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A poorly managed government is an oppressive government

Jun 09, 2013 Leadership, Sunday Nation

Imagine you are convicted of a crime, one which you remain adamant you did not commit. Imagine that the court system eventually allows you to post bail on appeal. The bail is set at the equivalent of modest US$ 180. But you are poor, and such a sum is beyond your reach.

What would happen next?

Here’s what did happen to Vijai Kumari in India, for this is a true story: she languished in prison for the next 19 years. Her husband abandoned her after she was jailed, and she had no one else who could raise money for her. The Indian justice system failed to notice her or provide any relief. So in gaol she stayed, a forgotten soul, year after year.

Why? Because she was lost in a system that long ago lost control of what it is doing. The BBC estimates that 70 per cent of India’s inmates are not convicted – they’re merely waiting for trial. Because that system is manual, archaic and decrepit, and the backlog in cases is huge.

If you’re a ‘somebody’ in systems like these, of course, nothing much will happen to you. Bail will be set quickly and you will meet it, or someone will meet it for you. If you’re a nobody, on the other hand, you’re at the mercy of jailors, clerks and tinpot local dictators. If no ‘somebody’ steps forward on behalf of the nobodies, the nobodies simply rot away.

India is a democracy, not a totalitarian state. Yet even democracies are capable of immense injustices towards their ‘little’ people. And as you will have gathered, this is not a piece about India alone; these injustices happen in many countries. Our own is a prime example: you would not want to be a ‘nobody’ charged or convicted in Kenya. ‘Somebodies,’ on the other hand, seem to find cruising out of judicial situations all too easy.

That is why we must all back attempts to reform, modernize and streamline our police and judiciary to the hilt. An inefficient and ineffective government rapidly becomes a system for bad rather than good. No government should be allowed to incarcerate people without respect for their rights. Keeping a helpless woman jailed without recourse, even when the system has allowed her to be released, is unconscionable.

To their credit, local judges in Allahabad released Vijai Kumari with alacrity when her case was brought before them, and delivered scathing indictments of the magistrates who are supposed to conduct regular inspections of jails. They also ordered a sweep of the state prisons to find out whether other prisoners are in similar situations. So perhaps some good will come from the lady’s ordeal.

You may be wondering: what caused Kumari’s case to come up again? Ah, there’s good in the world after all. She was pregnant when she was convicted, you see, and delivered a boy in jail. The boy was brought up in foster homes, but never forgot his mother. At 19, after working and saving enough to hire a lawyer, he went to get his mother out of jail.

“He’s all I have in this world,” Vijai told the BBC, her voice breaking. I hope your voice is breaking, too. How right she was.

We set up governments, bureaucracies and institutions to do good for us, not to oppress us. When they are led and managed shoddily, they turn into instruments of tyranny, harming the very people they are supposed to protect.

We are very quick to dismiss “human rights” and “activists” in this country these days. Would you only appreciate their crusades on our behalf if your own mother suffered like Vijai Kumari did? We should not need to rely only on our loved ones to provide succour. Society and the state need to be as humane as our families are.

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