A criminal legacy

Print edition : January 16, 2009

THE colonial prison has attracted a wide range of scholars. They include historians such as Ranjan Chakraborty, David Arnold and Basudeb Chattopadhyaya and political scientists such as Ujjwal Singh whose monumental work has been on political prisoners.

Issues and themes ranging from the ideological underpinnings shaping the prison and the location of crime/criminality to the life of prisoners including political prisoners have already been explored. Madhurima Sens book, however, introduces one to the makings and the specificities of the colonial prison. She weaves in her story a rich variety of archival sources and reports, harmonising it with the paradigms of interdisciplinary research.

Developing her arguments around the process of Indias colonisation and what can perhaps be called the birth of the colonial prison, she draws on European and English history in order to emphasise the way industrialisation and the development of capitalism and urbanisation saw the emergence of the judicial system and the way it located crime as something synonymous with the poor. This, in other words, was a virtual class offensive against the dangerous classes that were at the receiving end of the emerging civil society. Thus, the judicial system, prison laws and the setting up of the colonial prison had the distinct footprints of what the coloniser inherited from home (namely, England).

This coexisted with serious colonial inventions. One can highlight here the special terms used to define and create criminal tribes and castes. Madhurima Sen locates these as a part of the colonial knowledge-production system. Perhaps this also needs to be located as an area where the indigenous upper-caste/class order collaborated with the colonialist.

The author delineates certain characteristics of the colonial prison from the time it was put in place. For instance, the Cornwallis Code of 1793, which emphasised equality before law, was operationalised on the basis of racism. This meant the birth of two legal systems the Supreme Court in Calcutta (now Kolkata), which examined the cases of Englishmen on the basis of English law, and the Sudder Nizamat and the subordinate courts, which administered justice for the natives. As the author rightly asserts, colonialism adjusted and readjusted itself to negotiate changes over time.

These changes were generated, among other factors, by the conflicts in the countryside, like the rebellions (the Fakir-Sanyasi and the Santhal rebellions) that occurred in the first half of the 19th century. The anxieties posed by the rebellion of 1857 and the subsequent takeover of India by the Crown (1858) were also major markers that led to the strengthening of prison laws. The basic thrust was to camouflage the problems that made people rise against the British which were, ironically, created by colonialism.

Focussing on prison discipline, Madhurima Sen refers to its uneven nature. The Sudder Nizamat Adalat made the pioneering effort to formulate rules for administering jails, in 1811. However, the lack of a uniform code of rules left the matter to individual judges and this hardly produced any impact. The issue of prison discipline was viewed seriously only after 1838 when a worthwhile plan was adopted for the purpose. The pressing needs of the emerging colonial state blurred any serious possibilities for reforms.

The overwhelming emphasis on punishment and deterrence, along with the mixing of habitual and non-habitual offenders as well as adults and juveniles, led to the emergence of the prison as manufacturing units of crime. Besides, the jails were overcrowded as they were located within buildings meant for some other purpose. This was the context in which some steps were taken to institute prison reforms (1838). However, these proved to be largely ineffective as they ignored vital aspects such as housing women and juvenile prisoners. This was taken up in the Prison Act of 1894.

The author refers to the classification of prisoners into the categories habitual and casual primarily as a strategy to avoid contamination of the latter. Alongside, there were under-trial prisoners and the problems involved in allowing some of them who were innocent to mix with convicts.

The Cellular Jail in the Andamans. The 1857 rebellion supplied the first batch of political prisoners to the Andaman jail after it was resurrected as a site to accommodate political prisoners.-S. THANTHONI

Of course, the colonial prison had inmates whose segregation was desired by the government. This meant curbing the liberty of individuals whom the government could not tolerate. Aspects like preferential treatment for European and Eurasian offenders meant the entry of racism into the jails.

A point that comes out rather sharply is the deplorable hygienic conditions in the prisons, leading to high mortality. The prisoners were exposed to prison diet as well as penal diet, and punishment included solitary confinement and the use of handcuffs and fetters. These factors together precipitated prison offences, which included escaping, refusing to work and disobeying prison authorities.

The basic idea of putting people in prison was to make prison sentences as distasteful as possible and to extract hard labour. Another aim was to spend as little as possible over these enclaves.

The author refers to the colonial prison as a distorted caricature of what existed in contemporary England. This was especially so as the attempt was to blend the contradictory worlds of modernity and backwardness, and indigenous and foreign.

The authors effort to examine the official staff within the prison is laudable since this is a relatively unresearched area. The prison staff included the superior white staff, who were paid well, and the natives who were recruited as the subordinate staff. Here again, racism was clearly inscribed on the colonial prison. The colonial administration depended on the natives to administer the prison. However, the inherent problem of low salaries and corruption plagued the subordinate staff.

As outlined in the book, the prison reforms led to the setting up of central jails, with the first one being built in Agra (1846). This was followed by the construction of several other presidency jails, including the one at Alipore (Calcutta) in 1864. The second major aspect involved the recruitment of inspectors-general for these jails.

The penal reforms failed to achieve any success. Although this was attributed to the corruption of the native mind, the author sees the failure to be clearly rooted in a system that was based on racism and discrimination. Moreover, there was a lack of desire to put in resources to improve the condition of the jails and to see the problem as one beyond crime and criminals.

The author looks at two methods of punishment associated with prison labour and transportation. Prison labour was founded on the logic of confining people as cheaply as possible, without any major investment. A closely connected aspect involved making profits out of prison inmates labour. An unarticulated aspect involved producing a demonstrative effect in order to make the prison a terror house.

This was supposed to act as a deterrent and help maintain law and order. Consequently, reforming the inmate was not an issue; it was suggested for the first time by the Jail Committee in 1919, along with some other points, to humanise the prison.

However, the most macabre aspect involved transporting convicts to kala pani the Andamans. Interestingly, it was a committee that included F.J. Mouat, a doctor who was a specialist in the building of jails, which suggested a site that existed in the 1790s and was abandoned subsequently. Political exigencies counter-insurgency operations and the need to wipe out memories of those involved in the 1857 rebellion led to the choice of this location. The 1857 rebellion supplied the first batch of political prisoners to the Andaman jail after it was resurrected in 1858 as a site to accommodate political prisoners. Consequently, the logic of transportation saw the colonialist creating a penal colony to stamp out any opposition to his rule.

As one concludes reading the book, one wonders about the remarkable continuity between the colonial prison and the prison system of free India. Although we do not have kala panis any more, the class component associated with the criminalisation of the poor and aspects of repression seems to be still prevalent. After all, some imprints of the colonial penal system have been preserved as a valuable legacy of colonialism. And, coupled with the absence of police reforms, the echoes of the past most certainly haunt our present.

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