Akshay N’s tragicomedy play, Undertrials draws attention to delivery of mob justice by cops and injustice to innocent people
Amitabh Parashar’s The Eyes of Darkness revealed an unseen reality; that Bihar continued to see this brand of mob justice rendered to ‘criminals’, sometimes even teenage girls and boys
Till 2016, Operation Gangajal — cops blinding undertrials by injecting acid in their eyes — was thought to be a barbaric practice left behind in the rural confines of Bhagalpur in the 1980s. Amitabh Parashar’s The Eyes of Darkness revealed an unseen reality; that Bihar continued to see this brand of mob justice rendered to ‘criminals’, sometimes even teenage girls and boys.
Elsewhere, Stan Swamy — who himself had extensively documented the state of undertrials languishing in the prisons of Jharkhand for years — died while awaiting trial for nearly a year. All while struggling with Parkinson’s and battling appeals just to get a sipper cup. But these are tales of horror that have been made familiar to the common man. What everyone might not know is that 60.9 percent of the prison population in Tamil Nadu are undertrials.
A number made better only for the fact that it was the second-lowest in the country. Statistically, minority communities make up a disproportionate amount of this group, it’s often people awaiting trial on petty crimes, and many end up waiting for years more than the maximum prison time for their crime. And, as always, not all of them are guilty. These are the everyday stories of injustice faced by an average prisoner awaiting trial. And it is to these stories that Akshay N wants to draw your attention, through his play, a tragicomedy titled Undertrials, produced by TheatreKaran.
Trained in law and with five years of work in the Supreme Court — with experience in criminal trials — under his belt, Akshay brings the learnings to the theatre. “Nearly 76 percent of India’s population are undertrials. That means, 76 percent are neither guilty nor innocent. Let’s assume for the argument that 30 percent of them would be adjudged innocent at the end of the trial.
That means 30 percent of people are innocent and still in irrigation. Is the prison meant for the innocent man or the guilty man? States like UP, Bihar, Jharkhand, and Jammu and Kashmir are the worst. Tamil Nadu does much better in this matter. Seniors here think that’s because the quality of legal representation is good. But it’s still not good enough. Why is bail not granted? If you’ve served half of the maximum sentence, you’re supposed to get bail; that is not implemented. Why aren’t magistrates doing their job? Are they overburdened? Why is the investigation report not scrutinised? Even the 60-day limit for filing a charge sheet is often overlooked. Why does all this happen?” asks Akshay, in the hope that the audience would be persuaded to raise these questions with him.
Towards this end, he brings to stage the plight of three undertrials. Prasad is a man desperate to prove his innocence. Sapru, a left-leaning political activist, wants to use his day in court to highlight the injustices of the government that has charged him with his crime. Gobind, who has been accused of making spurious liquor, has already been in prison for nearly ten years; over twice the maximum sentence for his crime, if found guilty. Will any of them face a judge? How do they cope with the waiting? And the many instances of abuse that came along with it?
“We are not talking of High Court or Supreme Court level. We are not looking at police custody or the brutality faced there. We are talking about the perspective of a court, from the jailer, the superintendent of prison and the lawyer. All of these perspectives clash and the collateral damage is the prisoner. I’ve tried to show it as a collective failure,” he says.
It was Srikar N and Arun S who helped bring Akshay’s vision to theatrical life. Rayyan Thenmalaikhan had much help to offer as co-director, notes Akshay. With all this backing, Undertrials is set to premiere this weekend. There’s a larger conversation to be had then.
The play will be staged at Alliance Francaise on May 28 and 29, at 4 pm and 7 pm. Tickets are available at theatrekaran.com