A few weeks. That’s all that separates Jayalalithaa and me. Venue: the Bangalore Central Jail. I was arrested and imprisoned in the same jail as Jayalalithaa. But for a few weeks, we could have been in the same jail, perhaps sharing a cell. And we’re both out on bail. And that’s where the similarity ends.
Something is dreadfully wrong with both these pictures. Jayalalithaa’s trial lasted for eight years (why so long?). Her incarceration lasted for 21 days (why so short?). Oh we have answers to both, but I am asking why? Is this the legal system that serves us?
Take my case. A Lookout notice for me at all international airports in India. Detained, put in remand, arrested, and imprisoned in the Bangalore jail. Why? There is a case against me. With no evidence, but a case. Anyone in India can open their mouth and accuse me of anything, and with enough money and political pressure, you can put a US citizen in jail without a trial, without a conviction, without even a cogent case.
That leads me to ask: the official statistics in Indian prisons is, 66% of inmates are people awaiting trial; in some states the number is 80%. Really? Indian prisons are at 112% capacity, and they have more undertrials than convicts? These are people who have not been found guilty, they are waiting to be tried in the court of law. Some of these people have been in jail for longer than the crimes they have been accused of, without even being tried for the crime!
Where did ‘presumed innocent until found guilty’ go? And that’s not all; here’s the rub: in accordance with a right to a speedy trial, where Scotland has mandated a maximum time an undertrial can be kept incarcerated is 110 days otherwise the man walks free, in India, the average number of days your liberty would be taken away from you is 9.3 months. If that doesn’t seem like a long time, try and imagine yourself locked in a cell for 12 hours a day with criminals serving life sentences, and for the rest of the 12 hours in a building you can’t get out of. 30% of these are kept under lock and key for over a year awaiting trial; many for several years. In terms of absolute time spent incarcerated, the undertrial population has spent ~545 years behind bars, a staggering 66% of these years suffered by undertrials in jail for over a year.
India makes a big hoo-ha about not taking people’s life and liberty away. My life and liberty, my physical health, my mental health, my ability to provide for my aged parents was taken from me without so much as an ‘if-you-please’. If an accusation is an indictment, what rights do I have?
You want justice? Let’s look at the options of defense in the Indian legal system. I have come up with four tiers of the law a-la Dances with Wolves:
The free non-assistance: If you are truly destitute, the court will appoint a junior lawyer for you, who is disinterested in the case, disinterested in moving it toward a quick resolution, and disinterested in not receiving money for his/her work. These cases last for several years to several lifetimes. You can cool your heels in jail. The law is this one’s bored wife.
Low-cost and poof: If you go to a sessions court, wear shabby clothes, look around sporting a distraught expression on your face, you will find yourself the center of attention of several ‘good samaritans’ who will ask you if you are in distress and need help. If you say yes, you need help, they will assess your clothes and your hindi, and for 2-3 thousand, promise to help you bid adieu to your legal problems. After you give them the money, they bid adieu to you and your legal problems leaving you with your problem and minus funds. The law is this one’s one-night stand.
Friends with cops: This category of lawyer is friends with the cops. For a fee of 50k -1L (25k of which goes to the cops) they can do magic with your papers so there is a technicality in them that disgusts the judge enough to throw out the investigation. Such as getting the name of your father wrong. This is the first tier of ‘the law is my b*tch’. This is the first real option of defense.
Dines with judges: This lawyer attends Diwali parties with sitting judges, funds their children’s trips abroad, lubes their futures in MNCs, legal counsels in MNCs, or their future in the United States. This lawyer charges 1-30 lakhs per hearing, and is the apex of ‘the law is my b*tch’ legal spectrum.
The average case in a sessions court can easily cost 2-3 lakhs (INR 200,000- 300,000), runs to about 3 years, and as the first viable option of real defense, is far beyond the year of the common man. The high court can readily take 9 lakhs and hundreds of wasted man hours and mental anguish. The Supreme Court is anyone’s guess. Lawyers here can charge 30 -50 lakhs per hearing.
So besides the cost, what else is wrong with our legal system? The population of India has burgeoned, the number of courts remained more or less the same. The number of pending cases in the country? 30 million. Talk about a workload you can’t get to in several lifetimes.
The productive and real costs that individuals and families pay in the morass of the Indian legal system are very real, and unaccounted for. In man hours lost, in travel expenses, in inability to provide for families, estrangement of friends and families, damage to credibility and reputation, the damage runs into the thousands of crores. The Indian legal system might just be the most damaging and damning system of the country.
There are honest and hardworking lawyers, but given the system and personal ethics, they are far and few in between.
Indian law is the bitch of cops, politicians, the moneyed, with their knowledge of loopholes, ego woundings, bullying tactics, and money to bend men and minds into pretzels. The common man in India can’t hope to touch the helm of this mistress’ robe. Its not enough of a scourge of the poor to worry about their next meal, to work harder in the sweltering sun. They are kicked around knowing if caught in this web of deceit, they have no hope of getting out. Thousands of people languish in jail for years because they don’t even have money for bail, or for a hearing. Their only crime? Poverty.
That’s at one end of the spectrum. At the other end, known, convicted criminals walking free, leading their lives.
Whatever else the Indian law may be about, it ain’t about justice.