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FAST ASLEEP

The two cases of gang rape in Mumbai’s Shakti Mills compound in July and August last year have been concluded in one of the city’s fast-track courts in a little more than seven months. Maharashtra’s home minister feels proud to be able to say, after considerable pressure, that these cases were charge-sheeted and tried, and the victims and their families given justice, “in the fastest possible time”. So, it is legitimate to ask why West Bengal, home of some of the country’s most infamous (and infamously politicized) gang rape cases, is far from being able to make similar claims, in spite of having set up fast-track courts as part of the wave of judicial reforms following the Delhi gang rape. In Bengal, four cases of gang rape — Park Street and Katwa (February, 2012), gang rape followed by murder in Kamduni (June, 2013), and Madhyamgram (October, 2013) — are stuck, in fast-track courts, at the stage of gathering witness testimonies after the framing of charges. What is it about the investigative and judicial processes in Bengal that lends itself to such unfavourable comparisons, and to Bengal’s law minister sounding vaguely defensive at being confronted with these facts.

In a sense, fast-track courts demand even more efficiency, co-ordination with the police and infrastructural support than in the normal courts. So, simply calling them such remains a cosmetic move unsupported by any of these fundamental changes in attitude, competence and work ethic. The actual number of fast-track courts is still disputed at the highest level of the judicial and political systems, there are not enough judges, and the habit of inordinate vacationing and random transfers further weaken the entire process. The different stages of investigation, evidence-gathering and writing of effective chargesheets, followed by the actual legal process, which require different kinds of administrative, forensic and legal skills, are all slowed down by an ethos of self-defensive procrastination that beleaguers the police, courts and state machinery in Bengal. When fast-track courts are affected by this systemic slackness, then the accumulation of backlog is also faster and therefore more difficult to clear. There is no reason why these special courts should not be part of the all-pervasive sloth, which has become part of the regional stereotype, quite understandably.