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Sajjan Kumar case: The Long Quest for Justice and Lessons to Learn

Bar & Bench
By Professor  

Reversing the trial court’s verdict, the Delhi High Court recently convicted and sentenced former Member of Parliament Sajjan Kumar to life imprisonment for his role in the anti-Sikh riots in 1984.

This verdict came after an arduous and lengthy battle spanning more than three decades. There are a few important lessons from this judgment that we as a nation must find solutions to.

First is the inordinate delay. There are reasons why trials take so long. It takes a substantial amount of time, efforts and resources to collect, examine and decide on evidence thoroughly; the standard of proof in criminal trials is ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ and it is time consuming to establish that. Nonetheless, we must enforce case management that cuts out on any unnecessary delay. All agencies involved in the criminal justice process must adhere to a systematic time frame to ensure speedy trials. However, it cannot be emphasised enough: trials should be thorough, fair and just.

Justice delayed, it has been said, is justice denied. In order to uphold justice, trials must be conducted expeditiously. This will also help in clearing the massive backlog of cases pending before a number of courts.

Second, the Hon’ble judges in their verdict mention the failures in the investigation. For example, many First Information Reports were not registered and some registered ones were not investigated properly. We have come a long way since, and the functioning of the forces has improved drastically. Nonetheless, it is imperative to ensure that the investigating agencies are accountable, transparent and efficient. Their independence must be preserved to ensure fair trials and just outcomes.

Third, the Court stressed upon the gravity of this case. The judges said,

“The Court would like to note that cases of the present kind are indeed extraordinary and require a different approach to be adopted by the  Courts…

…The mass killings of Sikhs between 1st and 4th November 1984 in Delhi and the rest of the country, engineered by political actors with the assistance of the law enforcement agencies, answer the description of “crimes against humanity.”

The Court thus borrowed from international jurisprudence raised the idea of this being a crime against humanity. The judges alluded to the Nuremberg trials (where perpetrators were tried for crimes during the Nazi regime). The International Criminal Tribunal of Rwanda has defined crimes against humanity as “systematic or widespread attack against any civilian population on national, political, ethnic, racial or religious grounds”. These offences carry the elements of criminal offences like murder and rape but also carry a contextual element. It was noted in the Sajjan Kumar case that “the perpetrator must be aware that he is contributing to a widespread or systematic attack against civilians.”

These observations are crucial in understanding the gravity of the offences committed in the case. As of today, we do not have specific provisions to deal with crimes against humanity and genocide. It is, however, desirable to understand that these instances were not of mere rioting. They encapsulate a far higher degree of culpability and blameworthiness.

The repercussions of genocide-like crimes, and of crimes against humanity, are far-reaching. They cruelly disturb the peace of the society and instil a fear in the minds of not only the persecuted, but also the society at large. The entire fabric of the rule of law as well as civil sense is shattered. We should tailor our responses to match these offences. The investigation, trials, punishment, as well the social response to these events should be focussed on rehabilitation of the victims and ensuring accountability.

Last, it is crucial to learn from these instances about the importance of the rule of law. The basic tenet of it is that laws should be applied uniformly to everybody, regardless of status, position or stature. Law must be allowed to take its course. For it to be able to do that, we need to strengthen our institutions of investigation, inquiry as well as trial.

Justice needs to be done, as well as seen to be done. If this becomes the norm rather than the exception, it is bound to have a positive impact on the society. Those who are responsible being brought to justice will give the victims at least some closure. More importantly, it will serve as a deterrent. Thus, everyone benefits from a strengthen application of the rule of law.

The struggle for the victims is still not over. Most likely, there will be an appeal in the Supreme Court. This will mean additional time, cost and delay. The agony will continue. Yet, we all must find whatever little peace we can, in knowing that us acting today can have a positive impact on our tomorrow.

Vishavjeet Chaudhary is an Assistant Professor at OP Jindal Global University.