On Tuesday, the Punjab and Haryana High Court came to the rescue of a couple who had eloped to get married against the wishes of their families. The court asked the police to consider remedial measures to protect the couple.
However, the court did not stop there. Having looked at the photographs of the wedding produced by the couple, the judge noticed that they were not wearing face masks during the ceremony. He proceeded to impose a fine of Rs 10,000 on them.
His decision shows how seriously the courts are taking the precaution of physical distancing to curtail the spread of Covid-19, a disease that has already affected 203,000 people in India and claimed close to 5,700 lives.
But for the police and law enforcement agencies, the Covid-19 pandemic has become an opportunity to cynically pursue prosecutions, given how difficulty it is for people taken into custody to access legal aid. This has allowed the police to act without any real scrutiny.
In Delhi, under cover of the pandemic, the police has arrested scores of activists and students, sometimes the same person several times, in cases related to the February protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act and the communal violence that ensued in the city between February 25 to February 28.
In many of these cases, the lower courts failed to note that the police actions were not effected with the aim of investigating whether the accused people were involved in these crimes but with the sole intention of keeping them in prison. As the National Human Rights Commission has reported, more than 75% of prisoners in India are still awaiting trial. But over the last week, even the courts have begun to lose patience.
On Monday, the Delhi High Court issued a strongly-worded order when it released a person accused in the Delhi protests case on bail. “Prison is primarily for punishing convicts, not for detaining undertrials in order to send any message to society,” the judge said. “The remit of the court is to dispense justice in accordance with law, not to send messages to society.”
On Tuesday, a Delhi court ordered bail for Devangana Kalita, an activist of the Pinjra Tod feminist group, observing she was not a habitual offender. Kalita had been arrested three times in the past two weeks. Despite having been given bail in one case, she remains in jail for the other cases.
In Maharashtra, the family of poet and activist Varavara Rao alleged on Saturday that despite the fact that he had to go to hospital because of poor health, the jail authorities did not inform them about his condition or the treatment he is being given. Rao is in jail in connection with the violence that occurred in Bhima Koregaon in 2018, a case that the Centre transferred to the National Investigation Agency earlier this year.
In the meantime, the bail application on medical grounds made by Sudha Bharadwaj, another activist arrested in the Bhima Koregaon case, was rejected last week after it was opposed by the National Investigation Agency.
In a related case, activist Gautam Navlakha was hurriedly transferred from Delhi to Mumbai by the National Investigation Agency, after his lawyers opposed his remand in jail being extended. The Delhi police moved a Mumbai court on a Sunday with a sense of urgency that the Delhi High Court questioned on May 27. It asked the National Investigation Agency to produce all the relevant documents before it. “The NIA has acted in unseemly haste to instead remove the applicant out of the very jurisdiction of this court,” the judge said.
However, the High Court order was stayed by the Supreme Court on Tuesday, after the Centre hurriedly made an appeal.
India’s jails are seriously overcrowded, running at 114% capacity. This makes them dangerous ground for the coronavirus to spread. Jails across India have reported cases of Covid-19. Some, like the Puzhal prison in Chennai with 47 identified cases, have become hotspots.
Nothing stops the police from examining accused people outside jail. But as the Delhi High Court noted, it seems less intent on solving crime than on teaching suspects a lesson.
Given the attitude of the police, it is important for the courts to ensure that no unnecessary arrests are made that could expose the undertrials to this serious health hazard.