On her visit to India, Theresa May raised the case of the six British ex-servicemen stuck in India for three years, transparently innocent of any crime. The six were employed on an anti-piracy ship when it was summoned, for reasons unclear, from international waters into an Indian port in October 2013. They’ve been arrested, imprisoned, and had their case dismissed by the High Court. Curiously a lower court then convicted them on spurious charges, sentencing them each to five years’ imprisonment.  The charge, of possessing illegal firearms, is without foundation: their weapons carried a British export license for anti-piracy purposes, confirmed in a letter to The Times (23 September 2016), signed by, amongst others, Sir Vince Cable, the responsible Secretary of State. 

Mrs May and Indian prime minister Narendra Modi said that they hoped their two governments could reconsider their case once an appeal was over. A foreign office spokesman added: “We cannot interfere with India’s independent legal system”.

Prima facie, this may seem proper. But what if the legal system is rife with corruption, extortion and wrongful imprisonment? To understand the ex-servicemen’s plight one should shake off any notion that the Indian system has much to do with justice, as I found out.

It was at 1 am that a senior police inspector arrested me at my hotel in Hyderabad, where I was making a film about improving education in the slums. Making baseless allegations, she threw me in jail. I was stuck in India for four months, first in prison then released on bail but subjected to tortuous interrogations and police harassment.  My situation was nothing compared to the plight of the servicemen, and also to the thousands of Indians I realised were suffering the same fate. But I was able to see a little of what they’re up against.

An Indian prison is not a pretty place. There’s no furniture, you sleep on the bare concrete floor, lying side by side with your fellows, mosquitos everywhere. A hole in the ground is the lavatory. There’s a communal tap. Twice a day you stand in line, as one prisoner with his bare hand chucks a wodge of rice from a dirty metal basin onto your plate, while his partner slops a cupful of thin gruel on to your rice.

The jailors are brutal. They beat several of us new arrivals for not properly announcing what we were in prison for, as if we knew. One took pleasure in getting guards to beat other prisoners in front of me: an old man beaten by a triangle of guards taking turns around him; a young man beaten between his legs, for the “crime” of chewing gum. The jailors revelled in their power and our helplessness.

Meanwhile, the prison superintendent was ready to offer more lenient treatment if your family could pay a bribe, further marginalising the poor.

Take someone like Arjun, a cycle rickshaw puller, his vehicle impounded because he could not afford the bribe to renew his licence.  He had been in prison for three years, not charged with anything. He was not alone. Sixty-five percent of Indian prisoners are ‘undertrials’, many for several years, awaiting trial or commonly, as in the case of Arjun, awaiting charge, imprisoned while “under investigation”, their families too poor to furnish bail.

The Supreme Court of India appears powerless against this astounding affront to human rights. Exceptionally, it did intervene in the case of someone imprisoned without trial for more than twelve years. Its judgement read: ‘The laxity with which we throw citizens into prison reflects our lack of appreciation for the tribulation of incarceration; the callousness with which we leave them there reflects our lack of deference for humanity.’

One wonders what Gandhi would have thought of it all. He invoked the principles of Magna Carta – that justice delayed is justice denied and that no one can be held in prison without trial – as he led the struggle against the British.  He would surely be incensed by the scandalous suspension of these principles in modern-day India.

For foreigners, once out of prison, the struggle is far from over. The police have your passport, so detain you at their pleasure. Tactics they use to break you down include isolating you from any human contact, and sending in armed stooges to procure the bribe. In my case, it was £15,000 the policewoman was after, enough to repay the bribe she herself had paid in order to gain her senior police position.

At this point, one might reasonably ask what the British government can do for you. Out of prison, I had phoned the High Commission, who made clear my situation was not uncommon. Drawing a firm distinction between mental and physical abuse, they said only if I was in physical danger should I re-contact them.

When I did, fearful for my life as the police piled on pressure, the woman I spoke to was a most sympathetic counsellor. The police were only trying to frighten me, she said. After our call ended, she emailed, telling me she had informed the Crown Prosecution Service, as ‘if you pay the bribe, under UK law you may be prosecuted in the UK.’  Far from securing ‘assistance and protection’, instead she warned me that there would be someone to feel my collar back home, should I cave in to extortion.

When I was stuck in India, telling anyone who would listen about my case, almost without exception everyone responded with a similar story about police corruption. This tallies with recent surveys from Transparency International, where 88 per cent of respondents reported the police were corrupt.  I don’t think anyone I spoke to then would believe that due process is being followed in the case of the British ex-servicemen. I’m sure they would say that their families and the British government are playing by rules different to those of the Indian police. It’s my judgement too.

This is what the six ex-servicemen are up against. There should be no pretence that due process is being followed. If it cannot do anything positive, at least the British government owes it to these men to admit it.

James Tooley is professor of education at Newcastle University. His book Imprisoned in India: Corruption and extortion in the world’s largest democracy, is out now.