One evening some years ago, I was arrested along with some 60 others. Our crime: travelling in the ladies' first class compartment in a Bombay suburban train. Let me admit right away: I have nothing convincing to say in my defence. I learned my lesson and I won't do it again.

But it was an enlightening experience while it lasted, and on two counts.

First, at the Bombay Central police station, we were given two choices: spend the night in jail, or pay Rs 500 bail and go home. In both cases, we would have to appear in court the next day to pay our fines. Since I didn't have Rs 500 on me, a nearby guardian angel had to bail me out. When I left, every one of my partners in crime was still there. I looked forward to renewing my friendships with them in court.

The next day, I was the only one who turned up. Yes, the sole idiot. While I waited for the judge, a clerk beckoned to me. "Why have you come here?" he asked in an astonished whisper. "Bas unka haath garam karna tha!" "You should have just warmed their hands!"

You know, as I knew, what that means. The others had all "warmed" some hands and gone home.

Was I to feel contrite, angry, righteous or just plain stupid? Whatever, I paid my fine. It was hefty enough that I knew I would never set foot in that compartment again.

But there was irony to follow.

A few weeks later I watched another pathetic lot -- from the outside, you bet they looked pathetic -- being rounded up from the first-class ladies' compartment in another train. To my amazement, one of my fellow criminals was among them. Imagine the odds!

But apart from that, whatever he had paid the policemen that first night had clearly not been enough to teach him the lesson I had learned. No doubt he believed that travelling illegally was worth the risk of warming cop hands once in a while.

How many undertrials?
About 300,000 prisoners are awaiting trial, and they make up 70% of the jail population; only the other 30% are people actually convicted and imprisoned. Of the undertrials, nearly two-thirds (i.e. about 200,000 inmates) have been in jail for several years, due to delays in the disposal of their cases by the courts. Thousands of inmates are in jail longer that they would have been imprisoned if they had been found guilty and imprisoned.

 •  Friday at the court

How much of that warming goes on every day? The thing is, it's bad enough that you can pay bribes to officials who are very willing to take them; bad enough that ill-gotten gains are nearly a birthright today; bad enough that values are to laugh at. But corruption is about more than these. Corruption breaks down the very rules we live by.

We have good laws in this country. We have clearly spelled out mechanisms to punish those who break those laws. Whether it is for me occupying the ladies' compartment or for hate-crazed maniacs setting innocents on fire, punishment aims to ensure that the crime won't happen again.

Except, evading punishment is now an easy, routine matter. My friends in that compartment found that out. When it is so easy, those very laws are undermined. They cease to have the punitive powers they were intended to have, because there is always a way to escape their effect. (No wonder that man repeated his offence).

As more and more people realize this, more and more people flout our laws. One day, we're warming hands to avoid a heavy railway punishment. Another day, a coffin scam erupts. A third day, mobs slaughter hundreds of Indians on our streets. In every case, the criminals know they will get away: in fact, the more ghastly the crime, the more likely it is that the criminals will get away.

But I did mention two counts.

Second, at the court the next morning, while I sat musing over warmed hands and waiting for the judge, a number of people began filing into the room. All were young males -- many were boys, really -- and all were tied together with ropes in long lines. So in fact they shuffled in, heads down. Each roped line was escorted by one or two police constables. When they had all shuffled into position, the constables barked out a sharp word. All the boys sank to their haunches.

These were, of course, undertrial prisoners, come for their day in court. I have no idea what their offences were. But over the next few hours, I get an up-close and personal look at how justice goes.

Once the judge is seated, a member of the court staff begins calling names.

With each one, one of these boys gets up. Each time, without so much as looking at him, or even consulting any papers, the staff man and the judge confer for a few seconds. Then they announce a date, invariably several weeks ahead. The boy sits down, sometimes with the constables screaming at him to do so, sometimes forcing him down.

When all the boys have stood up and sat down, they all stand together one final time and, still roped, file out of the courtroom. That's their appearance for today. All they have achieved today -- yes, all 30 or 40 of them -- is to get another date for another appearance, where no doubt the same scene will reprise.

Dozens of cases are called. In just three of them are there any actual proceedings: people getting examined and the like. With every other one, the judge and his staff confer quietly -- much like at the Bombay Central court those years ago -- and then pronounce a date in the future.
And the questions that flood my mind leave me speechless. What is the meaning of bringing an undertrial all the way to the court, only to give him a date several weeks in the future for another appearance? If on a completely random visit to a courtroom, I run into a scene like this, how often does it play out every day in courtrooms across this land? How long have those boys been in custody? How long will they stay like that? Why must boys be roped?


Cut to early December 2005. In connection with this small tragedy that happened in 2000, the police call and ask me to appear as a witness in the criminal case against the taxi driver. (Briefly: I found a man lying on the road late one night. He was an autorickshaw driver, knocked from his rickshaw by a taxi. The taxi driver and I took him to the nearby hospital where, some hours later, he died).

The next day, I trek out to a courtroom in Andheri that is suffused with the aroma of urine. I spend the entire day there.

Dozens of cases are called. In just three of them are there any actual proceedings: people getting examined and the like. With every other one, the judge and his staff confer quietly -- much like at the Bombay Central court those years ago -- and then pronounce a date in the future. The people concerned with the case bow their heads in a show of respect to the court, and leave.

The same with us. The case is adjourned to January 7. The taxi driver is in the Court. He tells me this has happened several times. How many times, I ask. He thinks for a minute, then says: "Oh, about 50 or 60 times."

The man has to be exaggerating. Yet if it takes five years for the wheels of justice to get around to calling in the one witness in the case -- me -- I can only wonder: just how much of an exaggeration is it?

And if and when the case does get heard, will someone ask me quietly why I haven't warmed hands?