June 23, 2006 12:06:10 am
Pleas for judicial reform are replete with stories of men and women overstaying in prison the tenure written into the provisions of law they are charged to be violating. The large number of undertrials — that is, persons yet to be convicted — lodged in Indian prisons has always made it difficult to look straight at the constitutional promises of justice. The latest official figures put that number at 2.23 lakh. Out of a total number of 3.22 prison inmates, that make seven out of every 10 an undertrial. First, then, there is the absurdity — an absurdity underlined with such tragic consequences — of persons charged with petty crime, but in the absence of trial or surety having to remain behind bars for years on end. Second, there is the comment this yields on the carriage of justice in India.
It is therefore a great relief that better sense has finally prevailed, and an amendment in the Code of Criminal Procedure comes into effect today. An amendment passed by Parliament sets free all undertrials who have spent in prison half the time or more of the maximum term reserved for their alleged crime. Crimes that come with the death penalty are an understandable exception — but even here, we would hope that some assistance will be forthcoming to prevent unfair incarceration. By some counts, 50,000 undertrials will now be eligible for release. That still leaves too large a number of undertrials in prison. Fixing this would require wider reform. It would mean addressing the huge backlog in courts. More than 20 million criminal and civil cases are pending in the lower courts. Fast track courts and greater numbers of judicial appointments have been sporadically tried. But the magnitude of the backlog and the insistent lethargy of the justice delivery system demand more imaginative solutions.
In 1929, Jatin Das’s fatal 63-day fast in a Lahore jail to demand better living conditions for undertrials became an abiding indictment of the colonial justice system. The continued presence of men and women in jails for want of a conclusive trial is, similarly, a blot that discredits democratic India in more ways than one.