West Bengal's Dum Dum Central Jail could put the notorious Abu Ghraib in a shade going by some of the disturbing incidents which have taken place there recently. A mere request for better food earned Bikram Mahato, undergoing trial for murder, a severe beating after which he was handcuffed and kept naked in a cell. And this is not an isolated incident in this jail. When Mahato had complained about the quality of the food in 2010, the authorities in a cruel response forced him to drink a solution of bleaching powder. In the same year, Sheikh Farhat Mahmood was stripped and beaten in Kolkata's Presidency Central Jail for wanting some time out of his cell. What compounds this brutality is the fact that all these were undertrials, presumed innocent until proven guilty for the crimes that they are accused of.
The government estimates that undertrials make for 67% of its prison population. According to a report released by the National Crime Records Bureau in 2011, the number of undertrials in the country was 2,41,200. The fact that there are more undertrials than there are convicts suggests that the system is dragging its feet over the fate of many who may be innocent. There is merit in the advice that undertrials and convicts be kept separately. But the real issue here is judicial delays and with this often the miscarriage of justice. There were 66,569 cases still pending in the Supreme Court at the end of January 2013, and at the end of 2011, there were still 3.2 crore cases awaiting resolution in the higher and subordinate courts. Some like Machang Lalung waited for 54 years in a prison. Charged with physical assault when he was 23, the Assamese tribal was surprisingly never tried. In 2007, he was freed at the age of 77. He died in 2009, two years after his release. There was no recompense for a lifetime of wrongful captivity.
An advisory issued to states by the central government this month gives cause for some hope. Wanting to correct the systemic wrongs that see undertrials imprisoned for indefinite lengths of time, the Centre has asked states to release all such individuals, if and when they complete half the sentence their presumed offence demands. While rampant poverty and illiteracy among undertrials seem to have informed such a measure, the happenings at Dum Dum Central Jail cannot be allowed to slide. If West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee wants to put an end to the rot in the state's prisons, she could take a leaf out of UP's book where 71 undertrial prisoners are appearing for board examinations this year. She must understand that this sort of trial by error is hardly in the interest of the people who looked to her for a more humane form of governance.