The right to equality, the right to freedom of belief, conscience or religion and the right to freedom from discrimination on grounds of political or other opinion among other rights are considered fundamental to ‘human’ existence.
Internationally, they have been codified in the universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and various other instruments such as the covenant Civil and Political Rights (1976). These civil rights have also been entrenched in Part III of the Constitution of India thus making their violation illegal and unconstitutional. Similarly, there are the positive, collective rights of people such as the right to self-determination, right to development, right to resist oppression by whatever means available, etc, along with the economic, social and cultural rights such as right to work, right to food, right to an honourable and decent subsistence, etc, which have also been recognized both internationally in various forums and also by the Civil Liberties and Democratic Rights (CL&DR) movement in India.
It is the irony of the oppressed masses that many a time in their struggle for the realisation of the latter mentioned collective and positive rights, the former mentioned civil liberties are blatantly violated by the State. The numerous exploited sections in India who are struggling against their exploitation, for a minimum standard of living or for a more just and democratic society have been arrested, incarcerated and denied liberty in the prisons. The subject matter of this Study is concerned with this irony of the oppressed, by virtue of them becoming ‘political prisoners’.
The CL&DR movement in India holds the State accountable to be primarily responsible for the protection and promotion of the rights of the people especially those who are oppressed and marginalised. Thus, when the State itself becomes the biggest violator of the rights of such oppressed sections, it is of grave concern for the human rights activists, irrespective of the ethnicity, gender, political beliefs or religion of the victims. This Study is an attempt to address such a concern. In 1961, an international campaign began, led by a group of lawyers, writers and publishers in London, calling for amnesty for such prisoners. The founder of this campaign, which came to be popularly known as Amnesty International (AI) righty stated the underlying conviction behind such an initiative as encapsulated in the thought of Voltaire – “I detest your views but am prepared to die for your right to express them.”
Need and importance of the Study
Ask any political activist or the common masses engaged in their daily struggle against oppression, and it would be clear that incarceration in the course of such struggles is very much a reality. It is common knowledge for them that the State threatens to, or resorts to, arrests as a method of ‘controlling and disciplining’ peoples’ struggles. However, this fact is fiercely denied by the State as it would damage its democratic credentials. No mention of the real political reasons for such arrests are available in official records. On the other hand, the CL&DR movement in India, in an attempt to expose this reality, has repeatedly organised fact finding investigations and published reports of such events. By documenting such cases of political incarcerations, as independent reports or in their bulletins, the various CL&DR organisations have sought to raise its importance by public awareness, mobilise support and pressurise the government. However, on this question of ‘political incarcerations’ and ‘political prisoners’ there is still much left to be done.
According to experts in this field, and civil rights activists, the number of political prisoners in India is huge. At a national level gathering of such individuals under the auspices of the Inaugural Conference of the ‘Committee for the Release of Political Prisoners’ in New Delhi (2008), the following observations came up -
“…..Kashmiri political prisoners could be more than 10,000…..in various prisons all across India and Jammu & Kashmir….”
(Adv. M. Shafi Rishi, Bashir Ahmad Andrabi and Altaf Ahmad from J&K)
“……more than 2,000 cases were framed on the farmers of Nandigram. Thousands have been arrested from Kamtapur movement…….”
(Chotan Das & Dr. Subhas Das Gupta from West Bengal)
“……….several hundreds of Maoist prisoners languishing in the prisons of this region…….”
(Ramodhar Singh, Convenor, Rajanitik Bandi Rihayi Samiti. Bihar & Jharkhand)
“…….more than 300 people are facing criminal cases in Orissa for rising against displacement….”
( Adv DP Mohanti and Adv Prashant Jena from Orissa)
“……there are 170 political prisoners present in Tamil Nadu prisons, whereas thousands of others are on bail but still facing serious charges.”
(Kesavan, Abdul Ghayyum and TSS Mani from Tamil Nadu)
Being myself lodged in a prison in Maharashtra, I have also had the opportunity to discuss such figures with other political prisoners. The number of such prisoners in Maharashtra prisons would roughly be around 200. Vgge Chandramouli (currently lodged at the Nagpur Central Prison) has spent quite some time in the jails of Chhattisgarh and Andhra Pradesh. K Ashok Reddy, another Maoist political prisoner, has also had some experience in the Andhra Pradesh prisons and was part of the historic prison struggle of 1994-95, when incarcerated then for his trade union activity. Both of them have estimated the present number of political prisoners in Chhattisgarh and Andhra Pradesh to be roughly around 1,000 and 250 respectively.
Now even if the conservative estimates of the afore mentioned figures are compared to the official statistics of the government regarding the total prison population (see Table I), it is shockingly evident that the numbers of political prisoners are quite significant. In areas of mass struggles they comprise the majority of the prison population. A blatant reality, tenaciously denied by the State!!
In terms of the prisoners themselves, some of the most committed, dedicated and selfless political activists have been incarcerated for their convictions and dreams of a just and democratic society. It is therefore of utmost need and importance that the CL&DR movement in India addresses this problem. Recently, a couple of organisations have been formed such as the Bandi Mukti Committee (West Bengal), Rajnitic Bandi Rehayi Samiti (Bihar and Jharkhand), Committee for the Release of Political Prisoners (all India level) on the initiative of advocates, civil liberties and democratic rights activists, writers, teachers, workers, students, etc, and have made such an agenda their prime objective.
Due to such interventions and in the course of various deliberations, questions are being raised within the CL&DR movement regarding history of political prisoners, formulation of the concept and demands, what constitutes the uniqueness and speciality of political prisoner ’status’, proper compilation of their numbers and data etc. This present Study attempts to take cognisance of this reality and dwell on some of the above mentioned questions.
Nature of the problem
In recent history, and especially after the 9/11 events, many democratic and struggling people throughout our country have been subjected to State repression. The then US President led ‘global war on terror’ has come to mean a war against peoples’ movements. Hundreds and thousands of such activists or supporters of such movements have been tortured, imprisoned or eliminated in false encounters. In almost every State of the country, struggles waged by the people for the fulfilment of their constitutionally guaranteed rights have met with such forms of ‘State terror’.
The alienated Kashmiris, Nagas, Assamese, Punjabi, Manipuris, Kamtapuris, Bodas, etc have been demanding for the right to self determination for decades. Some of these demands go way back to the transfer of power in 1947. In the absence of any fruitful resolution of their just grievances by the various governments, many such movements have taken up to arms and have even called for ’Azadi’ (succession) from the Indian union. These States have become war zones with the government keen on using even military might to crush any such demand. A similar situation has developed in the forests of Central India. Faced with decades of oppression by the British and now the modern government, the tribals resident there, have organised themselves under the leadership of the Maoist party and have offered stiff resistance in the form of guerrilla warfare. Conditions of abject poverty and severe exploitation by the contractors, tribal elite and government officials have caused such rebellion.
Now, in the period of liberalization-privatization-globalization big corporate houses such as the Tatas, Essars, Vedantas ,etc, and their mining mafias have been given a free hand to loot the ore in these mineral rich areas. Nevertheless, resistance to such projects still continues and State violence has greatly increased. The government now calls this movement led by the Maoists the gravest ‘internal security threat’ and has now mounted a full scale aggressive offence to crush it.
In such a situation, any opposition to State rule or dissent is viewed as a threat, necessitating it to be persecuted and silenced. Thus increasing the number of politically motivated arrests, false encounters and disappearances. The democratic space for dissent has been minimised with this state repression.
However, of late, this situation has not remained restricted to the mere ‘fringes’ of our country and areas of armed struggle. The further plunder by MNCs or big corporate houses like those afore mentioned has caused more and more land to be ‘legally confiscated’ in the name of SEZs or big projects from the peasants or tribals, forcing their widespread displacement. Struggles against these ‘projects’ have broken out in hitherto ‘peaceful’ areas such as in Singur and Nandigram ( W. Bengal), Kalinganagar, Niyamgiri (Orissa), etc. Further with decreasing government expenditure on social and economic benefits for the marginalised sections, the cities and metropolitan areas too have become centres of struggles against price rise, unemployment, slum demolitions, retrenchment of workers, etc. These struggles, too, have faced state repression and many of its participants have been arrested, in total violation of their rights to expression and association.
Apart from these instances of suppressing peoples’ revolt by ‘law and order’ methods, the exploiting classes have also resorted to fascist attacks on religious and ethnic minorities. In the past couple of decades, it has been the Muslims and recently the Christians who have become victims of these attacks. While the perpetrators of these crimes of genocide such as Gujarat (2002) or Kandhamal (2008) have easily evaded imprisonment, many innocent Muslims on the other hand have been imprisoned merely on suspicion, as Bangladeshis or because they choose to organise themselves and defend themselves from attacks on their community. Today, thousands of such Muslims are incarcerated in the prisons across the country on the pretext of being ISI agents or anti-nationals. The legally functioning Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) has been banned and hundreds of its members or sympathisers have been arrested or falsely implicated in blast cases. Even while incarcerated they are denied the right to legal counsel by the whipped up anti-Muslim hysteria.
In this scheme of silencing those who dissent, the prison has become an important component. Tens of thousands of such struggling masses have been imprisoned because they dared to speak and act in the interest of the people, even if such acts would constitute ‘a crime’ as defined by the State. For political reasons, it is in the interest of the State to see that these proclaimed ‘enemies of the state’ or ‘terrorists’ be incarcerated under charges that appear to be ‘serious’ enough to justify prolonged imprisonment. For this purpose the Indian State has gone beyond its colonial legacy and has enacted several special legislations down the years (see Table II). By such legislations, the armed forces are provided with extraordinary powers and relaxed conditions to ‘effectively deal’ with insurgencies regardless of human rights norms, as in the case of Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, Disturbed Areas Act, etc. Further, existing provisions for bail and examination of evidence are ‘amended’ so as to ensure incarceration and convictions as in the case of Terrorist and Disruptive Activities Act (TADA), Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA), Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act ((MCOCA), etc. Such special laws not only aim to criminalise such movements as acts (read offences) of terrorism but have also sought to criminalise a thought or intent. The POTA, and its replacement, ie the currently effective Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967, (amended in 2004 and 2008) has declared a number of political organisations illegal and ‘terrorist’ and has defined membership or support of such organisations as ‘crimes’. Most of these ‘banned’ organisations are in the forefront of leading uncompromising peoples’ struggles against the State (see Table III). On this issue of proscribing organisations, the Peoples’ Union of Democratic Rights (PUDR) has rightly decried that “the political use of such laws (are) to snuff out ideological and political opposition, particularly those that seek to restructure the exploitative structures of the state, (and), its use against minorities, workers and dalits and against nationality struggles.”
Once arrested and put into prison, the stigmatization and persecution of such a political rebel continues. Such jails become centres of torture and the rights of the now imprisoned rebel are denied or compromised on the pretext of security. Any remaining spirit of rebellion or self respect is now sought to be crushed in the prisons’ daily humiliating conditions. Such an activist or individual is continuously kept in prolonged incarceration by implicating him/her in numerous cases under special laws or by re-arresting after acquittals in earlier cases or by forcing convictions through fabrication of evidence or by denial of bail given the stringent provisions of these special laws. It is in this stigmatization process of being branded as ‘criminal’ or ‘terrorist’ that such a prisoner forcefully reasserts the true political reasons of his/her incarceration and his/her legitimate struggle by demanding the recognition of ‘political prisoner-hood’ and struggles for the same. True to his/her political nature, such a political prisoner also mobilizes opinion within and outside the prisons for reform in the oppressive prison conditions. This present study is an attempt to examine the concept of ‘political prisoner-hood’ in India in its historical and its afore mentioned socio-political context and formulate relevant demands from the CL&DR perspective.
Sources of data collection
Being incarcerated myself, presents a unique problem of data collection for a study on ‘Political Prisoners’. Experience of over three years as a ‘political prisoner’ gives one ample scope to study the various methods of treatment vis-a-vis such prisoners meted out by the detaining State and also offers many opportunities for sharing such experiences with other such prisoners. Though such interactions are rich and include discussions of conditions in other prisons, they are many a time unexpected and conducted without the knowledge of the authorities, making it impossible to record the same in the form of questionnaires and surveys. Authoritarian prison practice of the officials makes them highly sensitive to any written record of their oppressive conditions and such would be easily confiscated during the routine searches. Hence, though this study has synthesized many such experiences of political prisoners, it lacks such a presentation in a questionnaire format.
Further, deprived of the freedom of movement due to the fact of incarceration, it would be impossible to interview experts in this field or visit other institutions for surveys. In the compilation and study of the history of political prisoners, I have mainly relied on ‘Political Prisoners In India’ by Ujjwas Kumar Singh, Oxford University Press, 2001. This book was gifted by the author himself when he came to visit the ‘political prisoners’ of the Nagpur Central Prison, as part of a fact finding team of the ‘Co-ordination of Democratic Rights Organisations’. The said book being well researched, amply satisfied my needs for information on the treatment of Political Prisoners, especially during the British times.
For contemporary developments, I have relied on a number of fact finding reports and articles that appeared in the publications of various CL&DR organisations. In the scrutiny of such reports one gets a sense of the method used by the State to arrest such political opponents, the special laws invoked thereon and the differential treatment given during their incarceration. The biggest problem of data collection faced in this present study, is the total silence of the government on this issue. Since, the State officially denies their existence in its records, their numbers cannot be ascertained from the same. The closest tabulation of such numbers by the ‘National Crime Records Bureau’ is in its figures of those incarcerated under special and local laws (SLL). However, to consider such figures as equivalent to those of political prisoners would be highly erroneous. This task is of profound importance and many CL&DR organisations, have taken it upon themselves to compile such a data-bank. In essence the present study is a compilation and synthesis of various experiences of political prisoners along with historical discussions and debates regarding their prisoner-hood.
Scope of the Study
The aforementioned limitations of data collection and source material have had its influence on the scope of this present Study. While the issue of ‘Political Prisoners’ is a wide topic dealing with historical, theoretical, legal and practical constructs, this present Study has attempted to touch on parts of these aspects. The kernel of this Study consists of three sections and elaborated in Chapter 2.
Firstly, I have attempted to place before the reader the reality of the differential treatment of political prisoners. By historical examples from colonial times, one can easily observe that this ‘special or separate’ treatment of Political Prisoners by the detaining government basically arose from their class needs and compulsions. In their perception of this threat to the rule, there was a need to segregate them from ordinary prisoners so as to contain their potential political influence. In times of popular mass upsurges a need also arose to offer such Political Prisoners certain facilities and preferential treatment apart from the ordinary so as to win over their elite, stem off prison unrest and minimise society’s sympathy for them. Similarly, the struggle for recognition of ‘political prisoner-hood’ evolved from the prisoners and their supporters as a method of rejection of their ‘criminalization’ as branded by the State. It thus evolved as a counter to the State sponsored nomenclature of ‘criminals’, ‘terrorists’, ‘anti-nationals’ etc. History has also shown that struggles for this demand were inevitably tied up with the struggles for improvement of general prison conditions.
The second section, deals with the contentious issue of definition. In the struggle between the oppressed and the oppressors, the ‘have–nots and the haves’, the exploited and the exploiters, it is only but natural that this struggle will manifest itself in the realm of ‘political prisoner-hood’ terminology. The modern States’ position on both these above mentioned issues, ie ’differential treatment’ and ‘terminology’ has been of denial, as formal acceptance of ‘political prison-hood’ would question the very foundations of democracy. Such issues are best officially denied yet secretly condoned.
The third section, deals with the formulation of the central demands for political prisoners, ie their unconditional release or fair trial. This is a challenge for the CL&DR movement especially since the formulation of such demands emanates from a correct construction of the definition which ought to relate to the socio-political reality.
In Chapter 3, I have mainly examined the various documentations done by the CL&DR organisations on the arrest/detention of such Political Prisoners and on the present prison conditions wherein they have been incarcerated. As earlier mentioned, this is an extremely vast area and hence such an examination cannot claim to be exhaustive and comprehensive.
Finally, as a conclusion to this Study, I have put forth various demands on the question of ‘political prison-hood’, which have also been raised time and again by the Political Prisoners themselves and the CL&DR movement. Some suggestions also deal with the necessity and tasks of a campaign for the unconditional release of Political Prisoners.
“The forgotten Prisoners” by AI’s founder Peter Benenson, London Observer, May 28, 1961
‘THE ARRESTED’ – Committee for the Release of Political Prisoners, Vol. I, No 1, July–Aug 2008
‘Prison Statistics India, 2007’ – National Crime Records Bureau, Ministry of Home Affairs, 2009
Dr Binayak Sen, arrested in 2007, under the Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act (CSPSA) was denied bail for almost 2 years; see ‘Through the lens of National Security’, PUDR publication, January 2008