Karan Joseph death: Judicial inquiry is only way to restore public's faith in India's justice system

On Wednesday, the investigation into the death of noted Indian pianist Karan Joseph was transferred to the Mumbai Crime Branch.

Ajay Kumar September 21, 2017 10:27:18 IST
Karan Joseph death: Judicial inquiry is only way to restore public's faith in India's justice system

On Wednesday, the investigation into the death of noted Indian pianist Karan Joseph was transferred to the Mumbai Crime Branch.

This moves comes a day after the Mumbai Police announced that it was reopening the inquiry into Joseph's death.

Karan Joseph death Judicial inquiry is only way to restore publics faith in Indias justice system

Karan Thomas Joseph. Image via Facebook/@KaranJosephOfficial

The Mumbai Police earlier ruled out foul play, however the case was reopened after Joseph's family, friends and fans carried out a concerted social media campaign to demand a "fair investigation" and the indictment of his manager, Rishi Shah, the editor of Rave Magazine, who they believe is involved in Joseph's death.

Joseph's father Thomas, released a letter to the media, saying that Shah wanted to sign an exclusive contract with his son and was alienating him from other musicians and bands. His friends and family also denied media reports that he was disturbed or depressed in the letter and raised questions about the investigation.

The broader question though, is what must be done to handle cases of unnatural deaths? In Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai, the Coroners Act of 1871 empowers a coroner to order an inquest into a case if they have reason to believe the death was under suspicious circumstances.

The Act calls for the empanelling of a jury to determine if there is a suspicious death and even to determine if criminal charges can be brought against an individual. This is not a criminal court, but a court of inquiry. As the law commission pointed out in its 206th report, surprisingly few people are aware of this Act. This Act, along with the Parsi divorce courts, are the last which allow for functioning jury trials in India.

However, what happens if the coroner does not seek an inquest? Or a death happens outside Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai?

Frankly, Indian law is rather behind the times when it comes to laws relating to inquests, but the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC) contains mechanisms that may be triggered in these conditions and which work alongside the Act both within Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai and across India. Under Section 174 of the CrPc, the responsibility to conduct an inquest falls on the police officer investigating the case.

By law, the police are required to probe into any death, be it an accident or suicide and determine if foul play occurred. That's exactly what the police were doing after they reopened the case Tuesday. Until the case was transferred.

However, the code also provides for a judicial inquiry that can be held by a magistrate assigned for this purpose. Under 176 of the code, the magistrate may, acting on his own cognisance if he feels that the police is not investigating appropriately — or on the basis of the police report — hold an inquiry.

This inquiry is a judicial proceeding. Evidence is recorded and testimony is given under oath. The objective here is to determine the cause of death and to determine if criminal charges should be pressed. Section 174 and 176 provide for inquests in cases where the cause of death is doubtful, as is seemingly the case here.

A judicial inquest into the death of Joseph is needed. The investigation does not seem to have the confidence of the public. It is essential that the matter is moved to a judicial inquiry in order for the cause of death to be determined. If the inquest rules out foul play, then there will be no criminal proceedings but if it does find foul play, a case then be registered and warrants of arrest served.

On a broader note, the law commission's 206th report rightly speaks of enacting a broader pan-India law for coroners. The draft of the bill is enclosed with the report. There are far too many unnatural deaths that arouse public suspicion. This leads to a lack of general confidence in the executive machinery. There is a need not just to be impartial in these investigations but also to look impartial. Caesar's wife must be above suspicion.

A coroners' act ought to be passed. Urgently.

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