This week has been dominated by two women - Zahira Sheikh and Jessica Lal. Although there are stark differences between the two cases, there is a sublime commonality. Both these cases have seen witnesses turn hostile and both have been the focus of intense media glare. The possible verdicts of these cases have been microscopically analyzed by virtually anyone who is anyone. Today is just my turn.
Last week's verdicts themselves have been on two extreme ends of the spectrum imaginable. In the Best Bakery Case, while the accused have been sentenced, the star witness Zahira Sheikh received a rap from the Supreme Court and she too has been sentenced to a year in jail and a fine of Rs. 50,000/- for her "flip-flops" in court or what is called in legal parlance - perjury. On the converse, the accused in the Jessica Lal murder case have been acquitted. The only clarity from the court has been that, yes, Ms. Lal was murdered, but no one from the witnesses who deposed before the court have been able to identify these mysterious killers. Hence the accused have to be let off.
Court verdicts set aside for a minute, lets just look at how the media responded. The Supreme Court judgement has been generously welcomed by those in the press. The murderers are in jail and "self-condemned liar" Zahira has been taken to task. Media's verdict - Glory to Indian justice, Hail the Supreme Court!
Compare this to the Jessica Lal judgement where the prime accused were let off by the court. This has been followed by an unprecedented outburst by the media, calling the Delhi Police investigation shoddy and accusing it of shielding those in power. The press went ahead and appealed to every office of consequence ranging from the Delhi Chief Minister to the President and Mrs. Sonia Gandhi to re-look into the judgement. Such has been the pressure from the media that Delhi Police has been compelled to file an appeal in the High Court. Newspapers and television channels alike drummed up public opinion with one news channel receiving over 200,000 messages from its viewers asking that the case be re-opened for trial. The media's verdict - the Indian justice system sucks!
Although I am not a legal eagle, I find these two judgments very interesting. On one hand is a young woman from a poor and illiterate family who has been in the centre of media attention ever since she became the public face of the Godhra riots. For the media, it has been Zahira vs. the State of Gujarat (alias Mr. Narendra Modi and his fundamentalist zealots) all the way. This young Muslim woman received enormous support and sympathy which then turned into detestation and disbelief when she changed his stance in court. The media had decided to take Zahira to the gallows much before Supreme Court delivered its verdict. Even the honorable judges have said in their judgment that: "Serious questions arise as to the role played by witnesses who changed their versions more frequently than chameleons."
Compare this now to the murder of Ms. Jessica Lal, a frequent member of Delhi's glitterati. She is shot point blank in a party attended by the capital's who's-who and yet the killers have not been identified in court. Majority of the guests refused to be enlisted as witnesses ' some even left the country when the preliminary investigation was on. Others conveniently suffered from selective amnesia about that particular evening. Those who did recollect being there were not at the spot, and hence didn't see the killer. A few who did identify the accused in the FIR, turned hostile subsequently in court. Familiar? Sounds like the Best Bakery Case being replayed in posh Delhi.
Except where is the media glare this time. Not on the witnesses and those who did not wish to be identified as witnesses. No. It is on the photogenic young model murdered and the well-connected 'accused'. Why did the media not question those who were at that Tamarind Court? Why didn't these people step forward to help their friend Jessica.
Why is Zahira being selectively chosen to be set an example by the Supreme Court? Why isn't the same zeal for justice being applied above to Jessica's case? If the Supreme Court wishes to discourage witnesses from turning hostile, why is the same message not being sent to those involved in Jessica's murder? Why are members of Delhi's social circles immune from perjury and Zahira isn't?
Why is one person being punished by the courts when the others are going scot-free. Is it because she is a woman from an underprivileged background?