Review of literature on struggles, treatment and conditions of political prisoners
As mentioned earlier, political prisoners have waged various struggles in prison for the recognition of their status and as resistance against the oppressive and torturous conditions of their incarceration. The struggles have taken on many forms including that of Hunger Strikes ‘whereby prisoners attempt to assert complete control over their bodies’. Right from the moment of their arrest, illegal detention, torture or violations in prison, the mainstream media carries little, especially since most of them are mere commoners. If at all the media takes interest , it is in the furtherance of the propaganda put forth by the State labelling such rebels as ‘terrorists’, ‘anti-nationals’, ‘mass murderers’ etc. Various CL&DR organisations have on the other hand consistently tried to present the truth behind such arrests, the just demands of such jail struggles and the conditions in prisons through fact-finding missions, publishing of booklet or reports /articles in their bulletins and press-releases. This chapter deals with an examination of such literature so as to highlight the conditions of their arrest, jail struggles and treatment in prison in the States mentioned below.
In Kerala, the campaign against Death penalty and for the release of life convicts has been actively taken up by the CL&DR movement. In 2005, under the initiative of individuals and groups already active on prisoners rights, the ‘Anti-Death Penalty Committee’ was formed in Kannur District. This committee has organised among other activities, State level conventions (May 2005), a 40 day hunger strike (October 2006), sit-in dharnas before State secretariat and mass petitions to State and Central authorities demanding abolition of death penalty and release of all eligible life-timers. Even within prison, a few prisoners who had completed 14 years in jail went on an indefinite fast in Viyyur Jail (June 2007). Due to the governments indifference, this fast quickly snowballed into massive rallies by various Civil Liberties groups and sectional organisations in Thiruvananthapuram. The Committee had held that about “500 life timers including many aged and ailing women are kept ‘illegally’ in the Kerala jails though eligible for release.” The State government has also denied granting parole to political prisoners.
During the last few years, West Bengal has witnessed various arrests of political prisoners as in the peasants of Singur or Nandigram struggling against SEZs, or the tribals of Lalgarh for their ‘alleged’ association with Maoists or the Gorkhas and Kamptapuris for demanding a separate State. Or the intellectuals, artists, teachers, workers or other city dwellers because they have ‘dared’ to protest against the authoritarian CPM Government. In June 2002, the arrest and torture of the popular Prof. Kaushik Ganguly and unnatural death of Abhijit Sinha sparked protests against State repression leading to the formation of the ‘Bandi Mukti Committee’. This Committee has played an important role in advocating the rights of political prisoners of West Bengal. In the prisons too, the prisoners have resorted to protracted hunger strikes at Midnapur Central Jail (September 2003); by 469 inmates in Alipore Central Jail demanding recognition as political prisoners (Indian Express, 11th April 2010). In a fact finding report conducted by APDR, it was observed that nearly ’32 prisoners at Presidency Jail had to face tremendous torture merely because they had protested against the ongoing mal practises’ by the administration.
In the past few years, the movement for ‘Azadi’ in the valley has gained momentum. Compared to the earlier armed militancy of the last decade, occasionally supported by Pakistan, the movement has now taken a much more independent and mass character, with children, youth, women and entire towns folk readily taking to the streets to protest. Every year since 2008, issues such as Amarnath Yatra, murders of two Shopian women or the present ‘intefada’ styled stone-pelters, have snow balled with increasing proportionality into mass civil disobedience movements for secession. This political threat branded as ‘anti-national’ or ‘terrorist’ is being attempted to be crushed by the rulers through encounters, forced disappearances, illegal detentions and tortures and arrests by the security forces. The Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) provide adequate impunity for such measures. The ‘International Peoples’ Tribunal on Human Rights & Justice in Indian-administered Kashmir’ conducted research between November 2006 & November 2009 and documented almost 2,700 unknown, unmarked and mass graves containing 2,943+ bodies, across 55 villages of Bandipora, Barramullah and Kupwara districts. At present almost 671 security camps exist in Kashmir which have become de facto illegal detention and torture centres. Tens of thousands of individuals have also been arrested and incarcerated in the prisons of Kashmir, Delhi and throughout the country for their involvement in this movement of the Kashmiris. In such an environment of blatant elimination of political opponents, to remain alive itself is the biggest struggle for such political prisoners.
In the last decade or so, Chhattisgarh has become the epicentre of the Maoist movement. The State Government unable to find a democratic solution treats this popular movement as a law and order problem. It has promulgated the Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act, 2005 and along with the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, 1967 criminalized any form of dissent. Hundreds of tribals, oppressed sections and renowned CL&DR activists such as Dr. Binayak Sen, T. Ajay etc. have been incarcerated and denied bail for years on end under these special laws. The prisons of Raipur, Durg, Bilaspur, Jagdalpur, Ambikapur etc. presently house almost a thousand political prisoners. Even within prison dissent is not tolerated. Like their male counterparts, women political prisoners such as K. Shanti Priya @ Malti Reddy and Meena Chaudhari were forced into solitary punishment cells for raising ‘some of the common grievances of all women prisoners’ .They were dragged by their hair, kicked and beaten to unconsciousness for displaying such leadership. They ultimately had to resort to a hunger strike from 27th August 2008 so that the DIG (jail) could intervene. This practice is quite common in all the prisons of the State. Prison authorities have even deployed prison ruffians (their loyal inmates) to do their ‘dirty work’ of beating political prisoners into submission. In fact violence by the prison authorities is routine, with the guards indiscriminately beating all inmates once in a while, without any reason.
The Gujarat government has always used Special Anti-Terror laws to curb dissent and harass religious minorities like Muslims. By 1993, it had the unique distinction of having the highest number of TADA detenus i.e. 17,546 (Lawless Roads, PUDR 1993) even much higher than states like Punjab, Kashmir, Assam and Andhra Pradesh where militant movements existed. Its implementation of POTA was similar. Now with the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) considered the foremost anti-terror law and the Central Government calling Maoism as the biggest internal security threat, its guns have been turned at the social organisations, Civil-Liberties groups defending the rights of the oppressed. In an omnibus FIR registered in Feb. 2010 at the Kamrej Police Station, Surat range, charges of conspiracy, waging war and UAPA had been invoked to arrest nearly 20 social, political, tribal and NGO activists, trade unionists, journalists etc. throughout the country. Without a single instance of any previous Maoist related offence in Gujarat, the police have nevertheless conjured up this case under the special provisions of the UAPA and will manage to imprison these political prisoners for years on end without bail. At the time of writing, the arrests of such activists continue.
Uttarakhand, Haryana and Delhi:
In the past decade, many political activists have been arrested and detained in the states of Uttarakhand, Haryana and Delhi under charges of sedition or UAPA. These States have not witnessed any major armed struggle, nevertheless the Government has arrested numerous such activists under the pretext of curbing ‘left-extremism’ and the influence of the Nepali Maoists. PUCL and PUDR sent fact-finding teams to inquire into the reality of these arrests. In Uttarakhand, such political arrests took place in three to four rounds. In the first of these, activist of the ‘Uttarakhand Kisan Sanghatan’ (UKS) who spearheaded the agitation against Tehri Dam project were arrested. Numerous peasants and political activists from Udhamsingh Nagar, Nainital, Almora, Champawat and Dehradun had been arrested under trumped up charges of organising and participating in Weapon Training Camps in 2004 and 2007. Currently incarcerated in the jails of Dehrtadun, Halwani etc. they have been denied bail and implicated in a large number of cases. In Haryana too, the Government has used charges of sedition to arrest many Dalit and political activists associated with the Jagrook Chhatra Morcha, Krantikari Mazdoor Kisan Union, Mahila Mukti Morcha and Shivalik Jan Sangharsh Manch. The fact finding team of PUDR visited the area in May 2007. It observed that ‘more than hundred people had been picked up , kept in illegal confinement, tortured in custody and then let off over the [previous] two years, and more than fifty people were implicated in false cases with serious charges like attempt to murder’. In Delhi, of late, many trade union leaders and teachers have been arrested and booked under various sections of UAPA.
In Maharashtra, the government has arrested a number of political activists under the cover of Anti-Terrorist and Anti-Maoist Operations. Old membership lists of SIMI have been drawn up by the police to falsely arrest hundreds of Muslims in various blast cases. Although subsequent investigations have shown that Muslims arrested in cases such as the Malegaon 2006 blast case or 7/11 train blasts are not the real perpetrators, the police continue to keep them incarcerated. On the other hand an equal amount of adivasis, political and social activists such as journalists, book publishers, students etc. have been arrested on charges of being Naxals or Naxal sympathisers. On all such political prisoners charges of UAPA have been imposed and at times even the draconian Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act (MCOCA). Even while in jail, they have been discriminated against and at times attacked for demanding their rights. In June 2008, the Superintendent of the Arthur Road Jail, planned and executed a brutal attack on nearly 40 Muslim political prisoners, severely injuring many of them. In April-May 2008, the Maoist political prisoners went on a 27 day hunger strike at the Nagpur Central Prison against the re-arrest at the jail gate of those released by the Court, against the branding of social organisations or activists as Naxal sympathisers and for prison reforms such as phone facilities, interview timings etc. In a show of strength, many political prisoners across the State along with many death row convicts observed a single day Hunger strike on 13th Sept 2009 demanding recognition of their political prisoner-hood, abolition of death penalty and for prison reforms.
Bihar, Jharkhand & Orissa:
Five landless, poor and dalit peasants of Bihar are presently on death row. Krishna Mochi, Veer Kunwar Paswan, Dharmendra Singh and Nanhe Lal Mochi were sentenced to death on the charge that they resisted the private armies of the landlords by participating in the Bara incident. Shobhit Chamar has been similarly sentenced to death. All five are currently lodged at the Bhagalpur Central Prison. In Oct. 2004, the Bihar prison administration brutally lathi charged Maoist political prisoners of the Special Beur Jail because they objected to money being resorted from the visitors by the Jail authorities. About three dozen such prisoners were seriously injured and because they were denied medical treatment nearly 300 to 400 prisoners went on daily dharnas inside the prison.
Two, all India fact finding teams from various CL&DR organisations visited the prisons in Jharkhand (January 2008) and Orissa (February 2007). The team visiting Jharkhand examined the conditions at the Chaibasa Jail, Ranchi Central Jail and Hazaribagh Jail. However they were not permitted to meet any political prisoners. In Jharkhand, most Naxalite/ Maoist activists are booked under the ’17 Criminal Law Act’ and are considered as criminals. In the earlier fact finding mission to Orissa, the team visited the prisons of Behrampur, Malkangiri and Sambalpur. The team interacted with both men and women incarcerated for their alleged association with Maoists. It observed that many including juveniles were arrested on mere suspicions or for protesting against excesses of the CRPF and Orissa State Armed Forces. Conditions in both the States were horrendous with severe overcrowding. The prisons, especially the women wards, had poor sanitation and hygiene conditions and minimal medical facilities. Jails in Jharkhand, such as the Hazaribagh Jail had no provision for women to work and earn during their confinement.
Naga civil society organizations like the Naga Hoho, Naga Peoples’ Movement for Human Rights (NPMHR), Naga Students’ Federation (NSF) and the Naga Mothers’ Association (NMA) have been asked by the Indian government not to interfere in the political affairs of Nagaland. Terming the civil society organizations as ‘social bodies’, these four bodies have been prevented from interference in political matters. In Manipur, the ‘Mothers of the Disappeared’, a human rights organization of the women whose sons have either been killed in fake encounters or simply disappeared have staged numerous protests outside the citadels of Indian political power. Irom Chanu Sharmila has been on a hunger fast for ten years, calling for a repeal of the draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). The people of north east cannot be deprived of their inalienable rights. Every oppressed nationality has the right to self-determination.
Though presently the number of political prisoners in Punjab are few, it has had thousands of political prisoners in the past two decades in the various prisons of Punjab and the rest of the country. Three such political prisoners viz. Bhai Jagtar Singh Hawara, Bhai Balwant Singh and Prof. Devinder Pal Singh Bullar have been awarded death penalty. They were part and parcel of the Sikh struggle for right to self-determination. Prof. Devinder Pal Singh Bullar’s appeal before the Supreme Court was rejected, even though a dissenting sitting judge called for his acquittal citing lack of corroborative evidence for his alleged ‘confession’. All of them have been held in high esteem by the Punjabi people advocating the cause of a Sikh nation.
Note: No contemporary literature of CL&DR organisations was available at the time of writing, for a review of political arrests and conditions of political prisoners in the States of Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Karnataka, Manipur, Tamil Nadu etc. This deficiency is conspicuous yet unavoidable.
Most of the literature examined consist of temporary publications and bulletins of the ‘Co-ordination of Democratic Rights Organization’ (CDRO), ‘Committee for the Release of Political Prisoners’ (CRPP), ‘Peoples Union for Civil Liberties’ (PUCL), ‘Peoples Union for Democratic Right’ (PUDR), ‘Human Rights Law Network’ (HRLN), ‘Committee against Violence on Women’ (CAVOW) etc. as mentioned in the Bibliography of this study.