Justice, as perceived by everyone, starts from the day a criminal is arrested and ends with the day he or she is convicted. But the long days in between, thanks to our overburdened criminal justice system, is when the black and white of guilt and innocence shades into grey.
BJP MP from Bhopal and an accused in the Malegaon 2008 blast case, Pragya Singh Thakur, recently attended a hearing and complained about the unhygienic conditions at the Mumbai City Civil and Sessions Court. Dust in the courtroom gave her allergies, she said. She asked if it was even swept regularly.
Of the thousands of undertrials and their families who flock to the court corridors, few would have posed that question. For this is the only place that, despite its squalor, restores them to a “normal” life.
In Maharashtra, blood relatives of undertrials and convicts can meet them in jail during weekly mulaqats through wire meshes or glass cubicles. Courts, despite severe restrictions, are still a preferred spot to meet. Relatives meet each other without physical restrictions; they can sit next to each other, or steal some moments of affection.
It’s in the court corridors that you see a right-wing terror accused making faces at his toddler from across the courtroom. You see another terror accused offer namaz by spreading a newspaper on the floor. You see women arguing with police personnel to allow one hurriedly-packed vada pav or omelette pav for their husbands and sons. You can spot undertrials eating a McDonald’s meal and sipping cola. Diwali, Eid, Rakshabandhan and other festivals are celebrated here a day after. Sisters bring rakhis to tie on their brothers’ wrists; a woman serves sheer khorma to her undertrial husband in an ornate bowl to make it seem like home.
The court is but one layer of a criminal justice system, where delays are punitive. According to the Prison Statistics of India, 2016 (the latest figures available), more than half of the total inmate population in the country (2.9 lakh of 4.3 lakh inmates) were undertrials. According to the National Judicial Data Grid, the pending criminal cases in the country are 2.23 crore. Of these, 3.4 lakh or 15.21 per cent are pending for more than 5-10 years. Moreover, multiple studies in the past have claimed that among undertrial inmates, Dalits, Advasis and Muslims are over-represented due to factors including lack of proper legal aid.
Once caught inside this maze, the way out is not easy. But it is at the courts that some light shines through. Walking through the corridors, you will often hear a father advising his teenage son on the importance of education, or saying, “Mummy ko takleef mat do (Don’t give your mother any trouble)”. The “section” court, as pronounced by many, is also where relatives hunt for vantage points from which to see their loved one, till is ferried back to his jail cell.
One such woman is a mother of two, her husband, a driver, in prison on charges of murder. “I cannot tell my kids that he is in prison, they are too young. I have told them he is now employed as a driver with the police, to explain the presence of policemen,” she once said. For every visit, her daughter dresses up in a new frock and rattles off the new English words she has learnt in school, as her father beams with pride.
It is not always a place of hope. The corridors have heard many people screaming their innocence even as courts pronounce them guilty. They have seen helpless family members, quietly realising that this is the end. It has seen the emptiness felt by undertrials, who have been told that they were wrongly arrested, that after spending years in prison, they have to go back to society and catch up with lost time.
I once met a teenage girl, in jail on charges of helping policemen kill a gangster in a fake encounter. The Facebook-obsessed girl often speaks of missing social media to the point of feeling depressed. Whenever she visits courts, she checks the website on her younger sister’s phone and watches life go on for others her age.
Judgment days are always difficult. People you have seen in the corridors for years are suddenly viewed in the light of the crime they are alleged to have committed. Like one of the accused in the 1993 blast case, who would often share his nazms, or an undertrial in the Malegaon 2008 blast case, who spoke of the 210 books he wrote in his nine years of imprisonment. The corridors show crime and criminals beyond the binary of guilt and innocence.
Over three years ago, a 26-year-old from an impoverished family in Delhi was sentenced to death for murder by a court. His mother came, but had to leave soon as she could not afford to stay.
As the young man stood alone outside the courtroom, shaking with fear, a police constable brought him a vada pav and a bottle of water. The constable, old enough to be the man’s father, sat him down and calmed him. “On the days of their bail hearings or judgments, undertrials come with a lot of hope, some wear their favourite shirt or carry a lucky handkerchief, some stop by at the small temple below. For us, it cannot always be about whether they are guilty or innocent. One cannot stop being human,” the constable said.
This article appeared in print with the headline ‘Bearing Witness’