It needed a report from K. F. Rustomji and a habeas corpus writ from Kapila Hingorani, a senior advocate of the Supreme Court, in 1979 to bring to public notice the shocking plight of undertrials in Bihar. The court orders were a tribute to the good sense of the judges, to Rustomji and to Hingorani.
Commenting on these developments, Arun Shourie, executive editor of the Indian Express, observed, "This tiny step itself demonstrates that we still rely on fluke, on coincidences. That a man who has spent his life in the police should get appointed to the National police Commission; that he should then happen to visit two particularly wretched jails; that he should record his impressions in a tour note; that a newspaper should pick up a story and follow it up; that an advocate should be moved by the newspaper accounts to file a writ; that the judges should disregard the fact that the advocate has filed the writ on her own without having been authorised by any of the detenus; that they should then release the detenus who have been named as well as summon the records of all others. All this is too long a string of coincidences to hang our hopes on".
And, it needed yet another fluke to highlight the situation in Hazaribagh Central Jail. On January 15, 1982, the Free Legal Aid Committee in Hazaribagh wrote a letter to Justice P. N. Bhagwati bringing to his notice the condition of insane prisoners. This letter was treated as writ petition. It brought to light the cases of 16 prisoners, "specimens of humanity languishing in jails deprived of life and liberty", thanks to official apathy and negligence.
Details of Gulam Jilenis's detention are a horrendous tale of human degradation. Though not charged with any offence, he was lodged in the Hazaribagh Jail under an order of a sub-divisional officer on March 25, 1982. He was kept under medical observation for a month as it was stated that he had lost his mental equilibrium. But a medical report of January 10, 1972 declared him sane. No steps were, however, taken to release him.
Equally unfortunate is the case of Bhondua Krumi who for nine years silently accepted the jail indignities, waiting for the jail authorities to make out whether his name was 'Bhondua Kurmi' or 'Bandhu Mahter'. He was charged with murder under 302 IPC and subsequently acquitted. Though he had regained his mental balance in 1961, he was lodged in Hazaribagh Central Jail. Similar are the stories of Hira Lal, Raghunadan Gope, Gomia Hiralal Gope, Kamala Singh and Francis Purti.
In an interim order, Justices P. N. Bhagwati and D. A. Desai directed the Bihar Government to release eight prisoners said to be of unsound mind and languishing in the Hazaribagh Central for 20 to 27 years. It also quashed charges against some of them. The order also directed the government to provide the prisoners necessary funds for going to their native places and maintenance for one week thereafter. The court urged the state government to conduct half-yearly examination of prisoners to determine whether they continued to be of unsound mind. This should be submitted to the state government by the superintendent of the jail.
Six prisoners could to be released because the medical examination conducted on January 27, 1982 had declared them insane. The remaining two, the Court observed, had already been released by the government after an incarceration of 35 years and 29 years respectively.
Whether the prisoners are entitled to compensation for their illegal detention is to be considered by the court at the next hearing on July 26, 1982.