The Inside Story
Vijai Kumari got bail in 1994. But it took two decades for her to leave Lucknow women's jail, as son Kanhaiya, born in prison, raised money for a lawyer and a bond

Vijai Kumari named her son Kanhaiya, after Lord Krishna. It was on the suggestion of a doctor—like in the mythology about the Hindu god, he was born in jail. For the next two decades, as Kumari stayed behind bars despite being granted bail, what kept her going was her belief in her Kanhaiya. On May 4, the 19-year-old returned to take her mother home.

While the Allahabad High Court gave her bail in 1994, Kumari couldn't be released because she couldn't furnish two surety bonds. "The years passed without anyone coming to help me. But I had faith that my Kanhaiya will get me released just as Lord Krishna got his jailed parents freed," says the 50-year-old, now staying in a temporary accommodation at a rehabilitation centre in Kanpur, where her son lives.

Kumari was convicted of murder and was serving the first year of her life imprisonment when Kanhaiya was born. He spent his first four years in Lucknow's Adarsh Nari Bandi Niketan (women's prison) with her, before being moved to a government children's home in Lucknow.

Inside the jail, Kumari was soon forsaken by her family. "No one from my family, including my two sisters and two brothers, ever came to see me. My husband Kanti Prasad come to meet me once, seven years ago, only to inform me that he had re-married. He did not even answer letters I sent seeking his help to get my son and me released," she says.

Prasad also told her that her daughter, who was two-and-a-half years old when she was jailed, had got married, and that their elder son, who was about five years old then, had died of a dog bite.

Kumari recalls how she lived with her husband and children in Mehrauni village of Aligarh district. Then, on October 17, 1989, a child living in their neighbourhood was found dead in a garbage heap, and the family blamed Kumari.

A case of murder was lodged against her at the Iglas police station and she was arrested. On October 22, 1993, the Aligarh Additional District and Sessions Judge sentenced her to life imprisonment. Kumari was five months' pregnant at the time.

Prasad appealed in the Allahabad High Court against Kumari's conviction and sought bail for her, which was granted on January 10, 1994, on the condition that the appellant furnish a personal bond and two sureties each in the like amount "to the satisfaction of" the Chief Judicial Magistrate, Aligarh.

Advocate Y D Sharma who had appeared for Kumari in 1994 says a copy of the bail order was given to Prasad, who carried it to CJM, Aligarh. However, Prasad was unable to furnish the two surety bonds, Sharma says. Later, he remarried and did not pursue the case.

Kanhaiya remained Kumari's only solace. After he was shifted to the children's home, says Kumari, she had trouble sleeping. "He would sleep with me in prison. I could not sleep for some days, but I consoled myself thinking that he was growing up somewhere. He would visit me every week or fortnight."

Kanhaiya studied till Class VIII at a government school while at the home. Around a year ago, he was sent to the Uttar Raksha Evam Punarvasan Kendra, a Kanpur-based rehabilitation centre that lodges teenagers coming from children homes after they turn 18.

The rehabilitation centre's vice-chairman, B B L Srivastava, says Kanhaiya came to them in July 2012. "He has a room here. We trained him in manufacturing of garments and he worked here for three months. After that, we sent him to another garment manufacturing factory in the city."

Even after moving to Kanpur, Kanhaiya made sure he met his mother at least once a fortnight.

About four months ago, one of Kumari's fellow inmates got bail. Kumari got from her the contact number of her Allahabad-based lawyer, Arvind Kumar Singh, and gave it to Kanhaiya.

Kanhaiya contacted Singh and went to Allahabad to meet him. It was his first time alone outside the children's home or centre. "I did not know how to travel in a train, how to find addresses. I got lost in Allahabad. After asking several people, I finally traced the lawyer," Kanhaiya recalls.

Singh took up the case and was shocked to realise that Kumari had already been granted bail in 1994. "Looking at the suffering caused to the woman and her child in 19 years, I decided to approach the Allahabad High Court. The court asked me to present the boy before them. I went with Kanhaiya to the court on the next date and the court directed the jail authorities that Kumari be released after submitting a personal bond of just Rs 5,000," he says.

The bench of judges Vinod Prasad and Anjani Kumar Mishra further observed, "We enquired from Kanhaiya why he had not made any endeavour to get his mother released; but...he had no answer except to shed his tears. We can understand."

Terming the matter "a very worrying case", the bench said "it cannot but express dismay on the inaction of the state government as well as the concerned district judges".

On May 11, Kumari went to Pahasu police station, under which her husband's village Farkana falls, to inform the station officer about her release and to seek a share in her husband's property. She did not go to Prasad's house 2 km away. "I showed Kanhaiya the road which goes to our village but we did not go there. What is the use of begging for help when nobody from there came to meet me even once in 19 years?" she says.

Prasad has now disowned Kanhaiya. He also claims not to have pursued Kumari's case as he was too poor to make ends meet. But Kumari is determined to fight for her and her son's share from Prasad's property. "Everyone should have a son like mine," she says. "He saved money from what he earned and paid the lawyer so that I could get released." With a share in the property, Kumari hopes she can settle down in Kanpur with her son. "I want to see him married so that I can have my family."

Rehabilitation centre chairman

H Rahman says they have got a bank account opened for Kanhaiya and he saves about half his salary. Kumari has been given a job at the office of the vice-chairman and a place to stay.

The woman who spent a lifetime behind bars may now help secure the release of others. Treating her petition as a PIL, the court appointed the additional advocate general as amicus curiae and sought the details of all such convicts lodged in state jails awaiting release after bail. "The court also said that Kumari be compensated adequately."

Retribution though is far from Kumari's mind right now. "On May 4, I left the jail in the morning without eating anything. It was after 19 years that I was out. I asked Kanhaiya where I would go. He told me to come with him to Kanpur," she says, her eyes welling up.

A day after they reached Kanpur, the mother and son went to the nearby market. From the money he has been long saving, Kanhaiya bought Kumari a sari for Rs 250.

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In a dusty tenement in a crowded neighbourhood in the Indian city of Kanpur, a young man takes out a bright yellow sari from a shopping bag and presents it to his mother.

"Do you like it?" he asks her. "Yes," is her reply.

It is an innocuous scene, except that the young man, Kanhaiya, has waited a long time to give his mother a gift.

Nineteen years ago, his mother Vijai Kumari was convicted of murder - wrongfully, she claimed.
She was granted bail on appeal but she did not have the 10,000 rupees ($180; £119) she needed to post bail. Her husband abandoned her and no-one else came forward to help her.

"I thought I'd die in prison," she says. "They told me in there that no-one ever gets out."

She was pregnant when she went to jail. Four months later, Kanhaiya was born.

"I sent him away when he got a bit older. It was hard but I was determined. Prison is no place for a young child," she says.

So she stayed in prison all these years, lost in the system and forgotten.
All she had to keep her going was a passport-size photograph of her son and his visits to her every three months.

'Think of her and cry'

Kanhaiya spent most of his childhood growing up at various juvenile homes. And he never forgot his mother.

"I would think of her and cry," he says, speaking softly and with a lisp.

"She was in prison, all alone. No-one else ever visited her. And my father turned his back on her."

Kanhaiya's mother Vijai Kumari only had a photo of her son in jail

Vijai Kumari only had a small photograph of her son Kanhaiya
As soon as he turned 18, he was trained to work in a garment factory. And he began saving up to get his mother out.

Eventually, he hired a lawyer.

"Someone told me about him. He was surprised to hear about my mother's case."

The lawyer took on his case and earlier this month, his mother was freed from prison.

Judges expressed their shock at her situation and the "callous and careless" behaviour of the authorities.

They have now ordered a sweep of all the prisons in Uttar Pradesh state to see if there are others like Vijai Kumari.

The reality is that hers is not an isolated case.

There are an estimated 300,000 inmates in India's prisons, 70% of whom are yet to face trial. And many of them have spent a long time in custody.

It is a reflection of India's shambolic and sluggish legal system where it can often take years for a case to be heard and a trial to be concluded.

But, for the moment, mother and son are reunited and anxious about their future.

"All I want is for my son to be settled," Vijai Kumari says, her voice breaking and her eyes moist.
"He's all I have in this world."

Kanhaiya and his mother plan to approach his estranged father and fight for their rights, including a share of the family property.

But for now, they are taking in the present and trying to make up for all the time they have lost.

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