In Jail Without Trial: The Plight Of Prison Inmates In India
By Parwini Zora
26 August 2005
Lalung, aged 77, was released from incarceration last month in the northeast
Indian state of Assam after spending more than half a century behind
bars awaiting trial.
Lalung had been
arrested at his home village of Silsang in 1951 under section 326 of
the Indian Penal Code for causing grievous harm. According
to civil rights groups who have investigated Lalungs case, there
was no substantive evidence to support the charge against him. In any
event, those found guilty of this offence typically receive sentences
of no more than 10 years imprisonment.
Less than a year
after he was taken into custody, Lalung was transferred to a psychiatric
hospital in the Assamese town of Tezpur. Sixteen years later, in 1967,
doctors confirmed that he was fully fit to be released,
but instead he was transferred to Guwahati Central Jail, where he was
imprisoned until this summer.
It seems the
police just forgot about him thereafter, Assamese human rights
activist Sanjay Borbora told the BBC. Borbora was among those who brought
Machangs case to the attention of the National Human Rights Commission
(NHRC). As a result of the Commissions intervention and other
protests, Lalungs case was finally heard and he was released after
paying a token bond of one Indian rupee.
He is a simple
villager and his life has been destroyed by a cruel system. He should
sue the authorities for millions of rupees, but I do not think he is
even aware he could do it, said Borbora.
According to a Scotsman.com
news report, the NHRC has taken up the cases of four other men awaiting
trial in Assam: Khalilur Rehman has been in custody for 35 years, Anil
Kumar Burman for 33 years, and Sonamani Deb for 32 years, while Parbati
Mallik has been detained in a psychiatric unit for 32 years.
Though these individual
cases have now gained media attention, the phenomenon of accused persons
having to endure unconscionable delays awaiting trial is the norm in
the Indian justice system. In 2002, some three quarters of all persons
held in Indian prisons had not been sentenced to jail, but were under
trialthat is, awaiting trial.
The largest number
of under-trial or remand prisoners is to be found in the jails of Uttar
Pradesh, Manipur, and Meghalaya, where more than 90 percent of the prison
population have reportedly not faced trial.
According to a National
Crime Research Bureau (NCRB) study, Crime in India 2002, nearly 220,000
cases took more than 3 years to reach court, and about 25,600 exhausted
10 years before they were completed. A staggering number of prison inmates
awaiting trial have already been imprisoned longer than the most rigorous
sentence that they could ever be given for the offence they are alleged
to have committed.
A long record of appalling conditions
Many of Indias
prisons date back to the era of British colonial rule, with thousands
of prisoners kept in crumbling facilities largely unchanged since the
beginning of the last century. The only major all-Indian prison reform
ever implemented dates back to the Indian Jails Committee of 1919-1920.
The Indian prison
system perpetuates many of the injustices of the penal system set up
by the British. For example, inmates of foreign origin or of high caste
and social status are routinely imprisoned under relatively better conditions
and segregated from those inmates who are poorer and of lower social
position. Larger or less-crowded cells, access to books and newspapers,
and more and better food are offered to those prisoners classified as
Status A prisoners.
Meanwhile, the poor
and especially tribal and Dalit (ex-untouchable) inmates are subject
to various forms of abuse, ranging from the denial of visitors and refusal
to provide medical care, to prolonged labor, sexual harassment, rape
and concealed physical and mental torture.
and penal system in its actual working obviously discriminates between
the rich and the poor.... If you are poor and have once landed in jailfor
whatever reason or no reasonthe probability of your being back
in jail off and on is fairly high, concluded Raman Nanda, who
complied a prison investigation in 1981, one of the few sources of information
available about the Indian prison population.
Most of those
who are nabbed by the police and are unable to have themselves bailed
out are the poor. Those with resources, the big criminals, the smugglers,
corrupt politicians, tax evaders are people who are rarely caught. Thus
our institutions penalise not the violators of law but the poor,
stated Nandas study.
In the 1980s, the
All India Commission for Jail Reforms (The Mulla Committee)
found that the majority of the prison population was from a rural
and agricultural background and that first offenders involved
in technical or minor violations of law accounted for a
large number of prisoners. Many inmates are imprisoned for non-payment
of fines or an inability to afford good legal representation.
Among the worst-affected
groups are women with children and the mentally ill. Female prisoners
account for 3.12 percent of the total jail population and are allowed
to keep their children until they reach the age of five. According to
available statistics, 1,400 children younger than five are accompanying
their mothers in jails.
Last year, the Pakistan-based
Dawn news site quoted Zahira, a mother of two and woman prisoner in
the Trihar prison, as saying, Our fate depends on the mood of
the wardens or medical officer. I didnt have regular check-ups
during my pregnancy, which is against the rules. Irfan (her infant son)
was not weighed at birth. There are no cribs, baby food or warm milk.
The absence of adequate
psychiatric institutions and medical services in India contributes to
the large prison population. Individuals with severe mental illnesses,
branded as non-criminal lunatics, are often imprisoned.
With many mentally vulnerable prisoners left to suffer without support
in a brutal environment, it is not surprising that there is a high rate
of suicides of prison inmates and police detainees. However, there is
also evidence that authorities term as suicides deaths that were caused
by police and jail guard abuse.
The National Human
Rights Commission (NHRC) was created as a statutory body in 1993 and
has since periodically issued directions about jail conditions. It suggested
a prison reform bill in 1996, but this has been ignored by various governments,
including those led by the Hindu-supremacist Bharatiya Janata Party
(BJP) and Congress and supported by the Left Front.
In fact, there is
evidence that the situation facing Indias prisoners is getting
worse. At the end of 2002, there were 322,357 inmates in the jails of
26 States and 6 Union Territories, although their authorised capacity
was just 219,880, meaning there was overcrowding, according to the governments
own norms, of 46.6 percent.
The maximum overcrowding
was recorded in the jails of Mizoram (442 percent), followed by Jharkhand
(260 percent), Delhi (211 percent), Haryana (165 percent), Andaman and
Nicobar (139 percent) and Chhatisgarh (115 percent). As compared to
the previous year, it was noted that jail overcrowding had increased
in the states of Delhi, Madhya Pradesh, Goa, Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh
and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
Tihar Prison, also known as the Central Jail, is said to
be the worlds largest prison facility. Although built to house
4,000 inmates, it currently holds 12,000, 80 percent of whom are awaiting
Starting with the
1991 reforms, the Indian bourgeoisie has been imposing rigorous cuts
in education, health care, social services and agricultural subsidies.
The unprecedented social devastation and growth of inequality that has
resulted from the policies of successive Indian governments have found
partial expression in the countrys growing crime rate. The police
have responded to this social crisis with frequent arbitrary round-ups
in poor areas and discrimination against socially vulnerable sections
of the working masses.
Rising number of custodial deaths and abuse
The police repression
that has accompanied the past 14 years of free-market economic reforms
has caused Indias already antiquated and overstretched prison
system to descend into an even greater state of chaos and human misery.
According to Indian Home Ministry records, deaths while in remand or
custody increased from 1,340 in 2002 to 1,462 by the end of 2003. According
to an NHRC report, a large proportion of the deaths in custody were
from natural and easily curable causes aggravated by poor prison conditions.
Tuberculosis caused many deaths, and HIV/AIDS remained a serious health
threat among prison inmates.
organisations that deal with prisoner abuse allege that deaths in police
custody, which occurred within hours or days of initial detention, often
implied violent abuse and torture. The Home Ministry reported that there
were 28,765 complaints lodged against police for April 2003 for abuse
including deaths. In May of last year in Ambedkarnagar, Uttar Pradesh,
police arrested a daily labourer and tortured him when he failed to
pay a Rs. 50,000 (US$1000) bribe. According to media reports, police
admitted the victim to the hospital under a false name after injecting
him in the rectum with petrol.
Police also threatened
to harm his family if he reported the incident. In July 2004, the NHRC
requested a report from Punjabs Inspector General of Prisons after
a man incarcerated in Amritsars Central Jail claimed the Deputy
Superintendent and other prison officials branded him on his back when
he demanded water and better treatment. Doctors found fresh scars on
his back that had been inflicted with hot iron rods. By years
end, no action had been taken.
The rape of persons
in custody is also part of the broader pattern of custodial abuse. Prisoner
charities argue that rape by police, including custodial rape, was more
common than NHRC figures indicate, since many rape incidents go unreported
due to the victims shame and fear of retribution.
A statement from
the Asian Legal Resource Centre, on custodial deaths and torture in
India, handed to the National Human Rights Commission and to the Sixty-first
Session of the UN Commission on Human Rights in Geneva, notes: Any
person, who dares to complain about police officers in India, faces
the wrath of the law enforcement agency.
Abhijnan Basu, who
was serving his prison sentence at the Presidency Jail, West Bengal,
was one such person who was not so lucky. Officers at the prison murdered
him because he dared to complain about the inhuman conditions and the
poor quality of food. Three prison wardens set him ablaze on November
India is widespread, unaccounted for and rarely prosecuted. It contributes
to the state of anarchy and lawlessness in many parts of the country.
Torture is used as a cheap and easy method of investigation and also
as a tool for oppression. In the hands of the wealthy and influential,
Indian law enforcement agencies have also strengthened links with criminal
elements. Even the judiciary in India cannot sever this nexus, between
police and criminals.
The state of Indias
penal and justice systems speaks volumes about the true nature of human
rights and social equality in a country routinely held up by the Western
media as the worlds largest democracy.