Interview: Arun Ferreira

‘The high walls keep out realities’

Print edition : January 08, 2016

Arun Ferreira: "No punishment should be allowed in excess of the law." Photo: Vivek Bendre

The Nagpur Central jail where Ferreira spent six years as a political prisoner. He says, "India’s prison policies are security-centric, rather than correctional." Photo: S. SUDERSHAN

Interview with the social activist Arun Ferreira.

ARUN FERREIRA SPENT SIX YEARS IN Nagpur jail as a political prisoner. He was arrested in 2007 for alleged naxalite and anti-national activities under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967. Eleven cases were registered against him. He fought a relentless legal battle to prove that the charges were false and completely fabricated. In January 2014, he was acquitted in all the cases for lack of substantial evidence. At the time of his release, he told Frontline: “My case is really nothing special. The real issue is the way political prisoners are handled and the blatant violations of the human rights of all prisoners.”

Ferriera is respected for the work he has done in the backward Vidarbha region of Maharashtra, otherwise known as the naxalite belt. His arrest in 2007 was, therefore, shocking for various reasons, the most obvious one being that he was not the stereotypical “naxal”.

During his incarceration, Ferreira recorded his daily routine and the goings-on in the Nagpur jail. When he was released on bail in 2012, his friends persuaded him to convert his notes and drawings into a book. Ferreira’s Colours of the Cage gives graphic descriptions of prisoners being beaten up for groaning in their sleep, the treatment meted out to undertrials charged with rape, and the torture convicts are subjected to: they are made to crawl in the afternoon sun or have petrol injected in their rectum as had happened in the case of his fellow prisoner Dhanendra Burule. Money, he said, could get you anything inside the jail: drugs, mobile phones or sexual favours.

Ferriera is now qualified as a criminal lawyer and wants to help prisoners with legal aid. He shares his perspective on the system with Frontline in this interview:

You were imprisoned for six years and must have insider knowledge about the way prisons function. Could you tell us what is fundamentally wrong with the system?

Indian prisons follow archaic rules. The prison manual consists of the Indian Prisons Act, 1894. Being archaic, this Act cannot be implemented, and hence, in practice, rules are applied as per the whims of the authorities. Rules, in fact, are often tweaked to suit the circumstance and the convenience of the authorities. Each State has the authority to enact its own rules as each State will have issues peculiar to it.

The Prisons Act of 1894, adopted to keep “unruly natives” under control, remains the guiding protocol for prison administration long after 1947. After the Constitution came into effect in 1950, the administration of prisons became the responsibility of State governments. In the years that followed, the Maharashtra government enacted numerous prison rules. These, along with the Indian Prisons Act, are collectively known as the Maharashtra Prison Manual.

Take, for example, the question of beating. The prison manual allows it and defines it clearly. Punishments such as fettering and whipping, although authorised by the Prisons Act, were not appreciated by the courts but they continue. Section 53 of the Prison Manual, which retains the provision for “whipping to be inflicted with a light rattan, not less than half an inch in diameter, on the buttocks” of the prisoner as a form of punishment is not followed.

Or even a simple thing like writing letters. The manual allows this once a month, which is probably what prevailed in the British times. If I took a bunch of letters to the jail superintendent and if he wanted to be difficult, he could use this rule. So they [the authorities] twist the rules to suit their convenience.

This brings about a system based on arbitrariness. For instance, when I was doing a postgraduate diploma course, one superintendent thought it was a very good idea. Another one decided to give me a tough time about it. Because of the obsolete rules, an arbitrary practice is adopted. This is the root cause of the problem.

The second issue is that of the secrecy that surrounds every act of the prison administration. Putting it metaphorically, the high walls keep out realities that people do not want to see. Human rights violations in prisons go unnoticed and unaddressed because of this. It is only the official version that comes out.

In fact, the new Government of India guidelines on interviewing prisoners make interventions by journalists, independent human rights or non-governmental organisations even more difficult. We as a society choose not to look into prisons. We refuse to own responsibility for that world.

My third and last point is more philosophical. How can you reform a person in such a hierarchical and violent place? A place that is more hierarchical and violent than the very society where the inmate would have had a problem. Can any individual be corrected in such a place? This point deals more with the question whether true prison reform can be done without reforming society as a whole.

Clearly there is a crying need for reforms.

The Prison Department and the police are governed by the State Home Ministry. In 2006, the government set up the Maharashtra State Jail Administration and Jail Manual Reform Commission headed by Justice S.P. Kurdurkar. It sought suggestions from prison inmates. Some prison officers were keen that criticisms against higher officials, which figured in most of our points, should go to the commission. They themselves could not imagine raising such matters as it would be seen as an act of insubordination.

However, after the 26/11 terror attacks in Mumbai, the State Home Ministry reconsidered its priorities, and prison reforms were clearly not among them. Among the structural problems to reform is the fact that the police and the prison administrations are controlled by the Home Ministry, which naturally treats the Prison Department as an instrument of law and order instead of reform. The government did not sanction a further extension of the commission, and it wound up without presenting a report.

India’s prison policies are security-centric, rather than correctional. The State’s priority is to tighten restrictions rather than to upgrade facilities for prisoners. While a broken yard wall would be repaired overnight, it would take three to four months to fix a damaged water pump—and that too only if prompted by a couple of hunger strikes. Similarly, laws are passed to make sentences harsher and prolonged rather than to protect prisoner’s rights. Funds are allocated for building more secure prisons instead of improving the quality of the existing ones.

Another hurdle to prison reforms is that the higher echelons of the administration are from the Indian Police Service. They only do short stints in the corrections department. However, they retain their law and order mindset even in their new roles. Their approach is mainly to imprison troublemakers rather than rehabilitate them.

When it comes to prisons, we invariably speak about human rights. If there are blatant human rights violations, why does the true picture not come out?

Human rights commissions and organisations really have no teeth at the end of the day. The Act governing the human rights commissions makes it mandatory for them to inform the prison authorities before they conduct any visits. The prison authorities are thus “prepared” for commission visits. I have seen this happen in the Nagpur jail: the place is whitewashed and spruced up for each visit of such inspectors. It is a joke.

Torture is synonymous with punishment in Indian prisons. Could you share some details of the situation while you were in jail?

It is happening all the time. Jailers are constantly using force and beatings to make prisoners adhere to the “discipline” of the prison, which actually means silent submission.

Unfortunately, no one talks about this aspect. From the cops to the magistrate, they think it is part of the process. In my case, I told the magistrate that they had tortured me. He could see that my face was swollen on one side and that my ear was filled with blood, but he did not take cognisance of the fact. Even the media—you saw pictures of me when I was arrested and the bruises on my face and body—said nothing about it; no one addressed that aspect.

I will give you an example of the Indian mindset with regard to torture. Amnesty International conducted a 21-nation survey on attitudes to torture in 2014. The results showed that India had the highest support for torture, with 74 per cent agreeing that it was acceptable in order to gain information. The same survey showed that 73 per cent of those surveyed in India considered torture immoral.

Solitary confinement has become a subject of contention, especially in the context of Abu Jundal (the suspected key handler of 26/11), who went on a hunger strike against this form of imprisonment. Were you kept in isolation?

I was kept in what is known in prison administration terminology as “separate confinement”. Solitary confinement is not permitted by a 1978 judgment of the Supreme Court in the Sunil Batra vs Delhi Administration case.

However they did it for Mohammad Ajmal Kasab [the only terrorist who survived in the Mumbai terror attack], and the authorities have used similar reasons for Sayed Zabiuddin Ansari [Abu Jundal]. It is common knowledge that the authorities find methods around Supreme Court judgments. Technically, they say that his confinement is not solitary as the guards are within talking distance. They even call his cell a barrack, which technically means that it is not solitary confinement.

Punishment ought to be as per the law. No punishment should be allowed in excess of the law. Once an accused has been arrested and imprisoned, punishment is given by the court after conviction. How can one start treating an accused cruelly and inhumanly even before the court has convicted him? Keeping Zabiuddin Ansari in such a confinement amounts to cruel and inhuman treatment. Under solitary confinement, the prisoner still has his constitutional rights. Only the right to movement is taken away.

It is said that the severity of the conditions at the Arthur Road Jail finally broke Abu Jundal’s resistance. Why should his demand be given any attention?

I don’t agree that his spirit was broken. I think he is protesting against the cruel treatment. He knows it is illegal to be kept in solitary confinement. My fear is that under the guise of “housing a dangerous terrorist and ensuring that nothing happens to him so that they can get to the bottom of the controversy” they have kept him in solitary confinement. This will set a precedent. I would choose to refer to him as Zabiuddin. Abu Jundal is the name given by the state. Let the court decide whether he is Abu Jundal first. The Arthur Road Jail had built a special cell for Kasab. Now Zabiuddin Ansari is kept in it. The fear for us human rights activists is that many more prisons will start building similar structures. Such a violation often starts as an exemption, but its success will turn it into a rule. For instance, sedition charges are used on anti-nuclear protesters. But such charges are used liberally now. The Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act [MCOCA, 1999] was introduced with the idea of nabbing gangsters and terrorists but it is now used to catch petty thieves.

You had a good support structure, legally and personally. Since you attracted a fair amount of media attention, your case became public. You have spoken at length on the condition of hauladis (undertrials), could you elaborate on their situation?

The state appoints a lawyer for every undertrial. They are entitled to it. But it is obvious that the more educated and well-to-do have a better defence, and therefore, their cases are heard and acquittals are easier. Many undertrials have spent several years in prison. In many cases the charges are fabricated to serve an agenda. These men are tortured and lead miserable lives. They are usually acquitted, but by the time they are acquitted, they are mentally ruined.

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