In the great Tamil epic of Silappatikaram, the hero Kovalan is accused of stealing the queen’s anklet. A hasty trial is conducted in the court of the Pandyan ruler Nedunjeliyan, who orders Kovalan’s execution, which is promptly carried out. Kannagi, the wife of Kovalan, storms into the Pandyan court and proves that her husband was innocent. The anklet that Kovalan was trying to sell was in fact hers and not the queen’s. Tormented by the guilt of killing an innocent man, the king commits suicide. Kannagi burns down the city of Madurai, as not a single soul of this famed city of culture and refinement had raised their voice against the gross injustice done to her husband. The epic, among many other things, warns against the hasty conclusion of trials. In modern times, though no ruler shows remorse for any acts committed voluntarily or otherwise, we have taken to our heart to never conduct any hasty trials.
What else would explain the 3.3 crore cases pending in our courts? There are litigations that are going on for many decades. When Justice Dipak Misra was the Chief Justice of India, he had mentioned in a speech that there were 2.84 cases pending in subordinate courts. The high courts had 43 lakh cases pending while the Supreme Court had 58,000 cases. According to the National Judicial Data Grid, Uttar Pradesh (61.58 lakh), Maharashtra (33.22 lakh), West Bengal (17.59 lakh), Bihar (16.58 lakh) and Gujarat (16.45 lakh) had the maximum number of pending cases.
Our jails are brimming with undertrials. Most of them cannot afford bail or a lawyer. The high and mighty get away without much difficulty while the inhuman system crushes the poor and the marginalised. Some have spent more time behind bars than the maximum sentence they might have served on conviction.
The most infamous of these cases is that of Machal Lalung. He was from Tiwa tribe of Assam. He was arrested in 1951 for ‘causing grievous harm’. He couldn’t speak Assamese, Hindi or English. Most probably, he didn’t even know why he was arrested. He spent the next 54 years in a jail without facing a trial. After the intervention of human rights groups, he was released in 2005. In any country that values life and dignity of its citizen, in the unlikely event of such a case, the authorities concerned would have been taken to task and made to pay a hefty compensation. In India, life is cheap, especially if you are poor and don’t speak the dominant languages. So, you have undertrials such as Lalung, who are caged up and forgotten. The authorities got away by paying a monthly allowance that barely covered his meagre ration. Lalung died seven years later, impoverished and uncared for, except by some kind souls in his village.
The Amnesty International had found that there are more than 2.8 lakh undertrials in our jails who haven’t got a single hearing. Two out of three prisoners in India are awaiting trials; 40 percent of the criminal cases pending before the court are more than five years old; in the SC, more than 30 percent of pending cases are more than five years old; some state high courts have the dubious distinction of having more than 15 percent pending cases from 1980s.
Many civil cases and property disputes are languishing for more than a century. All the parties, the advocates representing either side and the judges who were sitting on the cases, have died long ago, only to be replaced by a new set. One wonders whether the scenes out of Charles Dickens’ Bleak House are being played out every day, like a cult ritual.
It is unfair to blame only the judiciary. India has 19.66 judges per 10 lakh population. Among democratic countries, this is the lowest. Developed countries have 50 judges per 10 lakh population. To add to the woes, more cases are filed every year than they are disposed of, adding to the humongous pile of pending cases. The courts don’t have enough support staff. Budgetary allocation by respective state and the Central Government for the judiciary is a pathetic 0.1-0.4 percent.
Now, add to this the incongruous colonial era practice of adjourning the courts for a fortnight to two months of summer vacation. In 1866, while inaugurating the Allahabad High Court, Lord Chelmsford, the then Governor General of India, said, “My Lords, yours is a strange world indeed. Your year comprises five months, your week comprises five days and your day comprises five hours.” Nothing much has changed, except that we have added another century of pending cases.
The courts don’t have time to tackle burning issues, while bizarre judgments like banning shaded glasses in car windows get passed with lightning speed. It seems that the courts are overwhelmed by the sheer number of cases and the honourable judges, knowing the futility of tackling the Himalayan pile, have started resorting to giving judgements on cases that would hog the headlines. Courts spend time deciding who should sleep with whom, imposing Victorian era morals on homosexuality and then reversing it or deciding how one should pray in a temple or dargah.
Unless we overhaul the judiciary, our future as a law-abiding democracy is in danger. Already, people have started losing their faith in a judicial recourse. Business cannot thrive where contracts cannot be imposed. Given the multiple adjournments and the sheer number of pending cases, any powerful man can break the law with impunity. It is time to recruit enough judges, make all the courts work in three shifts, 365 days a year and restrict the number of adjournments. Else, the burden of pending cases and justice delayed, thus denied, would sink our democracy.
Author, columnist, speaker