For want of a train ticket, Ramchandra spent 28 years in jail
NO one had ever heard of Ramchandra Kashiram, a forgotten ''undertrial,'' who languished in Bihar's notorious prisons for 28 years. He was poor and illiterate, living on the margin of life. His is the story of an anonymous Indian.
He remembers that he crossed over to India from his native Nepal as a teen-ager seeking employment and, if he was fortunate, a wife and home. He also remembers that on March 5, 1953, while traveling ticketless on the Siliguri train, he was arrested after a scuffle with railway officials.
(For hundreds of thousands, traveling ticketless atop a train is a favorite and abiding Indian pastime.)
Mr. Kashiram was taken to Bihar's Kishanganj jail. According to lawyers, he should have been charged under Article 307 of the Indian penal code, which carries a maximum sentence of seven years in jail.
What happened after that remains a mystery, a mystery of 28 years.
No records were ever found of where Mr. Kashiramwas arrested, why, or how. He was simply transferred from prison to prison, always awaiting trial.
On Oct. 31, 1981, a young Kishanganj advocate, Ranjan Kumar Sanyal, who was in court arguing another case, saw Kashiram in a corner outside the registrar's office. He could barely stand. Mr. Sanyal made inquiries. No one knew anything about the forgotten man.
Sanyal persisted. A member of the small Bihar chapter of the Indian Civil Liberties Union, he got the union's president, Radha Raman, involved. On Dec. 2, 1981, Kashiram was released from prison on a personal-security bond of 400 Indian rupees ($40), which Sanyal paid.
But the Bihar court system never acknowledged Kashiram's compensation claims, blithely dismissing the loss of his file as apparent justification for his loss of three decades.
So, in January 1983, the spunky itinerate laborer - as an individual petitioner - appealed directly to the highest court in the land.
The Indian Supreme Court last August demanded that the Bihar government pay him compensation of 300 rupees ($30) a month. The Bihar state government - by general acknowledgement the most corrupt and inefficient of India's 22 states - procrastinated, ignoring the ruling.
Finally it has come around. It is paying not only the monthly compensation, but an additional 5,000 rupees in one lump sum.
In his first major expose Arun Shourie, an award-winning Indian journalist, had found that there were 120,000 undertrials (individuals who have been arraigned but whose cases are not yet decided) languishing in Indian prisons in 1979.
As a result of his series of articles, 40,000, all being held on minor charges - and too poor or too ignorant to know their rights - were released under a Supreme Court writ.
In a landmark judgment on human rights last October, Justice S. Ratnavel Pandian of the Madras High Court ordered the release of any prisoner who had been jailed without charges for more than six months. Approximately 300,000 undertrials were affected throughout the state of Tamil Nadu in the south.
Nearly all of them were like Kashiram - arrested on minor counts, with neither the knowledge nor the money to get involved in drawn-out legal disputes, and consequently the most vulnerable to the excessive harassment of prison officials and the Indian police.
Some of the cases, according to Justice Pandian, had been pending for the ''abominable extent of 17 years.''
For Kashiram, it was nearly twice that long.
Today, he remains impoverished, sharing a one-room flat, with a peon and his family. He lives in the dusty, frontier town of Kishanganj near the Nepalese border, 250 miles northeast of here.
Ironically and sadly, he is living in the Kishanganj court compound, very near the jail where he first began his nightmare, 30 years ago.
''His life in jail was better than his freedom,'' his lawyer, Mr. Sanyal said. ''Now he has nowhere to go, nothing to do. . . . He sacrificed his life at the altar of justice.''
Mr. Sanyal has approached Mother Teresa and her Sisters of Charity, and the Nobel Prize-winner has agreed to accept Kashiram as her personal ward.
In the meantime, he continues under medical treatment and continues to have mental lapses. If you ask him about his past, he talks of only yesterday. He shrugs his shoulders, not really knowing, when you ask him about his age.
He could be 49, according to the only court document that has ever surfaced in the case. But his photograph is that of a man of 70.
According to Mr. Sanyal, his Manchurian beard makes Kashiram look more like a Tibetan than like the Nepalese Brahman he is.
Since his well-publicized release from prison, no one has visited him: No one from his native village in nearby Nepal has attempted to seek him out.
Harsh prison conditions, where he sometimes slept by being strapped to the grating of grossly overcrowded cells, so that he would not fall on fellow prisoners sleeping on the floor, have played havoc with the memory of this frail and nervous man.
He sometimes says his native Nepalese village is Baluanti; other times he says it's Bilulu or Palpa. He remembers a mother and two brothers. But, for them , on the other side of the Nepalese frontier, he disappeared into the heat, poverty, and indifference of the vast subcontinent. After three decades, they simply ceased to exist.
A fellow Nepali and peon at the Kishanganj Public Works Department, Mohan Bahadur, has been supporting Kashiram for the last two years.
But, said Kashiram, in his petition to the Indian Supreme Court, ''As I am not even in a position to beg in the streets, this is a heavy bag of gold for him to carry.''
No one would dispute the claim.