Saturday, 17 January 2015

Book Review: Red Handed – 20 Criminal Cases That Shook India, by Souvik Bhadra and Pingal Khan

Around 15 months after the release of leading corporate lawyer Zia Mody’s 10 Judgements That Changed India, two young and enterprising lawyers have brought out a book on criminal cases that caused India to shudder. Souvik Bhadra and Pingal Khan’s Red Handed – 20 Criminal Cases That Shook India, cannot be called a thriller since the twenty cases analysed in the slim paperback volume are well-known to most Indians. However, what makes it a worthwhile read is the analysis and comments that intersperse the well-known facts.

Most cases involve a murder or two and the death penalty. One meets Dhananjoy Chatterjee, the cruel watchman in Kolkata who tormented and later murdered young schoolgirl Hetal Parekh. Santosh Kumar Singh who murdered Priyadarshini Mattoo and Manu Sharma who shot and killed Jessica Lal aren’t missing. Baby faced Ajmal Kasab, Auto Shankar, Charles Shobraj, they are all there. The one person who I expected to find, but didn’t was Commander Kawas Nanavati. I guess the author had to leave out a number of big-time baddies and most probably there is some soul-searching going on in hell on account their omissions.

The best thing about 20 Criminal Cases That Shook India is that Bhadra and Khan have done an excellent job of summarising each of the twenty cases and presenting them in a single-gulp capsule, garlanded with their commentary. For example, I had heard of Auto Shankar but had forgotten what exactly he had done (which was to run a few brothels and murder many prostitutes). Be it white collar offenders like Harshad Mehta, Ketan Parekh or Abdul Karim Telgi or events such as the attack on the Indian Parliament in December 2001, the reader is presented with a summary which is concise, to the point and lays open the various social and legal issues arising out of the case.

With the explosive growth in technology and information services, the media is all powerful and pervasive. Therefore, every time a sensational case comes up for trial, the media comes up with its verdict in a matter of days, if not hours, something which might be a problem since the judicial system takes many months if not years to produce a verdict and in the meantime, the media trial may influence or even prejudice the judges, making it impossible for the accused to have a fair trial. Bhadra and Khan tell us that trial by media was a concern in the Dhananjoy Chatterjee murder case. The only available evidence against Chatterjee was circumstantial and the media frenzy made it impossible for the trial to be held in a sterile environment. Bhadra and Khan wonder if the judges were affected by the sensational reporting that took place. They too are human, after all.

What happens when the murderer is someone powerful or related to someone powerful? Santosh Kumar Singh who continually harassed and later raped and murdered Priyadarshini Mattoo was the son of a respected police officer. If he weren’t the son of a well-known police officer, would he have been acquitted by the trial court, though the trial court pointed out flaws in the CBI’s investigation? In the case of Nitish Katara’s murder, the accused Vikas Yadav was the son of influential politician D. P. Yadav. Similarly, Manu Sharma who murdered Jessica Lal, was the son of a Congress politician and Rajya Sabha MP. He was also distantly related to former president Shankar Dayal Sharma. Incidentally, in all these cases where justice was finally done, even though it took public protests to get there, the victims were also either middle-class or enjoyed some degree of respectability in society. For example, Nitish Katara was the son of an IAS officer. If Priyadarshini Mattoo had been a slum dweller instead of a middle-class girl, would she have got justice, I wonder? The Nithari Killings case illustrates this point. There, the victims were children of migrant labourers and the murder trial brought to the fore the lackadisical manner in which police respond to any crime involving poor people. However, the sheer depravity of the murderer made it impossible for the police to maintain their inertia. The murderer, Surinder Kohli, is still on death row.

Sometimes when the offence committed is particularly heinous, the accused, even if powerful, well-connected and rich, is left high and dry by his fair-weather friends, as happened to politician Sushil Sharma who murdered his wife Naina Sahni and had her burned in a tandoor. Unlike in the Priyadarshini Mattoo murder case, Sushil Sharma was sentenced to death by the trial court. The High Court confirmed his death sentence. However, the Supreme Court, rightly in my opinion, commuted the sentence to life imprisonment, pointing out that mere brutality does not justify a death sentence. Sushil Sharma’s actions were not premeditated, he had shot his wife dead in a fit of rage and his brutality was to the corpse.

P.V. Narasimha Rao was another politician who seemingly got away with corruption. The case arose when during a no-confidence motion in July 1993, cash bribes to the tune of Rs. 3 crores were allegedly paid to MPs from the Jharkand Mukti Morcha and other parties to defeat the motion. When in the dock, Rao invoked the defence of Parliamentary privilege. He also claimed that politicians were not public servants and hence not covered by the Prevention of Corruption Act, 1986. Though his conviction was overturned due to lack of sufficient evidence, the court did not fall in line with Rao’s arguments.

In some cases, it would appear that the final verdict shielded the mighty and powerful. In the Auto Shankar case, the accused took his secrets to the grave, possibly shielding some powerful politicians. In the Jain Hawala Case, many high profile politicians like Sharad Yadav, L. K. Advani and Arjun Singh were involved. It was held by various high courts and the Supreme Court that there was insufficient evidence to convict them. Can the prosecution successfully prosecute people who control it, Bhadra and Khan ask?

Even death row convicts are entitled to rights. What happens when a convict awaiting execution suffers from the Death Row Syndrome? It is perfectly understandable that a condemned prisoner would undergo severe trauma while waiting for his or her execution. In the Rajiv Gandhi murder case, the death row syndrome was sufficient cause for the commutation of death sentences to life imprisonment.

20 Criminal Cases That Shook India is not restricted to murder cases. The infamous Telgi stamp paper scam, a case involving stamp paper forgery on a massive scale, led to many reforms in collection of stamp duty in Maharashtra, E-stamping is a direct consequence of this case. Charles Shobraj was a killer and a conman, but he successfully filed cases against the government seeking better prison conditions and rights for prisoners.

Not surprisingly, the Sanjay Dutt case finds a place among the top twenty. After all, how many famous film personalities can claim to have had been in touch with Dawood Ibrahim and his brother Anees and hidden a chache of weapons on their behalf? However, 20 Criminal Cases That Shook India does not discuss the matter of Sanjay Dutt’s frequent furloughs from jail.

It can be argued that rape is as heinous a crime as murder. Hanufa Khatun was a visiting Bangladeshi national who was raped inside a waiting room in a railway station. Chandrima Das, an advocate practising in Kolkata, filed a writ petition seeking compensation, making it possible for the Supreme Court to opine on important questions such as whether compensation may be claimed from the government for harm suffered on account of the private acts of government employees and whether a foreign national may file a writ petition against the Indian government. The Vishaka Case was filed by a number of women’s organisations subsequent to the Bhanwari Devi gang rape and it led the Supreme Court to define sexual harassment at workplaces and prescribe guidelines to prevent it.

Nothing exemplifies the need for a good witness protection programme as the Best Bakery Case. Immediately after the targeted slaughter at Best Bakery during the 2002 Gujarat riots, nineteen year old Zaheera Sheikh, daughter of the bakery’s owner, filed an FIR. The prosecution did not win any brownie points during the trial, at the end of which 21 accused were acquitted. 37 out of 73 witnesses turned hostile, including Zaheera who had lost so much during the attack. An outcry followed and the case was moved to Mumbai. Later Tehelka showed Zaheera receiving an 18-lakh bribe from a BJP MLA. The Best Bakery Case exposed so many flaws in the Indian judicial system and emphasised the importance of witness protection programmes, something which is lacking even now.

Bhadra and Khan call the Nitish Katara murder an honour killing. What’s more, I got the impression that it was described thus even by the trial court. Wikipedia, which is my main point of reference for almost everything these days, describes an honour killing as 'the homicide of a member of a family by other members due to the perpetrators' belief that the victim has brought shame or dishonor upon the family or has violated the principals of a religion'. In other words, when a man is killed by his girlfriend's or fiancée’s family members, it is not an honour killing. Just nitpicking!

Bhadra and Khan have reserved the best, or rather the most interesting case, for the last. Afzal Guru was hanged in February 2013 after he was convicted of having played a central role in the attack on the Indian parliament in December 2001. Was Afzal Guru really involved in the attacks, the authors wonder? The only link between Afzal Guru and the deceased militants was that the latter seemed to have made calls to Afzal Guru’s mobile phone. I am not going to divulge any more here. Please read this excellent book to find out for yourself.

20 Criminal Cases That Shook India at times ventures into issues which are very much outside the scope of crime and punishment. For example, while discussing the Naina Sahni Tandoor murder, Bhadra and Khan ponder over how the case ‘brings to light the consequences of living in a society where choices are often dictated by religion. If Naina could have married the man she truly loved, she would have still be alive.

On the whole, 20 Criminal Cases That Shook India, is well-written and is an excellent read, especially for non-lawyers who want to hear it from the horses’ mouths.

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