VEENA SETHI Vs. STATE OF BIHAR
LAWS(SC)-1982-5-17
SUPREME COURT OF INDIA
Decided on May 11,1982

VEENA SETHI Appellant
VERSUS
STATE OF BIHAR Respondents

JUDGEMENT

- (1.) There are some people who are critical of the practice adopted by this Court of taking judicial action on letters addressed by public spirited individuals and organisations for enforcement of the basic human rights of the weaker sections of the community. This criticism is based on a highly elitist approach and proceeds from a blind obsession with the rites and rituals sanctified by an outmoded Anglo-Saxon Jurisprudence. The most complete refutation of this criticism is provided by the action taken by the Court in this case. It was a letter. dated 15th Jan., 1982 addressed by the Free Legal Aid Committee, Hazaribagh to one of us (Bhagwati, J.) which set the judicial process in motion and but for this letter which drew the attention of the Court to the atrociously illegal detention of certain prisoners in the Hazaribagh Central Jail for almost two or three decades without any justification whatsoever, these forgotten specimens of humanity languishing in jail for years behind stone walls and iron bars, deprived of freedom and liberty which are the inalienable rights of a human being, would have continued to remain in jail without any hope of ever walking out of its forbidding environment and breathing the fresh air of freedom. These prisoners were lost in the oblivion of time and had become merely ticket numbers in the Hazaribagh Central Jail. All that they could do was to cry in despair. "How long", with their cry unheeded and unanswered. The letter of the Free Legal Aid Committee, Hazaribagh brought the plight of these Prisoners to the notice of the Court and treating this letter as a writ petition, the Court issued notice to the State of Bihar for the purpose of ascertaining the facts in regard to these prisoners. We are happy to note that the State of Bihar has responded to the notice of the Court and filed a counter-affidavit frankly and unreservedly giving detailed particulars in regard to 16 prisoners in Hazaribagh Central Jail who were insane or of unsound mind at the date when they were received in the jail and who, barring two out of them, are still rotting in jail. The learned counsel appearing on behalf of the Free Legal Aid Committee, Hazaribagh has Prepared a list summarising the particulars in regard to these prisoners as furnished by the State of Bihar and we shall take up the cases of these prisoners in the order in which they are set out in this list.
(2.) We may Point out straightway that so far as Sadal Chamar, Khedu Bhattacharya, Mohamadin, Kali Singh, Ambika Lal and Jagannath Mahto being prisoners at Sl. Nos. 1, 7, 10, 11, 13 and 15 in the list are concerned, the records show that they were last examined by Dr. A. K. Prasad, Psychiatric Specialist of Mansik Arogyashala, Kanke on 24th Jan., 1982 in the Jail Hospital and were found still to be of unsound mind. We cannot in the circumstances order their release, because having regard to the mental condition of these prisoners, it would not be in the interest of the society as also in their own interest to set them free. It does not appear from the record as to whether there is anyone prepared to take care of them and hence it would not be desirable to release them, because if released in the present condition, they would not be able to secure proper medical treatment and would not even be able to look after themselves. It is indeed unfortunate that most of. these prisoners have been in jail for over 25 years and it is a matter of shame for the society that these prisoners have had to be detained in jail because there are not adequate institutions for treatment of the mentally sick. We are told that there is only one institution in the State of Bihar for treatment of lunatics and persons of unsound mind and that is the Mansik Arogayashala, Kanke and it is already over-crowded and there is no room for admitting these prisoners. We have had occasions to see lunatic asylums in one or two States and we find that the conditions in these lunatic asylums are wholly revolting and one begins to wonder whether they are places for making insane persons sane or sane persons insane. We do not know what are the conditions in which the inmates of the Mansik Arogayashala, Kanke live and what are the medical facilities provided to them, but we hope and trust that the conditions there are satisfactory. We would like to take this opportunity of impressing upon the State Government that in a large State like the State of Bihar, there must be an adequate number of institutions for looking after the mentally sick and the practice of sending lunatics or persons of unsound mind to the jail for safe custody is not at all a healthy or desirable practice, because jail is hardly a place for treating those who are mentally sick. We cannot therefore order release of the abovementioned prisoners, but we would direct the Superintendent of the Hazaribagh Central Jail to have these prisoners examined by the Psychiatric Specialist attached to the Mansik Arogayashala, Kanke or any other Psychiatric Specialist once every six months and submit a report of such examination to the District Judge, Hazaribagh and if as a result of such examination, it is found at any stage that the prisoner concerned has become sane or has regained his soundness of mind, the District Judge will immediately order his release from the jail and the State Government will provide him the necessary funds for meeting the expenses of his journey to his native place as also for his maintenance for a period of one week. Since these Prisoners have already been in jail for, a period of over 25 years and it is now provided by Section 428 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 that the period during which an accused has been in jail as an undertrial prisoner should be taken into account for the purpose of computing the period of the sentence and the maximum imprisonment which an accused is ordinarily required to undergo even in case of-sentence of life imprisonment is not more than 14 years, we would direct the State Government to drop the cases which are pending against these prisoners as it would be purely academic to pursue these cases.
(3.) We need not deal with the cases of Sagar Mandal and Ram Chander whose names are mentioned at serial numbers 4 and 12 in the list, since they have already been released after detention for a period of over 35 years in the case of Sagar Mandal and 29 years in the case of Ram Chander. There remain for consideration only the cases of Gomia Ho, Bhandu Kurni, Hira Lal, Raghunandan, Francis, Gulam Jalani, Kamal Singh and Hira Lal whose names are mentioned at serial numbers 2, 3, 5, 6, 8, 9, 14 and 16 respectively in the list. The cases of these prisoners disclose a shocking state of affairs involving total disregard of basic human rights. They constitute an affront to the dignity of man and it is surprising, indeed shocking to the conscience of mankind, that such a situation should prevail in any civilized society. What meaning has the rule of law if the poor are allowed to languish in jails without the slightest justification as if they are the castaways of the society The rule of law does not exist merely for those who have the means to fight for their rights and very often for perpetuation of the status quo which protects and preserves their dominance and permits them to exploit large sections of the community but it exists also for the poor and the down-trodden, the ignorant and the illiterate who constitute the large bulk of humanity in this country. It is the solemn duty of this Court to protect and uphold the basic human rights of the weaker sections of the society, and it is this duty we are trying to discharge in entertaining this public interest litigation.;


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