Chief Justice Altamas Kabir himself presided over the three-judge bench that allowed the two Italian marines accused of murder to return to their country for the second time in as many months, this time to vote in the Italian Parliamentary elections. The right to choose a representative of one’s choice is fundamental in a democracy and ought not to be denied to any individual.
The Supreme Court bench was clearly not informed either by the law authorities of the Government of India, or by their own sources, that any Italian national can cast his or her ballot in any location, including a prison cell (or outside, which has been the case of the two marines once they were given bail earlier by a kind-hearted court. Although Chief Justice Kabir’s generous interpretation of the rights of an accused has been the subject of some criticism, let it be said that his stance points in the right direction. The Scandinavian countries are known for the humane way in which they treat their prisoners, but as yet such leniency has not nudged upwards the crime rate in those countries. On the other hand, heinous crime such as mass murder through the use of guns continues in the United States, despite that country’s harsh penal system, with its mandatory sentencing laws. In India, the near-hysterical cry for harsher and harsher laws against those accused of sexual violence move in tandem with a spike in the actual frequency of such incidents.
The Supreme Court needs to show that its decision in the case of the two Italian marines is not an exception but the rule. After all, all human beings are the same, and there cannot be separate treatment for Italians than those for Indian nationals.
Clearly, draconian laws are no deterrent to those intent on committing heinous offences such as rape and murder. To lock such individuals away in conditions that seek to ignore their own human needs is to invite the creation of a mindset which embraces violence and crime rather than moves away from it. Very often, a crime gets committed in the heat of the moment, and is in many instances followed by genuine regret and repentance. To treat such individuals as chronic criminals incapable of reform, and to deny them the right to occasionally be with their families and to enjoy the benefits of modern civilisation such as the use of the internet is to stunt them as human beings and render them unfit for productive work once they get freed from prison. Certainly, those released from Scandinavian prisons would stand a much better chance of getting beneficially re-integrated in society than those who have endured long stints in jails in the US or India, the two so-called biggest democracies of the planet.
In such a context, although his choice of these to whom a more benevolent approach to undertrials may raise a few eyebrows, Chief Justice Kabir needs to be commended for infusing much more humanity into a system that still operates — as does the entire legal system in India — as though this country were still a colony and its people subjects of government rather than masters of their own destiny. The Supreme Court needs to show that its decision in the case of the two Italian marines is not an exception but the rule.
After all, all human beings are the same, and there cannot be separate treatment for Italians than those for Indian nationals. Courts across India need to be encouraged to follow the example of the Supreme Court of India and be more lenient in allowing prisoners to spend more time with their families and less in the often animal-like atmosphere of Indian prisons.
Being with loved ones would be much more likely to transform characters from the aberrant behaviour which causes serious crime. The Supreme Court decision on the Italian marines can become an immense blessing for the future of jurisprudence in India, by aligning this country’s justice system closer to the Scandinavian countries than — as it presently is — to the systems in Russia, China or the US.