Political Prisoners In Bengal

Voices from Behind the Bars

Biswajit Roy

As India celebrated another Independence Day, suspected Maoist prisoners went on a hunger strike in West Bengal jails to protest the systematic denials of inmates' basic human rights as well as court-accorded status of political prisoners. According to the Association For Protection of Democratic Rights (APDR), there are around 150 alleged Maoist prisoners in Bengal jails apart from hundreds of tribals and non-tribals who were arrested in connection with Lalgarh movement in Western Bengal's Jangal Mahal.

The Trinamul Congress Chief had endeared herself to Maoists and Maoist-backed People’s Committee Against Police Atrocities in Bengal's Jangal Mahal, which spearheaded popular Lalgarh movement, only to use them as pawns in her game to outsmart and dislodge Buddhadeb Bhaltacharjee-led last Left Front government. Now that she and her partymen are keen on gagging all kinds of opposition voices, her government has not only forgotten its pre-poll promises on political prisoners, most related to Lalgarh movement, but also hell-bent on robbing their rights that have been earned through decades of democratic movements inside and outside the goals since the Raj.

The other day Pradip Chatterjee, a young man narrated the plight of his brother, Prasun and some other suspected Maoists who had been languishing for more than eight years in West Bengal jails. Pradip got acquitted recently after spending eight years in jails under the same charges. Chatterjee brothers have lost their father who died out of agonies after waiting years for his sons' release. Their mother is in no better condition.

Speaking at a convention organized by the Rajbandi Mukti Joutho Udyog (Joint Initiative to release political prisoners by APDR, Bandi Mukti Committee, Bandimukti and Gandabi Committee and other human rights forums) in Kolkata on August 11, Pradip informed about the concerted steps that the state government and its prison bureaucracy had taken to deny political prisoners' rights and gag their protest. Officials in various prisons are refusing to allow visit by friends of prisoners at jails except those with blood relations, citing a purported government circular. Also, political prisoners are not allowed books and uncensored newspapers. Even daily necessities like soaps are being denied.

Prasun went on hunger strike against such abuses of power in Jalpaiguri jail and wrote an open letter to the chief minister. As the letter reached the local media and plight of prisoners came to fore, government restricted the visits by prisoner's friends including rights activists, lawyers and journalists.

More sinister things have happened to another alleged Maoist, Dipak Kumar alias Rajesh Kumar Shaw, a resident of Chattisgarh who was arrested in Kolkata in February 2012. Lodged in Presidency jail in the city, he has been put in a 'solitary cell' as a punishment, reportedly for having attempted a jailbreak along with another undertrial prisoner in the wee hours of July 27. Jail authorities claimed that he later confessed his crime. But Dipak denied the charge and said he had been forced to come out of his enclosure around 3 AM and special task force of police compelled him to confess the conspiracy at the point of gun.

As his version leaked out to media and he declined to own up police story, he was put under 24 hours lock up in a dumb cell, which could be fatal for the asthma patient. He was not allowed to change his clothes. The prison mandarins even refused to give him a form for petitioning to the authorities. In protest, Dipak has begun an indefinite hunger strike. In a letter to the APDR, Dipak's mother has feared for his life as he has been denied regular medications.

Senior Maoist political prisoners like Patitpaban Haldar have been put in punitive lock ups for protesting the mid-night searches and other daily harassment. Akhil Chandra Ghosh, another senior who had protested such tortures on all political prisoners even if Dipak Kumar had attempted an escapade. An enraged jail official reminded him of an old altercation and told him point blank: "When an ant bites us, we crush all the ants around".

This triggered the decision to go for indefinite hunger strike by political prisoners. Alarmed, the jail administration eased Kumar's conditions and assured to allow him to write petitions. However, the daylong strike would go to press for the demand to meet friends apart from family members as well as continuation of status of political prisoners.

Reflecting on his own experience, Pradip Chatterjee said that most of the political prisoners, irrespective of the status accorded to them by the court or not, depend upon rights activists and lawyers to maintain contact with the outside world as family members can't travel to far off jails regularly. Rights activist Sujato Bhadro called the government's move brazenly illegal and aimed at snapping the ties between the inmates and the supportive communities outside. This is happening all over the world that concerns global rights movements.

The state refusal to allow jail visit by non-family friends has received a sanction from the union government following its decision to bar academics, researchers and journalists from interviewing inmates in the wake of controversy over BBC documentary 'India's Daughter' that had recorded and aired the unabashed justification of gruesome rape and murder of Nirbhaya by the perpetrators.

The ominous cocktail of the ruling party and its government's political vendetta and the overarching compliance of a section of lower judiciary came to limelight when several speakers reminded the professed political bias of a sessions judge in Midnapore court. Long before she pronounced life imprisonment for Chatradhar Mahato, the convener of People's Committee Against Police Atrocities in Lalgarh and his five other co-accused—Sukhsanti Baske, Shambu Soren, Sagun Murmu, all tribals and Raja Sarkhel and Prasun Chatterjee, mostly under the dreaded Unlawful Activities Prevention Act this May, she had revealed her bias much to the dismay of rights activists.

The convicts who have already spent six years in jail since the fag end of Left Front rule have geared up for appeal to the High Court against the sentence. ‘‘The said judge reportedly over-shoot her role as a trial court judge and even went against the order of Justice Kanwaljit Singh of Calcutta High Court who had sanctioned political prisoner status to Mahato and others," Bhadra said. Earlier, Bengal government had petitioned the Supreme Court against the High Court order. But the SC refused to stay the HC order.

Chatterjee pointed out that the status is not all about certain privileges but the hard-won recognition for political defiance and its legitimacy. That's why the present generation of political prisoners is up against the government's vindictive move inside the jail walls.

Television and other media had widely covered Mamata Banerjee’s bonhomie with Mahato and his Committee during 2009-10, latter's efforts to make her rally on August 9, 2010 a grand success. She supported the demand for withdrawal of joint forces from Jangal Mahal and asked for the release of Mahato whom sleuths had trapped and arrested the year before by posing as television journalists. She also demanded probe into the murder of Maoist leader Azad. But the equation changed after she assumed power.

Mamata Banerjee allegedly took exception to Mahato's intransigence to her wish to field him as a Trinamul candidate from jail. Mahato decided to contest as the Committee nominee instead to underline his popularity as well the movement's autonomy from the then main opposition party. But he lost it badly, due to division of votes and confusion among rank and file supporters regarding Maoist leadership's position.

Recalling the episode, Krisna Banerjee, a political prisoner of the seventies and a close supporter of the Lalgarh movement said: ‘‘Chatradhar's crime is that he dared to defy the upper caste leaders. Same is the crime of other tribals and non-tribals’’.

While the CPM-led Left Front Government was revengeful in dealing with Mahato and others in Lalgarh movement, educationist Miratun Nahar felt that Mamata's regime has betrayed all the people who had joined the movement for political change in 2011.

No doubt legal battles to release Mahato and others sentenced have received a new lease of life after the Calcutta High Court admitted their anneals against the lower court verdict.

Speaking at the joint convention organised by the rights bodies to release political prisoners, Subhendu Dasgupta, the APDR vice-president and a rights thinker brought forth the import of the Lalgarh movement and the gravity of the ‘crimes’ of the People’s Committee Against Police Atrocities to fathom the State-Corporate joint retributive responses aimed at decimating the fundamental dissents. Recalling trajectory of the movement, he said Lalgarh opposed Bhattacharjee government's transfer of Adivasi land to Jindal Group for its steel plant project in violation of the PESA Act as well as the vested land, which was supposed to be redistributed among the local landless. Also it refused to accept the offer to co-opt the landlosers as shareholders of the project, a ploy to manufacture consent for arbitrary land acquisition under the then Mines Act.

The committee's third 'crime' was more dangerous as it demanded public apology of the police officer and his subordinates who had perpetrated atrocities on tribal women, children and men causing grievous hurt and permanent physical damage to some. This was done on the pretext of nabbing Maoists following their bid to blast a motorcade of Bhattacharjee and the then union minister Ramvilas Paswan on their way out of a ceremony at the proposed plant site.

For the tribals and non-tribal communities, it was a matter of their right to dignified life of Jangalmahal people, which they had asserted down the centuries since Mughal days and the Raj. But for the postcolonial State, its ministers and bureaucrats, it was a great affront to their authority and arrogance of power. Because communities dared to humiliate, punish the State representatives which had been latter's exclusive prerogative for centuries. Next, the Committee called for police boycott on non-compliance of their demands.

Apart from these political moves, the movement also took parallel socio-economic steps like running schools and medical centres and building small water reservoirs etc. The State can't afford to ignore or allow these efforts to deny its authority and legitimacy. So it attacked with its full might, deployed joint forces, destroyed all these efforts, killed and jailed its initiators.

Putting Lalgarh movement in the context of changing focus of State-Corporate retribution, Dasgupta said that the tribals and other nature-dependent communities would continue to bear the brunt since their resistances against the plunders of natural resources like water, land, minerals and forests had been the main hindrances before free run of the global neo-liberal juggernaut. The movement to release political prisoners would have to change its character and shift its mobilizational loci from big cities like Kolkata.

The movement to release the political prisoners in the seventies sustained its popularity in cities in the wake of Naxalite movement, which had attracted large number of urban youth. Unlike its predecessors, today's urban middle class is more or less at peace with the reigning development model and not opposed to the capital and state. So it's time to reorient the agitation by anchoring it to the rural and marginal communities, he urged.

Dasgupta's observations about the middle class loci of the seventies triggered some debate. Veteran Ashis Dasgupta of IFTU pointed out that poor peasants were not only the political focus of Naxalite movement but also many of them were jailed and hounded by the State. They were among those who were martyred during Jail escapades and numerous attacks on prisoners by prison staff and police. He cited the examples of peasants killed in the Midnapur jail. Marginal people were main force behind the resistance in that period too, he asserted.

Tushar Chakroborty of FAMA and Nahar supported Subhendu's main contention : shift of social-geographical loci of the movement to release political prisoners. The grassroots people’s movements for protecting Jal-Jungle-Jamin across the country have rattled the State-corporate combine and today's victims of State repression are overwhelmingly from those communities, Chakroborty pointed out. So civil libertarians must strive to join hands with those movements, he said.

The Centre-state joint forces are trying to stifle the protests against the life sentences to Mahato and others in Jhargram town, which is the gateway to Jangalmahal in West Midnapore district. Amrita Paira, a local APDR activist narrated how rights activists were arrested for putting up posters that demanded the convicted leaders' release. Sleuths hounded other activists to confisticate other published materials. The police and civil administration are not giving permission to hold protest rallies, even closed door convention like one held in Kolkata while arrests and beating are inevitable if such assemblies are organized without approval. In short, a reign of terror has been unleashed freshly in the name of containing renewed Maoist activities, he said. Paira too urged for strengthening local resistance by shifting focus on the affected communities.

Vol. 48, No. 9, Sep 6 - 12, 2015