Who’s Pratap Naik, you could justifiably ask, and why am I devoting this week’s Sentiments to him? Let me give you the answer before I tell you his story. Pratap Naik is an example of the unforgivable neglect and wilful injustice that is the lot of millions of Indians. Actually tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions. Their experiences are not just tragic but truly pathetic. Yet, we rarely get to know them or, if we do, we soon lose interest. Our lives are so different that Pratap’s is never more than a tale — disturbing, shocking, even harrowing, but then forgotten and eventually dismissed. Despite this, I want to bring Pratap to your notice. Because ultimately we are responsible. Not as individuals but as members of society and citizens of our nation. Indeed, we permit such injustice to happen.
On the 26th of February 1989, Pratap Naik, a Dalit boy, was arrested in connection with a murder case arising out of a land dispute in Ghimuani village, Boudh District, Orissa. At the time, he was 14 and a student in class VIII. But Pratap was not treated as a juvenile. Instead, he was made the main accused and the sessions court found him guilty and gave him a life sentence. This was the first tragic twist of fate. Actually, it was a miscarriage of justice.
In 1991, Pratap was granted bail by the Orissa High Court but his parents could not afford the 5,000 rupee surety. So he remained in jail. Absolutely no one stepped forward to help him. Eventually in 1994, the High Court acquitted Pratap. But did he walk free? Did he return to his interrupted childhood and his separated family? Life — or justice — had a few more tragic twists in store.
The High Court’s acquittal order was sent to the sessions court but due to the negligence of a court employee, the corresponding release order was never sent to the jail. So Pratap remained incarcerated till 2003. That’s nine more years. Virtually a decade of imprisonment after being found innocent. Frankly, I cannot conceive of anything more tragic — or more unjust.
Physically and mentally broken, his parents too poor to help and the state government unwilling to step-in — perhaps even unaware of his existence — Pratap was eventually restored to freedom. And promptly forgotten. No paper bothered about his story. No television channel ran campaigns to secure compensation. No politician took up his case. The oblivion from which injustice had once rudely snatched him closed around him yet again.
In 2005, Prabir Das, a Bhubaneshwar-based advocate and human rights activist, found out about Pratap and filed a public interest litigation in the Orissa High Court seeking Rs 10 lakh as compensation on his behalf. It was dismissed. Undaunted, Mr Das went to the Supreme Court. This august body instructed the High Court to hear the mater. Finally, on August 20, 2007 Pratap was awarded Rs 8 lakh. No explanation was given for reducing the amount.
After 13 years in jail — including a decade after establishing his innocence — wrongly tried as an adult and sentenced for life when he was a minor of 14, wilfully neglected and deliberately forgotten by the authorities, ignored by press and politicians, and condemned to oblivion till Prabir Das chanced upon him, is this justice?
Eight lakh is the price we’ve paid to absolve our collective guilt. Now we can return to our fashion weeks and fancy malls, our business dinners and designer clothes, our Diwali parties and high-stake flush. But how much of this can Rs 8 lakh buy for Pratap?
The paradox is that he’s grateful. “I will try to rebuild my house and get married,” Pratap says. “This 8 lakh will be a great help for me to build my future."
If Pratap’s gratitude makes you feel small and you feel we owe him a lot more, I suggest you contact Prabir Das. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org. His mobile number is 093382-31592.
Meanwhile, I wonder what sort of Diwali Pratap will have.