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Last Updated: Friday, 5 January 2007, 12:20 GMT
'Watershed year' for Indian law
By Sanjoy Majumder
BBC News, Delhi

Soren arrives at court to hear the guilty verdict
Shibu Soren's murder conviction is a landmark

In many ways 2006 was India's year of judgement.

It was a year in which the law caught up with some of the country's most powerful people and at last restored the faith of most Indians in its creaky justice system.

For the first time, a serving cabinet minister was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment for murder.

The fact that the minister, Shibu Soren, was a key ally of India's governing Congress party did not come in the way of his conviction.

In fact, the Central Bureau of Investigation - which is controlled by the federal government - even demanded he be handed the death penalty.

Less than a fortnight later, a well-known cricket star and MP, Navjot Singh Sidhu, was also convicted and sentenced to jail for manslaughter.


Indians are used to news about politicians being involved in crime - a recent study suggests that nearly a quarter of the country's MPs are facing criminal charges ranging from murder to extortion and even rape.

The question is, will India also build [a society] that's equitable and fair to all

Most leading prisons have a "VIP" wing, to accommodate politicians who are facing criminal proceedings. Here they have access to the comforts of home but behind bars.

Many of them continue to wield considerable influence from within prison.

In the last general elections, at least five candidates were brought by prison van to file their nominations.

Under Indian electoral law, a candidate is only barred from standing if convicted of a crime, not if they are merely charged with one.

And in one bizarre incident, a politician serving time in a jail in Bihar state was caught on camera while he stepped out to get a haircut at a neighbourhood salon.

So the fact that India's independent judiciary has cracked down at last is being widely cheered.

Media coverage

Judges have been helped in part by an active - if sometimes over-enthusiastic - media.

Manu Sharma after the sentencing outside Delhi High Court
Manu Sharma murdered model Jessica Lal

A prolonged and feverish campaign by some of India's relatively recent television news channels led to the reopening of two high-profile murder cases in the capital, Delhi.

Manu Sharma, the son of a Congress party politician was found guilty of murdering a model in 1999, after earlier having been acquitted.

In October, the son of a senior police official was also convicted for the rape and murder of a college student a decade ago - again after initially having been acquitted.

So is the law catching up with India's rich and powerful?

It's clear that with an independent and fiercely competitive media, it is becoming harder for those in the public eye to get away with - well, murder.

On the other hand, it's still very hard for the vast majority of Indians to secure justice. India's courts are estimated to have a backlog of some two million cases. Many of them date back many years.

Away from the big cities, it's still easy to influence lower courts and manipulate corrupt police forces.

But for many, 2006 has been a watershed in Indian legal history.

Caste row

The other big issue that dominated the year was that of affirmative action.

Anti-reservation protesters in India
Students protest against affirmative action

In its last sitting for the year, the Indian parliament voted through a bill which sets aside seats at some of the country's leading professional colleges for lower castes and other disadvantaged groups.

India already has a "reservation" policy in which more that a quarter of government jobs and places in state-funded colleges are set aside for lower castes. Under the new law, that figure will almost touch 50%.

And there's more. There's pressure to include the country's Muslim minority in the affirmative action policy, which at the moment is limited to low-caste Hindus and dalits, formerly the untouchables.

There's also a move to implement similar quotas in the private sector.

There are many who are angry at the move.

For most of the year, students at elite colleges and professionals such as doctors held street protests against the move. For them, it was a case of political opportunism.

Looking ahead

Lower-castes make up close to half of the country's population and are politically influential and many argue that the measure is aimed at garnering their votes.

India is a very old country with age-old divides and with every step forward, it has to contend with the ghosts of its past

But the move also has the support of millions of lower castes who have suffered centuries of discrimination.

In September, four members of a dalit family were beaten up and brutally murdered by an upper-caste mob in the state of Maharastra.

There are similar cases across the country - often over a domestic dispute, the sharing of water or inter-caste marriage.

As India heads into its 60th year, it has much to look forward to.

It's economy is robust, its politics stable and many Indians are upbeat and confident about the future.

But modern India is entwined in traditional India. It's a very old country with age-old divides and with every step forward, it has to contend with the ghosts of its past.

In 2007, India will continue to press on towards building a strong, successful society. The question is, will it also build one that's equitable and fair to all.

This debate is now closed. Here is a selection of views you sent.

there is a need to put all current politicians in jail for 10 years and more, because they are the ones who divide the country into caste and religion. they are many ways to take care of the poor people by providing education, shelter, food, basic amenities..most among them is the education. instead of doing all these to poor people, they divide the country. today all politicians are rich.. reason is every politician is corrupt. president is dumb, judiciary is very slow. no changes to legal system since our indepedence. sometimes i feel we would have been lot better under british.
Reddy, USA

Equitable and fair to all is pipe dream. We live in the richest democratic society. Even here there is no fairness if there is no equity. Wake up and smell the roses Mr.Sanjoy Majumder.
Naresh Mansukhani, USA

Your commentator says that 'lower-castes' make up upto 50% of the population. This is rubbish. The 'reserved categories' make up to 50% of the population and the two are not synonymous, because the list of castes in the 'reserved' categories has steadily increased as politicians have sought to create vote banks. If you managed to get caste 'x' included in the list you could count on votes from them!
Vivek Misra, UK

Thanks to the Media. If not for them none of these cases (Shibu Soren, Manu Sharma etc) would have been resolved. Media will play an important role in exposing corrupt politicians and rich people.
Sarathi, UK

Liberté, égalité, fraternité...with a good dose of responsibility, accountability and justice.
Kashyap Mothali, Virginia, USA

i agree with the view that in many ways 2006 was India's year of judgement... this procee started mainly with best bakery case of gujarat..nowdays indian judiciary has become more active in the sense that if witnesses turning hostile now enquiry made as to what are the resaon behind it. police are being asked to persue the case accordingly if thay are not performing there duty in a well manner..good for humanity..
prabhu n.singh, bhabua, india

Great report...until the last bit when it stated 'As India heads into its 60th year..." I thought India was a lot, lot older than 60 years.
Sumeer Kalyani, UK

As far as affirmative action policies go, I do think they are needed to bridge a gap between sections of the population. This however, is a tricky problem, with the downside that it might blunt the 'spirit of enterprise'. That such policies are based on caste & religion is questionable. Can't the same reservation and advantages be provided on the basis of purely economic/financial disadvantage? To really uproot the problem, the present and many successive governments will have to get *serious* about empowerment at all levels through education and meaningful employment.
Vishal, India

Firm laws and their strict execution is the answer to India's problems such as corruption,unequal division of wealth,terrorism.Again the core issue here is quick justice and not years and years of delay which makes no sense.
arjun, usa

It is very difficult to bring changes to Indian legal system, even though there are some improvments.Indian Legal system has to become more independent from politics and build faith in public by ruling on long pending cases like 1984 anti sikh riots, Gujrat riots etc.
Gagan, USA

Some people may say that the people have again found faith in judiciary, but fact is Indian legal system is extremely slow. We need not cheer for a couple of conviction when several thousands continue pending for years. Even in the famous cases, it was media and public awaerness that proved detemining factor.
Virendra Pratap Singh, India

India is still a male society. We need the women to take more actively part in building the modern society which we all want to live in. But to reach there, more emphasis has to be put to educate the womem, particularily in northern India.
Devang Parekh, Sweden

In a country where 800 million earn less than a dollar a day and still have no access to clean water& food let alone education. Friendships,marriages & associations are made on caste basis only. Media & the nation is obssessed with films and politicians and Cricket. Corruption is in the every fibre of every indian. Serious soul searching questions need be asked and solutions found before this nation can even dream of progress.
Gopal Krishna, England

Hi Am an Indian student in Canada and feel so good to be an Indian as we surge ahead into another year. We see hope and optimism despite all the wrong things we grew up with. And with chnaging times and an elgithened nation in the making, only good things ahead for the great civilisation
Samuel Vasanth, India

The present series of arrests are unlikely to change things for the future. Yes, the media has become powerful and are exposing these criminals. But the civil administration in India is still rotten and will take 2 or 3 generations to clean up and make them accountable. The caste system is still deep rooted, especially in Northern India, where atrocities against so called lower castes are overlooked. The case of Noida killings is the proof for the deep rooted caste system. If any of the child who mysteriously disappeared had been from the upper caste, the police would've acted and prevented further loss of life. Having said all this, I am very optimistic for India. I hope that atleast my grand children will live in a fairer India.
Ram, U.K

its really very same for the indian people still they r living in the old age.and the goverment who is encouraging it by giving more seats to the low caste.i think there should be no reservation.people should get job on the basics of their intelliegenge not on reservation.being a sailor i go around the around & really feel sorrow for india sometimes i fell pity to be born in india/people are not get paid according to their work/ a huge difference of wages between labour officers;no living standard; no respect for people e verone behind money.wht i felt i wrote. sanjay bhatt 21/m/sailor
sanjay bhatt, india

>>Lower-castes make up close to half of the country's population Can you provide any reference to your claim? I am looking for this in the census and other data but all I get is claim with no links to data?
Rohit Singh, USA

There is slow but sure improvement. And india is slowly moving towards becoming flat. Its still a long long way to go before we see equality which comes upto the US standards.
Hina Patel, India

When will BBC stop referring to - Islamic militants in India as "terrorists" / "militants" (always within quotes) - Reservation as Affirmitive Action - Backward classes, Scheduled castes and Scheduled tribes (all, originally defined by the British) as untouchables ?
roshan shankar, Chicago, IL

I agree with Roshan. All this untouchable, backward classes are made by British (for census). They divided and ruled Indians taking advantage on emotions. I am sure BBC will not publish this comment here. Very ugly history for British.
praveen, canada

I feel all existing problems in India is because of Population. There should be some law to control population, giving equal opprtunities to all.
Naresha, USA

In response to Hina Patel's rather ludicrous comment that "India is slowly moving towards becoming flat. Its still a long long way to go before we see equality which comes upto the US standards"..... I wish we never become as flat as US. During my last 7 years of stay in US I have seen numerous injustices. Some how it boggles me how a person living in India has such a romantic view of a foreign country...It seems that American Operas like ?Law and Order? are doing a good job of conveying the true American spirit to so many non-Americans. I recommend Hina to watch "Borat" the movie to see the ?True American Spirit? and enlighten herself.

Vishal, USA

It is interesting that the instruments of the elite (the English media) are attacking the previously undisturbed privilege of many members of that very elite. Perhaps there is some sharing of privilege to take place. With regard to whether lower castes make up the majority- it is intuitively compelling. Privilege exists on the backs of the more numerous underprivileged. The fact that affirmative action is being advanced through the political process indicates that lower castes find their greatest power through the ballot box, i.e. through their voting numbers. It is natural that upper caste people have started baying for a meritocracy- they resent losing their age-old unfair advantage.
Hari Balaraman, Vancouver, Canada

Full points to Indian justice system and media for bringing these culprits to justice. This sends a strong message to criminal politicians that Indians have become smarter so they need to clean their acts.
Sanjay, Sydney

Yes India will definetly build a society that's equitable and fair to all but the process will definitely take its own time. India is slowly lifting itself out of poverty with the help of globalisation, we have more than 50% of literates in the country, I am sure the number will increase in the next generation with affirmative action. Right now India needs to concentrate on the education system and make teaching as an attractive proffession and more youngsters should be given oppurtunities to become political leaders and there is nothing that will stops its growth into a wonderful democratic country with equal rights to one and all.
Vidhya Jagannathan, India

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