Of Trials and Undertrials

Bharat Dogra

Although it is not yet known exactly how many of the estimated 254 thousand undertrial prisoners (out of the total number of 381 thousands prisoners) will benefit from the Union Government’s decision to release long-serving under-trial prisoners, it is likely to lead to release of a significant number of undertrial prisoners on personal bond. While there is a threat that some hardened criminals may also be released in the process and they may even threaten witnesses in their cases, the gain in terms of release of many innocent people or those with minor offences is much higher.

Earlier also the previous government had announced an initiative for release of undertrials. Why that initiative did not prove effective deserves scrutiny. Also it should be asked why even if once undertrials are released, the existing system has a tendency for the number of undertrials to rise again. This tendency should be checked by reforming the system itself. Political prisoners with extremist tag are invariably get re-arrested even if they are granted bail on valid grounds. So they will remain under-trial for years.

The Supreme Court has drawn attention to the high presence of weaker sections among undertrials. On August 29 a bench of Chief Justice R M Lodha and Justice Kurian Joseph and R F Nariman said, "This is a very serious matter. ...This is the obligation of states and every state has to take care of undertrial prisoners."

The Supreme Court asked the centre to convene a meeting of home secretaries of all states within six weeks to sort out the issue of undertrials. The court has said that after the meeting, within two weeks a report is to be filed to the court on the status of undertrial prisoners.

These directives were given in the course of hearing a PIL which has particularly emphasised the sufferings of adivasi undertrials whose numbers have been increasing most of all in 'Naxilite affected areas'. This PIL filed by an organisation called 'Fight for Human Rights' has stated, "Adivasi undertrials speak only adivasi language and there are no sufficient number of interpreters/translators available in courts, hence they are deprived of their fundamental right of fair trials as they are unable to explain the real facts and circumstances to the judicial officers."

While urgent action to help undertrials is certainly needed, the issue of basic rights of political prisoners should also be taken up on the basis of urgency. The special status of political prisoners should be recognised and respected. During the freedom movement the country witnessed several examples of glorious struggles for rights of political prisoners. The fasts, extending from 63 to 93 days, of Shahid Bhagat Singh, Jatindranath Dass, B K Dutt and other young revolutionaries for the rights of political prisoners can never be forgotten.

These rights are sometimes denied on the plea that political prisoners are alleged to be linked to violent movements. Even if these allegations are true, what harm can be done to security if those who are already imprisoned are treated more humanely. There can be absolutely no justification particularly for ill-treatment of sick, elderly and disabled persons.

In this context particularly a strong plea should be made for humane treatment of Dr G N Saibaba, who is 90 per cent disabled arid made great academic achievements overcoming poverty, disability and other difficulties. Surely no harm to security can be caused if a wheel chair bound prisoner like Dr G N Saibaba is treated with dignity and humanity.

Kobad Ghandy is another scholarly prisoner suffering from many ailments for whom more humane treatment is a must for protecting his health and life. His difficulties and ailments have been documented in detail by a campaign of the Doon Old Boys' Network for his release and/or humane treatment.

There are many such political prisoners for whom better treatment is needed on the basis of great urgency. At a wider level, rights of all political prisoners should be recognised and respected.

Recently the fast of Anup Roy in a jail in West Bengal for demanding political prisoner status was reported in the media. Earlier the Kolkata High Court had provided political prisoner status to several political prisoners on the basis of the state's Correctional Services Act. In the context of this wider demand for recognition of political prisoners and their rights, the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights of the UN (ICCPR) is an important reference point.

Sometimes bail is denied to those who have been jailed in the course of various agitations for workers. The recent most prominent such case has been that of about 148 Maruti Udyog workers in Gurgaon, Haryana. Several reports about them have expressed surprise at the denial of bail to them even though their sufferings and the sufferings of their family members have been highlighted from time to time.

Vol. 47, No. 21, Nov 30 - Dec 6, 2014