Brutalising inmates the ‘Tihar way’

"We have sometimes to take tough decisions—even infringing some of our freedoms"

– Prime Minister AB Vajpayee,
November 11, 2002.

Jails are supposed to be reformatory in nature. But the gap between precept and practice is nowhere as evident as in jails, especially their Indian versions, which have stood this conventional wisdom on its head. There are often tales of the impunity with which notorious criminals run their empires from the confines of the jail or 'celebrity' criminals suddenly developing chest pain and spending the period of their sentence in some super-speciality hospital. The nexus between the criminal, police and the politician, at times aided by the judiciary, is so blatant as to be completely transparent. On the other hand, ordinary prisoners get brutalised regularly with the due connivance of the police and 'senior criminals'. And now comes the news of the police force in one of the 'best' jails in India, New Delhi's elite Tihar Jail (venue of many reformist exercises by the high profile cop Kiran Bedi) behaving as if they were foot soldiers of the Hindutva brigade.

A recent letter by India's leading human rights activists to the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) to "probe the communal policies of the Tihar authorities" (The Kashmir Times, 11 January, "Victims may forget torture but not verbal abuse") has once again brought into sharp focus the malady which afflicts the custodians of law. In a written complaint to the NHRC, prominent socialist leader Surendra Mohan, on behalf of the All India Defence Committee for Syed Abdul Rehman Geelani (the Delhi University lecturer who was acquitted by the Delhi High Court in the December 2001 parliament attack case), has demanded to "institute a probe into the deplorable conditions inside Tihar jail", making a pointed reference to the alleged practice of communalism inside the jail perpetrated by prejudiced jail authorities.

It is worth noting that these leading human rights activists have based their complaint on a letter written to the All India Defence Committee chairman, the scholar Rajni Kothari, by Syed Abdul Rehman Geelani about the conditions in Tihar jail where he spent two years before his acquittal in November last year. According to the report, "The letter has pointed references to the torture meted out to jail inmates in the high-risk ward, where he was lodged, specially the Kashmiri inmates and the Muslims". According to the Defence Committee, "this discrimination against Muslim detainees in general and Kashmiris in particular is in violation of the basic tenets of International Human Rights Law". It has called upon the commission to set up a committee to visit the jail and document the problems and difficulties faced by the detenues in the 'high risk cells' and indicated that it would like to be associated with the enquiry.

A cursory glance at the letter written by Geelani to Rajni Kothari is an eye-opener for anyone who is concerned about Indian democracy and the future of secular values. The letter states:

"Throughout my time in jail I was in an area that is called the 'high-risk ward' in jail parlance. I do not know whether there is a provision for such a special category under the law. In my understanding it would be highly illegal to categorise any detainee as a high risk even before he has been convicted.

…The detainees do not have an opportunity to go outside unless someone visits them… The jail authorities can and do impose all manner of illegal punishments on the detainees and prisoners lodged in the high-risk cells. I have witnessed the beating of several prisoners. The prisoners in the high-risk cells complained that the jail authorities, on the smallest pretext, punished them. Apart from beating, jail authorities have even tortured the detainees by pushing poles up their anus, making the men drink urine and depriving them of drinking water for several days at a time.

The Kashmiri detainees are the special targets of the jail authorities. It would seem that they think they can contribute to solving the conflict by subjecting the Kashmiris to indescribable brutality. Many of these men have been undertrials for many years without even a hope of getting a trial at all. Some who have been convicted have not got a fair trial and have been falsely implicated by corrupt police officers, like I was.

In addition to the physical abuse is the verbal humiliation heaped on the detainees and prisoners in the high-risk cells. The majority of the men are Muslims and the jail authorities vent their prejudices and hatred without any hesitation. They also instigate the convicts to follow their example and their communalism defies description. Even if their victims forget the torture, the verbal abuse cannot be wiped out of their memories…The dehumanisation of the jail authorities is best seen when they do not allow the detainees to offer Namaz on the occasion of Id…"

There is no doubt that torture of inmates on communal lines can be construed as an extension of the dehumanising behaviour of the police towards the people outside the confines of the jail. It can be argued that there has been a 'normalisation of brutality' or 'brutalisation of normality' which comes into full play in the spheres of life where the reach of the police and the life of the ordinary citizen intersects. The killing of minorities duly 'sponsored' by the Hindutva brigade in Gujarat two years ago is a reminder of police brutality, which surpassed all previous limits. It was the first riot in the country where the state promoted 'retribution' as a matter of policy. Many victims of the riot reported categorically that the police, instead of protecting them, handed them over to the rioters.

Of course that was not the first instance when the police abandoned its 'neutrality' and lent its support to one of the 'warring factions'. The degeneration of the police force is palpable at every level. Social scientist Sumanta Bannerjee, writing recently in the Economic and Political Weekly ("Human Rights in India in the Global Context") under-lined how the Indian government's skewed policies and lack of trans-parency in all such cases has raised the spectre of exponential growth in cases of gross human rights vio-lations in police custody. According to him, "India has rejected the demand of accountability, not only by expressing its hostility to the International Criminal Court, but also by refusing to support the adoption of the 'Optional Protocol' to the UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punish-ment". This is not surprising, because the protocol wants to "establish a system of regular visits undertaken by independent inter-national and national bodies to places where people are deprived of their liberty, in order to prevent torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment".

It is disturbing that the torture of persons in high risk cells is not an exception but a generalised phenomenon. Figures collated by the NHRC corroborate that the treatment meted out to the Tihar inmates is not an isolated instance of mis-demeanour. The number of complaints with India's prime human rights body has gone up from 500 in the first year to 70,000 every year today. Significantly, of the complaints received by the commission, over 40 percent are against the police, followed by those against jails—a reflection on the state of the penal system in the country. As far as the appeal drafted by leading human rights activists is concerned, there is as yet no indication of the reaction of the NHRC. But looking at the backlog of more than 40,000 cases with the commission which have been awaiting disposal for several years now and the govern-ment's deliberate refusal to vest the body with adequate authority and resources, rendering it a toothless and inept institution, it will be too much to expect any significant move from its side. If at all it takes cog-nisance of the appeal it would be more in the form of window-dressing, absolving the powers that be of any involvement in this planned discrimination against the minorities.

Some urgent steps are needed to correct the situation. As things stand today, with the increasing disregard for accountability in cases involving violations of human rights and international humanitarian laws, the task at hand may appear difficult. Apart from putting pressure through all possible channels demanding greater transparency and accountability from the powers that be, it is necessary for human rights activists to continue to intervene at all possible levels for redressal of grievances. It is also necessary to examine the social composition of the police force to establish whether it has adequate representation of different communities and sections of society in it or not. A glance at a few of the recent figures does not seem encouraging. According to Omar Khalidi, an independent scholar and author of Khaki and the Ethnic Violence in India: Army, Police and Paramilitary Forces During Communal Riots, "For decades there was little or no recruitment of Muslims in Delhi police, so much so that they were a mere 2.3 percent of the total force in 1991…The National Minorities Commission gives the figure of 1446 Muslims out of a total of 51,683 in its annual report, 1995-96".

Geelani's letter to Rajni Kothari has rekindled the memories of "My Years In An Indian Prison' written by the British national, Mary Taylor. Taylor who was married to an activist of the revolutionary left movement, had to languish in Indian jails for more than five years for her allegedly 'seditious activities'. Her experiences brought into sharp focus the processes of brutali-sation and dehumanisation which targets, particularly, the deprived and the marginalised and also raised a lot of debate about the conditions inside Indian jails in the late '70s and early '80s.

It can only be hoped that the petition by the All India Defence Committee succeeds in focusing on the condition of detainees in the high risk cells of Tihar jail and jails elsewhere, and thus turn attention to the wider problem of how communalism leads to certain dehumani-sation of the society and polity of the country.

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Himal Southasian