Justice Ahmadi does have a point
Dr Mohammad Manzoor Alam
We are witnessing yet another media wave, a phenomenon with which by now we are pretty familiar. This time round, quite a few of our star performers of print and electronic media have worked themselves into a self-righteous froth, baying for the blood of the carefully selected sacrifical goats to be offered on the altar of mobocracy.
The media’s lynch mob has besieged Justice AM Ahmadi’s home like a ruthless army of earlier times, ready with their outdoor broadcast vans that are a metaphor for the battering rams of Roman soldiers. The other day, this writer, who has seen only the benign face of Justice Ahmadi over the decades, and is not readily inclined to believe the sly insinuations and innuendos he comes across on a daily basis in newspapers, had a strange, eerie experience.
Visiting Justice Ahmadi’s home to invite him for a function, one felt like entering a war zone. Justice Ahmadi was greeted by a young lady, a correspondent of some news organisation, who had made herself comfortable on a sofa in his ante room. She got up after seeing him and asked, beaming from ear to ear, “May I come in, Sir?” To which Justice Ahmadi replied stoically, “You are already in”.
Faced with such chutzpah any one of us will be unnerved. The learned judge takes pains to describe what was the reason behind the much talked about (and often mindlessly condemned) judgment in which the Supreme Court ruled in 1996 that the eight high officials of Union Carbide be tried under Section 304-A (which stipulates a two-year jail term), instead of Section 304-Part II (which entails a 10-year prison term and a fine). The Supreme Court ruling came on a special leave petition filed by the accused.
Justice Ahmadi explains the unfairness of the insistence by some that the judiciary must go by charges framed by the police. If that is the way it should be, judges would not acquit people falsely implicated by the police. On the contrary, such honourable acquittals are so frequent, numerous and familiar that they are almost taken for granted.
One of the recent high-profile cases of such acquittal was that of two Muslim young men from Delhi falsely implicated by the Crime Branch of Delhi Police in terrorism.
In the Bhopal gas tragedy the police had charged Union Carbide officials under Section 304-Part II, but the learned judges on the bench (Justice AM Ahmadi and Justice SB Majumdar) decided that it was fit for Section 304-A. It is quite clear that in no case judges are bound (or expected) to follow the police, as is the Supreme Court not expected to endorse every opinion of the lower judiciary.
Media stars frothing at the mouth with rage would do well to recognise that the judiciary, more so the Supreme Court, is charged with the interpretation of law, and the learned judges are very much within their rights to interpret it according to their own lights, in the context of the ground reality, keeping in view the judicial precedence in India and other democracies, exerting utmost caution not to be carried away by their own righteous indignation and exceed the word and spirit of the law, which admits that even sinners have their rights.
From the language and vehement posture of our media commentators it is pretty much evident that most of them have either not read the judgment, or read it only casually. Read it, and you will know how precise, nuanced and finely reasoned it is.
Naturally, a lynch mob has the least use for these highly-valued qualities of mind: precision, nuance and close reasoning. Mob (it is the short form of the Latin mobile vulgus, excitable crowd) psychology is by now a fairly understood phenomenon, as it had an early start in the days of French Revolution. In his The Mind of the Crowd, the classic work of those early days, Gustav Le Bon says individuals in a mob no longer have their individual mind, which is dissolved into the larger, collective, unreasonable, angry mind of the crowd. Today, even some of our cleverest commentators are being carried away by the blind rage of the murderous mob.
It is interesting to note that in the humdrum and melee of racing against tight publication deadlines and chasing ever-higher TRP ratings, journalists have almost forgotten poor Justice Majumdar, who actually wrote the judgment. Of course, Justice Ahmadi magnanimously admits that as the CJI the buck had to stop with him only.
It is endlessly being argued that the eight accused should have been tried for “culpable homicide not amounting murder” (dealt with by Section 304-Part II) as mere “knowledge” of probable fatal consequence of an act can draw this charge. The examples cited are: if policemen torturing a victim in custody know that he or she can die as a result, even though they do not “intend” to kill, and the victim dies as a result of the torture, the policemen will be charged under Section 304-Part II. Mere knowledge of an act having the probability of a fatal consequence is enough. Another example: a person committing the “act” of randomly firing into the air (like on the occasion of marriages) inadvertently kills someone, he too, will be hauled up under Section 304-Part II. In fact, this has happened rather often.
Those who argue for Section 304-Part II emphasise that Carbide officials had the knowledge (if not the intent) that a leak in the Methyl Isocyanate tank would kill a large number of people. Thus, from their perspective, this knowledge was enough to damn them.
Their lordships (Justice Ahmadi and Justice Majumdar) found some logic in the argument of senior defence lawyers Ashok Desai, Fali Nariman, VP Gokhale and Rajinder Singh that the accused had committed no specific “act” about which they had the knowledge that it could be fatal. The law clearly talks of some “act” whose probable fatal consequences the person committing it is aware of.
The same argument excluded the possibility of application of Section 326 IPC, Section 324, Section 429 IPC. Significantly, the accused numbers 2, 3 and 4 were stationed at Mumbai and were not related to the day-to-day running of the factory.
A close perusal of the finely argued judgment shows the deep empathy of the two learned judges with the victims. The Section 304-A versus Section 304-Part II argument is not the only conundrum with which their lordships have grappled, but quite an array of other legal provisions under different Sections have been painstakingly sorted out. The learned judges have left most of them to be examined by the sessions judge at Bhopal, for a Special Leave Petition (on one of which they were ruling) does not require them to be a substitute for a sessions judge.
There is some confusion in public mind about the quantum of compensation for the victims. It should be clear that it was decided by CJI Ahmadi’s predecessor, years before the mantle fell on him. The number of victims was then less than 4,000, instead of around 20,000 of today’s figures.
Finally, risking unpopularity, I would like to assert that Justice Ahmadi does have a point. A careful perusal of the judgment would confirm that view. g
(The author is Chairman, Institute of Objective Studies, New Delhi)