Justice Delayed is Justice Denied for the Thousands of Possibly Innocent Undertrials in Jails

in jail

Innocent till proven guilty is the most widely accepted precept of justice, yet thousands of possibly innocent persons have to languish for years in jails.

In a recent excellent report published in The Times of India (May 3 2024) titled ‘10 years in jail for nothing—Who should pay for it?  Sunil Baghel has given several examples of such shocking injustice. One of these is the by now well-known case of the Delhi University professor GN Saibaba. He spent nearly 10 years in jail as an undertrial and convict. While acquitting him in March 2024, the Bombay High Court stated in its judgment very clearly, “In fact, there is no evidence brought forth by the prosecution to connect the persons (Saibaba and other accused) with any actual act of terrorism which had taken place in the past or to demonstrate how the persons were directly connected with and responsible for the commission of any other act of terrorism.”

Saibaba was severely disabled even before arrest and in jail he developed several ailments, apart from the great suffering caused to him and his family members.

Another example Baghel gives is of 17 people from Mohad (Madhya Pradesh), two of them minors, who were arrested in 2017 just on the charge of celebrating a Pakistani cricket victory. They had to spend 6 years as undertrials before being acquitted by a district court which found no proof of the ‘charges’ against them.

According to official data for 2022, close to 75% of those in India’s 1330 jails were undertrials, numbering about 434,000. About half of them were young persons in age group 18-30.

This review points out that a report submitted by the Law Commission in 2018 had recommended that such victims of injustice should get compensation payment but this has not been implemented.

Apart from the examples given in the report cited above, several examples of people likely to be innocent but having to suffer in jail as undertrials have appeared from time to time. In the case of the infamous Maruti case, as many as 148 workers, mostly young trained workers who had come to Gurugram near Delhi with high hopes and aspirations, were accused and jailed in a single act of alleged violence by them. Years later, a trial court acquitted 117 of them, but not before their best years had been snatched from them and great sufferings had been inflicted on them and their family members very unjustly.

In fact in several such cases, it is the poorest of the poor who are falsely implicated for crimes committed by others as the poor have hardly any means of defense available to them. In addition what is very disturbing is that those few activists who are fighting to get justice for the poor are also increasingly targeted.

Some time back the Supreme Court’s firmness in upholding the Bombay High Court’s order granting bail to Anand Teltumbde was widely appreciated. This 73 year old distinguished scholar activist, coming out  after spending 31 months in prison, made an important observation regarding the case in which several other distinguished activists have also been implicated—“the sad thing is that this is the fakest case and it put us behind us behind bar for years.”

The reference here was of course to the notorious Elgar Parishad case which has been attracting strong criticism from several human rights and democracy activists during the last few years. 16 activists known for their pro-poor leanings and work, including human rights lawyers and scholars, were arrested in this case in issues relating to events in Pune in 2017-18, which essentially related to mobilization of a large number of pro-poor organizations for cultural and related celebrations. Unfortunately there was some violence later at another gathering with several common participants. Several of those arrested, for example Fr. Stan Swamy who died in the course of imprisonment, leading to worldwide expression of dismay, were completely at loss to understand why they were being arrested in this case.

One main accusation has been that the Elgar Parishad event had Maoist links. This allegation should have been dismissed at a very early stage as two retired, highly respected senior judges had clearly stated that they were the organizers and fund mobilizers. It is amazing that the authorities who built up this case did not heed such a stand taken by two retired distinguished judges with complete clarity, leaving no room for doubt. These judges were helped by a large number of pro-poor organizations of the region to stage the event, which testifies to the broad-based, open, non-secretive, transparent nature of the event, as stated by the two learned judges as well.

What is more, these two judges have been known for their exceptional integrity and concern for justice to the poor and weaker sections. Justice P.B.Sawant, was earlier a judge of the Bombay High Court and subsequently of the Supreme Court of India. He then became the Chairperson of the Press Council of India and showed high concern for ethical issues relating to media. Justice (Retired) Sawant breathed his last some time back, after having been very distressed in his last days at the way in which the Elgar Parishad case had been built up and pursued by the authorities. Justice B.G Kolse-Patil was a judge of the Bombay High Court at a relatively young age. Both of these judges immersed themselves in pro-poor, communal harmony and national integration activities after their retirement. Hence the organization of a big pro-poor event by them was very logical and understandable in terms of their various other activities and should not have led to any suspicions at all. Several of the activists who were arrested in the Elgar Parishad case were not even known to these two judges who were the main organizers, and in fact the judges and the arrested activists, as well as their family members and well-wishers have been at a loss to understand what exactly is the base of this case and its wide-ranging accusations involving so many persons living in many different parts of the country.

While Fr. Stan Swamy died in the course of his imprisonment in this case, serious medical problems of several other imprisoned activists have also been highlighted from time to time by their family members as well as lawyers.

Apart from speeding up the process of justice in such well-known cases, it is important to provide speedy justice also in the case of several other grassroots activists as well as simple peasants and workers who were implicated in false accusations, then left to languish as under-trial prisoners for a long time.

Some time back President Droupadi Murmu said, “Our job is to think about the poor undertrials languishing in jails. We all have to think and come out with a way…”  In keeping with this hope and guidance proved by our respected President, we have to take ahead this task of providing relief to all those who have suffered from such injustice and unjust imprisonments.

Bharat Dogra is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include Man over Machine (Gandhian ideas for our times), When the Two Streams Met (Freedom Movement of India), Protecting Earth for Children and A Day in 2071.  

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