per cent of cognizable cases end in conviction. The conviction rate is an appalling less than 10 per cent in the case of heinous crimes. Lapses in police investigation often lead to acquittals. The problem is further compounded by poor and listless prosecution. Before the enactment of the Code of Criminal Procedure in 1973, there was closer coordination between prosecutors and investigators. Mutual recrimination has replaced such cooperation. Crime is controlled by making punishment certain rather than severe.

Another factor to be borne in mind is that police officers are overburdened and lack adequate time to conduct proper investigation. In a six-state study, the National Police Commission had pointed out that investigating officers are able to devote 39 per cent of their time to investigations. The rest of the time is taken up in other duties.

Big gaps

In the case, Prakash Singh and Others vs Union of India and Others, the apex court had issued a seven-point directive to state governments to introduce police reforms. One important suggestion was the separation of law-and-order duties from investigative work for the police. The Supreme Court set up a monitoring committee under K.T. Thomas to examine the measures taken by the states to implement its directives. The committee found the level of compliance to be dismal in West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka and Maharashtra.

Another important causal factor is the delay in the disposal of cases. Delays prejudice the prosecution. Witnesses become unavailable and the accused, particularly the rich and the powerful, try to win over the witnesses. Cases drag on interminably in the courts with frequent adjournments. The meagre allowances for witnesses remain unpaid. The sanctity of oaths in courts too has disappeared. Unfortunately, there are no hard data on the extent of perjury.

Further, there is an urgent need to insulate the police from political influence and pressure. Performances of police officers are now judged by their political masters on the basis of their pliability and not competence and performance. Postings are allotted on considerations other than merit. Senior officers, unfortunately, are not in a position to protect the interests of their subordinates.

It is also a fact that corruption in the judiciary is another important factor that contributes to both delays and acquittals. There must be better supervision of the judicial system by the higher judiciary. Article 235 of the Constitution gives the higher judiciary total control over the subordinate courts. The Supreme Court must ensure that this responsibility is taken on with utmost seriousness and commitment.