“Innocent until proven guilty” is a basic principle of Indian criminal law.

Did you know that 2.5 lakh people in India are currently in jail without having been proven guilty?

The government admits that many of them are poor people accused of minor offences, locked away for long periods because they don’t know their rights and cannot access legal aid.

I was one among those 2.5 lakh.

It was the 24th of December 2012 when I was arrested and jailed.

I am Chetan Mahajan, currently President of HCL Learning.

In 2012, I was 42 years old, with two MBAs—one from India and one from abroad, a big house, a good salary, a loving wife and two kids.

The company, that had employed me 3 months earlier, was accused of fraud. Being the senior-most representative of the company in the city at that point, I was the one arrested, taken into custody and locked up.

I was put into a large room around 70 feet long and 20 feet wide, with two dim, yellow bulbs and 25 other men. There were a few small windows with thick iron bars, and thin ropes across the wall with clothes hanging from them.

I spent 29 days in jail, 30 days in captivity.

I lived with cold food, constant fear of torture, mistreatment and violence and regular demands for money from other prisoners and jail officials.

Those 29 days changed my life completely.

I made new friends within the prison. Many of them had not yet been convicted. Their trial was ongoing and they did not know when they would be able to come out of those dingy dark cells and stand under the blue sky.

I finally came out in 30 days on bail, and was soon acquitted of all charges.

Financial and emotional support from friends and family helped me live through those days with some hope.

Today, I wonder if it wasn’t for the support I had, would my fate be different. This is the case for many undertrials – faceless and forgotten, without any support to fall back on.

Just like me, many of these men are probably innocent. But they are assumed guilty, and punished.

Punished to remain confined for excessively long periods because they are powerless, moneyless, forgotten faces for whom the Indian criminal justice system does not seem to care. Some of them may remain in jail beyond the maximum sentence they would have faced if convicted.

Under Indian law, undertrials can be considered for release on personal bond if they have already been in prison for over half the term they would have faced if convicted.

This is laid down in Section 436A of the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC).

But there are problems with the records and information maintained in many of our prisons about undertrial prisoners which would help identify people eligible for release under this law.

I did not know if any of those men I shared my time with were guilty or innocent. All I knew was that many of their names and identities were lost in piles of mismanaged records.

This could happen to any of us. It happened to me, and it could happen to you.

Let us break the silence. Join me, and Amnesty International India in taking this injustice personally and changing this system.

Please urge the Karnataka Home Minister to identify and release undertrial prisoners eligible under Section 436A of the CrPC. In doing so:

1. The government should maintain accurate records of undertrial prisoners which include:

Name of Prisoner, Offence, Date of admission in Jail, the maximum sentence they would face if convicted, and the date on which they would finish half this period.

2. This information must be made available to the undertrial at the time of entry into jail.

The effect of your action will be far-reaching. It can help change the future of victims of a callous criminal justice system. They have rights too, and you can help defend them.

While I was fortunate to have privilege to fall back on, most undertrials don’t.

But they have you.

Yours Sincerely,

Chetan Mahajan

Chetan Mahajan is currently the President of HCL Learning and is the author of the much acclaimed book “The Bad Boys of Bokaro Jail”. The book is a factual tale describing an undertrial prison and its inmates. The “Bad Boys” often is truer for the keepers of the law than those accused of breaking it, writes the author.