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.’