Writers International Edition

The Injustice of Innocence: A Cry from India’s Prisons

Kerala, often hailed as “God’s Own Country,” is not the paradise it’s often romanticized to be. Instead, it’s a state torn by the tumultuous reign of violent Communists and pseudo-secular Congress leaders — a place where educated youth find themselves trapped in a cycle of despair. Faced with limited opportunities and a bleak future, many are forced to abandon their homeland in search of greener pastures, leaving behind a population that relies on humble livelihoods such as driving autorickshaws to make ends meet.

One among them was Ratheesh a youth who like many others drove an autorickshaws to find his livelhood. His autorickshaw was more than just a means of transport; it was a symbol of hope for his family — a lifeline in a world fraught with uncertainty. But one fateful day in September 2014, the threads of their lives unraveled before their eyes.

Ratheesh was accused of a crime he never committed — a robbery that shook the town to its core. The weight of false accusations bore down on his shoulders as he was dragged away by the very hands meant to protect him. Behind the cold, steel bars of a prison cell, he endured unimaginable suffering — both physical and emotional — as he was subjected to the cruelty of injustice.

As Ratheesh languished in captivity, his family’s world crumbled around them. His wife, burdened with the weight of shame and fear, struggled to make ends meet, while their children grappled with the harsh reality of their father’s absence. Days turned into weeks, and weeks into months, yet there seemed to be no end in sight to their suffering.

But just when hope seemed lost, a glimmer of light appeared on the horizon. In 2020, the truth came to light — an unexpected confession unveiled the innocence that had been buried beneath layers of deceit and corruption. With the weight of false accusations lifted from his shoulders, Ratheesh emerged from the darkness of his captivity, his spirit bruised and broken.

Yet, as he stepped back into the embrace of his family, he realized that the scars of his ordeal ran deep. The trauma of his wrongful imprisonment lingered like a shadow, casting a long shadow over their once bright future. After enduring years of pain and injustice, Ratheesh’s spirit could bear no more — overwhelmed by the relentless onslaught of despair, he made a decision to end his life, to escape the clutches of a system that had failed him at every turn. And as he took his final breath, he became yet another victim of a ruthless police department and a court system that questioned the very meaning of innocence.

The incident is not just an isolated one. Statistics paint a damning picture of the state of India’s prisons, revealing that a staggering 68 percent of inmates are mere undertrials — individuals who have not been convicted by any court of law. Among them, a disproportionate number hail from the socio-economically marginalized sections of society, with more than 65 percent belonging to the SC, ST, and OBC categories. Illiterate and barely literate, they stand at the mercy of a system that has long turned a blind eye to their plight.

This isn’t a new phenomenon. For decades, Indian jails have been inundated with the cries of the innocent, their voices drowned out by the cacophony of corruption and negligence. Forty years ago, the Supreme Court issued a scathing indictment of the prevailing state of affairs, deeming the high prevalence of undertrials in jails a “crying shame on the judicial system.” Yet, despite the passage of time, the plight of these forgotten souls has only worsened, with their numbers swelling year after year.

In 1978, undertrials accounted for 54 percent of India’s inmate population. By 2017, this figure had risen to a staggering 68 percent, a grim testament to the failure of the system to uphold the principles of justice and fairness. And while the Indian judicial system espouses the principle of “innocent until proven guilty,” the reality is far removed from this lofty ideal.

For the majority of undertrial prisoners, the road to justice is fraught with insurmountable obstacles. Illiterate and impoverished, they lack the means to secure bail or avail themselves of competent legal representation. As a result, they languish in jail for years, their lives on hold as they await the elusive promise of a fair trial.

But who is responsible for this travesty of justice? The answer lies in the very structure and functioning of the justice delivery system itself — a system that lacks the accountability to rectify its own failures. In countries like the US, the UK, and Germany, laws exist to compensate individuals for miscarriages of justice. Yet, in India, the victims of wrongful imprisonment are left to fend for themselves, their sense of justice forever shattered by years spent behind bars.

In the eyes of society, an undertrial prisoner is no different than a convict, their innocence tarnished by the damning finger of public opinion. For them, imprisonment is not just a deprivation of liberty, but a stain on their very humanity — a mark that society refuses to erase.

As the sun sets on another day in Kerala, the cries of the innocent echo through the corridors of India’s prisons, a poignant reminder of the urgent need for reform. It is time for the voices of the voiceless to be heard, for justice to be served, and for the promise of a better tomorrow to become a reality for all. The question is who is the real killer of Ratheesh? The rotten system of judiciary in India, the inhuman department of poilice in Kerala or a society that includes even the one who write this?

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