An image of Father Stan Swany on a sipper-cup and badges that rights groups issued as part of their campaign demanding the release of the Jesuit priest and 15 other activists accused of terror links. (Photo: UCA News)
How long should an accused person in India stay in jail without trial? It depends not on the alleged crime but on the ability, or lack of it, to cough up the bail fee and hire a lawyer.
The cases of daily deaths under detention are alarming. More than four people died in custody every day in 2019-20, the federal Ministry of Home Affairs informed parliament in September 2020.
The 84-year-old Indian Jesuit priest Stan Swamy, who died on July 5, was one of them. He was the oldest person in India to be charged with terrorism.
His death caused a national uproar, but within a week or so it died down. Thousands like him continue in Indian jails without court trials, some for years.
Government records show that 70 percent of 478,000 people lodged inside 1,350 prisons are “undertrials” — a term used in India to denote people in custody waiting for their trials to begin.
The numbers are increasing every year without anyone making any serious attempt to change the system. In 1978, around 54 percent of Indian prisoners were undertrials. By 2017, the figure rose to 68 percent before touching 70 percent in 2020.
India's judicial system, a copy of the British court system, is geared to favor the rich and powerful who exploit loopholes in the law to escape punishment
Despite being the largest democracy in the world, India was ranked 15th among 217 nations on the basis of its undertrial population.
Even in the United States, known for having the highest prison population in the world, the percentage of undertrials was only 20 percent.
Why do thousands of Indians continue to languish in jails without trial?
A majority of them are young, poor and barely literate, coming from families with low socioeconomic conditions. About 28 percent of undertrials cannot even write their names, while 50 percent have not even studied up to 10th grade.
Dalits or former untouchable castes and tribal people constitute 24 percent of India’s 1.3 billion people but account for 34 percent of the undertrials in its jails.
India's judicial system, a copy of the British court system, is geared to favor the rich and powerful who exploit loopholes in the law to escape punishment.
The economically weaker sections of the population pay a higher price for even petty crimes like pickpocketing or stealing food. Unaware of their legal rights, they continue to languish in jail.
The sad part is that a lot of undertrials are in the prime of their lives — 48 percent are aged 18-30. Those between 30-50 years constitute 40 percent of the undertrials.
The simple norm of "first in, first out" is difficult to practice under the Indian judicial system. Influential people can tilt the balance and get priority for a hearing or delay it by getting as many adjournments as they wish.
It is nothing but an irony of fate that a priest, who spent years working to liberate the unjustly jailed, died behind bars accused of collaborating with terrorists
The Indian legal system lays stress on the right to consult and be defended by a legal practitioner of the accused's choice. But many poor prisoners remain unaware of the free legal aid system available to all.
Many are innocent and often facing false cases registered by police to protect the real culprits. The law allows Indian police wide-ranging powers. They can arrest anyone without a warrant on the basis of mere suspicion.
More than half of undertrials are charged with non-serious offenses where the maximum sentence is less than 2-7 years. Records reveal that many end up spending more years in jail than they would have if convicted.
The slow legal process is causing an increasing backlog, which further delays court trials for the poor.
The state-funded National Crime Records Bureau's records show that more than 1,600 Indians die in custody every year.
It is nothing but an irony of fate that a priest, who spent years working to liberate the unjustly jailed, died behind bars accused of collaborating with terrorists.
Before his arrest on Oct. 8, 2020, Father Swamy was a key figure in leading a stir against what he considered the wrongful detention of more than 3,000 tribal people in Jharkhand. Many of them were accused of helping outlawed Maoist rebels in the eastern Indian state.
Scores of nuns, priests and lay volunteers silently work for the welfare of prisoners. Many bishops visit jails as part of the ministry
The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India oversees a specialized ministry called the Prison Ministry India (PMI) with units in most dioceses.
“The PMI has legal service units with the participation of nuns working in all major jails across India. Besides, there are special task forces dedicated to taking care of prisoners on death row kept in high-security prisons,” national coordinator Father Francis Kodiyan said.
Many prisoners are declared mentally disturbed and kept in central jails. The special task forces also take care of them, he added.
Scores of nuns, priests and lay volunteers silently work for the welfare of prisoners. Many bishops visit jails as part of the ministry. The second Sunday of every August is observed as Prison Ministry Sunday with special prayers and activities for jail inmates.
Father Kodiyan said 2021 marks the 40th anniversary of the establishment of the prison ministry and new projects, such as more homes and scholarships for prisoners’ children and housing schemes for those released from prison, are being planned.
But what the Indian Church lacks is a fully fledged ministry to liberate those unjustly arrested and detained in jails across India. It is time the Church made undertrials a priority like Father Swamy did.
The Jesuit priest’s detention and death should prompt the Church to launch a project to ensure freedom for thousands of poor, young and illiterate detainees languishing in Indian jails.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.