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Last Updated: Thursday, 9 March 2006, 13:36 GMT
India campaign for murdered Delhi model
By Geeta Pandey
BBC News, Delhi

Protests against Jessica Lal judgement in Delhi
There were widespread protests after a court freed all the accused
This story has all the elements of a Bollywood film.

An attractive model, Jessica Lal, is shot dead at a fashionable restaurant while she is tending the bar.

The guest list is a who's who of the modelling and fashion world - struggling actors, politicians and even a senior policeman.

Several eyewitnesses come forward at the time to allege that the fatal trigger was pulled by Manu Sharma - the son of a Congress Party politician from the state of Haryana - when Jessica refused to serve him a drink.

During the seven years that India's snail-paced judicial system took to deliver a ruling in the case, almost all the witnesses turned hostile, resulting in the acquittal of all the nine accused, including Manu Sharma, a fortnight ago.

Not unusual, considering the rate of conviction in present day India is less than 30%.

But what is unusual is the public outrage that has followed the acquittals.

In an unprecedented show of solidarity for the family of Jessica Lal, candlelight vigils are held at the spot of the crime.

Concerned citizens hold protest rallies.

University students begin a mobile text messaging campaign asking their peers to forward the message to at least 10 more numbers.

And, the media begins a sustained campaign to demand justice for Jessica.

'Miscarriage of justice'

One television channel has collected more than 200,000 messages and petitions asking the president of India to intervene in the matter.

Jessica Lal
Eyewitnesses said Ms Lal was shot for refusing to serve a drink

Says Delhi-based advertising executive Suhel Seth: "What we are seeing here is the middle class anger asserting itself. People feel the system has let them down and they are now beginning to question it."

Such has been the media attention to the details of the case that even President George Bush's trip and the India-US nuclear deal couldn't push Jessica off the front pages.

Miles of column inches and hours of air time were devoted to what the media dubbed a "miscarriage of justice".

"I feel very heartened. It's an amazing feeling," says an overwhelmed Sabrina Lal, Jessica's sister.

"I was so disheartened by the court order. The fight had gone out of me. But the response from the media and the people has been tremendous.

"People I didn't know or who didn't even know Jessica, are telling me they are right behind me. That gives me the strength to carry on."

Many analysts have been trying to explain this unprecedented and extraordinary show of public outrage by normally uncaring Delhi-ites.


Navin Surapaneni, director of the Delhi-based Centre for Media Studies, says: "The media needs a face. And a context to push the story. Jessica was a model, in the capital city of Delhi, and that is why it is easy to build a campaign around her."

VN Khare, former chief justice of India
Mr Khare says judges need to be more proactive

He says if the victim had been someone from rural India, an ordinary person, the media would not have taken it up.

Whatever the reason, the case may prove to be a catalyst needed for reforming India's archaic criminal laws.

The former chief justice of India, VN Khare, says: "Our criminal code was drafted by the British in the 1860s. The social situation at that time was very different from the present time.

"At that time, a criminal or an accused could not run away except on a horse cart or a bullock cart, but now it is a different world. And our laws are not in conformity with the present reality."

Justice Khare says the Jessica trial should have been an "open-and-shut" case.

"There were dozens of eyewitnesses. One of the witnesses, actor Shayan Munshi, initially said he recognised the killer by face, he even narrated his age and height and could even describe the clothes he was wearing.

"But later in the court, he said he had not witnessed the killing! It was a failure on the part of the investigation and the prosecution," he fumes.

Justice Khare says the judges also have to be more proactive.

"Sometimes when the police, the prosecution and the lawyers all have connections with the criminals, the judge should be slightly proactive. He should try to get to the truth, and not depend totally on the evidence provided in court.

"In a case like this, he is not going to get proper evidence. Mostly the judiciary is depended on the evidence provided by the investigative agencies, but now when the situation is so bad, the judges have to wake up, be proactive and find the truth."

Media pressure

Amidst allegations of connivance between the prosecution agencies and the accused, the Delhi police commissioner, KK Paul, on Monday announced the setting up of a special team to look into the way the investigation had been carried out.

A candlelight vigil held in Delhi for Jessica Lal
Police chief has ordered fresh probe into the case

Admitting that there were loopholes in the investigation, Mr Paul said a fresh case has been filed to probe if there has been any conspiracy or tampering of evidence.

Mr Surapaneni says the police were compelled to act because the media and public opinion forced their hand.

The Jessica case has exposed the weaknesses of the system, he says. "But now the media needs to keep up this pressure on the authorities to ensure that policy changes happen."

Unless that happens, he cautions, justice will continue to be a casualty.

"Witnesses can still turn hostile. Another officer can botch up the investigation, he is not holier in any way. Jessica's story will continue to move people for two to three months, but then the public memory will fade. Then, there will be another Jessica."

Have you taken part in the campaign? Some Delhites believe there is a difference in justice depending on the wealth of the defendant. Do you agree? Read a selection of your comments below.

Justice delayed is justice denied. This proves again there will be more chances for denial of justice for ordinary people.
Prasanth Menon, London, UK

I am an Indian living in London currently. When Jessica Lal was murdered, I was at university in Delhi. I don't find it surprising. Without making a generalisation I would say that sadly, this is how things work in my home country and in most developing countries where the moneyed class has loads of power and connections.
Asra Fareed, London, UK

I am glad to see that the middle class population is now waking up in India and ready to fight against upper class people who are misusing their powers.
Neetu K, New York

I think this is the tipping point. The 'don't care' attitude of the Delhi residents is finally changing, the tide is turning. And thanks to the recent Bollywood blockbuster 'Rang De Basanti' which seems to inspire this outburst, the voice of the people is being heard on the streets.
Punit Modhgil, Maida Vale, London, UK

This case proves that Law are different for different people. This case is assuming over exploitation by media about female vulnerablity. This is just India where laws against Dowry, Domestic Violence, Child slavery and murder by abortions are norm. Let there be more awareness of how middle class are hijacking the country.
Rajesh Bhagat, UK

What has happened is not surprising at all. In India, justice in bed with the rich. I once had an accident, I paid 500 Rupis. to the cop to get a report so that insurance company could pay me.
Harsh Nahar, Houston, Texas

What we are seeing here is what we've been witnessing for decades. Until we get rid of rich people, poor people and strong people, weak people mentality, we are never going to make any progress on situations like this. When the entire system is corrupt, not only unknown people but popular figure like Ms. Lal are going to suffer.
Manish, Georgia, USA

I guess the hue and cry is being raised because Ms Lal is a beauty queen and a socialite. I remember there was a hit and run case in which the son of a powerful business man was accused. Nothing happened to him, because the victims were poor.
Ramu, Montreal, Canada

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06 Mar 06 |  South Asia
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