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A lifetime in illegal detention

Sushanta Talukdar

Guwahati: There was a shiver of emotion in the air-conditioned auditorium here as 79-year-old Machang Lalung was helped up the steps by relatives. The tribal was there on Thursday evening to join viewers of “Freedom at the Edge,” a short film, which documented his confinement for 54 years in prison without trial.

Many sobbed after watching the film, which bagged an award at the recent Boston International Film Festival. The 27-minute documentary by the Guwahati-based film-maker, Aneisha Sharma, was among the 100 films selected from 1,650 entries. Machang, in the traditional attire of the Tiwas, a tribe of Central Assam’s Morigaon district, was seated next to the then Chief Judicial Magistrate, Kamrup (Metropolitan), H.K. Sarma, who ordered his release on a token personal bond of Re. 1 in July last.

To his right was Indra Bania, Assamese actor, who played the lead role of Lalung in the film. Bania, who bagged the best actor award at the Locarno International Film Festival in 1988 for his lead role in Jahnu Barua’s Halodhiya Ch oraiye Baodhan Khai, was trying to make Machang understand that what was being shown on the screen was a film on him.

Machang’s face was expressionless — he did not seem to comprehend what was going on either in the auditorium or around him.

Ms. Aneisha Sharma did the shooting in the Guwahati central jail and the mental hospital at Tezpur, where Machang was held captive, and in his Silchang village. While Bania described his lead role as “the most touching role being the real-life story of a living person,” an emotional Rajib Kro, who played young Machang, broke down in the midst of a media interaction after the screening.

Machang was only 23 years when he was arrested by the police in 1951 from his village. It was NHRC Special Rapporteur Chaman Lal who brought to the notice of the National Human Rights Commission the shocking neglect of five undertrial prisoners, including Machang, in the mental hospital. The NHRC found that Machang was never produced in court though he was declared fit to stand trial after August 9, 1967 and he had remained an undertrial prisoner in the case under Section 326 of the Indian Penal Code. The NHRC ordered the Assam Government to release him immediately.

Compensation

Later, the Supreme Court, taking suo motu notice, ordered the State Government to pay Machang a compensation of Rs. 3 lakh and a monthly assistance of Rs. 1,000 for life.

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