Framed and Forgotten: The Fate of many Under Trials in India

By N. Jayaram,

Abdul Nasser Maudany may be one of the better known of India’s lakhs of under trials, having spent many years locked away for crimes he did not commit, often in the news because of the heinous reluctance on the part of state and central governments to grant his plea for proper medical treatment for a plethora of ailments. The near-blind and wheelchair-bound, who had earlier spent nine years in jail after false implication for the 1998 Coimbatore blasts, was only recently allowed out on conditional bail to be admitted to a hospital under the watchful eyes of two dozen policemen.[1]

Even Maudany figures in the news but rarely. And few, if any, of the 2,54,857 under trials as of December 2012, going by National Crime Records Bureau data, get even a fraction of the media attention Maudany has received.

“Thousands of poor and voiceless under trial prisoners, by the government’s own admission, are locked away for long periods in prison awaiting trial for minor offences,” says G. Ananthapadmanabhan, Chief Executive of Amnesty International India, which has just launched a campaign – “Take Injustice Personally” – to highlight the plight of those languishing in jail for long periods, merely because they lack access to a decent legal counsel.

“This campaign aims to ensure respect for the rights of under-trials who have been in jail for prolonged periods and are eligible for release under Indian law,” says Ananthapadmanabhan, explaining that those who have already been in jail for than half the term they would have received if convicted, are eligible for release on personal bond under Section 436A of the Code of Criminal Procedure.

The “Take Injustice Personally” campaign urges people to support it by giving a missed call to 080888-88899 or sign a petition online via www.436A.in

Shot on assignment for Amnesty International India

More than 65% of those in prison are under trial, notes former Right to Information Commissioner Shailesh Gandhi.

“This places us amongst the worst ten countries in the world. Our jails are overcrowded and one of the reasons for this is not releasing people who are eligible to be free as per the provisions of Section 436A. We are concerned about animals being in cages. But forget our fellow citizens who languish in prisons, without any reason,” Gandhi says.

In one state, Karnataka, alone, Amnesty found that effective under trial review committees were absent in many districts, lack of adequate legal aid in Bangalore Central jail as well as delays in court production of the detainees due to a shortage of police “escorts” and ineffective video-conferencing facilities.

The result: between January and June 2014, about 70 per cent of under trials in Bangalore Central Jail did not attend court hearings either in person or through video-conferencing.

Most of the prison population in India consists of people from backward classes, castes and communities, including Dalits and Muslims – the latter suffering enormous prejudice and often picked up and jailed on concocted charges. The Jamia Teachers Solidarity Association has done yeoman work in this regard in documenting numerous instances of falsely implicating Muslim youth. Especially its reports, “Guilt by Association: UAPA Cases from Madhya Pradesh” and “Framing of Muslim Youth – A Report from Karnataka” have recorded in detail such cynical instances. Dalits and other indigent people too poor to seek legal counsel obviously spend too long a time behind bars, unable to seek justice even when they might be innocent.

Someone fortunate enough to get out in a month is Chetan Mahajan, now President of HCL Learning and author of “The Bad Boys of Bokaro Jail”, an account of his prison experiences.

“Financial and emotional support from friends and family helped me live through those days with some hope,” Mahajan recalls. “Today I wonder if it wasn’t for the support I had, whether my fate would be different.

“This is the case for many under trials – faceless and forgotten. Without any support to fall back on, they are in effect presumed guilty and punished. Punished to remain confined for excessively long periods because they are powerless and moneyless souls for whom the Indian criminal justice system does not seem to care. Some of them may remain in jail beyond the maximum sentence they would have faced if convicted.”

Mahajan is a passionate advocate of the “Take Injustice Personally” campaign.

It is not as if the police, prison officials and government departments are all uniformly cynical. Many officials, especially prison officials too are appalled but helpless over the injustice meted out to the under trials, their careers and lives destroyed for either minor crimes or no crime other than that of merely being poor.

“Excessive under trial detention has high costs for individuals and their families, but also for the criminal justice system. Under international law, anyone detained on a criminal charge has the right to trial within a reasonable time or to release pending trial,” Ananthapadmanabhan notes.

But are state governments and the centre that have kept an Abdul Nasser Maudany without a trial for long years bothered about the fate of the lakhs of others languishing in overcrowded jails?

 

[1] http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/karnataka/maudany-undergoing-a-battery-of-tests/article6214403.ece

 

N. Jayaram is a journalist based in Bangalore since early 2012 after more than 23 years in East Asia (mainly Hong Kong and Beijing) and 11 years in New Delhi. He was with the Press Trust of India news agency for 15 years and Agence France-Presse for 11 years and is currently engaged in editing and translating for NGOs and academic institutions. He writes Walker Jay’s blog