On 5th of February, one constable came from the Chowki (police station) to my house. He met my father and asked him to send me and Sooraj for some questions related to the case to the Chowki. Time and date was not told but it was normal.
I informed Verma ji on phone. Verma ji had a day full of court appointments. He called us in the evening, and asked me to bring along Sooraj and my father. I understood that some mature decisions were required to be taken. He also asked me not to visit the police station even if they sent reminders.
Verma ji read the summons. Then he called up the cell phone of Police Inspector in charge of this case, who had sent the summons. As Verma ji was a criminal lawyer, he knew most of the investigating officers personally. Most of the time he was crossing them, yet it did not affect his personal equations or lessen his respect in their eyes. He talked to the Inspector and understood the current stage.
Verma ji started, “I think it’s time for sending the charge sheet to the court. They will cross question you on many statements. I read your filed statements and the FIR, and found many holes or incorrect information.”
Sooraj asked, “What is incorrect in what I told them?”
Verma ji answered with a straight face, “For example, you had submitted in written, that you pushed the unidentified man and that his neck was broken by Tulsi. Tulsi was badly injured, first by accident and then by bullet. The first questionable hole in your statement is that how can such a badly injured person who succumbed shortly afterwards, break a person’s neck. Then you say it was pitch dark and difficult to see and then describe the events also.”
He continued, “I am not saying that you lied, all I am saying is that your statements are weak. If you met me before, I would have asked you to state that you guys didn’t know what happened in the dark. Now you have stated guns and firing and the chase and the whole Purana.”
It was true that in those few hours while I was in the government hospital, we did not consult any lawyer but went by the truth. But I was not sure why Verma ji was now pointing it out. He should have told this to us on day one.
Over time, I learnt to live with this feature of lawyers – they would never stop surprising you with alternative optimism and pessimism, at each turn, although the facts of the case remain the same.
My father asked anxiously, “Now what is the suggestion?”
Verma ji said, “Let us forget the past and discuss future course of action. And avoid any lax statements henceforth. If they call it an unintentional murder or an accident, then they may not even ask for your detention. But if they call it a planned criminal conspiracy and murder, then you the lower court will cancel your bail.”
We saw his point – it was the inspector who was going to influence how the law was going to treat us.
Verma ji continued, “To start with a good bargaining position, the inspector says he will have to charge both with planned murder.”
My father asked anxiously, “How much will he ask for to be lenient?”
Verma ji picked up his cell phone and called the Inspector. It seemed as if he was waiting for the call. He sent one person, another lawyer to Verma ji’s office. The lawyer, Mr.Tiwari reached there in fifteen minutes. Since both Verma ji and Tiwari were lawyers, there was an ease between them.
Post introductions, we settled down. Mr.Tiwari was a middle aged well built man with thick black moustaches. He looked at me affectionately and said, “What have you got into? You guys should have simply vanished from the spot, and refused your presence.”
Verma ji smiled, “Tiwari ji, they don’t understand the law. They thought being honest will save them.”
My father defended, since he felt responsible for actions that night and while I was in government hospital. He said, “Sir, the FIR had to be registered, else the hospital was not admitting them.”
Tiwari came to the point, “What is to be done now?”
Verma ji said, “You have to help us please. You know the truth. These are very simple folks.”
Tiwari ji was here just as a face of the Inspector. He could not let his good human side to cause a loss to him. He interrupted, “Simple folks should do simple things. I won’t do anything to harm them. I fear God. But you know how tough things are these days.”
At that point, Verma ji asked the three of us to leave them alone for some time. It was a ten minute wait before Verma ji came out and took us to another cabin. There he explained, “I asked for chances of an inconclusive investigation. He cannot do it. If he did that, it will cost too much and the judge may still ask for a detailed or fresh investigation. Best he can do is to build a case against Sooraj, and possibly take you as a witness. You will still be under suspicion as you cannot be turned into an Approver. But the sections imposed on you will allow immediate bail for you on first hearing in local court, with small payments. For Sooraj, it could be a one month wait before we get bail from the High court. The local court will anyhow reject it first.”
Sooraj asked, “It will mean a month in jail?”
Verma ji said, “Yes. But that apart, this is the best option in my view. It will even help me close the case quickly because if you are proven innocent, then your statements will be used to as the defense for Sooraj.”
It looked as the best option to me and my father. Sooraj was naturally apprehensive but trusted us.
Verma ji smiled, “Now, it will also help if Nagbaba and the two tribals who brought Tulsi alive, could be presented in court when time comes.”
My father still wanted an assurance. He asked, “So you are confident this case will be over soon in our favor.”
Verma ji said, “It won’t take any lawyer much to defend this case with this set up as discussed, even if the Judge is biased. I will discuss our defense later.”
Verma ji continued, “He demands three lacs, and says it’s the minimum his bosses will accept. Also, we will need another lac for the judge to accept this police investigation report and grant you bail. Then we will need one lac after a month or so to get the bail for Sooraj from High court.”
My father was reluctant. He said suspiciously, “Verma ji, I think this guy is pocketing in their name.”
Verma ji said, “Sir, you can check the rates independently from a third person. And he has no say beyond police work. Rest is my estimate. We have to pay fee at each step- first to get the case listed in the court of the right judge, then getting quick dates, then to fix the government attorney, and then to the order typist so that some unusual terms are not inserted into the bail order. Judges don’t have the time to proof read once the order is dictated-its one case after another there, each getting two to three minutes hearing.”
He concluded, “It is quite reasonable. If you don’t pay, you won’t get bail for next two years till the case is over.”
It was all adding up to five lacs. I said yes. It was a part of the money left with me –hard earned one.
With that settled, I and Sooraj were advised to remain low. We would go to the police station once. Then we were to be called on the day to be presented before the judge for initiating the case trial. And then we were to be taken into police custody. In my case, I would plead for bail the same day before the judge and would most likely get it. In Sooraj’s case, it would be a longer process.
Then we returned home. In our absence, my mother had gone to the temple and paid another two thousand to the priest for our case, as it was a Saturday – a day of Shani Maharaj. When we came back home and my father discovered it, he shouted at her. I asked him to calm down. By now, I understood he was venting anger at an unknown enemy-the system. My mother was only the weakest person around to target his anger.
On Monday, the 12th of February, we went to the police station, as had been planned. There were some questions posed by the inspector, but none were of great consequence. It was an interrogation formality before filing the Charge sheet, and asking for our custody. As we had anticipated, I got an immediate bail and Sooraj had to be in judicial custody, till we got his bail.
The script went as planned but for a minor hitch. I had to furnish a bail surety of forty thousand rupees, in immovable property. We didn’t have the papers handy.
Tilak’s experience came to rescue again. He got a lawyer friend who had a list of slum properties, ready to be pledged, with an annual charge. A charge of eight thousand rupees per annum was fixed for using the property as surety. The shanty owner was quickly called and I was released on bail.
Sooraj was sent to Bhopal jail and had to be produced before the magistrate periodically. The police had to submit its final report and charges in two weeks time.
I and Tilak went to meet Sooraj in Central Jail on Tuesday. He looked cheerful and in good spirits. He had adjusted well to the place.
We went to meet him again after two days and by then, he had got a notebook and pen. Folks in jail realized he was one of the accounting guys and gave him some written work like keeping a tally of their rummy scores. Since he was not under rigorous imprisonment, he was kept with older men who had no hard work assigned and were in bad health. They watched television, gossiped and played cards all day. The policemen posted there were also all old men, nearing their retirement and not used to physical exertion. Being young and obeying, Sooraj became everyone’s man to go to, in just two days.
When we again went next time to visit, with Sooraj’s mother and father, the Jail Inspector called us to his office. A very nice man, he offered us tea, and explained to his mother, “Mata ji, do not worry, it is a warm place inside. We take good care of old men too, and they get free medical facilities on government expense. All they have to do all day is to come for counting once in the morning and once at dust.”
Sooraj’s mother was still worried. She said, “Thank you sir. But we were worried about how dangerous other folks may be.”
The superintendent again smiled. He had round Gandhi glasses and bald head and moustaches. He said, “More dangerous folks are outside. All plotting and cunning folks are outside. Here we mostly get gentle or distressed folks who could not plan to avoid the jail.”
We also had fears of some plot to harm Sooraj, probably by Dau or others. Our fears were unfounded. Sooraj’s was a low profile case.
There two other folks in his cell, who were in real danger. One of them was a sixty five year old Mr.Mishra. Sooraj became quite friendly with him, and narrated his tale to us, on our visits.
Mishra ji used to be a clerk, the lower most post, in the state government revenue department, and had been accused of wrongfully allotting government lands to a few builders. His pensions had been stopped, and family had become pauper fighting the case against the government. Mishra ji’s wife and daughter had migrated elsewhere. They all had chosen his life over ignominy, and kept their silence.
But he was alive only for one reason - while fighting the case he had not pointed fingers to anyone else in hierarchy. When the fraud had come out in newspapers, the higher officials had immediately registered an FIR and since he was the person who dispatched letters of allotment, the enquiry started with him. And it ended with him. The higher officials had charged him with forgery.
It was another matter that without anyone in government noticing, the illegal buildings had been constructed on that land and sold with proper registries. They were now under litigation by government.
The court had decided that he had taken small bribes to hand over the land allotment letters. As a result, he was serving a prison term for ten years, out of which he had spent seven already and had become eligible for release on good conduct. But he wanted to remain inside.
Outside the jail, we had been running around to get his bail from the High court. It finally took four weeks, as Verma ji had predicted. In the process, I saw the temple and the mosque around the Court premises that he had mentioned.
On March 13th, he was released from the jail. Sooraj had a talent for listening to the life stories of folks inside. Many inmates came to the release enclosure to see him off. He had also been telling them of our adventure and tribal villages. Most knew me by name and shook hands as we parted. Tilak was particularly vigorous in handshakes. He had a natural liking for all prosecuted folks – right or wrong was immaterial.
I joked with Sooraj, “Looks like a lot of folks like us inside there.”
He replied with sincerity, “Bhaiya, many are willing to work with us. I have told them so many things about the forest village.” I tapped my forehead in astonishment.
Meanwhile, the next date for case proceedings was April 30th. Lawyer Verma ji had requested me to arrange the witnesses before that and record their statements in front of the judge. Such voluntary statements could be recorded on any day.
As the case progressed, vibes at my home had been very depressing. My father and mother both had become very irritable. They were constantly worrying about the case.
Earlier, they used to wake up at six in the morning and start their work. Now they used to get up at odd hours – and switch on the lights and sit in worry. Between them, they would even discuss the case and our Pipariya project. My father had bought a lot of legal books, and read them to prepare for the case. He was applying each and every section of law to my case and checking if it helped.
I myself had become immune to their worries. I saw their hyperactivity as foolishness. I never comforted them; I don’t know if it would have mattered but it said about my own state of mind. I wanted less worries around.
They had lost their warmth towards Tilak and others. Even Muniya and Tulsi had started keeping away as they would pass hurting remarks in low voice. They also did not like my playing with or teaching Muniya. Muniya had once asked me, “Bhaiya, why are Dada and Dadi upset with me?”
I could not explain properly to her. So finally I told her that they were upset with me and hence keeping away from my friends. Then she asked, “But why are they upset with you?”
I made it up, and said, “See I did not study when I was small like you. So no one gives me work now. That is why they are upset.”
I don’t know if it made sense to her but it certainly stuck to her memory. She narrated it to her mother.
The child observing all this had made me conscious. I went to Tulsi one day and said, “Tulsi, do not mind my parents behavior. They worry day and night about my case. I can’t help it. But it will be alright once my case resolves.”
But Tulsi had not been immune. She said, “Bhaiya, they say nasty things about me. And sometimes even about Muniya. You would not like to hear them. I know they are troubled but even then where do they get such thoughts from. I feel like finding another place but haven’t been able to talk to you about it.” I could see her tears.
I told her, “Please don’t think of leaving without informing. I want to see Muniya study and become an officer or whatever she wants to be. For that you will have to be strong and ignore them for some time. Then I will do something to send you off.”
It solved the situation temporarily; but Tulsi’s words rang in my ears. I agreed with her that such degraded thoughts about others should not come to anyone, even if one is tested with severe situations. The seed had to be somewhere inside.