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English jurist William Blackstone who has penned commentaries on English laws has said in his book, “It is better that ten guilty escape than one innocent suffer”. For ages, our society has followed the same principle as a yardstick for delivering justice. The Madras High Court recalled the same lines in one of its verdicts last September.
The innocent should not be punished is the ground rule but mistakes do happen while dispensing justice. The celebrated epic Silapathikaram talks about an innocent Kovalan being put to death for a crime he did not commit.
The duties of the police in society include crime prevention, crime investigation and ensuring culprits are brought to justice. During the course of an investigation, the law permits the investigating officials to arrest the culprits. The law also mandates prior court permission to arrest the accused in some crimes.
The film Jai Bhim has brought out anger against the police. The police are accused of violating human rights by torturing innocent people to obtain confessions and foisting false cases. They are accused of arresting people without sufficient cause in the name of investigation. Unlimited powers of arrest has been made an issue.
Vested with much power, the police appear intimidatory to common people. Human rights activists demand that the police should not have the right to arrest. They should, instead, get an arrest warrant from the court to execute the arrests, they argue.
The duties of the police in society include crime prevention, crime investigation and ensuring culprits are brought to justice. During the course of an investigation, the law permits the investigating officials to arrest the culprits. The law also mandates prior court permission to arrest the accused in some crimes
Some cite the Law Commission of India’s report and point out that just 40 percent of cases get convicted while the accused in 60 percent of cases are acquitted because these cases are false.
Jai Bhim revolves around a theft that happened 25 years ago. The plot is based on police investigation of the theft, police excesses in the name of investigation, and subsequent custodial death.
The Madras High Court intervened after it was proven in the court that the police violated the law and investigation guidelines. The CBCID carried out an investigation that exposed police excesses. The perpetrators were punished by the court.
After Jai Bhim was screened, the police have come in for much criticism. There is some truth to the criticism.
The existing police force in our country was formulated after the First War of Independence or Sepoy Mutiny in 1857. The Sepoy mutiny unraveled the rule of a business house, The English East India Company whose primary intent was trade. The British conceived a police force that could protect their rule and crush any protest among the Indian populace. Based on this, the British parliament passed The Police Act, 1861. The police force under the British Raj was the handmaid of the colonial rulers which unleashed terror on the freedom fighters of our country. The Police Act, 1861, with minor amendments, is still implemented in India. Until today, the police have been unable to earn much goodwill among the people.
The Police Act, 1861, with minor amendments, is still implemented in India. Until today, the police have been unable to earn much goodwill among the people
Attitude of society
The people, for their part, are not aware of their duties in relation to police investigation. They do not know that concealing evidence, giving away false testimonies to protect the true culprits, and framing innocent people during the investigation process are crimes. Silapathikaram’s protagonist Kovalan was wrongly convicted and was executed due to this attitude of the people of that time.
There is a strong belief in our society that truth can be extracted from the accused through physical torture. In cases of burglary and theft, the victims tend to mention the name of the suspects either on the oral or written complaint form. If the police fail to secure the ones these complainants suspect and interrogate them duly, the police are accused of conniving with the ‘suspects’.
There are cases where the confessions drawn through physical torture helped to nail the real culprits. But investigating officers tend to forget that this is against the Constitution and would be counterproductive. The wrong approach of using physical torture during investigation has often led to negative results. There have been incidents in the past when such incidents occurred and the police then did a cover-up to hide their mistakes. One mistake led to another and Jai Bhim story is one such.
The police department takes up thousands of cases for investigation. The investigation process gets derailed in some drawing the ire of courts and the people. The failure of senior officers to supervise the investigation and the inexperience of the investigating officers cause such derailment.
Jai Bhim has given strength to sections of society that chronically blame the police force for excesses and torture during the investigation. And there have been cases in which the police violated the law to appease the people and resorted to “encounters”.
Power to arrest
There is an argument that the police need not have arresting powers while investigating a case. Arrests made after a court warrant would weed out custodial deaths, some argue. But this argument misses out on some facts. A hardcore criminal involved in murder or burglary secured by the police and interrogated without any delay would reveal the conspiracy, conspirators and the other accused in the case. Such criminals would consolidate their case if the police take time to get a court order for the arrest. This is ground reality.
Besides, the police, during the investigation, could get vital clues that become evidence in court. If the police don’t have the power to arrest, crime rates would peak to unimaginable proportions in society. Anyone with power would be able to dictate terms leading to lawlessness.
There is a wrong notion that all acquitted cases are foisted ones. The National Crime Records Bureau report says that Tamil Nadu registered the highest cases under the Indian Penal Code in the country – as many as 8,91,700 of them in 2020 – and investigated. Among these cases, 1,661 are murder cases, 12,492 are theft, 4,275 are burglaries, 2,023 of them are waylaying and 128 of them, dacoity. Tamil Nadu police managed to file charge sheets in 91 percent of the cases.
Out of thousands of cases taken up for investigation every year, there could be some cases where the investigation derails due to various reasons. Questioning the investigation capability of the police based on a few exemptions is not correct. The well-being of society itself is at stake. But, there is no difference of opinion that the quality of police investigation should improve and investigating officers need adequate training in this regard.
(The author is a retired police officer who held several responsibilities in his career including Inspector General (Intelligence))
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