Injustice by govt?

Rise in Undertrials

By Dhurjati Mukherjee

There is a well-known saying that “justice delayed is justice denied”. But due to the enormous pendency of cases in the country, there are a huge number of undertrial prisoners who are crowding the jails. As per the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), data from all states for the year 2022 around 75 per cent of those in India’s 1330 prisons are undertrials. It has been found that the overall conviction rate for offences under the IPC is around 35 per cent while under UAPA, which has been increasingly used against professors, intellectuals and social activists, for their dissenting views, it is not even 10 to 12 per cent.

Even bail applications to UAPA victims are being denied on flimsy grounds. One may mention the case of G.N. Saibaba, who was acquitted by Bombay High Court after 10 years of what appears illegal imprisonment under UAPA. The price for this unjustified imprisonment, which includes his prestige and valuable years lost, is borne entirely by the so-called prisoner.

Very recently the online portal NewsClick Founder editor Prabir Purkayastha, was granted bail as the Supreme Court order observed: “There is no doubt in the mind of the court that any person arrested for allegation of commission of offences under provisions if UAPA or for that matter any other offence has a fundamental and statutory right to be informed about the grounds of arrest in writing and a copy of such written grounds of arrest has to be furnished to the arrested persons a matter of course and without exception at the earlies.”

The government has gone to the extent of arresting persons whom it does not consider favourable to the ruling dispensation even without a detailed and written communication of the grounds of arrest. It’s in this connection that the failure on the part of the police to inform Purkayastha and his advocate of the grounds of arrest and the proposed remand application as well as the timing of the remand proceedings  (as early as 6 am at the residence of the remand judge) suggest how investigative agencies may sidestep the process requirements to retain the custody of the accused.

It is indeed distressing to note that with around 50 lakh arrests recorded every year and thousands of remand applications heard by judges every day, the criminal nature of this function cannot be overlooked, more so considering the extreme overcrowding in the prisons.

Delving into statistics, as per NCRB, over the last 10 years, the number of undertrials in jails has risen consistently and peaked in 2021. In 2020, about 76 per cent of all prison inmates in the country were undertrials, of which about 68 per cent were either illiterates or school dropouts. Delhi and Jammu & Kashmir were found to have the highest ratio of undertrials in jails at 91 per cent, followed by Bihar and Punjab at 85 per cent, and Odisha at 83 per cent.

It is also worth noting that in countries like the US, the UK and many other European countries, those in illegal imprisonment are eligible to file claims for compensation, which are then evaluated. However, in India no such system is prevalent. Various suggestions for a special law to compensate victims did feature in a report of the Law Commission in August 2018.

The former Supreme Court judge, B. S. Chauhan, recommended a law to compensate victims of miscarriage of justice, but nothing has been done till date. It was recommended that an interim compensation between Rs 25,000 and Rs 50,000 be paid in cases where a person spent more than six months in jail. The report also said the court should provide petitioners with non-pecuniary assistance for rehabilitation of victims, who have suffered imprisonment for no fault of theirs.

It is in this connection that the government as also the judiciary has a responsibility to the democratic process and to society for keeping such huge number undertrials in prisons. While the number of judges must be increased, specially in the High Courts, to start with retired judges may be engaged for say a year or so on contractual basis to clear at least some cases. It is, however, strange that no political party in their manifesto has talked of strengthening the judiciary and appointing more judges to clear cases.

The undertrials are victims of multiple failings that start with inappropriate criminalisation, followed by indiscriminate arrests, weak bail entitlements and inadequate summary disposals through Lok Adalats.  A large number of such prisoners are quite poor and cannot approach the judiciary for redressal. The need is for a holistic legislative reform that aims to expand of individual liberties. Moreover, automatic extension of remands has to stop which are also given merely for the sake of the convenience of the authorities.

It is worthwhile to recall here that the Supreme Court appointed a committee under retired Justice Amitava Roy, which gave some valuable recommendations pertaining to reforming prisons as well as treatment of undertrials. But these have not been taken seriously by the government. While speedy trials were emphasised, it suggested setting up of special fast-track courts to deal exclusively with petty offences which have been pending for more than five years.

An important recommendation was that adjournments should not be granted in cases where witnesses are present and the concept of plea bargaining, in which the accused admits guilt for a lesser sentence, should be promoted. Even in 2017, the Law Commission recommendation that undertrials who completed a third of their maximum sentence for offences up to seven years of imprisonment be released on bail, has not been fully implemented.

Experts have opined that the emphasis should be on reducing undertrial population by implementing the amended statutory provisions, judicial decisions regarding rights of undertrials, arrests and grant of bails, and the recommendations of various committees on prison reforms. It goes without saying that prisoners should be provided with better facilities than convicts, including food, clothing, adequate medical facilities, sanitation, recreation and frequent communication with relatives and lawyers. A committee may again be appointed, jointly by the apex court in consultation with the government, to investigate the problems of undertrials and ensure they do not have to languish in jails unnecessarily. The new government must put this on its agenda. — INFA