Many languish in jails for no fault of theirs

By K Raveendran

The Supreme Court has kept its word in terms of protecting the rights of undertrials by granting bail to journalist Siddique Kappan, who has spent over two years in UP jails without trial in connection with the Hathras conspiracy case.
The decisive action comes within weeks of the apex court having warned the UP government as well as the Allahabad High Court for not taking prompt action to release undertrial prisoners languishing in jails for more than 10 years despite an earlier order from the court.
A two-member bench of Justices Sanjay Kishan Kaul and M M Sundresh had declared that the Supreme Court was ready to ‘take the burden’ on itself and grant the affected people relief if the government and the courts did not do justice to them.
That these were not just hollow words and grandstanding was proved beyond any doubt when earlier this week when a bench headed by Chief Justice U U Lalit and Justice S Ravindra Bhat passed an order allowing the appeal filed by Kappan against the Allahabad High Court’s order denying him bail.
Kerala-based Kappan, who has now spent almost two years behind bars, was arrested, along with other accused by the UP police in October 2020 while proceeding to report the Hathras rape-murder crime. While initially he was arrested under the apprehension of causing a breach of peace, subsequently, he was booked under the UAPA alleging that he and his co-passengers were trying to incite communal riots and disrupt social harmony in the wake of the Hathras gangrape-murder case.
While Kappan claimed that he had gone there to report on the situation after the gangrape and the trouble over it, various UP courts, including the Allahabad High Court, had rejected his plea saying he had ‘no work’ there in Hathras.
The Chief Justice-led bench, while not going into the merit of the case, declared that the denial of bail was unwarranted. The judges said they were not impressed with the evidences cited by the prosecution for denial of bail by asking whether possession of ‘provocative’ literature by the accused meant that he was practising whatever was contained there. As long as that cannot be proved, there is no ground to continue to hold him in prison without bail, the court ordered.
Undertrials languishing in jails has been a bane of the country’s judicial system, with consecutive chief justices raising alarms over the issue. According to data compiled by the National Crime Records Bureau, four-fifths of all prisoners in the country are undertrials, which amount to a gross violation of the fundamental rights of such a large population.
Former Chief Justice N V Ramana had raised this issue before his retirement and stressed that there was need to increase the efficiency of the country’s criminal justice system. From indiscriminate arrest to difficulty in obtaining bail, the process leading to prolonged incarceration of undertrial prisoners needs urgent attention, he said, while calling for a holistic solution to the problem. The outgoing CJI listed this as the most important planks for judicial reform.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi had also recently spotlighted the plight of undertrials and called upon the National Legal Services Authority to provide prompt legal help to these people so that they can secure bail and be released from jails. The problem has been widely considered as a collective failure of the Indian state.
The worst part is that a large number of these undertrials may have been wrongly confined on faulty or fabricated charges. Thousands are presumably innocent and are in jail because they are only accused of a crime that is still not proven in a court of law and there is no effort from the agencies concerned, including the courts, to either speed up trail or help the victims with legal recourse against their illegal confinement. The result is that they end up spending their best years in jail. When their cases finally come up for consideration, the courts treat those as routinely as anything else and not a thought is spared on how such large population of citizens are wronged by a faulty system. (IPA Service)