Political Prisoners in West Bengal

Ranjit Sur

One more election and lots of false promises. The promise of releasing all political prisoners in Bengal by Mamata Banerjee and her party before coming to power in the year 2011 has gone with the wind like Narendra Mody and Bharatiya Janata Party's lots false promises. Yet whenever an election knocks activists try to remind Mamata Devi of her promise of releasing political prisoners and try to take some street programmes to draw attention of the people and to pressureise the government. Many of the supporters of civil rights movement criticise this as rituals of Bandhi Mukti Andolon;yet no viable alternative is found. The casual approach in fighting the cases of political prisoners and inefficient handling of the cases made the situation worse. It is really heart breaking when political prisoners are forced to take lawyers from state legal services as they failed to engage any lawyer due to lack of money or contact or due to callousness and incompetence of the people entrusted with the task. At the very moment when these lines are written 7 political prisoners including Sadanala Ramkrishnan has no lawyer in a very serious NIA case and they are forced to take State lawyers from District Legal Services which is really very humiliating for them. Who knows when siruation will change!

Many friends from other states ask, how many political prisoners are there in West Bengal jails at the moment? The answer depends on political position—whom do you call political prisoners.

There are 84 'Maoist' Prisoners in West Bengal jails at the moment. A few SUCI activists are still languishing in Bengal jails for years. A good number of Gorkha Janmukti Morcha activists are also in jail because of recent Gorkhaland movement. Beside these, more than 60 people are there in West Bengal jails who were allegedlly involved in TERROR activities on behalf of this or that Muslim Fundamentaliist organisation. Three of the Muslim activists are ordered to be hanged till death. Moreover, a huge number of political prisoners are out in Bail after prolong custody life. This number can be anywhere between 2 to 5 thousand. Only in 3 districts of Jungle Mahal there are almost 1500 political activists running from court to court fighting cases slapped over them for their role in Lalgarh movement. Even cases related to Singur and Nandigram movement are not withdrawn.

Out of 84 'Maoist' political prisoners 72 persons are slapped with UAPA. Most of the 60+ 'Muslim' activists are charged with UAPA. Even a good number of Gorkhaland activists are charged under terror law UAPA. Of the 84 'Maoist' prisoners 12 are already convicted. Rest 72 are undertrials. Undertrial means trial for years and years. Most of cases are not at all heard. Even dates are not given. Cases of 2000 & 2002 are still pending in courts. Out of the 84 prisoners 80 prisoners are in jail for more than 5 years. 4 are there who are in jail for more than 14 years.

In West Bengal jails are now termed as Correctional Homes! How are these political prisoners spending their prison life in correctional homes? It is well known that, the present Government changed the very law of giving recognition as Political Prisoners. So many of these political prisoners are not at all recognised as political prisoners. They are not getting the little extra benfit of getting newspapers, books of choice, pen-paper, cooking utensils etc. The next serious blow from the Government hit the political prisoners is its decision of not allowing visitation of friends in the jail violating jail-code. The government is allowing only close relatives to visit them at jails and that too, in most jails, once in a week. Far Rights activists used to meet the political prisoners noting as friends. So their visit is not allowed now. It's the right activists, other than family members, who were there to take care of their day to day problems as far as possible. This single decision allienated the political prisoners from the outer world to a great extent. Many of the political prisoners are housed far from their residence, for example, Chatradhar Mahato of Medinipur is at Presidency jail in Kolkata and Raja Sorkhel of Kolkata is housed at Jaipaiguri jail. So rights activists' visit to jails are very important for them—which the government stopped totally. Not only that any books you give to a political prisoner will be sent to Special Branch for screening. If SB officials feel the book as readable by a political prisoner only then he will get it to read. Recently West Bengal government trying hard to stop mixing of political prisoners with other general prisoners by earmarking a small area as their area of movement. Political prisoners are not allowed to move out of that area. Presidency jail authority ordered maximum movement of one bigha area out of total 52 bighas of jail area. Now, they are trying to bring it to half a bigha area.Most of the political prisoners are sufficiently old. Moreover long incarceration made them sick and frustrated. So, all these government high handed activities are not facing organised protests like earlier days. Sporadic Hunger Strikes or other form of protests at individual level or by a small group are not yeilding proper results which develop more fustration. Programmes at jail gate by rights organisations or social movement for the release of political prisoners are quite a few nowadays. So prisoners are getting no such message that outside world is at all interested in their life or death. This led them to more frustration which eventually emboldens the jail authority to take more and more stringent measures demanding total subjugation.

(Writer of this note is a Kolkata based right activist)

Vol. 51, No. 44, May 5 - 11, 2019