Marking September 13

Prisons and Political Prisoners

SAR Geelani, Amit Bhattacharya & Rona Wilson

When the prison act was first enacted by the British in the Indian subcontinent, never for the coloniser was it an act or necessity to 'reform' the prisoner in the colony. The main concern for the coloniser who put up the prison system in the Indian subcontinent was to use it as a tool to administer/discipline the colonised. When one sees a 90 percent disabled political prisoner like Dr G N Saibaba being kept in sub-human conditions in solitary confinement in anda barracks—allegedly constructed to keep Sikh nationalists—or a cultural activist like Hem Mishra being brutally beaten up for citing the rules that prohibit handcuffing of the under-trial prisoner while taken outside the jail for production in the court or for medical treatment or when one witnesses scores of political prisoners in Presidency Jail of West Bengal on hunger strike for not allowing visitors or their relatives to meet them it is certain that the post-1947 prison administration in the Indian subcontinent has changed little in letter and spirit from the days of the British colonial Raj.

The inhuman, unhygienic, crowded prison conditions with corrupt officers prevalent in post-47 Indian subcontinent is an inheritance from the colonial days where the art of confinement, torture, mistreatment everything has been perfected as part of a strategy to criminalise communities, dissidents from among the colonised who became a hindrance for the state building in the colonial days. No other way can one comprehend the steel re-inforced concrete room without any windows (a jail within several jails) in which Mr Zahibuddin Ansari—allegedly involved in the 26/11 blasts—is incarcerated with a high voltage lamp on 24 × 7 in the room. All this as claimed by the Mumbai police is for the safety of Mr Zahibuddin Ansari and not at all torture or inhuman treatment of any kind.

As civil liberties bodies were preparing to observe September 13 as the day of the political prisoner the increasing instances of re-arrests of political prisoners incarcerated for their alleged Maoist links who have been acquitted of all cases or have been given bail from just outside the prison gates when they are released was becoming a standard practice of the police and the intelligence agencies for whom impunity has become the law.

The art of perfecting the rule of the colonised with a colonial administrative apparatus that comprised mostly of the brown sahibs further made the inheritance of the colonial prison manual as well as the sizeable chunk of the IPC with all the draconian sections in it easier in the post-47 Indian subcontinent. The penal state that India is fast becoming today teethed with the worst kinds of draconian laws has its origins in the early colonial state apparatus.

It was against the fundamental tenets of that prison system—a place to mistreat, torture, humiliate, to criminalise dissent, a place where one is left to die slowly due to the extremely unhygienic conditions—Jatin Das and his close associates went on a historic hunger strike in the Lahore prison. One might recall that Jatin Das and other revolutionaries were lodged in the Lahore Jail to be tried for the Lahore Conspiracy Case. The hunger strike was initiated against the pathetic conditions of the local prisoners in contrast to the strikingly better treatment meted out to the British prisoners. To have food from the prison kitchen infested with rats and cockroaches was a health hazard. To wear the clothes that were unwashed for days together was yet another hazard for the political prisoner from the Indian subcontinent. Moreover none of the prisoners from the Indian subcontinent had access to notebooks, pens, or periodicals/newspapers/books. This hunger strike which was historic for the number of days it went as well as the futile efforts of the British to break the will of the hunger strikers—they beat the prisoners to give up the hunger strike, tried to force feed them, many times refused even to give them water—had captured the imagination of the masses of the people as news started spreading about the revolutionaries who were steadfast on their demands. The most important demand among others was the right to be recognised as a political prisoner. It was the historic fasts-unto-death (1916-1920) by the Irish revolutionaries that shook the conscience of the world thus inspiring many to resort to hunger strike inside prison as a means to send a political message or as a last resort to fight for the rights inside the prison.

In the same tradition Bhagat Singh and his revolutionary comrades were on hunger for the right to be recognised as political prisoners. Jatin Das who by then had acquainted with Bhagat Singh and his comrades joined the hunger strike on the 15 June 1929. When he joined the hunger strike itself Jatin Das was certain that the British colonisers would seldom listen to the demands of the political prisoners and that it would be a fast unto death. Despite persuasions from his fellow comrades Jatin Das refused to lift his hunger strike. On 13 September 1929 Jatin Das breathed his last as his body failed to keep up with his indomitable spirit.

As this is being written there are hunger strikes going on for days in the prisons of Tihar in Delhi, Presidency Jail in Kolkata, Mumbai as is being reported in the press and by civil rights activists.

In Tihar Jail, Mr Mushtaq Ahmad Lone, an accused in the case of National Investigation Agency v. Syed Salahuddin & Ors. (RC:1/2011/NIA-DLI) is on an indefinite hunger strike demanding that his case be shifted to Srinagar as there is no justification for a case to be tried in Delhi when out of the 285 witnesses cited by the prosecution in this case, 203 are the residents of Jammu & Kashmir state and it is likely, if not certain, that bringing more than 200 witnesses from Jammu & Kashmir to Delhi will inordinately prolong and hopelessly delay the trial. When it takes most of the undertrial Kashmiri Muslim political prisoners lodged in several prisons in the Indian subcontinent years to finish their trial—in most cases acquitted after long periods of detention as undertrials with some having served more than 14 years for the judiciary to declare them innocent—the indefinite hunger strike of Mr Mushtaq Ahmad Lone gains credence as his apprehensions of the criminal delay in trial let alone justice is based on concrete experiences of fellow Kashmiri Muslims.

About 30 political prisoners lodged in the Presidency Jail have been on hunger strike for more than 10 days (at the time of writing) in protest against the violation of their rights by jail authorities. For about two weeks the political prisoners were confined to their cells and not allowed to mingle with others. Further they were not even allowed to make routine calls to their relatives or well wishers.

Mr Zahibuddin Ansari has been on indefinite hunger strike for more than 35 days, demand an end to isolation in the most inhuman conditions that can be.

Some of the instances cited above form only the tip of the iceberg of a situation prevalent in the Indian subcontinent today, especially the conditions prevalent in the prisons. The circumstances that exist today are perfect for the criminalisation of all forms of political dissent once again reminding people of the heroic sacrifice of Jatin Das who till his last breadth fought undauntedly for the right to be recognised as a political prisoner.

As the legacy of Jatin Das lives on, today inside the prisons political prisoners are fighting for the general improvement of the prison conditions while raising their demand to be recognised as a political prisoner. It is important to note that the political prisoners have been incarcerated for their political beliefs and activities among the masses to build a new world free from all forms of oppression, exploitation, mistreatment and discrimination. A world free from all forms of violence, domination and killing. For whatever rights Jatin Das and his comrades fought for inside the prison, today after 66 years of independence, hundreds of thousands of political prisoners are continuing the fight—for the right to be recognised as a political prisoner; against discrimination; humiliation; torture; confinement; for hygienic food and cleaner surroundings.

The growing divide between the rich and the poor, the increasing miseries of the masses of the people in the form of rising unemployment, waning purchasing power, diminishing income, lack of social security, of displacement from their livelihoods, from forest dwellings, of land grab, all have resulted in rising indignation among the people. Hundreds of thousands of people who have resolutely stood against the pro-mperialist, pro-rich policies of the Indian state have been met with the worst kind of state repression and incarceration. Prisons are breeding diseases due to the worst kind of hygiene. Deaths in prisons are on the rise. High rates of deaths of prisoners have even been recorded from Tihar Jail which the government touts as the 'State-of-the-Art' Prison in Asia. Torture and custodial deaths are going unreported or left unnoticed by the courts. Political prisoners who are struggling inside the prisons for the rights of the prisoners in general and the right to be recognised as a political prisoner are met with the worst kinds of mistreatment so as to dissuade them from their struggle. Adivasis, Muslims, people belonging to oppressed nationalities, dalits, workers, and whomsoever fighting for a better world branded as terrorists/Naxalites/Maoists abound the prisons of the subcontinent. Highlighting the jail conditions, mistreatment and discrimination as well as the general plight of the masses of the people in the Indian subcontinent, political prisoners in various prisons observed 13 September as the Political Prisoners’ Day.

As the world economy is moving from one spiral of crisis to another with hardly any signs of real recovery the Indian economy which is ever more integrated with the industrialised West is reeling under the tremors of the faulterirg imperialist economies. This has further ridden the ruling classes of India into deeper turmoil unable to bail them out of wrath of the masses of the people who are forced to bear the brunt of the deepening crisis. As people pour out to the streets protesting against the failure of successive governments to take care of their well being more and more of the masses are framed under the worst draconian laws and put behind bars. Further those who are arrested and kept behind bars are condemned to stay there forever as various intelligence agencies of different states and the notorious NIA indulge in framing huge number of cases on the political prisoners. At a time when a lawless police/paramilitary/intelligence agencies, armed with the worst kind of draconian laws—such as the UAPA, AFSPA, PSA, NSA, and a surfeit of state-wise special security acts—designed to exercise impunity it becomes significant and decisive on the side of the progressive and democratic sections of the society to come forward and raise their voice against the increasing atrocities on the people. It becomes significant for the people of the subcontinent to demand to do away with all draconian laws meant to suppress the people. It becomes decisive and significant for all to demand the unconditional release of all political prisoners. Demanding for the unconditional release of all political prisoners thus becomes one with popular struggles to demand a better world for all where the real values of democracy can sprout and flourish.

Vol. 48, No. 21, Nov 29 - Dec 5, 2015