Communal bias

Print edition : January 08, 2016

Muslims, Dalits and Adivasis make up more than half of India's jail population. Undertrials belonging to the minority community are labelled as anti-nationals and persecuted. Photo: Rajendra Singh Hajeri

Inmates of the Tihar Jail, in Delhi, working in a leather-manufacturing unit, which manufactures shoes for a leading private school and other organisations. Photo: Rajeev Bhatt

Prison administrations flout every rule in the book, especially when the prisoners happen to be from the minority community.

The 1994 Hollywood film Shawshank Redemption was critically acclaimed for its depiction of “jailhouse politics”. The film, based on Stephen King’s novella Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, is about how a banker, who is falsely implicated in a case of murder, plans his jailbreak meticulously even as he strives to improve conditions within the prison. The film also shows how the idea of prison reform gets stultified by corruption and the venality of the jail administration. Undertrials and convicts in India, especially those with lesser means, will find good reason to identify themselves with the film’s storyline.

Frontline spoke to a few undertrials and convicts, mainly from the minority community and who had been jailed for long durations, to find out what according to them was needed by way of jail reforms. Interestingly, some of them were aware of the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, the United States’ military prison, and its notoriety for torture, including waterboarding of prisoners.

‘It was plain kidnapping’

Mohammad Aamir Khan, accused of masterminding the bomb blasts that occurred in Delhi, Ghaziabad and Rohtak in 1996-97, has spent 10 years in the Tihar Jail (Delhi), three and a half years in the Dasna jail (Ghaziabad) and, lastly, six to eight months in the Rohtak jail (Haryana). He has been acquitted in two cases for want of evidence. His incarceration since the age of 18 has made him understand what is wrong with Indian prisons and why there is little scope for prison reform. “I have been asked about my conviction and how I plan to rehabilitate myself, but no one has asked me about life inside prison. When I think about it, there is a lot to say,” he said.

On February 20, 1998, plainclothesmen picked up Aamir, a resident of Kishanganj in Chandni Chowk in Delhi, at around 9:30 p.m. and took him away in a van. “It was plain kidnapping. I can’t call that an arrest as I was arrested much later. I was held by them for a week and I suffered real torture. I am undergoing psychiatric treatment as the memories of that horrible week keep haunting me,” he said.

In 2001, when Aamir lost his father, he was not given parole to attend the funeral as his was a “serious case”. Aamir wanted to pursue his studies from the jail and so enrolled in the Bachelor’s Preparatory Programme course offered by the Indira Gandhi National Open University. Subsequently, he enrolled in a graduation course in political science and sociology but had to discontinue as he became the target of a jailer who held a strong view on undertrials who had been charged with anti-national activities. “I would not like to name him. Being a prison official, the man was required to be impartial. He was our guardian. We were undertrials under the court’s jurisdiction, but that was no deterrence,” he said.

For the smallest of faults, undertrials were given harsh punishment. Once, Aamir was attacked by the inmates and was grievously injured. He had to be referred to a hospital outside the jail. The hospital labelled it as a medico-legal case, but no case was registered by the police.

Another undertrial, who has been acquitted, said on condition of anonymity that the jailers were the uncrowned kings of the jail, or “Betaaj Baadshahs”, as those who have been in jails refer to them.

The refrain of the undertrials Frontline spoke to was that there was an unholy nexus between jail administrations and local police stations. They wondered how in spite of multiple layers of security, deadly weapons were smuggled into prisons. One of them even said that many murders had taken place in the jails, but there was no way of cross-checking them. “How is it that surgical blades, smack, mobiles and knives reach the inmates?” one of them asked. Speaking about the Tihar Jail, the largest prison in Asia, some of them said the security there was relatively better as it was considered a “VIP” jail in view of the “high” profile of some of its prisoners. “The legal system is like a big cobweb. The big flies get out. The small get stuck. For instance, for corruption involving thousands of crores, the punishment is only a few years. The accused get bail on medical grounds and even have meetings in the rooms of the jail superintendent,” said one of them. On the other hand, a thief who may have stolen Rs.100 would first get beaten up by the public, then by the police and then by the inmates once he is inside the jail. “The big gangsters would tell him to wash their clothes; even the jail administration treats a petty thief with contempt. The bigger the crime, the more is the respect. The money a petty criminal may get when his family visits him would be taken away by the administration,” he said.

High-security prisoners, especially if they happened to be accused in bomb blast cases, receive a different kind of treatment. Aamir said: “Our patriotism is questioned. When I was a child, I saw a serial on Tipu Sultan on Doordarshan. He was depicted as a hero. Today, they say he was no good. Does history change just like that? Whenever there is a blast anywhere, they will shut down the library or the canteen and restrict access to those among us in the high-security ward.” Then, while being taken to court, these prisoners would be handcuffed. “They cannot do it without the court’s permission,” he said, but in district jails this was quite common.

Denial of facilities

According to the Jail Manual, which no prisoner gets to see, inmates are supposed to be provided with pen and paper. But Aamir, being a high-security ward prisoner, had to access it from the court. “When I asked for the Jail Manual, I was told to go the library. I did not find it there. One can find religious texts, a copy of the Criminal Procedure Code and the Indian Penal Code, but not the Jail Manual. Some jails do not even have a copy of the Constitution,” he said. It was very rare for prisoners to file complaints against the authorities for fear of reprisals.

“The jail authorities tell us not to discuss jail issues with the team of inspecting officials. There are hardly any medical facilities. Even the prescribed daily ration of 200-250 grams of dal [lentil] was not given. A large number of prisoners die in jails due to illness. In comparison, the ‘rich’ prisoners get better treatment. They can walk around, have visitors, eat fruits and enjoy other facilities. They even get chairs sometimes if they happen to be politicians,” he said, adding that the facilities in the Tihar Jail were slightly better than those in other jails.

In Ghaziabad, no lawyer was willing to argue Aamir’s case. Finally, he found one who stayed by him until the end. The legal services in Delhi were slightly better, and he got a good lawyer, he said. But not all the prisoners were lucky. The lawyers would insist on “something” (that is, a bribe). The best lawyers, he said, never came to the legal aid cell.

“I feel sorry for the jail inmates. Even when one stays with a dog, a cat or a goat, one gets attached to them. These are after all human beings. I read about the murder of Mohammad Qateel Siddiqui in the high-security prison ward in Pune in 2012. He was strangled by two inmates for his involvement in ‘anti-national’ activities. How could that happen? He was an undertrial. He was not even convicted,” he said. Anyone who came with the tag of a “terrorist” would be first beaten up by the rest of the inmates. Terrorists, rapists and thieves are all singled out for contempt by both the jail staff and the inmates.

Overcrowding in jails is perceived as a major problem and is one of the reasons why the scope for individual reform is limited. “People accused of rape, murder, murder for dowry, dacoity and petty thieving are all put in the same barrack. The thief will emerge from the jail as a dacoit. In one barrack, there are 200 to 300 people and only two latrines to serve all of them. When I was in Tihar, there were five jails inside the complex. Now they have 10. There are district jails, too, in Delhi. One of the biggest human rights violations is overcrowding,” he said.

Rehabilitation and reform

In bigger jails such as Tihar, the inmates are trained in skills ranging from carpentry to baking but are paid a pittance. It is felt that the remuneration should be high enough to sustain their families, who fend for themselves facing all kinds of social stigma. “As per the rule, only convicted people are supposed to work. But the jail staff make even undertrials work,” Aamir said. One undertrial said, on condition of anonymity, said that in one of the district jails, he was asked to give money to avoid being put on work. All prisoners agree that there should be some mechanism to protect their rights. As welfare officers were part of the jail staff, they were unable to do anything beyond the minimum prescribed.

“No one really cares about convicts losing their lives. How is it that they get hold of arms to attack each other? There has not been a single instance of action against officials,” Frontline was told. The religious gatherings and sermons in the jails did not help much. Jails were not meant for reform. An innocent person would often emerge from jail as a criminal. The undertrials said the people responsible for taking action were the perpetrators.

They said a lot needed to be done to make the jail staff accountable for the conditions in prisons. For one, the colour of the uniform of the jail staff should be different from that of the police as the inmates saw them as an extension of the police. In fact, the jail staff too saw themselves as an extension of the police. Complaints against the jail staff, they said, only resulted in internal transfers as a mechanism of redress. The undertrials said surprise inspections needed to be conducted. If the inmates complained to the judicial officer on inspection, they would be “dealt with” later by other inmates at the instigation of the jail staff. “Inmates live in fear of gang wars and the jail administration,” they said.

Acquittal and after

Syed Wasif Haider was incarcerated for eight years (from August 4, 2001 to August 12, 2009) for the murder of an Additional District Magistrate during riots in Kanpur. He was acquitted of all the charges by the Allahabad High Court on May 29, 2009. In fact, all the six persons accused in the case were acquitted. He was kept in three different jails in solitary confinement. “Discrimination starts as soon as a person enters jail. I wrote to the National Human Rights Commission. It sent a delegation but the members only met the Jail Superintendent. I was put in solitary confinement with no attached toilet. I was kept in a jail where men who were to be sent to the gallows the next day were kept. That was why the cell had no toilet, but I did not fall in that category. I was an undertrial,” he said. As most of the cases involving him were in Kanpur, he was shunted from one district to another. The travel between jails and from jail to the courts was a torturous experience as he was treated like a “terrorist”. No food was offered, and he was not allowed to buy food en route to jails or courts.

“The media project us differently. They show us as leading a luxurious life. The impression is that we must be guilty if we have been jailed,” he said. A first division science graduate in physics and mathematics from Kanpur University, Wasif was working in a multinational company when he was picked up in 2001. “The state has not compensated me for all that I and my family endured. Today, I find it difficult to get a job and provide for my family. People like us are implicated so that some others might get medals. Even after we are acquitted, the stigma does not go. There is no prosecution of those who tortured us or falsely implicated people like me,” he said.

Inmates have heard from the jail staff about the “earnings” made in district jails. The inmates have to bribe the officials to get some good food. Good food would be served whenever a district judge came to inspect the jail. “When I complained against the jail administration, I was accused of indiscipline. I raised the issue of violation of prisoners’ rights, and the issues of food and solitary confinement. Instead of recommending action, the courts asked the Jail Superintendent for a report. In the beginning, I was beaten up by the jail staff. For 20 days I was bedridden and was taken to the court in a stretcher. The court did not ask why I was lying on a stretcher. I had no access to the Jail Manual. It was with the permission of the court that I got a pen, a watch and books to read,” he told Frontline speaking from Kanpur.

Nothing happens in prison without the knowledge and consent of the Jail Superintendent. The treatment that an inmate receives has nothing to do with his criminal history. They are loved or hated depending on their ability to pay the jail staff, Frontline learnt. “Everyone, the hardened criminal and the topmost jail official, is a nationalist and a patriot, but people like us are labelled as anti-nationals,” said Wasif, Aamir and a few others from the minority community.

Sehba Farooqi, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) Secretariat member of the Delhi State unit who has been in touch with prisoners like Aamir and Wasif, told Frontline that nothing had been done to rehabilitate the young men who were arrested on false charges and acquitted by the courts. She was part of a delegation led by then CPI(M) general secretary Prakash Karat that met the President of India to give a representation regarding the persecution of youth belonging to the minority community and the rehabilitation and compensation of those acquitted.

The delegation submitted a list with the names of 22 persons, including Wasif and Aamir. “There are two issues.

One, the situation in jails is pathetic. The suicide of one of the accused in the Nirbhaya case is a pointer. Two, when the tag of terrorist gets attached to some people, it becomes difficult for them to start afresh despite being acquitted. The state never went into appeal. But the Central government and State governments concerned have not responded adequately to rehabilitate and help these young men. The best part is that all these men and their families still have implicit faith in the Indian judicial system. And to keep this faith alive, something needs to be done to help them,” Sehba Farooqi said.

According to a report on prisons, Muslims, Dalits and Adivasis make up more than half of India’s jail population. While the proportion of these three communities as a percentage of the overall population is only 39 per cent, they comprise around 53 per cent of the prisoner population. Jail reforms are one crucial component of the overall justice delivery system, and no society calling itself civilised can afford to ignore that.