Do you know the value of freedom and time? How did you feel during the recent lockdowns where you couldn’t meet friends and family, enjoy the fresh air by taking a walk in the park, eat the food that you always enjoy, etc and live life with the freedom to do what you want, when you want and where you want? Most of us don’t know its value but imagine that you have been imprisoned in jail for a minor offence and have been staring at the bars and four walls without any freedom just because of procedural problems such as
- Non-availability of experts.
- Non-commencement of trial.
- Not having legal knowledge about your rights.
- Not able to get bail and afford a lawyer to fight your case due to financial problems.
- Case not being heard by judges due to the huge workload.
This was the case before 1989 where people got arrested for petty offences, but we’re spending more time in prison than the maximum time they would have gotten if they had been convicted. They had to suffer in prisons even if they were not guilty due to procedural lapses and at no fault of their own. At that time “only the rich could get justice, the poor cannot escape it”. The rich would get bail and the poor were languishing in prison.
Hussainara Khatoon & Ors. v Home Secretary
Indian Express Newspaper published an article on the detention of under trial prisoners and their plight in 1979. Few of them were serving for a longer period than that would be possible if convicted. Advocate Pushpa Kapila Hingorani was one of the readers of this article and she filed a Public Interest Litigation in the Supreme Court against this injustice. This is known as the first reported case of Public Interest Litigation.
Writ Petition of Habeas Corpus was filed U/A 32 of the Indian Constitution before the court for release of 17 under trial prisoners who were mentioned in the article. The state of Bihar was then directed to file a chart showing the under trial prisoners and dividing them into two categories based on the degree of crime i.e. major offences and minor offences.
A great number of men, women and children were kept behind bars awaiting trial. Most of the offences were trivial by nature and the punishment wouldn’t have been more than a few months if convicted. As per the report filed by the state, the prisoners were regularly brought to the court but were remanded to judicial custody over and over and over again. The state in its pleading tried to justify it by saying that it was due to the delay caused in getting the opinion of experts. All these arguments were found unsatisfactory by the Court and it ordered the release of those odd 17 prisoners mentioned in the writ petition.
The Supreme Court unequivocally held that detention of the said prisoners was illegal as it violated the fundamental right to life and personal liberty guaranteed U/A 21. The Court ordered the state government to furnish all details of courts of magistrates and sessions court regarding the location and pendency of under trial prisoners and explain the delay in their disposal. The court understood the reasons behind such delay and callousness of the justice system were financial problems and lack of resources with the poor. Justice P.N. Bhagwati held that the state cannot deny the fundamental right to a speedy trial on the ground of lack of resources.
Article 21 is violated when:
- Accused is not given a just and speedy trial.
- Rejected bail on unreasonable grounds.
- A prisoner is forced to undergo trial for a longer period than possible if he had been convicted.
- Accused is poor and not given free legal aid by the state.
This case will forever be known as a landmark case that has revamped the Indian justice system. This case released the under trial prisoners who were languishing in jails due to the above reasons in Bihar. It also triggered the release of 40,000 other such victims and under-trial prisoners of the system in India. Mrs Hingorani has since been known as Mother of PIL for her contributions to this case and cause.
Fundamental rights are essential for the all-around development of individuals as well as the country, all-around development cannot be possible when the individuals are locked up behind bars in the prison without any freedom. It is a waste of time and manpower when citizens of our country are languishing in prisons. Being forced to sit idle behind bars and stare at 4 walls. Imprisonment has been found to cause a severe impact on mental health, psychological health and physical health such as schizophrenia, loss of identity, lack of purpose and productivity, feeling lonely due to the time spent alone in jails, lack of treatment, and exposure to violence etc. These are reported in American state prisons, we can expect the Indian system to be far worse concerning some aspects.
What faith would these under trial prisoners would have had if they had been languishing in prison for 5 years or 10 years for a crime they never committed. This could have become a cause for great concern if they carry a sense of frustration and held bitterness against the society which keeps them locked up for a crime they didn’t commit. I see this as a possible factor of radicalization where this frustration can lead to terrorism etc. The contributions of Mrs Hingorani can never be forgotten as she can be called the saviour of those 40k under trial directly and those prisoners who didn’t have to face such issues in the past 40 years. We can today sigh a breath of relief because of extraordinary people like Justice P.N. Bhagwati and Mrs Hingorani, justice was inaccessible for the poor and marginalized in the past but now PIL’s have solved this problem to a great extent.
Author(s) Name: Naman Sinha (Osmania University, Hyderabad)
 Hussainara Khatoon & ors. v Home Secretary, State of Bihar(1979) 1979 AIR 1369
 Constitution of India 1949, A 32.
 Constitution of India 1949, A 21.
 Constitution of India 1949, A 21.
 About Kapila Hingorani (THE KAPILA & NIRMAL HINGORANI FOUNDATION, 2015) <https://knhfoundation.in/detail.php?id=1>
Amy Morin, The Mental Health Effects of Being in Prison (Verywell mind April 2021) <https://www.verywellmind.com/menta-health-effects-of-prison-5071300>