Sometime in the year 1997, Metropolitan Magistrate Santushti Chauhan (name changed) committed an act that will forever be a blot on her mostly exemplary career. Arriving for work around 8.30am at Delhi’s Tis Hazari courts, as she stepped out of her official car, Ms Chauhan beckoned a member of the paramilitary staff – which provides security at the court – to approach her. As the gun toting soldier stepped forward and respectfully enquired what she wanted, the judge asked him to take her bags and follow her into the judicial chamber. The soldier refused, saying he was posted there to provide security and not an orderly.
Ms Chauhan quietly walked into her chamber and asked two Delhi Police constables to bring the paramilitary soldier inside. When the soldier entered the chamber, she asked him why he had refused her order. He repeated that his job was providing security; carrying her bags wasn’t part of his duties.
By this time, the short tempered judge had lost it. She told the two policemen to pull down the soldier’s trousers and whip him with a belt. The constables couldn’t refuse; one of them held the soldier face down on the table, while the other whipped him with his police issue leather belt. He was then let off with the words: “Learn to respect judge saab.”
The paramilitary soldier took the matter to court and the case even made front page news in the city’s leading newspaper and its regional editions. Being a case of blatant misuse of judicial powers, the judge should have been disciplined but nothing like that happened. Not even an apology was rendered. It is likely the case will languish in dusty files for years, if it hasn’t already been dismissed for lack of evidence.
Diplomatic free for all
I got another peek into judicial perks and privileges in the spring of 2006. I was travelling overseas when a family member, an Additional District Judge, said she would see me off at the international airport at New Delhi. I thought it was a nice gesture and was fine with it. It turned out be nicer than I expected.
As soon as we arrived at the airport, four constables of the Delhi Police arrived to escort us inside. The cops – who were all over 6 feet and looked like Haryana wrestlers – soon began to load my luggage onto to the airport trolley. I protested and said I would have none of it and asked them to stop. I did not want anyone to do my job. They requested me to at least push the trolley, and suggested, “Sir, please go along with judge saab, we’ll check in your luggage and get you your boarding pass.”
The policemen then escorted us into the diplomatic lounge. Frankly, by now I was beginning to lose it – this wasn’t what I wanted. The place was crawling with political VVIPs and their hangers-on, and as far as I was concerned this was the watering hole of Lutyens Delhi – the country’s eternal enemy. After getting us the best seats in the lounge, the cops soon arrived with fresh orange juice and expensive morsels. I was too engrossed looking at the loot of the national exchequer to even think of eating, but I did wonder who was paying for it all.
With the cops making a fuss over my diet, I finally told the judge: “This was really not needed, why can’t I fly like normal people?” She replied, “Just enjoy it, I called them especially for you, so you can have a hassle-free experience at the airport.”
“Well, I haven’t had a more embarrassing experience in my life,” I said.
Most people would have loved the experience – being fawned over by four cops, and your every wish being their command. But I wasn’t enjoying it for two reasons. Firstly, the open loot and misuse of the diplomatic lounge by the politicians and ‘people like us’ went against every fibre of my being.
Secondly, having been closely associated with the Delhi Police, I knew how difficult the life of a cop is. They don’t have a regular 9 to 5 schedule. Their work finishes when saab says it’s finished. More importantly, why should even one policeman – let alone four – escort a judge’s family member to the airport? That’s four government employees pulled out of the essential work of keeping Delhi secure. Now imagine just 10 judges in Delhi doing that on a daily basis, and you have approximately 40 cops not on duty. The actual number could be a lot higher if the judges are higher in the pecking order.
To give you an idea of the sort of indignities that the police are put through, judges routinely get them to do their personal work. As well as the airport run, they are asked to book last minute railway tickets for family members, find a party venue for an unexpected wedding, buy mobile phones at a discount, and so on.
On one occasion, the judge (mentioned above) was seeing off her son at the New Delhi railway station. Since my workplace was in the New Delhi area, she asked me to come over. When I arrived at the platform around 12.30pm, behind her there was an impressive line-up – an Assistant Commissioner of Police (ACP), a Sub Inspector and two constables. The ACP, who was on the older side, looked weary like he hadn’t slept or eaten in a while. As the judge was in conversation with her son, one of the constables whispered to me: “Sir, please ask judge saab if she wants us to stay or leave; we haven’t had a cup of tea since morning.”
Later on the way back, I asked the judge if four policemen were really needed when she was just seeing off her son. She replied, “This is the first time my son, who turned 13 this year, saw my security and realised how powerful his mother is. I could see the pride in his eyes.”
The worrying part was that she was one of the most honest judges in the Delhi Administration. You can imagine what the other (90 per cent of) judges are capable of.
Nine families – one judge
In December 2014 I was invited by a Delhi High Court judge to pay a friendly visit at her eight bedroom government residence on Akbar Road. The house was painted pristine white inside and out. In India government houses generally have an ancient, unwashed look about them, but this was a different world. This was in the heart of Lutyens Delhi – as exclusive as it gets.
Over tea the judge asked me about my views about her house. Not wanting to sound discourteous I just said I hadn’t seen a whiter house in my life. She replied, “This is exactly the problem. Even if a little stain appears after a light rain, someone will come over and apply paint over it. Do you know how many families live on this property? Nine. There are people from nine different trades who live at my beck and call.”
Not including the security guard at the main gate, the people who lived on the sprawling property included the driver, cook, gardener, washerman, servants and orderlies – and of course their families. “Some judges enjoy this colonial style lifestyle but the majority of us are opposed to it. We have conveyed to the government our wish – take away the house, the two official cars, the servants and all the other perks, and in lieu pay us Rs 3 lakh per month. We’ll find a place to live and get to work on our own. But it won’t happen because the system is too entrenched. This is where corruption comes from. Our salaries are just not enough to sustain honesty.”
This judge said despite all this there are islands of honesty in the judiciary. Way before Prime Minister Narendra Modi ordered an end to red/blue lights on government cars, she got rid of the black light and judicial flag from her official car. “My driver was getting too imperious on the road, so I got rid of the symbols of power and asked him to drive like all common road users,” she says. “He was so upset that he didn’t talk to me for two weeks but he’s got used to following traffic rules now.”
Last day lottery
In 2003 the fate of a famous – but unauthorised – suburb in a major city in northern India was hanging in the balance. The municipal corporation had been wanting to demolish the colony for more than a decade but were prevented from doing so by court stays obtained by the city’s richest residents who called it home.
The case finally reached the high court, and worryingly for the colony’s residents it was to be heard by a lady judge known for being strict and honest. I was working at a leading newspaper and we had two senior journalists reporting from the court. As the day of the verdict arrived, I could visualise the following day’s headline: “Zebra Farms to be Demolished”, “HC Orders Zebra Farms Demolition”. (Name changed).
Around 5m the decision was announced – the colony would stay. I asked the chief reporter what happened. She replied: “They offered her Rs 3 crore in cash plus a house in the very colony that she was to declare illegal.”
So why did the judge known for her honesty crumble? “The representatives of the colony approached her and said that after 30 years of service what do you have, just a pension and two children still at college. With the money we are offering you, your children can study at Ivy League colleges in the US. This is the final case of your career – in the unlikely event they find out you took a bribe and they declare the verdict null and void, you walk away unscathed. They can’t touch your pension. You will have enough cash for the rest of your life, and a house you can sell in the future when things cool down.”
Gallery of incompetence
Judges don’t have to crooked, abusive or show-offs to be dangerous. There are plain stupid ones as well and they are a drag on the system. Here are a few examples:
The Cheater: This Metropolitan Magistrate in Delhi’s Tis Hazari court had forgotten all the knowledge of law acquired at the judicial college. In order to pass judgement he would keep a cheat sheet under his papers on the desk. Like a professional exam cheater, he would take a quick glance at it to deliver the sentence. Neatly written in small print were cookie cutter verdicts for most common offences. Flouting tadipaar – one year simple imprisonment; theft – 24 months; pickpocketing – 18 months. Since Metropolitan Magistrates could sentence a person to a jail term of three years maximum, there was very little chance they could go wrong but he still needed his cheat sheet.
Phone a Colleague: If you thought the above judge was incompetent, wait till you hear about the judge who would adjourn his packed court, go into his chamber to phone a colleague in order to ask what quantum of punishment should be given in such and such circumstances. Although he was the butt of jokes at Tis Hazari, it didn’t bother this judge as his colleagues indulgently considered his behaviour “cute”.
He’s only taking a bribe: I appeared in the court of this judge in 2000 when I had to get my motorcycle released from the Delhi Police. What had happened was that my closest friend had borrowed my Yamaha motorcycle while I was out of town for two weeks. When I returned I got the horrible news that my friend had died in an accident while speeding on my motorcycle in the South Extension area of New Delhi. Although I was devastated, I still had to get the bike cleared. The Delhi Police in its FIR had – either with malafide intentions or due to incompetence – placed the motorcycle under supardari (stolen goods). Along with a family lawyer I appeared before a judge at the Patiala House courts. Despite clear proof that it was an accident case and that I was a respectable householder and a journalist with a leading media house, the judge declared that the motorcycle would continue to be considered stolen goods. I was not to sell it for three years – in case the real owner showed up later!
Although it was a bizarre decision, what was even more shocking was that right under the judge’s nose the court clerk was openly accepting bribes from lawyers for moving their case to the top of the pile. So basically it meant that if you were either honest or poor, you could be waiting for your turn from 10 in the morning to 3 in the afternoon. On the other hand, if you paid the court clerk Rs 500, you could get out of the place by 11 am.
As we walked out of the courtroom, I did not bother to ask my lawyer these rhetorical questions:
- Was the judge getting a cut from the day’s take? Ballpark figure: 50 people pay up; that’s Rs 25,000; let’s assume the judge takes home a quarter; that’s Rs 6000 per day. Not bad for a day’s work.
- Was the judge indulgently allowing a low paid clerk to earn some money?
- Was the judge suffering from loss of peripheral vision so that he couldn’t see the clerk – sitting only two feet below and five feet away from his table – accept banknotes from lawyers?
Although most judges are selected through state judicial service exams, a large number are appointed from among lawyers. These outside appointments are done based on the length of service. For instance, in the Delhi Administration a lawyer with eight years of service can be appointed Sessions Judge, which is a senior level post.
Some of these lawyers are no doubt highly qualified and done well in their careers. In fact, owing to their extensive experience, they often become better judges than those who became judges through a competitive exam after law school. At the same time, it is a fact that many lawyers who get selected for the judicial service are friends and family members of judges and politicians.
Take Kusum Rawat (name changed) who belongs to a family of judges. She had no interest in law but her family forced her to get enrolled in an LLB course at Ajmer University. They argued: “The judiciary is an excellent profession for women; it has assured work hours, long summer and winter breaks, it gives you power and respect, you get a chauffer driven car, government accommodation, servants paid by the state, police security, and more. What’s not to like? After a few years of work as a lawyer we’ll sneak you in via the backdoor as a Sessions Judge. Call it a fall-back option – years from now if you become unhappy with the corporate world, the judiciary is always there. So please at least get a passing grade.”
Ms Rawat, who was more corporate minded, did not attend a single day of college. However, her family made sure the fees were paid and her attendance was recorded in the university register. At the end of each year, they would somehow drag the reluctant student to the university campus for the exams, and after the end of four years they paid some kind of fixer to award her a second division.
After becoming a law graduate with zero knowledge of law, Ms Rawat went on to become a lawyer. However, she soon gave up the profession for an overseas career. Imagine if someone with a fake degree becomes a judge in a special court that tries complex terrorism cases. For instance, in the Sanjay Dutt case there were 121 accused, 678 witnesses and 12,000 pages of notes. Do you expect someone like Ms Rawat to cope with such a workload, involving numerous precedents?
Perhaps now you are beginning to realise why terrorists get off so easily or get light sentences.
In comparison, Ramzi Yousef, the Pakistani terrorist who tried to blow up the World Trade Center in 1993 is serving a 240 year term in a 7 ft by 11 ft cell with no bars and a small high window. After more than 15 years in solitary confinement, he begged for some outside contact. Similarly, the Russian authorities have kept a Chechen terrorist – who was involved in the killing of over 300 school children in Beslan – in solitary confinement. Worse, he is permanent in chains that don’t allow him to stretch or stand fully erect, and is served a piece of cold bread and watery gruel once a day.
Such harsh sentences ensure the US and Russian are largely terror-free. On the other hand, in India so keen are they to ensure the welfare of terrorists that judges will hear a bail or mercy petition at 3.00 in the night.
Meanwhile, hundreds of children, siblings and family members of judges are being groomed for judicial jobs.
The judiciary is seen as the last refuge of the oppressed. Many Indians believe in the fairness of our judges, especially those in the Supreme Court, because unlike other pillars of the nation, the judiciary is seen as the least corrupt.
That is an extremely naïve view of the system. In reality, the judiciary is just as corrupt as the rest of the country and according to those in the know – “if 20 per cent of the armed forces and 50 per cent of the bureaucracy are corrupt, then 90 per cent of judges are corrupt”. Lawyers often joke that the law is for the poor. “If you can’t pay off the cops, do not have the cash to bribe the judge, and all you have is evidence, then you don’t stand a chance.”
The majority of people languishing in jail are undertrails who cannot afford to get bail. The majority of criminals rarely go to jail or get extremely light sentences. Whether it is the BMW hit and run case involving a member of the multimillionaire Nandas; the Salman Khan hit and run case in which several labourers died; the Salman Khan black buck killings case; or the case involving illegal possession of deadly weapons during the Mumbai riots by actor Sanjay Dutt, it can be said without an iota of doubt that justice wasn’t done.
Dutt was arrested for sourcing three AK-56 rifles, nine magazines, 450 cartridges and over 20 hand grenades from those later accused of the 1993 Mumbai blasts. The blasts killed 257 people, maimed 713 and caused incalculable business losses and massive property damage especially in the Bombay Stock Exchange. This is what Dutt said when asked why he took part in such a serious anti-national crime: “Because I have Muslim blood in my veins. I could not bear what was happening in the city.”
The entire law and justice system conspired to weaken the case. The police sat for two years on the tapes of Dutt conspiring with the Dawood Ibrahim gang; the tapes alone were sufficient to send him to jail. He kept getting furloughs for numerous family events, which an ordinary person would not have been given. It was the judiciary that has to take the blame for letting Dutt get away so easily.
When it was revealed that Dutt had plotted to blow up the Bombay Stock Exchange, former actor and then Minister of Health and Family Welfare Shatrughan Sinha said dismissively: “Don’t be ridiculous. He doesn’t even know what a stock exchange is.”
Is there hope?
While being on the judiciary’s case, let’s not forget that it is the only government service which culls its incompetent and wayward employees. Judges are set performance targets and steep case quotas and if they fail they are shown the door. In contrast, even the lowliest government peon or lower division clerk cannot be sacked for non-performance. In this backdrop, there is certainly hope for a better judiciary which is harsh on crime and is less nepotistic.
The government also needs to pitch in and increase their salaries so they can send their children to Ivy League colleges without having a take a bribe. Of course, this doesn’t mean that low basic incomes are the motivation for corruption. But it’ll take away the biggest incentive for accepting bribes. Plus, better vigilance should put the fear of the IB in the heart of every judge. Every profession needs an outside watchdog.
Featured Image: Wikipedia