The widespread outrage across the nation over the brutal Delhi gangrape has ensured that it will remain a cause célèbre for a long time. So terrible was the crime that the public clamour for swift and almost “instant” justice for its perpetrators was no surprise. Justice Altamas Kabir, Chief Justice of India, showed some sensitivity in this regard, and also a word of necessary caution, when he pointed out that while there was need for swift justice, it must also be rendered in a fair manner and ensure citizens’ basic rights were protected, while inaugurating a fast-track court to try sexual offences in New Delhi this week.
One of the cardinal principles of the rule of law is that justice must not only be done, but also be seen to be done. While there is an absolute need for the wheels of justice to move much faster in this country, which has a huge backlog of cases in all kinds of courts and tribunals, what cannot be forgotten is the vital need to ensure that every person has the absolute right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty through due process.
While in the case of the December 16 Delhi gangrape there may be very little doubt about the evidence, which appears rock solid, it would ill behove our justice system if the accused aren’t afforded every opportunity to make their case in court, as would happen if they are denied proper legal representation. And remember, not all evidence in all cases is always open and shut; the police has been known in the past to arrest the wrong people, which is why they are required to prove their charges before an independent judge. Therefore, the reluctance of lawyers to represent the gangrape accused, while understandable (as seen earlier in the Ajmal Kasab case), does nothing to further the cause of justice, as it might be held that the accused did not get a fair trial if they couldn’t make their case in court. The state, therefore, needs to ensure that the accused are not denied a fair hearing.
The establishment of fast-track courts is a welcome signal that the government is waking up to the urgent need for firm action in crimes against women. Since the December 16 Delhi incident, many more such crimes have been reported from across the country. National Crime Records Bureau data shows 24,206 rape cases were registered in India in 2011. If the numbers for 2012 are around the same or more, there would still be a lot of work for the fast-track courts. What we are dealing with is a huge national problem; and getting to the root of it is the real challenge.