What Shah Rukh Khan can do to bring hope to India’s undertrials

Aryan is back where he belongs, at home, thanks to his father. But Shah Rukh Khan could do more to make his tears worth their weight in gold. He could help to bail out from the hellholes of Indian jails more Aryans, give them life

Would Shah Rukh Khan spare a thought for those innocent people Aryan must have exchanged a word with, shaken perhaps a stranger’s hand stretched out to him through the bars?

The week ends happily with Aryan Khan returning home to Mannat from the Arthur Road Jail after a month’s stay there for alleged possession/consumption/trade in drugs. None of it is proven as of now. And the case assumed a theatrical quality as a prosecution witness turned hostile, and the investigating officer from NCB, Sameer Wankhede, himself faced charges of extortion.

There were allegations also that Wankhede was a Muslim when he was pretending to be a low-caste Hindu, to get a job through the reservation quota, thought I am not sure what has that to do with the case itself. Never mind. Civil society and the enforcement agencies alike specialize in ruining reputations much before a case reaches court, if at all. The last is what this week’s column is about, the problems that begin after a case reaches court.

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So then, when Aryan returns and the Diwali lights are on and the crackers burst, would Shah Rukh Khan spare a thought for those innocent people Aryan must have exchanged a word with, shaken perhaps a stranger’s hand stretched out to him through the bars? Would Shah Rukh Khan take the initiative in helping the innocents whiling away their lives in the hellholes of Indian jails?

In a FB post, the Mumbai-based writer and columnist, Mark Manuel, says: ‘…I have been inside Arthur Road Jail…The facility is meant for 800 prisoners…Over 3,500 are accommodated…You can smell people around you… Everybody has some skin allergy…What you can also smell is sewage… The toilets are unhygienic.’

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Dante’s Inferno has no patch that comes near the hell of a typical Indian jail. Dante’s epic work is not on Arthur Road Jail (‘Abandon all hope, those who enter here’), only because it was not up around the time he was writing. But a great poet can see the future even in the rearview mirror.

Indian jails are uniformly overcrowded, and so end up stretching resources thin mainly because of one reason: undertrials. There are over 400,000 men and women waiting for trial, most of them not even aware what crimes they have committed. That kind of population is enough to fill a small European country.

There are hundreds of cases where the accused emerge innocent into the world outside, blinking in the sunlight, not sure how to pick up the threads of their lives. Take, for instance, the recent case of Vishnu Tiwari, who was sentenced to prison in 2001 after being found guilty of rape, of a scheduled caste. The media, always good and righteous, tore him apart. There was indignation all around.

After around 20 years, when the case came up before the Allahabad High Court bench, they found that the charges against Tiwari to be baseless and acquitted him. What’s Tiwari going to do? What shall be done to him? Where’s he now? Did the state owe him compensation? At least, a means to rehabilitate him?

Even if only ten per cent of the 400,000 undertrials are proven innocent, this country is consciously committing a crime in locking them away from their rightful station in life. In what way is this state of affairs better than the German concentrate camps?

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The Liberal Historian is quick to find fault with those millions of Germans who pretended they did not know whole populations were confined in the camps and deprived of the basic things in life right in their neighbourhood.

How do we justify ourselves now in living history when we find ourselves co-existing with lakhs of people in a similar situation as those prisoners from another time? How facile it is to judge the past with the present scheme of values, and yet be banally righteous when we repeat it.

It is now redundant to say Aryan Khan got away because of his privileges and riches. Certainly, the law machinery was more efficient in his case because of the money that must have been poured in to lubricate the rigged and rusty cogs and wheels of the monster machine. A good lawyer, too, comes with a commodious wallet.

Shah Rukh is in a unique position to show gratitude to his god and fans by investing in a foundation or a campaign for jail reforms or setting up a free legal agency to expedite the undertrials.

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He needn’t be alone in this mission. From his own fraternity, stars who have been to prison (Salman Khan, Sanjay Dutt, Raj Kundra), who know first-hand that the Indian jail is that special place in hell, could be roped in.

Back to Dante, who also said, assuming his role as a guide in everybody’s hell: “Through me, you go into a city of weeping; through me you go into eternal pain; through me you go amongst the lost people” The tears that Shah Rukh shed for Aryan could yet be made more sparkling with an initiative that helps his son’s ex-jail mates. In a darkening sky, a star or two could still show the way. At least, the next step.

(CP Surendran’s novel, One Love And the Many Lives of Osip B (Niyogi Books), is now available on Amazon and at leading Indian book stores)

(The Federal seeks to present views and opinions from all sides of the spectrum. The information, ideas or opinions in the articles are of the author and do not reflect the views of The Federal)