In yet another example of justice delayed for innocent Adivasi undertrials in Jharkhand, Jhaman Singh, the sarpanch of Bishunbandh village, Latehar was finally granted bail by the Hon’ble High Court of Jharkhand on 24 June, 2015. Being the Sarpanch and a default functionary of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) scheme, he was falsely implicated in a case involving twelve others. Jhaman Singh was arrested last year, while the others responsible for the crime absconded.
A two-person committee was appointed by the Ministry of Rural Development to conduct a social audit. Jean Drèze, noted economist and activist, was a member of the social audit team. Notably, the report found that there was no prima facie evidence whatsoever against Jhaman Singh and that he was not even aware of the technicalities of the transactions. Despite this finding, obtaining bail has been an uphill task for Singh.
Jhaman Singh’s case is not an isolated instance of the persecution and detention of Adivasis. In August last year, the Supreme Court censured the apathy being shown towards more than 36,000 tribal undertrials and called for a meeting of the Centre and all State Governments to resolve the issue, in a PIL filed by a human rights organisation.
The inequity in the treatment of Adivasis is manifested at all levels of the criminal justice system. In Jhaman Singh’s case, the District Court of Latehar rejected Singh’s bail application despite the court making an oral observation that there was no evidence against him. Denial of bail is the trend in applications before trial courts in Jharkhand, which are reluctant to interfere in bail matters generally because of the strife-ridden history of conflict between the State and the Maoists. This has led to denial of access to bail, which is an important right in the hands of citizens. In the case of Adivasis, the problem is compounded because of the systemic disadvantages that they suffer, including poverty and illiteracy.
Singh is the sole breadwinner in his family, and his wife has been running pillar to post to secure his bail without success.
iProbono deputed a lawyer, Mustafa Haji who graduated from one of India’s top law schools, the National Academy of Legal Studies and Research (NALSAR), to be stationed in Latehar for a month to assist the local lawyer from HRLN (Human Rights Law Network) working on Singh’s case. Mustafa worked in coordination with a criminal lawyer in iProbono’s Delhi network, Shri Singh.
There are few lawyers who are available to work for the benefit of disadvantaged populations in Jharkhand. iProbono lawyers worked in collaboration with Jean Drèze and the local lawyer engaged to represent Jhaman Singh in filing an appeal challenging the denial of bail, pursuant to which bail was granted.
“The manner in which the entire system worked is dismal. The police held up the chargesheet for months without conducting any serious enquiry. Hundreds of people like Jhaman Singh are languishing in Latehar jail for no good reason. In this environment, justice delayed is not only justice denied, it is a gross injustice.” says Drèze.
Mustafa Haji, iProbono’s lawyer says, “There is no provision for legal aid for undertrials. It is also difficult to get access to lawyers in remote areas and often the people cannot afford what to them is an extravagant fee.”
“Jhaman Singh would still be in jail today, and most likely for years, had iProbono not taken up his case in the Ranchi High Court.” says Jean Drèze.
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