Sunday, October 30, 2011

Shivani Bhatnagar Murder Case: HC Judgement - Reward for Crime

The gruesome murder of Shivani Bhatnagar in January 1999 dominated the media for quite some time, initially because of the cold-blooded nature of the murder and later due to involvement of a high-ranking police officer in the crime. After tortuously long investigations by the Delhi police and subsequent trial, a Delhi court sentenced RK Sharma, a senior IPS officer of Haryana cadre (IG – Prisons), and his accomplices to life imprisonment for the murder. This was in March 2008. Now, a two-judge bench of the Delhi High Court comprising Justices BD Ahmad and Manmohan Singh found no merit in the trial court’s judgement and, reversing the lower court’s judgement, has acquitted RK Sharma and two others. Interestingly, the bench had reserved its judgement on December 21, 2010 and it took the honourable judges more than 10 ½ months to reveal their judgement on 12 Oct 2011 granting freedom to the three ‘innocent lives’, who, the bench viewed, were wrongly punished by the trial court! More interestingly, the bench upheld the conviction of RK Sharma’s third accomplice, Pradeep Sharma who had actually executed the murder plan. What baffles human prudence is that grounds that were no evidence for RK Sharma’s culpability became strong enough evidence to let Pradeep Sharma continue in jail for life.

Exonerating RK Sharma and two others, the judges have raised some questions, “"Did he (Pradeep) act alone? Did he act at the behest of RK Sharma or did he act at the instance of someone else? These are questions we can't answer on the basis of the material before us.” Death in the absence of motive would be mere accident or mishap with no culpability on a person who could be present at the scene of occurrence for a number of reasons. Even fingerprints not corroborated by motive could as well suggest a timely benign help and effort to save the life of the deceased. The reluctance of the honourable judges in ascribing motive for the killing bores many holes and raises pertinent questions, which the judges have themselves raised in their strange judgement. Intriguingly, they have left these questions unanswered for unexplained reasons. If RK Sharma is removed from the entire episode, Pradeep Sharma would not – in all probability – have ever known or met Shivani Bhatnagar and, therefore, would not appear as a killer in the episode. But the judgement makes it appear as if the killer jumped out of Aladdin’s lamp in Shivani’s house just to commit the crime and go. The judgement confounds the confusion about Pradeep Sharma killing Shivani without having any personal reasons that could drive him to commit the crime. That he killed her, they are fully convinced; why, they do not know! Worse, they do not attempt to find out either.

Thanks to his training and professional experience as a senior IPS officer, RK Sharma’s expertise in criminology, procedures and mechanics of investigations, attendant legal aspects and evidence management et al place him at an enviably advantageous position to plan and organise crime more ably and skilfully than the professional criminals bereft of such prowess, experience, resources and requisite influence of office. The quality and size of his influence could be surmised from the fact that he had done tenures in the CBI, as an officer on special duty (OSD) at the Prime Minister Office (PMO), vigilance officer for Air India and a tenure with the Interpol (France) – a service record that could earn him enough clout to vitiate the investigations and, who knows, influence some pliable judges too.

The judgement has evoked strong resentment and criticism in the media and public besides a number of conscientious lawyers and activists. While there are many in the legal profession who condemn the judgement, some like Ashok Arora, a well known Supreme Court lawyer and social activist, have stepped up their tirade against corruption in the Judiciary. Not able to digest the prejudice in the judgement, an irate Ashok Arora has questioned the integrity of one of the judges. While norms of civility must be followed even in criticising, the threat of contempt proceedings forestalls all kinds of debate and criticism of happenings inside the courtrooms. Their Lordships would only exalt their own prestige and dignity by rising above vindictive attitudes and displaying higher levels of tolerance and magnanimity before issuing contempt notices. That vendetta mostly drives contempt cases is clear from the fact that these cases are taken up faster and decided quickest while more serious cases anguish for years and decades. Their Lordships are so addressed because a divine conduct where the conscience and mind are in harmony is expected from them when they proclaim a judgement. Ironically, in the Shivani case, sobs of a suppressed conscience of the judge can be felt from the judgement itself when it says, "Judges, like other human beings, have suspicions. But judges, unlike others who are free to arrive at their own conclusions, cannot and do not convict on the basis of mere suspicion." (Read ‘inferences’ instead of ‘suspicions’). The inner conflict gives away enough for prudence to judge the judge.

For reasons unknown, the bench has preferred to ignore some vital aspects of the case. If RK Sharma was innocent, why did he did he behave like a criminal by going in the hiding? Why did he – IG (Prisons) of Haryana - continue to abscond as a deserter for over two years until confronted with the court deciding to declare him a ‘proclaimed offender’! When Shivani was in London for two months, he made 90 ISD calls to her from Mumbai; she made 176 calls to him from London. It takes simple logic, not rocket science, to reasonably deduce whether such deluge of passionate communications reinforce or refute the nature and intensity of their relationship? The fact that such an extra marital relationship carried risks that could destroy career, personal reputation and family life of RK Sharma is obvious. Being in such a situation, it is also obvious that he could be easily blackmailed, a logical inference that is also corroborated by Shivani’s friend Sejal and sister Sewanti in their statements. A ‘gentleman’ in RK Sharma’s position would naturally fear serious damage to his career, family life and social reputation if exposed as a debauch. RK Sharma found himself in a trap. Luckily, his profession and position afforded the wherewithal with which to destroy this trap and break free.

There is a huge class difference between RK Sharma and the other accused in the case. His proximity to urchins like these from humble backgrounds and he treating them at places like Hotel Ashok is an unusual and odd behaviour – an aberration from his known life style and relationships, which raises curious questions. And, what’s more significant, RK Sharma’s intimacy, communication and meetings with them became more intense and frequent in days just prior to the murder. Curiously enough, all intimacy, communication and meetings between RK Sharma and his accomplices suddenly changed in pattern soon after the murder. Their movement, meetings and communicating pattern before and after Shivani’s murder – if prudently concatenated, lead to irrefutable conclusion: their conspiracy for the crime, preparation, commission and efforts to destroy the evidence as had been rightly observed by the Sessions Court. It is the logical conclusion – not suspicions – that is product of factual occurrences and actions of specific individuals, which unambiguously point to the mastermind in the crime. “It is settled law by the Supreme Court with regard to motive, conspiracy and Indian Evidence Act, Sections 8 (regarding conduct of accused), 10 (act of any accused to be relevant against all) and 27 (disclosure leading to recovery of fact), which were totally ignored ….”, says Ashok Arora.

There is no doubt that there are many honourable judges with impeccable record of honesty and integrity whom wealth cannot lure and threats cannot scare, yet judicial probity is on the decline. Earlier, cases like Jessica Lall and Nitish Katara had exposed the influence of power – money, muscle and position – and susceptibility of our judicial system to such forces. If it were not for the pressure exerted by the public and media, the high profile criminals would be exonerated and let free to hunt and wipe out more innocent human lives. What will be more profane and contemptuous in judicial dispensation than a court awarding the highest quantum of punishment and another acquitting the accused altogether? The High Court judgement is not at variance with that of the Sessions Court; it turns the latter upside down and, by implication, rewards persons punished severely by the Sessions Court. The contrast between the two judgements being as stark as this, it is plain and obvious that one of them is highly improper and unjust – a dangerous lacuna in the judicial dispensation will one day send the innocent to the gallows and set the dangerous criminals free just as simply. Therefore, after the Supreme Court’s verdict on the appeal, the conduct of the erring judge must be made to face speedy prosecution himself for being unjust, which is tantamount to the judge abetting and being an accomplice in the crime.

There has been much debate about judicial reforms but little has been done despite repeated suggestions and recommendations from various institutions and organisations including Law Commission and Administrative Reforms Commission. Now under pressure from a nation-wide anti-corruption tirade, the government is contemplating to introduce, among others, the Judges Accountability Bill, which one hopes, will salvage the system from going adrift.

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