18 DECEMBER 2018
The shadow of 1984
Sajjan Kumar’s conviction reignites hope of substantial justice for riot victims
Five years ago, there wasn’t even a sliver of hope that any influential Congress leader would be brought to justice for the anti-Sikh pogrom of 1984. A trial court had acquitted former MP Sajjan Kumar, rejecting the testimony of witnesses who said he was seen instigating riots in the Raj Nagar area of Delhi Cantonment on November 1, 1984, in the aftermath of Indira Gandhi’s assassination. In reversing the acquittal and sentencing Kumar to imprisonment for the remainder of his life, the Delhi High Court has reignited hope for substantial justice. The 207-page judgment by a Division Bench, comprising Justice S. Muralidhar and Justice Vinod Goel, is proof, if any were needed, that the Delhi Police and its Riot Cell had failed to carry out a genuine investigation. From the deliberate failure to record any untoward incident in the station’s daily register to avoiding the examination of key witnesses, there is a long trail of evidence that points a damning finger at the police and the state machinery. This case is an example not only of the slowness of judicial processes but also of derailed investigations. It was only after the Central Bureau of Investigation entered the scene and revived this particular case related to the murder of five members of a Sikh family in 2005 — based on a recommendation by the Nanavati Commission — that the investigation made meaningful progress.
The entire CBI case turned on the testimony of Jagdish Kaur, who is described by the High Court as a “fearless and truthful witness”, and its corroboration by two others. Her deposition was sought to be impeached on the ground that she had not named Sajjan Kumar before the Ranganath Misra Commission. As it turned out, she may actually have done so, in Punjabi; the English version of her statement did not have it. In addition, the court found that Kumar had been named in nearly a dozen affidavits in 1985 itself, but none had been investigated. In one case, a prepared charge sheet had not been filed in court. Such was his influence that in 1990 when the CBI went to arrest him, the officers were held hostage until an anticipatory bail order was obtained, even as their vehicles were burnt by his supporters outside his house. The 73-year-old former strongman may now pin his hopes on an appeal to the Supreme Court, but there is little doubt that judicial decisions such as this reinforce the hope that political patronage, administrative complicity and plain muscle power cannot prevail over the truth all the time. The court has also flagged the need for a separate law for punishment for crimes against humanity and genocide, both seen so far as part of international law but rarely invoked in domestic crimes. Given the major communal flashpoints in recent history that have been cited by the court, the issue is worth positive consideration.
The Delhi High Court restores the retail sale and private manufacture of a life-saving drug
In a crucial development that exposes the flaws in health policy-making in the country, the Delhi High Court quashed a government ban on the retail sale and private manufacture of oxytocin. Notified by the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare in April, the ban referred to a 2016 Himachal Pradesh High Court judgment, which discussed oxytocin’s misuse in dairy cattle, fruits and vegetables. However, soon after the order was issued, health experts pointed to the absurdity of it. Oxytocin is a life-saving drug used to stem post-partum bleeding among new mothers. Because of this it had been listed by both the World Health Organization and the Health Ministry as an essential medicine. Around 45,000 women die from post-partum complications in India each year, and in 38% of the cases the reason is haemorrhaging. Without the easy availability of inexpensive oxytocin, efforts to stem the maternal mortality epidemic could have suffered a costly setback. These worries led to the All India Drug Action Network (AIDAN), a patient-rights group, to challenge the order in the Delhi High Court.
In its judgment on December 14, in response to AIDAN’s and drug manufacturers’ petitions, the court struck down the ban, calling it “unreasonable and arbitrary”. The court found that the government had failed to weigh the danger the ban posed to thousands of young mothers. What is more, it had failed to show that the drug was widely misused for veterinary purposes, the purported reason behind the order. Several bits of evidence cited in the judgment support this analysis. Even though the Centre claims to have made 25 illegal drug seizures across India in a three-year period, 12 of them didn’t actually find oxytocin. Among those that did, none involved licensed drugmakers. Karnataka Antibiotics & Pharmaceuticals Limited, the only authorised oxytocin producer after the ban, did not have the capability to manufacture it until mid-2017. It is mystifying why the Centre clamped down on licensed manufacturers with a proven track record, while roping in a state firm with no real experience. The most damning observation in the judgment is that the Centre focussed on the health of milch animals, without considering the well-being of women. This was despite the fact that all statutory bodies, including the Drugs Technical Advisory Board, had advised against a ban. This episode ought to compel policy-makers to reflect on the process that led to the ill-conceived order. Several questions must be answered. On what basis did the Centre overrule the advice of multiple statutory bodies? What led to its acceptance of sporadic reports of the drug’s misuse, without clinching proof? It is time for a post-mortem of how health policy is made, because that is the only way to safeguard the right to health of Indian citizens.