By Tinku Paul:
All humans are born equal and free, but restrictions in the form of duties are imposed on humans to ensure the rights of others. With unbridled social change both in the domestic and public sphere, there has been growth in the number of crimes. Empirical research has proven that these crimes have mostly been committed by people who have been posed with confronting and compelling situations given their socio-economic and cultural ambience, that constructs and deconstructs their personality.
In this article I place before the reader’s some questions. ‘What comprises justice?’, ‘Who decides justice?’, ‘Who assigns the authoritative power to do justice?.’ India is a democratic country with people elected representatives ruling the people. In this context where the law is governed by the Constitution of India that safeguards the right to equality and right to life, I would like to know, ‘In the Indian context is justice delayed, or is justice denied?.’ Let me put forth a live example of a martyr Mahendra Gagrai, a prisoner released from Central Jail of Naini after 25 years of rigorous imprisonment.
Appalled by utter poverty, drought and starvation, Gagrai’s family was forced to migrate in 1989 from Jharkhand’s (then undivided Bihar) tribal village, Chaibasa of Singhbhum district, to work in Sultanpur in Uttar Pradesh. This was the first time Mahendra had chosen to migrate to brick kilns for labour. He had earlier travelled to nearby cities for petty pipe fitting works in company provided residential houses. Mahendra was a father of four (Sukhmoti, Sumitra, Sumoti and Krishna) and had lost his eldest son, Jagdish, to acute diarrhoea. He attributed his death to some witchcraft (jaadu-tona).
Mahendra was contracted by his mother-in-law who assured him of regular work for 6-7 months. Along with him, 10-12 labourers also migrated. He, along with his wife preferred to do ‘dhowai‘, i.e., carrying bricks from the site to the furnace.
Once Gagrai’s mother-in-law promised to come back from the village with some more labourers. She asked Gagrai’s wife to care of her belongings in the meanwhile and especially instructed her to take care that no one used her bedding. A fellow labourer who came by his own to this kiln from a neighbouring village of Odisha ignored this instruction. He tried to use her bedding which offended Mahendra’s wife. Even after repeated instructions, he disobeyed. The person had a criminal background and threatened them of dire circumstances if they angered him. In the next few days, Gagrai’s only son Krishna became ill and suffered from loose motions. Medicines did not help. He then took him to an ‘ojha‘ who he ardently believed in. The strong faith in orthodox superstitions had hardened with his past experience of his eldest son’s death. Mahendra willed to leave no stone unturned to cure his son. The ojha told him that he smelt some foul play done on his son by a fellow labourer with whom he had had heated talks lately. Gagrai tried his level best to persuade the other labourer to take off the foul play (witchcraft) from his son, but the person denied and told him that his son was destined to die. His fellow-labourers told him that the man was ill-famous and notorious, for which he had been discarded from his native village.
Months passed, and Gagrai reiterated his pleas with no heed from the other side. His only son was close to death. Now he had no choice and he desperately willed to kill the man. One evening he smashed the man’s head with a lathi. Unexpectedly, the man died in one blow. Desperately, Gagrai alongwith some other labourers managed to take the body to a nearby well. Before disposing of the body in the well, Gagrai mercilessly culled the man’s hands, legs, neck and also his stomach.
Next morning, the body swelled up and floated to visibility of the nearby villagers who then informed the police. After interrogations, Gagrai was caught, and he accepted the crime. In 1989, he was convicted of murder under section 302 and conspiracy to hide evidence under section 201. He was sentenced to rigorous punishment and life imprisonment in the Sultanpur District jail. He was jailed at 37 years of age and his wife and three daughters (son passed away) went back to their native village to survive with the nominal options of life. In 1992, he was transferred to Central Jail of Naini, Allahabad. Here he was involved in dari (rags and coarse form of carpets) making, cultivation of vegetables etc. His outlook towards life underwent sweeping changes there. The once daring Mahendra now became submissive and God-fearing. He remembers some quotations from the New Testament which he read in jail. He even put off offers to become the ‘Nambardar’ in the jail. He refused this on grounds that he did want to inflict pain and torture on anyone again. He did not want to become dominant and forcing on others. He was happy and contented with whatever life had for him.
Acknowledging his good behavior and record, he was given a release order from jail in the year 2006 under the Remittance Act. The jail authorities informed the District Commissioner of Jharkhand to assure two sureties worth Rs. 5000 each and get him released. But, years went by, commissioners of the districts changed, but there was no response from Mahendra’s family. Mahendra even wrote letters to the administration and his family through the pradhan, but nothing happened. It was assumed by Mahendra that the 16 bighas of land owned by him and his three brothers could be one plausible reason for no response. Which turned out to be true.
Mahendra’s brothers were apprehensive of land fragmentation after giving a share to Mahendra. Therefore, they declared him dead and all the letters written by Gagrai to his family from jail never reached his wife. She, being a tribal woman who had no outside contacts, blindly believed them. She removed all signs of her being married. There was absolutely no hope from either side.The greed of 16 bighas of land was enough for Gagrai’s brothers to ditch him.
Sheeba Jose, who, due to her relentless work has been accredited by the Uttar Pradesh State Legal Service Authority to visit jails and other confinement centers like nariniketans, juvenile homes, etc. and suggest improvement measures, took up the initiative to take up this case of Gagrai. The Senior Superintendant of Naini Central Jail provided all details and possible support to Sheeba Jose. She, along with her team of lawyers perused the case left and right. The district administration was questioned on its lackadaisical performance and interest shown on this case. Soon the BDO was obliged to reach the village and trace Gagrai’s home and family members. Within a month, sureties were arranged by the pradhan of the village and head of the community.
After 7 years of wait and patience, Gagrai, who had lost all hopes to see the outside world, gathered hopes to see his people once again. It was a new life for him. In the past 25 years, his family had slowly lost all hopes of his release or him being alive. On 3rd November, 2014, Gagrai’s release order finally reached by radiogram to the jail authorities. Early morning on 4th of November, Gagrai was released and handed over to the intervening NGO. After his release, the pradhan, his wife and youngest daughter came to take him back home, not the brothers. The happy reunion of the family finally took place. Gagrai saw his wife and youngest daughter after 25 years, who he could hardly identify.
The process of trial and justice is slow and painful, imposing serious physical and mental burden on languishing prisoners. Acknowledging the state of affairs a prisoner is subject to in imprisonment, it may be conferred that every fundamental right of a citizen is conditioned by the functioning/malfunctioning of the State machinery. This bureaucratic fixation is supported by a callous attitude of the judiciary, protectors of judiciary and legislative functioning (prison authorities) and unawareness of the victims about their legal or judicial rights. Mahendra Gagrai is one example, but there are many more like him, still awaiting justice.