DATELINE

Witnessing the long, crooked arm of the law

Professional 'eyewitnesses' make perjury a way of life

Peter Niesewand November 2 1981
DATELINE

Witnessing the long, crooked arm of the law

Professional 'eyewitnesses' make perjury a way of life

Peter Niesewand November 2 1981

Witnessing the long, crooked arm of the law

DATELINE

Professional 'eyewitnesses' make perjury a way of life

Peter Niesewand

After perjuring himself more than 2,500 times on behalf of the Delhi police, Prem Chand Paniwala says he decided to quit because he was getting a bad name in his neighborhood. For 16 years, he had made an almost daily trip to one or other of the courts in this Indian capital where, after coaching by the police, he gave “eyewitness” evidence against those who had fallen afoul of the forces of law and order. The truth probably is that Prem Chand had finally made enough money to retire. The man who started off selling glasses of water from a pushcart outside the Delite Cinema now owns two houses. But it isn’t easy to retire from being what Indians delicately call a “stock witness.” The Delhi police do more than just frown on it. When Prem Chand first refused to appear for them in any further cases, they threatened. When this failed, they mounted eight prosecutions against him—complete with witnesses prepared to say, on oath, that they had personally seen the accused. . . . Well, here the police can choose from any number of offences— the usual selection includes possession of liquor, stolen property, opium, arms, involvement in immoral activities or gambling.

Then they sought to twist the knife. Prem Chand’s former patrons served

him with a notice to show cause why he should not be expelled from Delhi on the charge that he was “liable to influence witnesses who might otherwise testify against him.” They even had witnesses to say he was trying to intimidate them. Finally, Prem Chand was arrested and this was too much for him. If they wanted him to show cause, he would. So he approached the Supreme Court with a writ against both his detention and the expulsion order, and spilled out the story of his activities over the past 16 years. What’s more, the

man could prove it. He had actually kept every summons he had been served : a monstrous pile of about 4,000 legal papers, some yellowing with age, marking the progress of his perjury. This past summer the Supreme Court ordered his release, and he continues his fight against police vindictiveness.

Prem Chand is by no means unusual. He achieved brief notoriety in India because of the sheer magnitude of his deeds. Swaran Singh, another retired perjurer, recently found his case pass almost unnoticed when he persuaded Delhi High Court Judge R.N. Aggarwal to throw out a similar police attempt to expel him from the capital. Swaran Singh, from the village of Deunagar, says he had been perjuring himself on instructions from the police for 10 years. He tried to give up regular lying and deceiving in 1968. When the forces of law heard he had declined to appear in court, they started 15 cases against him. Unfortunately for the police, but luckily for Swaran Singh, the “stock witnesses” they produced at his trials were relatively unskilled, and he has so far been acquitted in 13 of these cases.

Clearly, something is pretty rotten in the legal system of the world’s most populous democracy where public revelations of such mockeries of justice cause little stir and no surprise. Although Indians are a very litigious people, their faith in the criminal process is almost zero.

Corruption is the norm here, and everyone knows it. The police are poorly paid but have considerable power, so it is not surprising that many demand payoffs. If they don’t get what they want, they retaliate. Even the beggars at the traffic lights, who scratch and tap at car windows crying “Sahib, baksheesh” under the indifferent eyes of a constable, have bribed him to permit them to operate there. The street vendor, who does not have a licence, must buy off the police.

In fact, this is how Prem Chand came to be a perjurer. The glasses of water, a murky, suspect liquid he sold on the sidewalk for a few paise—less than a cent—could not be dispensed until he had greased the palms of policemen and municipal staff. Later, when he branched out to selling cups of tea and soft drinks, the bribes increased. As his relationship with the police continued, he was asked to appear in court. They helped him, of course, for Prem Chand is illiterate. “The police taught me how to sign my name in Hindi,” says Prem Chand. “I never used this except to sign false statements that sentenced, at times, innocent people. The police seemed to think I am their property, the way they peddled me in court to serve their ends.” The havaldars—a police rank equivalent to constable—take

good care to brief and coach their “eyewitnesses.” “They would give me a rundown on the case and tell me what to say in reply to the questions,” Prem Chand explains. “If I ever forgot, would say T don’t remember,’ and that seemed to satisfy them.” The only clouds on Prem Chand’s horizon during his lengthy career came when, on two occasions, men who had been imprisoned because of his lies visited him after their release and tried to break open his head. “I have 29 stitches to show as evidence of my beatings,” he says.

The known list of professional perjur-

ers in Delhi alone runs to 60 names, but, of course, that is not the police list, believed to be a much more extensive document. Many Indian lawyers have tried unsuccessfully to lay their hands on the list, the existence of which has been confirmed by official sources. However, an analysis of court records and district court criminal lawyers’ files shows the same names appearing regularly as “witnesses” in different cases.

A man called Karam Singh is used by five police stations to give eyewitness evidence in cases under the excise act

and the theft and arms acts. Three police stations use Ram Swarup as their specialist witness in prosecutions under the excise act, the theft and gambling acts and the opium act. Jodh Singh is used by two police stations for trials involving gambling and immoral traffic, while Sat Narrain is a regular “eyewitness” in opium act cases brought by the Jama Masjid police station. Each of these men has been identified as appearing in between 10 and 20 separate cases.

One might reasonably ask why the courts allow this state of affairs to continue. In fact, the police are so brazen that, in Prem Chand’s case,they produced him before the same magistrate in 35 separate trials during a single year. Prem Chand says he always appeared in court in the company of one or two other “stock witnesses.” Yet neither Prem Chand’s appearance, nor the regular combinations of perjurers, made any impact on the magistrate, who perhaps had a poor memory for faces. But perhaps not. It is quite instructive to see the legal reaction to revelations such as these. Even when a judge or magistrate throws out a case because it is clearly dishonest and rotten to the core, he confines himself to a rebuke from the bench. In nearly three years, not one instance has been reported in which the arrest of perjurers has been ordered by an angry judiciary.

And now things have reached the point where, if somebody with real power ordered a full investigation—and made sure it was ruthlessly and quickly pursued, without cover-ups—there are few in the police, or in the administration of justice, who would escape serious criticism, while thousands would merit actual punishment. For that reason alone, nothing will be done.