[Reader-list] Ramjas case

S. Jabbar sonia.jabbar at gmail.com
Wed Jun 18 10:34:01 IST 2008

Insult to Injury

By Dilip Simeon

On June 13, I was reminded that the past never leaves us. The newspapers
reported an 'HC clean chit' of the Ramjas ex-Principal in the 26 year-old
case of an assault on a college lecturer named 'Dalip'. Since I was the
person assaulted, I was deeply perturbed by this judgement. I had no idea
that the state had approached the High Court. Where does this leave me, as a
law-abiding citizen?

The bare facts are as follows. I joined the Ramjas History Department in
1974. In October 1981 I went on hunger-strike to obtain the salary of Sita
Ram the head mali, who had been wrongfully denied it without an inquiry. My
actions were part of a campaign that I did not initiate. The backdrop was an
autocratic regime, allegations of administrative corruption and divisions
amongst teachers. Efforts to secure a just procedure had been scornfully
turned down. After a nine-day strike joined by teachers from Ramjas and
SRCC, we resolved to pursue the struggle by other means.

Ramjas remained extremely tense in the new year. On February 18, my scooter
was intercepted near ISBT by six young men who had followed me in a car. I
was beaten with iron rods, my left leg broken in two places and my upper jaw
permanently damaged, with five teeth lost. But for my helmet, I might have
suffered severe skull injuries. I was picked up by a kindly couple in a car
and taken to Bara Hindu Rao Hospital. The Vice Chancellor, colleagues and
friends arrived, and that evening I was taken to AIIMS. The subsequent
agitation brought about the Principal's suspension. I was removed to Bombay
for surgery, and needed nine weeks to walk again.

We knew who had instigated and carried out the deed, but the public
prosecutor could prove nothing in court. When I appeared as witness, the
magistrate treated me as if I were a defendant, rather than the victim of a
crime. In acquitting the accused, he implied that I was using an opportunity
to implicate certain persons on account of personal enmity. There was no
curiosity as to how I came to be so grievously injured, or whether my
injuries were compatible with a traffic accident. There was no effort to get
at the truth. 

The High Court judge has observed that my failure to speak to the police "at
the first opportunity" indicates that my statement was 'tutored', and hence
he upholds the acquittal. How fair is this reasoning? Medical records will
show that I lost five teeth, my upper jaw was damaged and my left leg broken
in two places. I lay in Hindu Rao the entire day, during which time stitches
were applied inside my mouth without anaesthesia. I was unable to speak, and
needed pencil and paper to state my identity. Even the application of
plaster took place after 10 pm. Owing to the severity of my condition, the
police recorded my statement the following day: this was not my personal
decision. Is this an adequate reason for the trial court and the honourable
judge to impugn my honesty? Would it not have been reasonable to conclude
that the delay in recording my statement was due to my medical condition?

The prosecution did not have the courtesy to inform me of the appeal in the
HC. Surely as the victim I would have been most interested in pursuing the
matter? Had it done so, I might have asked for representation, and prayed
for the infirmities of the judgement to be overturned. The recent news
report came as a bolt from the blue. And it is misleading, for I never
accused the principal and physical training instructor of assaulting me. I
only stated my suspicion of their being implicated in the assault. I had
this intuition at the moment of the attack and have not altered it since. Of
course, intuition is not evidence. But the investigation and framing of
charges was the job of the police. Incidentally, in October 1982 I was
introduced to my assailants in a police station. They said they had been
misled and asked for forgiveness. One of them visited my house to ask me not
to give evidence.

The events of the 1980's had many repercussions. Teachers launched a
campaign for democratic functioning. A movement against goondaism was
undertaken by students. In 1988 I was elected to the university's Academic
Council and chaired the DUTA Committee on Accountability. Our college became
the first to set up a staff committee to maintain academic standards. All
that energy was not expended in vain.

We often come across the term "judicial conscience". Where exactly does this
entity reside? The CJI has observed that the judiciary is the ultimate
defender of citizens' rights. Who will defend these rights if the courts
fail us? One of the most twisted problems in legal theory is the assumed
neutrality of judges. Not to mention the distinction between forensic and
narrative versions of truth. What is the guarantee of this neutrality and
how is it manifested? Truth is surely not a mere technical or formal detail.
The idea of justice is antecedent to the emergence of constitutional systems
or governments. Otherwise we would not speak of natural law. But does
justice reside exclusively in the utterances of courts? Law is the basis of
an orderly society. It represents the need for a fair resolution of
conflicts. Although democratic governments may exist only upon public
approval, judges cannot be subject to the whims of electorates. What then,
can ensure that those entrusted with the care of justice will fulfil their
charge? Ultimately the social contract is a historical gamble. It depends
upon the alertness of the citizenry and a public ethos that respects the
ideals that lie behind the phrase "the rule of law".

Homer's Iliad describes a dispute in a market-place between two men over the
blood-price for a victim of murder. The crowd asks the elders to arbitrate
whilst they keep the antagonists in check. "Between them, on the ground lay
two talents of gold, to be given to that judge who in this case spoke the
straightest opinion". The public stands in judgement over the arbitrators.
Here is a clue to the mystery of the judicial conscience. It is a circular
thread that runs through all of society's constituents, the ones that are
wise and the ones who accord them the status of being wise. There is no
exclusive judge and no exclusive witness - all judge and are judged. When
this thread is broken, we are on the brink of disintegration. The circle of
public conscience points to the true meaning of law and judgement in a
democratic society. The seat of law is not synonymous with the person
occupying it, nor are judicial decisions always coterminous with justice. In
1982 I became the victim of a violent crime. But in the eyes of the justice
system no one is guilty. All that it has done is to suggest that I made a
'tutored' accusation. The crime has now become invisible. I expect no
recompense for that murderous assault on me 26 years ago. I still respect
the law. I cannot say the same for those to whom I turned for justice.

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