Indian Prison System

Fault Lines by Tara Kaushal

March 2013: The questions that arise as two high-profile rapists, Bitihotra Mohanty and Ram Singh meet their fates.

Shortly after the news of Bitihotra Mohanty’s arrest in Kerala last week, came news that Ram Singh had ‘committed suicide’ in Delhi’s Tihar Jail. Bitti has been on the run since 2006, when he jumped parole and escaped a seven-year sentence for raping a 26-year-old German woman in Alwar, Rajasthan. Singh was the main accused in the brutal Delhi gang rape of ‘Nirbhaya’ that rocked the nation in December last year.

The Blunder of Bitti

For over six years after his escape, supposedly with the aid of his Odisha-based senior police officer father, Bitti evaded the cops, living nondescriptly in Kannur as Raghav Raj from Andhra Pradesh. Here, he obtained an MBA degree, took a public exam, produced the requisite documents and joined the biggest public sector bank of the state, the State Bank of Travancore. It has been revealed that he was finally done in by an anonymous letter that disclosed his identity, apparently sent to the bank by a jilted lover.

Bitti’s case was unique for several reasons. On the night of the 20th of March 2006, on a visit to Alwar, he entered the hotel room of a fellow student and raped her. She SMSed a relative in Germany, who contacted the German embassy in Delhi. Bitti had fled the hotel, and was arrested from the Alwar railway station the next day. He confessed; she filed a complaint despite pressure from his high-profile family; and the trial began on April 1st in a fast-track court in Jaipur. It was one of the fastest rape trials in the country, and Bitti was sentenced within nine days. There was none of the faux pas one often associates with high-profile cases, and the verdict was highly hailed: no one questioned her virtue for having gone for the visit with a strange man in the first place, no one said she was ‘habituated to sex’, no one gave caved in to the pressure from his family.

The backslapping ends here. In end 2006, Bitti disappeared while on parole, only to be undone many years later by the lover. It begs the question: if the guilty aren’t tried and convicted fairly and legally, must victims just cross their fingers and hope for a jilted lover out for vengeance… or a suicide, like in the case of Singh?

Singh: Suicide Until Proven Otherwise

At the time of going to press, questions remain about the veracity of the official claim that Ram Singh did indeed commit suicide. As the Delhi rape and its aftermath made international headlines, so too has this murder/suicide, with the BBC terming it "incredibly embarrassing to the Indian government" and the Time pointing out that this is yet another crack in India’s weak criminal justice system. Whether it was a suicide—questions remain about Singh’s fear for his life, and allegations of torture and sodomy; his short height in relation to the ventilator; his torn shirt; his damaged arm that would prevent him from hauling himself up; and his cellmates who slept though the entire episode—or murder by cellmates or murder by prison authorities, as has been suggested, the difference is only in degrees of fault. An under trial dying under mysterious circumstances in one of India’s most prominent high-security jails leaves many issues and questions in its wake.

Like Nirbhaya’s own mother, who confessed that the suicide brought mixed emotions, I too am struggling. It is simplistic and, perhaps, inhuman, but I cannot get myself to feel bad that a psychopathic social menace of this calibre is no more. That he believed five orgasms were more important that one life… I rest my case. However, I recognise his suicide or murder for vengeance cannot be seen as justice in a modern nation. Says Delhi-based Anisha Singh, 30, “Most people are relieved if not celebratory. The truth behind it all is that there is a deep-rooted distrust in our judicial system that the guilty will get what they deserve. I personally think it’s a shame he wasn't pronounced guilty and then sent to the gallows.”

Criminal Injustice

Both these cases bring the focus back on the weaknesses in our criminal justice and law enforcement systems. In these two cases, the much maligned judiciary, often slow and prone to injustice, cannot be faulted—in Bitti’s case, the sentencing was quick and efficient; in the Delhi Rape Case too, things are progressing quickly and efficiently, and will, hopefully, continue to do so. But, it has been said before, and I’ll say it again: reforms to the judicial process will continue to be ineffective and hollow unless the government’s enforcement arm, the police also gets its act together. Letting a parolee escape, and stay underground for so long, undermines the good of an exemplary trial. As if allowing Nirbhaya to get raped in a moving bus in the capital city wasn’t bad enough, allowing/causing the custodial death of the main accused will undercut the absolute triumph of justice, however good the court’s verdict.

For a people badly in need of a restoration of faith in the systems of governance, a veritable good-triumphs-evil ending; for a judiciary that’s doing its best; and for the government that needs an image boost, the police keeps coming up as the weakest link.

An edited version of this column appeared in Governance Now in March 2013.