[Upon publication of this article about his experience in an ‘anda’ (an egg-shaped jail cell), the court denied his temporary bail, ordered his return to jail and withdrew his access to decent medical care. — Frontlines ed.]
by G.N. Saibaba, Frontline, December 23, 2015
My view from an ‘anda’
G.N. Saibaba, a wheelchair-bound Delhi University professor, talks of the days he spent in Nagpur Central Jail, in solitary confinement, after his arrest for alleged Maoist links.
G.N. Saibaba is a professor of English at Delhi University and is wheelchair-bound owing to physical disabilities to the extent of 90 per cent. On May 9, 2014, he was “abducted” when he was on his way home from work, and the next day, he was taken to Aheri, in Maharashtra’s Gadchiroli district. From there, he was taken to Nagpur Central Jail where he was lodged until June this year when he was granted interim bail for medical treatment. He was charged under various sections of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) for alleged Maoist links, and the trial, which began on October 27, 2015, at the Gadchiroli Sessions Court resulted in bail being granted for all co-accused except him. The hearing on his plea for permanent bail was held on December 11, and a final order was awaited at the time of going to press.
The 14 months spent in jail were like 14 years in hell. Thanks to a huge campaign outside and an order by a division bench of the Bombay High Court, I am out for medical treatment; otherwise, I would be dead by now. The prison hospital in Nagpur Central Jail lacks permanent doctors or medicines and is ill-equipped to treat severe ailments. While I was there, five people (one in his 50s, one in his 40s and three in their 30s) died; they could have survived with timely treatment. Apart from the chronic and severe health problems that I already had, I acquired spinal problems while being incarcerated. Owing to the heavy force used by the police in dragging me by my hands, the nerves from my neck to my left shoulder got severely stretched and rendered my left hand immobile. I suffered excruciating pain for 14 months. Instead of treating the ruptured nerve system, I was given painkillers, that too occasionally in the beginning and arbitrarily afterwards, which resulted in damage to my left hand. Despite rigorous treatment in various hospitals every six months, even now I can’t move my left hand above waist height. Besides, I cannot use the ground-level toilet, and they built a Western-style toilet only after eight months. That, too, did not work. Water came for 20 minutes in the morning, but with only one bucket allowed per prisoner not much could be stored. Without water, the closed anda (egg-shaped) cell where I was confined would stink ad infinitum.
In 1994, the journalist Kuldip Nayar visited a hospital in Guwahati where he found seven TADA (Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act) detenus handcuffed to their beds. He wrote to the Supreme Court highlighting the inhuman fetters. This led to the Supreme Court passing a seminal judgment banning the use of handcuffs on any prisoner inside the jail or while being transported to court, for parole, to hospital or elsewhere. It also stated that except in “rare cases of concrete proof regarding proneness of the prisoner to violence, his tendency to escape, he being so dangerous/desperate and the finding that no other practical way of forbidding escape is available, the Magistrate may grant permission to handcuff the prisoner”. The nature of the sentence or case cannot be grounds for handcuffing, the judgment said.
Decades after such a decisive judgment, I found myself amidst fettered inmates. One of my co-accused, Hem Mishra, a student of Jawaharlal Nehru University, developed serious health problems. It took one year of representations to get permission for his treatment at the Government Medical College and Hospital, Nagpur. When he was about to be handcuffed outside the prison gates, he resisted by quoting the Supreme Court judgment, for which he was beaten up severely and sent back inside. He filed a written complaint, but it was not converted into a first information report (FIR) despite our sustained agitations. The Sessions Court asked the prison authorities to register an FIR against the policemen who beat him up, but to date no action has been taken. Thereafter, some Adivasi boys refused to go to hospital in handcuffs; they, too, were denied medical treatment. In 1980, Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer delivered the first and original judgment on handcuffing of prisoners (to which the 1994 judgment was an addition), which states unequivocally: “The guarantee of human dignity forms part of a constitutional culture…. Even a prisoner is a person not an animal.”
But in the Nagpur prison hospital, about 20 people declared to be insane are handcuffed and fettered to a cot or window grill or even to trees outside the hospital ward. People who acquired psychological problems because of police torture and long periods of incarceration without bail or trial were not sent to an appropriate hospital or an asylum but are just kept in a separate ward. Records are not maintained that they are so confined. Oral presentations and petitions to the authorities have been futile.
Mercilessly beating prisoners for something as small as not removing their slippers when the authorities were on their rounds, making them stand in the sun in the peak of summer without food or water, the authorities and certain prisoners under the control of the officials taking it upon themselves to torture rape accused or alleged sexual offenders, these and many other such unspeakable, medieval and third-degree torture methods are practised “within the four walls that alone don’t make a prison”. A practising Muslim was beaten for 10 straight days on the concocted charge of sending a love letter to a female staffer, never mind that the illiterate man cannot read or write. After March 30, 2014, when, in a prison break, five undertrials escaped, about 500 prisoners were rounded up and beaten for a week by police from outside the prison for not tipping the authorities about the escape plan. About 120 of them suffered fractures and serious injuries, while hundreds of mobile phones were confiscated. The punishment was meted out not to the gangsters using these phones but to ordinary prisoners who were too poor to even buy a cake of soap. Sometimes, I tried to stop the beatings. If I physically intervened in my wheelchair, authorities would stop for a while, take the prisoner elsewhere and resume.
Surprisingly, all jailers and guards said that during training they were instructed to believe that unless they tortured prisoners they would not be able to discipline them, as the prisoners were criminals and beyond reform. The jailers and guards also strongly believe that prisoners are fed on public money free of cost and are a burden on society and that talking to them is of no use, so the only way to discipline them is through corporal punishment.
The police and prisons are both under the Home Department of a State government. When a court orders a prisoner to be in jail, s/he is in judicial custody and should be free from police control. But in reality, the police from outside control and issue unofficial orders on the treatment of prisoners, who are under the command of a prison superintendent, a much lower level officer than the Deputy Inspector General of Police or the Superintendent of Police of the area. If the government wants, it can manipulate prisoners through the police. As in the United Kingdom and many European countries, prisons in India should be independent institutions under the judiciary. The police have free access to prisoners, and no records are maintained of the visits they make. When undertrials travel between prison and court they are vulnerable to torture or compulsion by the police because it is the police and not the prison authorities who escort them. In my own case, the intelligence agencies would invade my cell any time of day or night to see what I was reading or writing and what books I had received. There are no records of these intrusions, so I cannot complain. They would even decide what medicine I should be given and where I should be lodged.
Prison reforms introduced in the 1960s and the 1970s have been considerably weakened and gradually eroded in all prisons of India. According to the Maharashtra prison manual, there is a library, but it has no books except for some that were donated or left behind by former prisoners. Initially, books brought by my family were sent back. Only after a long battle, during which my wife stood at the gates from morning to evening, did they accept a few books, which were scrutinised by intelligence officers and sent to the godown. I used to get a few of them in my cell only after repeated pleadings with the officials. These, too, would often, arbitrarily and without notice be confiscated along with my prison diary and notes.
In 1963, Justices N.L. Abhyankar and V.G. Wagle gave a judgment on receiving books in prison in a case involving George Fernandes and A.B. Bardhan, who were lodged in the very same Nagpur Central Jail and faced the same travails as I did in order to receive books. The articles they wrote were also, like mine, not sent for publishing. The judges directed the State of Maharashtra not to put any restriction on the number of books that may be supplied to the petitioners, while acknowledging that books of undoubted erudition and universal praise have been written in prison cells and that “of all the restraints on liberty of a civilised citizen, that on opportunity to knowledge, learning and pursuit of happiness is the most irksome and least to be justified”. In 1972, in the case of Kunnikkal Narayanan, the Kerala High Court weighed in on three books under the broad category “Mao Literature” and ordered to expeditiously make these books available to the petitioner. Ironically, five decades later, I would struggle the same way to get books sometimes or remain unsuccessful even after brandishing these judgments.
Reversal of reforms
The concept of prison labour introduced by British colonialists continues but with paltry wages. In Nagpur prison there is a government printing press. The idea is to impart skills to prisoners so that they can survive once they are released. However, of the 150 workers at the press, only 10 to 15 are from inside, the rest come from outside. Now they have taken a decision to shift the press out of the prison. We can see a series of reversals of nominal prison reforms carried out decades earlier. The much-publicised practice of yoga or Vipasana hardly stand for prison reforms.
Ten people seated on either side of a glass pane protected by iron grills on both sides, all trying to speak simultaneously through small holes in the glass, everybody breaking down and getting emotional and not even being able to see the dear one’s face on the other side clearly, all result in a noisy atmosphere where nothing can be conveyed or discussed. The excuses given, of security and shortage of staff, to continue mulaqat (meeting) only through an iron curtain are dishonest in modern prison management. This colonial legacy must go.
The official policy is that prisons should be correctional homes where criminals are reformed and sent back to join society, but in practice they are designed to kill the will of an individual, especially the anda cell. The anda cell in Nagpur prison has 32 lock-ups in four yards. People can interact from 6 a.m. to 12 noon and from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. within each yard. The sky is not visible, and in the yard there is a grill on the top. Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer gave a judgment against solitary confinement, but it is still rampant. It is difficult to retain one’s mental balance inside an anda cell. I met some prisoners who had spent years in an anda cell and lost their balance completely and yet were not shifted out.
It is a fabricated case against me, and if the courts had examined the charges carefully, I would have got bail in a month. Pressure was created through a media trial that influenced and prejudiced the courts. Every time my bail application came up for hearing, there was propaganda, especially in Maharashtra, painting me as a top naxalite, a dreaded terrorist and a national threat, which the media carried without verification and without bothering to study the charge sheet. Only later, owing to the campaign and facts brought out in the public domain, did the media change this attitude. The amended Criminal Procedure Code says people with severe disabilities should not be incarcerated, but it is violated. A vast majority of prisoners are undertrials who languish in prisons without bail or trial.
In my own case, the interim bail for treatment was leased freedom given by a division bench led by the Bombay High Court’s Chief Justice. A social activist unknown to me at the time, Poornima Upadhyay, sent an email to Chief Justice Mohit Shah after seeing an article in The Hindu. The Chief Justice converted that into a public interest litigation suo motu and issued orders to shift me to a private hospital within 24 hours. Thereafter, the same bench said: “He deserves to be home; we are inclined to send him and the government can come up with arguments later.” They told Poornima to apply for regular bail, but before she could do so Justice Mohit Shah retired. A day before his retirement, he extended my bail by three more months, until December 31. If I do not get permanent bail by then, I will have to go back to the same prison’s anda cell. An old conflict over the question of jurisdiction between the Principal and Nagpur benches of the Bombay High Court is being examined, keeping my regular bail pending.