The recent accident in Rae Bareli in which a rape survivor’s two aunts died, and which left her and her lawyer in a critical condition, has drawn much media attention. The rape accused, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) MLA Kuldeep Singh Sengar, was arrested in April last year after the survivor attempted to immolate herself in front of the Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister’s residence while demanding justice. Consequent to the death of the two individuals, one of whom was also a witness in the case, charges pertaining to attempt to murder were added to those already present against Sengar.
On June 2 this year, Assistant Sub Inspector Suresh Pal, assigned to protect murder witness Rambir, was accidentally killed when the assailants missed their aim while attempting to kill the witness. In 2017, in the Asaram Bapu case concerning the rape of some women devotees, three witnesses were killed and as many as 10 attacked in an attempt to weaken the case. In fact, it was the killing of the three, followed by a Public Interest Litigation, which prompted the apex court to issue directions to the Centre and the States to frame laws for protection of witnesses.
Following this, Maharashtra came out with the Maharashtra Witness and Protection and Security Act 2017, which was notified in January 2018. However, the Centre, and most other States, are yet to act on the directive.
Meanwhile, the apex court gave its assent last year to the Witness Protection Scheme, which was drafted by the Centre in consultation with the Bureau of Police Research and Development and the National Legal Services Authority. The Centre was to implement the scheme after circulating it among all States and Union Territories and obtaining their comments. However, the scheme was meant to be a measure in force only till the government brought out its own law on the issue. Though the Centre is scheduled to bring an Act on the subject by the end of this year, it has not made much progress.
As regards the existing measure, though its objective is to ensure the safety of witnesses, so that they are able to give a true account of the crime without any fear of violence or criminal recrimination, its implementation on the ground leaves much to be desired. The Unnao matter would have been hushed up but for the fact that the survivor attempted to immolate herself in front of the Chief Minister’s residence.
Further, though the scheme provides for police personnel to be deployed to protect the witness on the basis of threat perception, it is silent on the punishment to be given to those policemen who, while being charged with providing security, themselves threaten the witnesses. Why were the policemen tasked with protecting the Unnao survivor not with her when she travelled to Rae Bareli? Were they aware that a sinister plan had probably been hatched to eliminate her relatives?
Above all, what emboldens the criminals the most is the support they get from the police. The shadowy politician-police nexus is so strong that no policeman, at the mercy of political leaders for his career progression, dares take any action against his ‘master’. As long as this nexus continues, the delivery of criminal justice in India will remain a casualty.
The Witness Protection Scheme calls for more elaborate and stricter laws to be incorporated so that criminals find no loopholes that can be exploited to their advantage. The sooner the Centre comes up with a legislation codifying the protection to be given to witnesses, the better it is for India’s criminal justice system.
M.P. Nathanael is a retired Inspector General of Police, CRPF