On Friday, the Supreme Court awarded Rs 50 lakh in compensation to former Indian Space Research Organisation scientist Nambi Narayanan. The amount was compensation for the mental cruelty he suffered after being falsely accused by the Kerala police in a case of alleged espionage in 1994. The charge against Narayanan was that he had sold secrets pertaining to the Indian Space Research Organisation’s cryogenic programme – a tale that was found to be completely fabricated. The Supreme Court called the prosecution “malicious” and borne out of “fancy”. The judges were very clear that this was not a normal acquittal, where the police was unable to prove its case. This was a malevolent act, “set in motion without any basis”.

The public outrage that Narayanan’s case generated shines a light on one of the darkest parts of the Indian justice system: fabricated cases. The framing of people under false charges is a common occurrence in Indian policing.

In this, the most egregious example is that of Muslims framed in false cases of terror. In 2014, for instance, the Supreme Court acquitted all six men accused of attacking the Gujarat Akshardham temple in 2002. Using terms such as “perverse” for the case, the court noted that “the police caught innocent people and got imposed the grievous charges against them”. Earlier in 2008, the Central Bureau of Investigation went so far as to accuse the Delhi Police of not only framing two Muslims under terror charges but also planting evidence. In 2011, a Delhi sessions’ court noted that the accused in a terror case were “totally innocent and have been framed in this case by the aforesaid four police officers in order to achieve their personal gains and/or to settle petty personal scores”. In Maharashtra, the police have arrested people accused of being Maoists immediately after they were acquitted of earlier charges – making it clear that the police were only interested in jailing certain people, not proving a legal case against them.

However, this behaviour is not confined to accusations of terror or Maoist activity. It extends across the justice system. In 2010, the Delhi Police framed a man in 18 false cases over 16 years as result of a personal dispute with a local policeman. In 2014, a Delhi court found that the police had framed a taxi driver in a case of rape. That same year, a Delhi court found that the police had tampered with its official diary to falsely incriminate a person for murder.

The country’s police are thus often seen to be a law unto themselves. This is, in fact, how the police were meant to function under the British Raj. Power without accountability was a feature of the colonial state, where bureaucrats held absolute power without any democratic checks. The same system has continued even after Independence. Elected politicians have done nothing to end the impunity enjoyed by the erring police officers and bring them into the ambit of the law that they are supposed to enforce. This system has held so well that even in cases where fabrication has been proved, the courts have rarely penalised guilty policemen.