Bombay HC is right to underline the need for dignity for undertrials. Speedy justice must also be made a priority
The weeks that it took for a straw and a sipper to reach an 83-year-old tribal rights activist afflicted with Parkinson’s; the time it took for authorities in a Mumbai jail to turn away a pair of spectacles meant for a civil rights activist — both, among many other instances, are a measure of the gap between human dignity and the justice system. The Bombay High Court must be thanked for stepping into this gap and speaking up for “humanity”. While hearing the bail pleas of two other activists arrested in the Elgar Parishad case, it questioned the Taloja jail authorities’ alacrity in refusing a pair of glasses for Gautam Navlakha, an undertrial in the case, who is near-blind without them. “How are such small items denied? These are human considerations,” the court said.
Such considerations were also absent in the spectacle, that played out over weeks, of the National Investigation Agency and a special court going back and forth over a straw and sipper for Stan Swamy; or in the implacable resistance to bail for the grievously ailing Telugu poet Varavara Rao, who was moved to a hospital only after the Bombay HC intervened. These requests are so basic as to be incontestable. But the intransigence over minor and procedural matters speaks of a larger worrying pattern. Not only has the state fallen into the heavy-handed use of draconian laws like the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act against public intellectuals, human rights activists and even a journalist on his way to a story, the courts have not adequately pushed back. In other matters of personal liberty, too, the judiciary has rushed in with questionable urgency to defend certain individuals, while habeas corpus petitions languish in the cold. When the state wields sedition laws as weapons to cramp the liberty of speech, the highest levels of the judiciary have often turned a blind eye.
The HC’s words on Navlakha are, therefore, more than welcome in re-emphasising the need for humanity while upholding the law. For the overwhelmingly poor and underprivileged who comprise the vast undertrial population in prisons, the court’s words are a promise of dignity and fairness. But they must also include the urgent need of a fair and speedy trial. Not only should Stan Swamy and his co-accused, some in prison for two years now, be given the straw, sipper and spectacles they need, but also a closure to a legal process that risks turning into the punishment.