Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Justice to the Poor - India's Chief Justice says


India's courts must bring justice to the poor



India’s Chief Justice K. G. Balakrishnan has warned that riots could result if the country’s courts do not act to address the judiciary’s inability to deliver decisions in a timely manner. The chief justice was addressing the press in Kochi, Kerala state on Sunday.
The admission of the chief justice suggests that the judiciary is waking up to the reality that the root cause of many internal disturbances is the denial of justice to the people. Court cases sometimes take a decade to be resolved. Yet judicial delay is just one among several ways in which justice is denied to the people.
The Maoist and Naxalite movements are one example. Naxalism and Maoism in India are a collective and violent response against decades of injustice meted out against the poor. Both movements gain their core strength from the poorest of the poor. It is not a coincidence therefore that these movements spread most quickly among the tribal peoples.
Over the past 10 years tribal communities, particularly those in India’s central and southeastern states, have been pushed to the fringes of society. The short-term and profit-motivated mining and deforestation policies implemented by the state as well as the central government have stolen the rich natural resources that the tribal communities depended upon for hundreds of years.
Most industrial schemes in the region were implemented under the excuse of development, and indigenous communities were never consulted before the schemes were designed or executed. This was a denial of these people’s right to a hearing, a complete negation of their indigenous wisdom and an insult to their culture.
The government has repeatedly denied requests by members of tribal communities for a fair hearing and silenced those who protested. Hundreds have lost their lives in the process. In addition, state agencies like the police and the forest department have wreaked havoc in the region by fabricating cases against members of tribal communities.
Officers also engage in criminal activities including rape, murder and stealing tribal properties, but not a single state agent has been successfully prosecuted for any crimes committed. The police firing into a crowd of protesting tribal members at Narayanpatna police station in Orissa state in November is just the latest such incident.
Similar problems have arisen in India’s northeastern states. There was a lack of consultative process even during the period of India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. The leaders of these people were not involved in discussions during the drafting of the country's Constitution.
A chief commissioner or a lieutenant governor, acting as an agent of the president, ruled India’s northeastern state of Manipur for 28 years. Indeed, there was an advisory council appointed by the president in consultation with the chief commissioner, which met once in three months, presided over by the chief commissioner. The council was an advisory body and as such its advice was not necessarily binding on the chief commissioner.
This situation continued until July 1963. The intervening period of criminal maladministration was long enough to create the state of serious unrest that exists in Manipur today.
The institution headed by Justice Balakrishnan has a role to play in Manipur today. The people of Manipur have repeatedly approached the court seeking its intervention against the implementation of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958 in parts of the state.
The draconian law provides statutory impunity to the armed forces and security agencies like the police who operate in the state for criminal acts like murder. Even a non-commissioned officer can shoot and kill a person on mere suspicion under this law, and officers have used their arbitrary authority in plenty. The number of extrajudicial executions carried out in Manipur has been the highest in the country for the past several years.
It is indeed elementary that any law that provides impunity to law enforcement agencies would be misused. Yet the Supreme Court of India lacked the elementary sense each time someone approached the court seeking the court's intervention to quash the law.
Riots and civil unrest in India today are mostly limited to regions that have suffered decades of denial of justice. The worst affected are once again the poorest.
India's courts have in the past spoken for the poor. However, they have also shown a trend of corporatization where the poor have no role. It remains to be seen whether the Indian judiciary can recover its lost love for ordinary Indians.

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