The Union cabinet has been quite deft in catching hold of the wrong end of the stick. Penalizing witnesses for turning hostile would seem, at the very least, an odd sort of way of dealing with frightened people. Apart from inducement, intimidation is a major cause behind witnesses turning hostile. The Best Bakery case is not an exception, it is merely the case in which the lid on witness intimidation was well and truly blown. Both the law commission and the Malimath committee have recognized the problem of vulnerable witnesses and have recommended protection for them. The law commission had suggested that the first deposition of the witness should take place before a magistrate instead of the police, as is usual, and the Malimath committee had recommended protection for witnesses as is granted in the West. The issue of the hostile witness is linked with that of perjury, although they are not exactly the same. The Malimath committee, while recommending dignity and care for witnesses, also recommends coming down heavily on false evidence given under oath after due warning.
The cabinet has made a neat little mishmash of all these and turned the whole issue on its head. First deposition before a magistrate would mean that a hostile witness can be faced with documented evidence in the court. The witness can then immediately be charged with perjury, with the consequent heavy penalty. The cabinet has made some reassuring noises too. Anyone found intimidating witnesses will be penalized. Experience would suggest that those who intimidate witnesses are usually not to be found. That is the whole point — but perhaps the point has failed to penetrate the innocence of the cabinet members. If this proposed amendment goes through, it will now be the criminal procedure code itself that will be threatening witnesses. The amendment appears to be the Centre’s answer to the Supreme Court’s question regarding steps taken for witness protection. It is no doubt a brilliant solution, punishing a witness, already terrorized, in the name of protection. Actually, the amendment would solve a lot of problems. A witness caught between a criminal and the court may disappear, be killed, or pretend not to have been a witness at all. It is unlikely that with all their innocence, the members of the cabinet have not seen these possibilities. Perhaps even they consider witnesses, especially witnesses who have nothing to lose and therefore insist on speaking the whole truth, a bit of an inconvenience. Given the countrywide vested interest in crime, maybe it is better to dispense with witnesses altogether.