Though there are lakhs of cases of under-trials waiting in jail for periods longer than even the sentence they would have served if convicted, and of people freed by courts after decades, there has not been any systematic thought into how they are to be compensated. There is, of course, no way to compensate for the mental agony, the fact of families being destroyed due to various reasons including the main bread-winner being in jail or the damage to reputation—indeed, while there may be some psychological vindication in being acquitted by courts, the damage to reputations is difficult to undo.
On occasion, the courts have tried to address the issue of compensation. So, in the case of Rudul Sah vs state of Bihar in 1983, for the first time, the Supreme Court (SC) addressed this issue of compensation for violation of fundamental rights; compensation was also ordered in the cases of Daulat Ram vs State of Haryana in 1995 and Mohammed Zahid vs Government of NCT of Delhi in 1998. But, in the case of those acquitted in the Akshardham case in 2014, SC took a different view and said that an award or a compensation would set a dangerous precedent.
So it is heartening that, in the case of Ahmed Wani—an accused in the 2000 Sabarmati Express blast case—Barabanki court has taken a tough stance, albeit after a huge delay in trying the case. Indeed, the order came after a reprimand from SC when it found Wani continued to be in jail even after being acquitted in 10 of the 11 cases—it even set a date for his release on bail if his trial was not completed by then. The Barabanki district court has asked the state to award Wani compensation for the years lost behind bars. In ordering a payment of “lost salary” for these years, equivalent to what a PhD scholar would earn, the court further said that the state could, if it wanted, recover this amount from police officers who conducted the investigation.
While it is certain the UP government will challenge the ruling at the high court and, if need be, at the Supreme Court, this would be unfortunate. Indeed, the SC should take a proactive role in the matter and, after reviewing its own judgements in the past, make compensation an automatic extension of acquittal—people can file civil suits asking for damages, but these could take decades to be decided. In New Zealand, for instance, there are guidelines for determining pecuniary and non-pecuniary losses, with a starting point of NZ$100,000 for every year served in jail.
Were such a rule to be put in place, it would put pressure on the state and the investigative authorities—to prevent judicial delays, the government will ensure there are no shortages of judges and, in the case of the investigators, a lot more due diligence will be done before people are arrested. In an ideal world, any compensation paid should be deducted from the salaries of investigating authorities. But, to be fair to them, cases can collapse in court due to poor legal strategies or simply because the accused have managed to buy off witnesses. So, the government needs to think through the issue of whether investigating authorities should be penalised, but compensation is one way to atone for damages caused by the state.