Autumn Number 2019

"Darkness At Noon"

Prisons and Prisoners

Ranjit Sur

On 8th July, 2019, The Telegraph, Calcutta, published the story of '1st Jail break by women in Kerala'. The story narrated how two young women of 23 years & 26 years scaled the wall of a jail and fled to see their under five children at home. The two women were in jail for a petty crime for which they may be jailed for maximum of 3 months if verdict came in time. But they already spent 4 months without even a bail because they had no lawyer and the magistrate or the PP or the police—none told them they were eligible for getting a government legal aid Lawyer. The two were however re-arrested with several more cases on their head with the serious charge of jail break which will ultimately force them to be in jail for how many years no one knows.

Last year in a Literary Meet in Kolkata activist writer Anuradha told a moving story of a child of 5/6 years who used to show moon, when asked, at her mother's radio set at her Prison Cell in Jharkhand. Actually the child living in jail with her mother since birth never saw moon in real sky for she with her mother were locked up before moon rises and from their prison cell they can never see moon because it has only ventilation holes up near the roof of the Cell. The baby heard of the word Moon only in radio.

How many women prisoners are there in India? Latest available official data shows, as on 31 Dec 2016 India has 18,498 women prisoners in jail. Out of these 18498 women 1649 women live in jail with 1942 Children with them. 400 of them are convicts with 459 children with them. And yet, India has only 20 female jails with a capacity of 5197 Prisoners. Actually, this is the most neglected section of Prisoners in Indian Jails along with prisoners with mental and physical disabilities which needs serious and highest attention of the state and well meaning people of the state. This section of Prisoners should be shifted to some sort of Open Jail at least for the interest of the children. Sadly India has only 64 open jails in its 36 States & Union territories.

With 4,33,003 Prisoners in 1412 jails India has the 5th highest number of Prisoners in the world, as on 31st December 2016. With 21,21,600 prisoners USA is in first position and China (16,49,804), Brazil (7,14,899) and Russia (7,14,899) in 2nd, 3rd and 4th position respectively. During the year 2016 totally 10,74,353 people spent at least one day in Indian prisons.

So with this huge number of prisoners and affected family members, the world should look at prison conditions. But unfortunately, India's political parties both Left and Right are totally indifferent to prisoners and prison conditions. The reason is simple. The representation of people's act does not allow the prisoners to cast their vote in any election, Assembly, Parliament or for that matter not even in local body elections. No convicts or UTs can vote. But surprisingly all under trial prisoners and convicts with below 3 years punishment can be candidates in elections. Right to elect and to be elected are inseparable normally. But defying all logic in Indian jails it is separable! Everytime election is announced this illogical stance is discussed among polity. But it is not persued by any political parties. Election Commission dodge the question citing technical problems. So it remains unchanged for decades. This policy needs immediate change. If at least undertrial prisoners are allowed to vote the condition of prisoners may change because political parties will be forced to apply mind over prison conditions because 67.7% of prisoners are undertrial prisoners and most of them are languishing in jails for years. Out of the undertrial prisoners 49.7% are in jail with liquor and narcotics related cases. Interestingly, official prison statistics shows percentage of undertrial prisoners is increasing with passage of time. It shows a serious flaw in India's criminal justice system which no one cares to improve. Another interesting information is that, out of the total prisoners 28.4% are illiterate and 42% are below class 10 educated. Number of SC, ST & Muslim prisoners are higher than their share in population. Government of India stopped the practice of publishing these data. Upto to the year of 2015, National Crime Record Bureau (NCRB) published the data regarding SC, ST & Muslim prisoners with their percentage. But the last NCRB published prison statistics report 2016 contains no such data. This act of suppressing data developed a feeling among researchers that SC, ST & Muslim prisoners may have increased sizeably in Mody regime, which forced them to suppression of data.

The number of Detenues in Indian Prison is an indication of Indian rulers' love for undemocratic laws. Actually 'independent' India passed not a single day without black laws which allow preventive detention or non-application of natural justice. According to Prison Statistics Report 2016 there were 3089 detenues in jails as on 31st December 2016. Detenues are those who are in jail without any crime, only in preventive detention. They are arrested under NSA or such laws. For detenues there are no bail, no hearing, no court. These black spots of India's Judicial system are not even discussed in mainstream media due to apprehension of getting branded as ANTI-NATIONAL.

OVERCROWDING that is placing more prisoners than capacity is a perennial problem of Indain prison system. Supreme Court in an order dated 5th February 2016 suggested to give bail to those undertrial prisoners who are in prison for fairly long time and who are first tine offenders. Supreme Court directed district undertrial review committee to sit for meeting in every month to monitor undertrial prisoners' position. But no definite result is seen yet.

Several courts directed to release life convicts who spent 14 years in jail and has no bad report. But with no result. There is no comprehensive rehabilitation policy for the prisoners released after prolong incarceration. Recently, seeing huge number of deaths in Prison, Supreme Court ordered compensation for unnatural deaths in Prisons. But most of the states are reluctant to implement court orders. So conditions do not change for better rather changing for the worst.

Political Prisoners
Regarding Political Prisoners the first thing to mention is that recognition as political prisoner is very important for political activists. No state in India gives this recognition. Only West Bengal had a law to give political prisoner status. But the present Mamata Banerjee government changed it in such a way that it became useless. From the data collected from various civil rights organisations active in different parts of the country it is observed that at the moment there are more or less 3000 political prisoners who are arrested as Maoist or Maoist sympathisers or as 'Maoist link man'. Out of this arrested prisoners some are convicts but most of them are incarcerated as Undertrial Prisoners for years. Many of them are charged with UAPA. Chattishgarh has maximum number of political prisoners—approximately 1500. Then comes Jharkhand (600+), Orissa(400+), Bihar (300+), West Bengal (81), Madhya Pradesh (50+), Maharashtra (60+) and 250 more in other states.

These 3000 prisoners can be divided loosely in three different categories: Party leaders and party workers, leaders and workers of various mass organisations and village level general people involved in anti land-grabing mass movements. Party leaders and activists as well as mass organisation leaders and activists generally get legal support from various organisations. But there is a serious problem of legal support for the village level general people arrested. In many cases they remained untraced & without any legal help. Recently an effort by a few organisations to trace these village level fighters and to give them legal support is heavily attacked by Indian State—particularly in Chattishgarh, Jharkhand and Maharashtra. Those involved in this effort are either arrested, or slapped false cases or driven out of the respective areas. People fighting for the release of political prisoners themselves became prisoners. Organisations active in Chattishgarh and border areas of Orissa,Telengana and Maharashtra reported that in CRPF, COBRA camps and in Police stations huge number of people are kept incarcerated. They are used as human Sheild against possible Maoist attack. They are sent to court as and when camp heads feel like sending. No law is followed in the camps. Brutal torture is part of camp life. Number of this type of prisoners are known to none.

Prison life of the political prisoners is no different from ordinary prisoners in most of the states.In West Bengal a good number of political prisoners are recognised as political prisoners due to the erstwhile law which Mamata Government changed drastically. Their conditions are slightly better. In some other states political prisoners earned some facilities through their struggles. But in all states Prison Conditions are inhuman. The most important problem the political prisoners face is the problem of visitation by the family members, friends and lawyers. This is a Common Problem all over India. In many of the jails only blood relatives are allowed to meet. Most of the meeting places are so crowded with so many visitors and prisoners talking at a time that nobody hears anything. Even attending lawyers are forced to talk in this way. Other common problems are government's delay tactics in court over hearing of the cases. So cases linger for years and years. Almost all political prisoners have dozens of cases against them. Frequent jail transfer and sending to distant jails from home causes severe mental traumas for the prisoners. Overall situation for the political prisoners are very grim. No serious pan-India social movement for the release of political prisoners are there. So mental conditions of the prisoners are getting frustrated. Some rights organisations sometimes try to develop movement over the issue but couldn't proceed furher due to lack of social response. No political party, not even the party whose leaders and workers are in jails, are seen developing serious RELEASE POLITICAL PRISONERS movement. Fighting court cases are not enough for the release of political prisoners. They deserve a serious social movement for their release as all their activities were for the betterment of the society and mankind. Nothing was for their personal gain.

In addition to 'Maoist' political prisoners there are huge number of prisoners from banned Muslim organisations. General view of the most of the so-called main stream political parties towards these prisoners is not good. Most of the civil rights organisations also prefer silence about these prisoners. Many of the organisations do not agree to call them political prisoners because of their attachment with religion based organisations. They call themselves fundamentalist and affraid to move for them lest they too are branded as jihadist. But this is a serious question all civil rights organisations, worth their name, must ponder over. As the number of such prisoners are increasing very fast no civil rights organisation can keep mum over the issue. In West Bengal at the moment there are more or less 70 prisoners from these organisations while there are 81 'maoist' prisoners. Out of these 70 prisoners almost 40 prisoners are slaped with UAPA. The soon the right organisations take a stand over these prisoners the better. Moreover, there are some political prisoners in West Bengal, Tamilnadu and in some north eastern states related with various Nationality movements.

Finally, a serious point of personal observation needs mention. Most of the rights organisations working for the political prisoners do not work for the betterment of the general prisoners confined in jails for years in inhuman conditions. Release of and movement for political prisoners are a continuous and longterm process. So keeping the political prisoners in good humour and in good healthy conditions is very important. Number of general prisoners are far far greater than the political prisoners. So without improving the condition of the general prisoners none can improve the condition of the political prisoners. Without changing the condition of the general prisoners no one will be able to change the condition of the political prisoners. So a serious fight for the betterment of prison conditions is very much call of the hour. The soon the call is attended the better.

The issue of political prisoner is as old as the colonial administration of British. Unlike the whitemen the brown sahibs in independent India are totally indifferent to the idea of granting political prisoner status to dissenters who want to make democracy function in a democratic way. As for political prisoners Bhagat Singh and Batuk Dutt provided a unique defintion. They said, 'by political prisoners we mean all those people who are convicted for offences against the state, for injustice, the people who were convicted in the Lahore Conspiracy Cases, 1915-17, the Kakori Conspiracy Cases, and Sedition Cases in general'. But the Modis have no time to listen to Bhagat Singh, who went to gallows without being granted the status of a political prisoner.

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Autumn Number 2019
Vol. 52, No. 13 - 16, Sep 29 - October 26, 2019