One Angela Sontekke

Voices from Behind the Bars

SAR Geelani, Amit Bhattacharya & Kalpana Wilson

Jails and prisons are designed to break human beings, to convert the population into specimens in a zoo-obedient to our keepers, but dangerous to each other.
Prisons do not disappear social problems, they disappear human beings. Homelessness, unemployment, drug addiction, mental illness and illiteracy are only a few of the problems that disappear from public view when the human beings contending with them are relegated to cages?
—Angela Davis

Ms Angela Harish Sontekke, a 45-year-old political under-trial prisoner went on hunger strike in the Byculla prison against the devious decision of the prison authorities to install CCTV cameras in the barracks of women prisoners. She was so resolute in her decision to stand up against any act to denigrate, violate the dignity and privacy of the women prisoners that the whimsical jail authorities had to respect the dignified resilience of the women prisoners. Ms Angela Sontekke resorted to the extreme step of hunger strike as the authorities went ahead despite the strong reservations and apprehensions expressed by the women prisoners, who saw in this act of the prison authorities, a clear instance of violation of privacy of the space of women prisoners and a concrete instance of degrading them further in a highly insensitive and generally anti-women space like prisons in the Indian subcontinent—a wee bit worse for them than the larger penitentiary outside its four walls.

Angela Sontekke, an alleged Maoist member has spent many of her years of incarceration in the Byculla jail as an under-trial political prisoner. The state foisted 17 cases on her of which she got acquittal in 15 cases and bail on the 16th one. On case no. 655 of 2011, under the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), the sessions' court turned down the bail application of Angela Sontekke, a double MA, who has taught in various schools and colleges in Maharashtra.

It was the CPDR (Committee for the Protection of Democratic Rights) fact-finding in the Byculla jail that brought out the news of the hunger strike of Ms Angela Sontekke. As reported on the 1 April, 2015, the male jail staff arrived with cables at the barrack no. 3 where Angela is put up. On enquiry they told that they were going to set up CCTV cameras inside the barracks. Angela and other inmates immediately protested as this was violating their privacy. In the scorching summer in Maharashtra, women prisoners use minimum clothes while they sleep. Apart from this, in the crowded and inhospitable barracks, skin diseases are rampant and women have to apply medicines on their body. They don't have any other space than the barrack to change their clothes. Despite the protests of the prisoners, the jail authorities insisted that they will go ahead with implementing the orders.

In the evening of the same day and on the next day morning the jail superintendent Mr Indukar came to barrack no. 3 and told the inmates that he was in no mood for any discussions and charged Ms Angela of instigating the other prisoners. It's shocking to see how standing up for one's fundamental rights becomes instigation in the eyes of the Superintendent. The next step of the superintendent falls nothing short of high-handedness and brutality. He threatened Ms Angela to : (i) put her in 24 hour isolation and (ii) to put a case on her for not allowing jail officials to perform their duties.

Angela and the other prison inmates explained that they don't have any objections to CCTVs being set up at the entrance of the barracks, corridors, court yard, at the gate, steps and offices. Their only objection was on the decision to install the cameras inside the barracks. Significantly the circular issued by Meera Borwankar, IG, Prisons—which Ms Angela got access to—states that CCTV cameras ought to be installed at: (i) main gate; (ii) judicial office; (iii) High Security Cells; & (iv) mulaqaat rooms. The circular does not state that cameras should be installed inside the barracks. What is clear as in many other instances is the near total lawlessness inside the penitentiaries in the Indian subcontinent where what runs large is the writ of the local officials who use their power to further corruption, misappropriation all under the smokescreen of implementing the law! Prisons in India have only flourished on the objectives set in motion during the colonial days—to use it as a disciplining / punishing centre where round the clock surveillance of the prisoner and breaking the will as well as dignity of the political prisoner let alone the others is the norm. And in the case of women political prisoners it becomes worse.

On 2 April 2015, after bandi, at around 6.30 pm about 10-12 jail staff reached Barrack No. 3 and took Ms Angela away saying that she was being kept in a "separate" cell—obviously as punishment for opposing the CCTV installation. Angela protested by immediately going on hunger strike since that evening. On 3rd April 2015, no jail staff came for rounds because of it being Good Friday and a public holiday. On 4th April 2015, Angela met the Chief Medical Officer to inform him that she was on a hunger strike. The Officer took her weight and taking note of her frail health, issued a note to the higher officers. 5 April being Sunday none of the jail officials visited the barracks or the separate cell in which Ms Angela was kept. On 6 April 2015, as the cells were opened for the inmates to come to the courtyard, every inmate was asked not to speak to Angela. Meanwhile Angela submitted her letter to a prison officer making it clear that she was on a hunger strike and with the demands that (i) the CCTV cameras not be installed inside the barracks; and (ii) that she be returned to the barracks.

The barbarity of the prison authorities can be gauged by their insipid insecurity that the inmates may lose the fear of being isolated, humiliated, tortured and debased. For they also knew that Angela was on the other side of fear, resolute on her demands and the prison authorities were helpless. Hence, instead of considering her demands, they could only punish her more severely by putting her in an "isolation" cell with no contact with other inmates.

As Angela continued her hunger strike for the 5th day her weight came down to 57 kgs. The Superintendent had to come to meet her on 7th April 2015, to tell her that she was always standing between him and the measures he was trying to implement. But true to the spirit of the legendary Angela Davis, Angela Sontekke was in no mood to accept things that she cannot change. Rather she was always ready to change things that she cannot accept. She pointed out that she did not oppose measures which were in the interest of women inmates, and pointed out that CCTV cameras inside the barracks were in violation of women inmates' right to privacy. Mr Indukar finally gave an assurance that he would consider her demands and Ms Angela was removed from the isolation cell by evening. Based on this, and the assurance given to her, Angela withdrew her hunger strike on that evening. As the news spread outside through the media on the design to install CCTVs inside women's barracks in the Byculla jail, the prison authorities had to beat a hasty retreat.

Mr Indukar had earlier belittled before the fact finding team of Advocates Maharukh Adenwala and Susan Abraham the strong reservations of the women prisoners as he said that only the women staff will operate the CCTV. The team had to point out to him that just because women are operating the CCTVs in itself will not ensure that they will not be misused. Moreover anyone could get access to the footage.

More than the fact that the resoluteness of Ms Angela Sontekke has brought the issue to the forefront of the authorities as well as the larger world outside, it is the total insensitivity and the urge to enforce discipline at any cost through punitive measures so as to brutalize and degrade the prisoner to the least possible denominator that takes people back to what Nelson Mandela once reminisced: It is sad that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones...

Vol. 47, No. 45, May 17 - 23, 2015