Since January 26, close to 500 prisoners in the jails of Jharkhand, Nagpur and Odisha have been on hunger strikes to highlight gaps in India’s criminal justice system
On Monday, 169 prisoners in Maharashtra’s Nagpur Central Jail awaiting trial completed the fifth day of their indefinite hunger strike. More than 200 fellow inmates joined them in a rotating chain strike. They are demanding their right to bail, to speedy trials and to be produced physically in court for their trials.
In Jharkhand’s Hazaribagh Jail, a hunger strike involving more than 100 prisoners also entered its fifth day. Since it started on January 30, this protest has triggered a wave of similar protests across 26 prisons in the state. Inmates here want the state authorities to review the sentences of all convicts who have completed 14 years of life imprisonment and could be eligible for release.
These mass protests came on the heels of a hunger strike in Odisha’s Berhampur Circle Jail, started by ten political prisoners on January 26. It was called off on January 30 after the undertrials were assured that their demands for speedy trials and physical appearances in court would be met in a month.
These strikes, although seemingly unrelated, point to several gaps in India’s criminal justice system. The most glaring, perhaps, is that a growing number of undertrials – political prisoners in particular – are not being brought to court to participate in person in their own trials. After being accused of crimes and taken into custody, prisoners can sometimes wait for years before they are actually tried. At the end of this, they could be declared innocent, just like Mumbai activist Arun Ferreira was last week, though he wasted nearly five years of his life behind bars. He is now planning to seek damages from Maharashtra state.
“Jail officials cite security concerns for not producing political prisoners in court,” said Narendra Mohanty, convener of the non-profit Campaign Against Fabricated Cases in Odisha. “These trials often go on for years, with only the lawyer going to court.”
Nearly all the inmates who went on hunger strike in Berhampur, says Mohanty, had been booked under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, applied to those who the state considers terrorists, on the suspicion that they have links with Maoists.
The 169 undertrials in Nagpur Jail, also arrested for alleged links with Maoists, claim they are being allowed to attend trials through video conferencing, but not physically. In an open letter appealing for support from those outside jail, the prisoners have written: “The move towards camera trials distances these prisoners further from their lawyers, the court, their ability to present their own case. It will only continue their sequestration in prisons.”
The video conferences often become just a token for marking the prisoner’s attendance in a trial session. “The internet in many district courts is very bad, so the video camera often does not work, and the prisoner is left out of the trial,” said lawyer Jagdish Meshram, who is representing 18 political prisoners in Nagpur Jail.
Being denied bail is another growing problem for undertrials in this prison. “The Supreme Court has indicated a number of times that bail should be the rule, and jail the exception, for undertrials,” said Surender Gadling, another lawyer for political prisoners in Nagpur Jail. However, bail is increasingly being denied to prisoners, who remain in prison for years while their trials proceed at glacial pace.
This seems to be the case across India. A report released by the non-profit National Social Watch in December 2013 showed that there are more than 300,000 undertrial prisoners in Indian jails. They constitute nearly three-fourths of the country’s total prison population.
“Typically after a case has been chargesheeted, a person can ask the courts for bail,” said Susan Abraham, lawyer and member of the Committee for the Protection of Democratic Rights. “Courts today admit that they have a huge backlog of cases and that jails are overcrowded. So why should undertrials be kept behind bars for years before being proved guilty?”
In Jharkhand, it is not just undertrials who are being held in custody for longer than necessary. The state has approximately 135 inmates who have already completed the 14 years of their life sentence. At this point, their sentences are legally eligible for review by a State Sentence Review Board, which is supposed to consider the convict’s conduct and other factors to determine whether the prisoner can be released.
Jharkhand, which has been under President’s rule intermittently since 2009, has not constituted a review board for the past two years, and several convicts have spent close to 20 years in prison without their life sentences being reviewed. “We have sent a proposal to the chief minister to convene a review board, but we have had no response yet,” said Shailendra Bhushan, inspector general (jails) in Jharkhand. “But the board is likely to be convened in about ten days. Meanwhile, we are trying to convince striking prisoners to eat.”