ISRO spy case: Why the judgement in favour of Nambi Narayanan is a significant moment

Among other things, the judgement also recognised the mental torture suffered by hundreds of innocent people unjustly put through the drill of the justice system.
ISRO spy case: Why the judgement in favour of Nambi Narayanan is a significant moment
ISRO spy case: Why the judgement in favour of Nambi Narayanan is a significant moment
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There is finally a ray of hope for former ISRO scientist S Nambi Narayanan after 24 years of excruciating travails, thanks to the Supreme Court ruling which not only awarded him compensation but also directed a probe into the conduct of errant police officials.

The case is one of the clearest examples of malicious and vexatious prosecution, where an individual’s liberty was illegally curtailed (for 50 days) and reputation tarnished beyond measure. As the court noted, it was the case of a man, who despite his achievements and his service to the nation, was branded as a traitor and compelled to be the subject of “cynical abhorrence”.

Narayanan has hailed the ruling as a “watershed moment in rights litigation”, and commentators on legal affairs have showered equally effusive praise on the judgement, and one must examine it to see why it stands out.

Police officials’ accountability

There have been plenty of cases of malicious prosecution – where the police have falsely implicated people and put them through the torture of the internecine criminal justice system, where courts have awarded compensation to the victims once they were found innocent. However, it is rare to see a case where the top court has directed that the police officers – mind you, not low-ranking constables, but a top cop, former DIG Siby Mathew in this case and others – be investigated and brought to book if their culpability is established. This assumes greater significance because usually the trend is not to haul up cops after they have retired, and in this case, Mathew had even gone on to hold a powerful position – that of Chief Information Commissioner.

By directing that no less than a former Supreme Court judge would probe the allegations against some who were in the top brass, the apex court has marked a big moment for police accountability.

Definition of torture

In his petitions before the Kerala High Court, as well as the Supreme Court, Narayanan had consistently maintained that he was tortured in police custody. Though it could not be established that he was physically tortured, the Supreme Court has done well to recognise that even excruciating mental agony and humiliation caused by illegal detention and slapping of false charges by the police would also count as torture.

This would go a long way in institutionally recognising the sufferings borne by many innocents who are illegally and unjustly put through the drill of the criminal justice system.

Right to reputation

From the time of his arrest till he was acquitted, and even after that, Narayanan had to bear the taint of being called, or suspected of being, a traitor.

Notwithstanding his achievements and significant contributions, he had to carry this blot on his reputation. He is not alone; there are tales aplenty, both told and untold, of people having their reputations pulverized because of malicious police actions.

It is here, that the Supreme Court, by affirmatively quoting from its earlier ruling in Kiran Bedi v. Committee of Inquiry and another (1989), and saying that: “The dignity of a person gets shocked when psycho-pathological treatment is meted out to him. A human being cries for justice when he feels that the insensible act has crucified his self-respect. That warrants grant of compensation under the public law remedy.”

This recognised the tattering of his reputation as a violation of the right to life under Article 21 of the Constitution.

Need for legislative measures

While the Supreme Court’s judgement is remarkable, one cannot afford to lose sight of the fact that such rulings are rare to come by. The courts are not always willing to listen, and many others who are falsely implicated, wrongly incarcerated and have their reputations ruined and lives turned upside down do not have the privilege or tenacity which Nambi Narayanan possesses.

Take the case of Mohammed Jalees Ansari, who spent 23 years in jail after the Delhi Police falsely implicated him in a terror case. He is still running from pillar to post to get compensation and appropriate redress for his suffering, and those who trampled upon his rights have remained unscathed until now.

In such a scenario, it is imperative to have in place a structure, a legislative framework, which will ensure that anyone who is the victim of malicious prosecution has access to suitable redress --  compensation, rehabilitation and having the perpetrators brought to book.

That is why the government must accept the recommendations which the Law Commission has made in its 277th report, which was released last month, and bring in a legislative framework to avert future cases of gross travesties of justice.

The views expressed are the author’s own.

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