Political prisoners

Prisoners of conscience

Print edition : January 08, 2016

The human rights activist Soni Sori at a protest meeting in August 2015 at Nihadi vilage in Dantewada, Chhattisgarh, over a fake enounter and killing of the village resident Podia Hemla. She spent two years at Raipur jail as an undertrial and was subjected to torture. Photo: By Special Arrangement

What is happening in Chhattisgarh is a reflection of the brutal treatment that political prisoners face in India. The Chhattisgarh Police has been breaking the law with impunity, mostly in the name of fighting Maoists and defending the nation’s sovereignty.

In one of her interactions with a few journalists last year in New Delhi, the Adivasi human rights activist Soni Sori from Chhattisgarh recalled her ghastly experiences in jail. The inhuman treatment meted out to the inmates at Raipur jail, she said, changed her as a person. The convicts and undertrials lived in abysmal conditions, she added. “I wondered how so many of them lived like they did in the jail. I still don’t know what gave them the endurance,” said Soni Sori, who herself was there for more than two years after the Delhi Police Crime Branch arrested her in September 2011. She was charged with acting as a Maoist conduit.

When the brutal torture and sexual assault she faced in jail became known, human rights activists and political activists united to raise the issue of the treatment of political prisoners in Indian jails. The Kolkata Medical College and Hospital found that stones had been inserted into her vagina and rectum. Soni Sori accused the Chhattisgarh Police of forcing her to confess by frequently subjecting her to strong electric shocks. Many feel that she survived these sufferings heroically. But it was the similar plight of many others in the jail that kept her hope alive.

“I drew strength from the many undertrials who had been languishing in the jail for many years. I was singled out for torture the most during the time I was there. But most other prisoners underwent similar torturous treatment. Most inmates in Raipur jail were ill and received little medical care. The food in the jail was infested with worms and insects. Together, we resolved to go on a hunger strike and threatened to produce the food in court. Only then were many of us made to oversee the kitchen,” Soni Sori told this correspondent a year ago.

“The situation of women prisoners was worse. They were made to clean the common toilets daily and made to work in abysmal conditions. I organised a bunch of women and other sympathisers to protest against these practices. Undertrials going through such things in jail is absolutely illegal. Adivasi prisoners are almost always the most vulnerable,” she added.

In the last few years, tales like these have become common. And political prisoners have had to face the brunt of such police excesses. Soni Sori’s nephew Lingaram Kodopi, a journalist in Bastar, was also accused of being a Maoist conduit. Kodopi suffered multiple injuries because of torture in jail. Both of them got bail in their respective cases only after two years, when the police failed to provide any evidence for the charges made against them.

Kawasi Hidme, another Adivasi woman, was arrested when she was only a 15-year-old on the grounds that she had helped Maoists plan an ambush on a police camp in 2008 that led to the killing of 23 policemen. She spent seven years of her life in south Bastar’s Dantewada jail before she was released in August 2015, when the police failed to prove the charges against her.

The brutal treatment meted out to the famous political activists Arun Ferreira (interview on page 35) and Binayak Sen or, more recently, the Delhi University Professor G.N. Saibaba (article on page 23) has also been recorded. Human rights activists believe that in the case of many political prisoners the charges turn out to be false. However, the years these prisoners have lost in jail are not taken into account even as the police and jail authorities continue to act with impunity.

Amnesty report

Human rights organisations such as Amnesty International believe that the condition of Indian political prisoners is one of the worst in the world. Since they are seen as a direct threat to the ruling dispensation, they are subjected to the most horrific forms of torture and cruel treatment. An Amnesty International report showed that India has the maximum acceptance of torture as a means of interrogation. Almost 74 per cent of the respondents in the report said that torture was an accepted practice to gain information, though they considered it immoral. India signed the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment in 1997 but has yet to ratify it. In the meanwhile, its prisons have witnessed the worst forms of physical and mental torture by jail authorities.

Political dissenters have borne the brunt of this ill treatment, and the position of those awaiting trial is even grimmer given how slowly the system of justice in India works. Therefore, many human rights organisations have been demanding legal safeguards for political prisoners in India.

Although in India there is no formal definition of the term “political prisoner”, courts have in many cases approved the right of an undertrial to be called a political prisoner. For instance, in August 2012, the Calcutta High Court declared seven suspected Maoists, including leaders such as Chhatradhar Mahato and Gaur Chakraborty, as political prisoners. In September of that year, a Sessions Court in Kolkata approved the description of nine suspected Maoists.

For a long time, West Bengal was the only State to grant legal approval to political prisoners. The West Bengal Correctional Services Act, 1992, which was passed during Left Front rule, had differentiated between terrorists and political activists trying to achieve their goals in a democratic manner. Section 24 laid down the rights of a political prisoner. A political prisoner was entitled to facilities such as a chair, a table, a cot, a mattress, a lamp, a ceiling fan, newspapers, books, periodicals and writing material, and the services of a barber every alternate day. He/she could receive books and periodicals and food from relatives. However, in 2013, the Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress government amended the Section 24 and nullified the political prisoner’s entitlements.

In a 2014 article titled “Political Prisoners in India: A Blot on the Conscience of the Nation” by the Kolkata-based biologist and political activist Partho Sarathi Ray, he says: “It is generally accepted throughout the world that any individual who has been accused of an offence, committed not with a motive of personal benefit, profit or gratification, but with a larger, collective objective, should be considered as a political prisoner. Anyone who is accused of sedition under Sec. 124A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) should therefore automatically come under the status of political prisoner.”

He further states that scores of people who are booked under laws such as the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act, the Prevention of Terrorism Act and their latest avatar, the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act—usually used by the state authorities to criminalise political dissent—should be given political prisoner status.

Case of Chhattisgarh

Because Chhattisgarh has been at the centre of a war between the State authorities and left-wing extremists led by the Communist Party of India (Maoist) for the last two decades, it has an abnormally high number of political prisoners. Every now and then, stories surface about fake arrests, custodial deaths, false charge sheets against civilians and torture of prisoners. This leads to a polarised debate between the State authorities and human rights activists.

Research that an informal collective of women lawyers called the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group (JLAG) carried out on the prisons of Bastar—a hotbed of the war—suggests that the prisons of south Chhattisgarh function as chambers to confine political prisoners instead of as correction centres for criminals. The prison statistics the JLAG compiled from three jails—in Jagdalpur, Dantewada and Kanker—also speaks of the malaise that afflicts Chhattisgarh’s policing system.

Overcrowded prisons

The State’s jails are the most overcrowded in India. If one analyses the National Crime Records Bureau data up to 2013, the total capacity for all jails in Chhattisgarh was 5,850, but these jails were housing 14,780 prisoners, which included undertrials. As a result, the occupancy rate of prisons in Chhattisgarh is as high as 252.6 per cent, the highest in India. The average occupancy rate of Indian prisons is 112.2 per cent.

“The situation in Bastar’s jails is even worse. The occupancy rate of Kanker, Dantewada and Jagdalpur is 428 per cent, 371 per cent and 260 per cent respectively. Only Jagdalpur is a central jail where you can keep convicts in all cases. Dantewada and Kanker are district jails, which cannot keep convicts that have been sentenced for more than three years of imprisonment, and so mostly have petty criminals. Yet, such high occupancy rates mean that these jails are flooded with undertrials. This also means that convicts are living a better life than the undertrials,” Shalini Gera of JLAG told Frontline.

She added that while the number of undertrials was more than the number of convicts in all the jails in Chhattigarh, the difference is stark in the three jails of Bastar. “Some 96.6 per cent of all the prisoners in Kanker are undertrials. In Dantewada, it is 98 per cent. A majority of the undertrials are illiterate Adivasi men between 18 and 30 years of age,” she said.

The JLAG’s research also shows that the average duration of incarceration of undertrials has been increasing consistently in the last six years. Almost half of the undertrials end up staying between three and five years in Bastar’s jails. “The charge sheets are deliberately delayed by the police to ensure that the undertrials remain in jail. As it is mandatory to file the charge sheets within 90 days of the arrest, the police in Bastar mostly file the charge sheet just ahead of this deadline. They make no effort to file it early. Our three-year experience in Bastar shows that the charge sheets are the most flimsy in Bastar; most of them would not stand up to the slightest legal scrutiny,” said Shalini Gera.

“Most undertrials are not even produced in court. The reason the policemen give most often is that they are short of staff,” she said. A recent report the National Commission of Women brought out, with Shamina Shafiq as the main investigating official, stated that most of the undertrials in Raipur jail were not produced in courts and that the jail authorities relied on videoconferencing facilities. However, the report noted that Adivasi women, who live in abysmal conditions in jails without food, water and medical care, are scared of deposing in front of the jail authorities.

Shalini Gera noted that if one studies the cases in Bastar one finds that the number of people named as accused in one charge sheet has drastically increased from 2005 to 2013. “In fact, the cases pertaining to group crimes are so huge in Bastar that it goes against the national trend. We have also seen how cases pertaining to serious crimes like murder, sedition, possession of arms, etc., have drastically increased. For example, the percentage of undertrials facing murder or attempt to murder charges was a whopping 86.1 in the year 2013. And compared with this figure, the figures for crimes against women or crimes relating to inheritance and property or drugs, and so on, are negligible, as if these crimes are not happening in Bastar at all. That the number of civil cases registered in Bastar is so low compared with the national average makes us suspicious,” said Shalini Gera.

What is happening in Chhattisgarh is a reflection of the brutal treatment that political prisoners face in India. The Chhattisgarh Police has been breaking the law with impunity, mostly in the name of fighting Maoists and defending the nation’s sovereignty. But the fact that the proper legal procedure is not followed in cases relating to political prisoners makes a mockery of India’s judicial system. The JLAG statistics suggests that most undertrials are acquitted because of shoddy charge sheets. Many human rights organisations believe that the police employ false cases as a strategic measure to contain political dissenters. The poor condition of prisoners in general and political prisoners in particular violates the most basic democratic values. “The irony of the situation is that [India’s] democracy is defended by torturing people and denying them justice,” said a political observer in Delhi. If not this, what would sound the death knell for Indian democracy?

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