|CURRENT ISSUE DECEMBER 27, 2004|
|To Free or Not to Free |
That is the question plaguing the authorities in Uttar Pradesh as the offices of the governor and chief minister are locked in battle over the release of jail inmates on mercy grounds. India Today's Subhash Mishra reports.
It's an unlikely fallout but the repercussions of the ongoing tussle for supremacy between the offices of Uttar Pradesh Governor T. Rajeshwar Rao and Chief Minister Mulayam Singh Yadav are being felt, of all places, in the model jail at Lucknow.
It all began when Mulayam recommended the mercy release of some two dozen convicts , but the Raj Bhavan chose to remain silent. "For the last three months, since Rajeshwar Rao took over as governor after the departure of Vishnukant Shastri, not a single convict has been released," says a senior officer of the prison department.
Traditionally, the prison department recommends some names for release on the grounds of age, health and a minimum logging of 14 years of life imprisonment. The final authority to okay the release lies with the governor. "In fact, the governor, in this regard, has unfettered powers and may release or recommend anyone on the basis of a prisoner's conduct, past record, gravity of offence and extent of involvement," elaborates Anil Kumar, senior superintendent of at the model jail which has 189 convicts. But in 2000, following a sweeping decision of the state government on the release of prisoners who had served three years' of their term and had completed 60 years of age, the Government released 1,078 prisoners. This created a flutter in political and judicial circles.
Subsequently, the Government's decision was challenged in the high court which ordered the re-arrest of those set free. This led to a piquant situation as the police found it difficult to trace the free birds, let alone arrest them again. Again, the high court's orders were challenged in the Supreme Court which decreed that only those who had served 14 years of their life imprisonment could be released. "But not all have been arrested still," says a jail official.
The controversy led to some policy changes as well. The government stayed away from issuing general orders and chose instead to wigh cases on their individual merit. The recommendations by the prison department for the early release of termers (facing life imprisonment) are now made only after a thorough screening of the case on merit and there is no sweeping order for ensuring mercy release. The individual list is then screened by a high-powered committee comprising secretaries of the home, prison and law departments. In the final round, the governor approves the recommendations.
That things between the governor and the chief minister are not very cordial is an open secret. When Rao took over as governor in August after the unceremonious removal of his predecessor Shastri by the Centre, Mulayam, who who close to Shastri, was annoyed. The strained relations between the Congress and the Samajwadi Party also began to take its toll on the relationship between the offices of the governor and the chief minister. Much to the chagrin of Mulaym, Rao missed no opportunity to send queries on the law and order situation to the state government. Even on August 15 when the governor spoke in favour of promoting English language, Mulayam, a diehard proponent of Hindi, took it as a frontal attack against him and reacted sharply by saying, "Those talking about promoting English are stooges of the Britishers."
The next round of confrontation occurred when Mulayam passed an ordinance for the establishment of Jauhar Urdu University with minister Azam Khan as its lifelong pro-vice chancellor. The governor did not approve of it and referred the matter to President of India A.P.J. Abdul Kalam. Mulayam challenged the move by introducing a bill on the issue in the state assembly. So far, the governor has not okayed the bill. Mulayam is waiting for a response.
Back to the freedom of jail inmates, Mulayam is now willing to amend the jail manual to facilitate the release of the aged and ailing. But he has not yet sent the amendments to Raj Bhawan apprehending a negative response from the governor. The controversy over the over the the issue of mercy release is still to settle. "We have simply sought more clarifications from the prison department," says Shambhu Nath, principal secretary to the governor. But it's clearly a stalemate, the brunt of which is being borne by the jail inmates.