Saturday, September 24, 2011

Hostile Witnesses

As there seems to be a countless number of ‘hostile witnesses’ wandering around our judicial system today, I thought I’d better find out a bit more about this tribe. One moment a case, years after the event took place, is about to start and the next day I read that someone has become a ‘hostile witness’. I must presume he was a friendly witness before the case started. The people belonging to this category range across from movie stars and accountants to bus drivers and government servants. Obviously, this ‘hostile witness’ disease isn’t a respecter of persons.
I figured a good murder case would be a start. There are enough murders going around to make a dozen good movies. Like a good detective, I tracked down the cop who investigated the murder and interviewed the witnesses. He was sitting at his desk in the Crime department looking very morose. At the same time he was emptying his desk drawers and packing a small case.
‘So you messed up again?’ I said. ‘You got the wrong witness.’
‘Wrong witness!’ he was very sour. ‘This person was sitting three feet away when the killer hacked the victim to death. My witness was so close that some drops of blood fell on his shirt. When I interviewed him three years ago at the time of the crime, he gave a detailed eye witness description of the killer and exactly what happened.’
‘Where did this murder take place?’
‘In a well-known tea kadai at ten o’clock in the morning. The kadai was crowded with tea drinkers, and they all witnessed the murder. After the hacking the killer paid for his tea and walked out. It was an open and shut case.’ He paused dramatically. ‘Except, for one small detail that I hadn’t taken into my investigation.’
‘What was that?’
‘The killer belonged to a political party. Of course then, the party was out of power. Until then, it was open and shut.’
‘Why should that make a difference? A dozen witnesses saw the murder in broad daylight. It was open and shut.’
‘Yes,’ he agreed mournfully. ‘The other problem began when his political party won the election and came to power. You see that changes the whole equation in our judicial system. As long as the party people who committed the crimes are out of power we have open and shut cases against the perpetrators. The moment the party returns to power the whole equation changes. We no longer have open and shut and no witnesses at all.’
‘Where can I find a hostile witness?’
‘Try the tea kadai. They all hang together, bureaucrats, movie stars, auditors, registrars, and bus drivers. It’s called the Hostile Witness tea kadai.’
He rose and picked up his case, giving the shabby office a last fond look around.
‘Are you retiring?’
‘No, I’ve been taken off the case and posted to the Andaman Islands. I’ll have to stay there until the next election, I suppose.’
The tea kadai was just a stone’s throw from our majestic High Court. It was a small, dark place, with barely enough light to illuminate your cup of tea. A dozen or so hostile witnesses shifted uneasily when I sat down among them.
‘Why have you all turned hostile? Once you were such friendly and co-operative witnesses and now you’re furtive as rats.’
‘It’s all very well for you to talk but what can we do,’ the murder witness, a small, worried said. ‘The murd…I mean the gentleman who allegedly killed this other person in this very kadai three years ago came to see me. He was now a ruling party member. He was most polite and asked if I recognised him. When I said ‘yes’, he and ten others came that night and threw stones at my house and threatened my wife and children. So when he came the next morning and asked the same question, I had to honestly reply that I’d never seen him ever in my life.’ He shrugged. ‘And that’s what I said in the witness box.’
‘But there must be some crooks out there who aren’t connected to any political party?’
‘Even if they weren’t connected at the start of their careers, they soon joined a political party. You cannot remain a criminal in this country without being a member of a political party. It’s mandatory now a days. It’s a smart career move for all criminal types. First commit the crime, then join the party, and then get elected. In this way, they can continue to commit crimes.’
‘But what about you movie stars and auditors and bureaucrats? You can call the police for protection, can’t you?’
‘You are an innocent. The police also belong to the ruling party, depending on which party. The ones who belong to the party in opposition don’t have the power to protect us at all. They’ve all been posted to the Andaman Islands.’


DO TERRORISTS make good rulers? I know they are good at terror but do they actually administer the country they have won over by terrorism? Do they feed and educate the people they rule? We know from their latest statements that they love dying while the Americans love living. It is much harder to live than to die.
I have yet to figure out how the Taliban ruled Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001. I have read countless articles on them but they remain veiled behind their beards and clerical garb. I know they issued edicts frequently. These edicts were terse and mainly had to do with their religious beliefs. Like the edicts that ordered the destruction of the giant statues of the Buddha. The Taliban spent a fair amount of money and ammunition on that exercise, despite the worlds protests. What did that achieve? Did it feed the starving people or give them employment? It was said to be destruction for the sake of the purity of Afghanistan.
Then the Taliban issued other edicts, equally terse but quite terrifying. Men had to grow beards to a certain length. I scanned the articles to discover what length, but they failed to give me the information. So a man could be walking down the street ith a four-inch beard and the Religious Police could whip out a scale, measure it and whip him if it was too short or too long.
Women had been driven behind the veil. They could not work, they could not get an education. They could not leave their homes without the Talibans written permission. According to an eyewitness report, a woman taking her dying child to the nearest hospital was stopped by a Taliban cop. When she pleaded with him that her child was dying and that she did not have a pass, he hit her and tried to drive her back home. She dodged past him and began running, with her child in her arms, to the hospital. The cop shot her in the back and walked away.
Having come to power through a brutal civil war, I have yet to figure out how the Taliban ruled their country. I have not read about a Finance Minister making any economic statements or planning for the future. Was there a Finance Ministry? The Taliban made a lot of their money out of drugs enough to pay for shells and bullets. I know there was a Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but it must have been one of the most under-employed ministries in the world. The only foreign affairs they deal with related to Pakistan.
I had noticed how extremely well-fed the Taliban ambassador to Pakistan was. He looked like he was fed well with naan, butter chicken, lamb kebabs and lassi. In contrast, his compatriots in Kabul looked undernourished and thin. I was surprised they still remained upright. Equally emaciated were the two million refugees in Pakistans various refugee camps. The Taliban, naturally, dened their existence.
Terror and religion have long been bedfellows. The Roman Catholic Church practised its brand of terror the Inquisition in the 13th century. If you were judged a heretic, you were burned at the stake. Such persecution arises out of a sense of deep insec urity and the fear that the prevailing beliefs will be diluted by mans progress. In those days, only the priests were educated and gave their own interpretations of the religious texts. Gradually, through education and the spread of information, they los t this monopoly over knowledge.
Today, Islam is also going through a period of insecurity. It wants to protect its followers from all the contamination of a more powerful culture. The Taliban clerics learn the Koran by heart and are prone to interpreting it whichever way they choose. In India, we have the saffron brigade that also wants to regress to the golden age of Hinduism. If they grab power (as it is attempting), we would have our own version of the Taliban dictating the way we dress and behave.
Change frightens people and our world is constantly changing. Although, at times, it looks as if it is for the worse, huge numbers of people have found a better life than their fathers and grandfathers. And with change they abandon the old ways and take up the new to fit into their increased economic freedom. It is possible that religion becomes less important in their lives.
As Karl Marx wrote: Religion is the opiate of the masses. For those religious fanatics everywhere, it still is.