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Devangshu Datta: Death of an accountant


Devangshu Datta  |  New Delhi 

The judicial system needs an additional filter to check potential ham-handedness.
When historian Iris Chang shot herself, the ready explanation was depression. She specialised in researching horrific atrocities in filigree detail. She wrote the definitive work on The Rape of Nanking and she was researching a book on the Death March in Bataan when her work finally got to her.
In an alternate universe, Chang might have chosen to keep books rather than write them. If she had been an accountant instead of a writer, pecuniary motives for her unnatural death would have been sought. When an accountant dies an unnatural death, the first assumption is of associated financial hera-pheri, rather than depression or random violence.
Thus, if an accountant is stabbed to death by a group of several men, the investigation will automatically focus on the possibility of a scam rather than of a robbery gone wrong. If financial irregularity is uncovered, it will strengthen investigators in assumptions of motive and means.
And, it is extremely unlikely that the police would arrest a senior religious leader without making what they believe to be a strong case. The arrest of the Shankaracharya came a full two months after the murder of Sankararaman. In the interim period, the police had arrested and interrogated many less august personages in connection with the case.
If the murdered accountant's boss had been in another line of work, there would have been little controversy attached to the arrest itself. The case would have been duly filed and dragged through the courts, with an eventual decision one way or the other. There would have been no public outrage.
Since the accountant's boss is a senior religious leader, the investigation has turned into a political circus. In controversial situations like these, the justice system badly needs to re-establish its eroded credibility. An additional filter inside the system could prove to be a validation and act as a check and balance against potential ham-handedness.
Would a grand jury system make sense in handling such cases? The American use the grand jury as an additional filter in their justice system. Before an actual criminal case is filed, a grand jury reviews the evidence to decide if there are enough grounds to proceed to trial. Competent law enforcement officers working in a efficient grand jury system don't waste time making frivolous arrests.
The French use an alternative filter involving a Juge d'instruction; a judge who instructs and directs the legal investigation following arrests. This officer has continuous access to prisoners, does interrogation and oversees development of the case. Again, this provides a filter "" the Juge will not waste time on things that cannot be backed up in a court of law.
Of course, a grand jury can be stacked, and a judicial officer can be suborned. In cases with political or religious dimensions, no filter might prove enough to ensure even-handed justice.
In India, I doubt that an unbiased jury could be put together in any matter where a religious personage is involved. In fact, Indian juries were dispensed with after the farcial Nanavati murder case (which had moral if not religious dimensions).
Using a system with a Juge would place certainly additional strain on personnel in an already creaky justice system. Such an experiment might, however, result in fewer frivolous arrests and prosecutions. Alternatively, it might add yet another layer of red-tape to an already slow system.
Some sort of filter to improve the credibility of the system is, however, badly necessary. Nobody should be above the law in a country that has pretensions to being civilised.
In other parts of the world, clergymen have been tried, convicted and jailed for offences ranging from pederasty and fraud to murder. They have also been acquitted of such charges when evidence was lacking. Without fuss. That's because justice systems elsewhere are more credible, if admittedly imperfect.

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First Published: Wed, November 17 2004. 00:00 IST