Chhattisgarh‘s jails remain among the country’s most crowded, a finding that comes amid allegations from Maoists and activists that the government is unnecessarily keeping Bastar tribals prisoner after having promised to release them. The government, for its part, has denied it ever made such a promise, and stressed any decision on release is the prerogative of courts.For every 100 prisoners it has the capacity to accommodate, Chhattisgarh actually has 256, according to the latest National Crime Records Bureau figures (till 2011). This is called occupancy rate. Chhattisgarh’s rate has gone up from 237 in 2010, then the highest for the country. Its 256 for 2011 puts it behind only Andaman & Nicobar Islands (500) and Lakshadweep (362), both of which have few prisons.
Maoists last week organised a “prisoners’ rights week” by tribals in interior villages of Bastar, accusing the government of going back on an agreement to expedite the release of their comrades and innocent villagers in exchange for Sukma collector Alex Paul Menon’s freedom nearly a year ago.
The government set up a “high-powered committee to review all cases” in which investigation and prosecution was pending. In the year since, the only release has been of Raipur-based Raja Dhruva, 22, on May 9, 2012. He was accused of violating the Excise Act.
“We never promised to release anyone. The agreement was to review pending cases,” says government spokesperson N Baijendra Kumar. “The committee has met many times, made many recommendations. These are in courts; they have to decide.”
DGP Ramniwas dismissed the Maoist allegations as propaganda and said the committee has recommended the release of over 60 undertrials and “it is for the courts to decide”. The government did refrain from opposing the bail of some top Maoist leaders whose release had been demanded. The bail pleas were, however, rejected in court.
In a state that topped Maoist-related violence in the last decade, and one with a large tribal population, most inmates lodged in Bastar jails under Maoist cases are indeed tribals.
In Jagdalpur Central Jail, of 546 prisoners accused of being Maoists or Maoist supporters, 512 are tribals, 53 of them women. This is according to the response to an RTI application by activist Swami Agnivesh. In Dantewada jail, the response said, 372 tribals are among 377 prisoners being held under such cases. In Kanker jail, tribals account for 134 out of 144.
Many such cases end in acquittal for lack of evidence. All 10 tribals accused in the Tadmetla incident, in which 76 cops had been killed in 2010, were acquitted recently. Soni Sori, accused of being a Maoist supporter, was acquitted in four of seven cases.
Activist Himanshu Kumar alleges “a systematic elimination of tribals” by booking them under false charges. Prison officials say the high tribal count is natural. “Maoists recruit their lower level members, Dalam and Sangham, from locals, mostly tribals. It’s the top Maoist leaders who are exploiting innocent tribals,” DG (Jail) Giridhari Nayak says.
The highest number of undertrials booked on Maoist-related charges are in Jagdalpur jail. How its 581 convicts (total inmates 1,638; capacity 629) are treated is the subject of another debate. The department terms it the “industrial jail” for the goods it produces; Maoists claim tribal convicts are forced to “work like cattle”.
The jail promotes weaving, carpentry, and metal and woodwork, the daily wages being Rs 15 for skilled labour and Rs 12 for unskilled. In 2011, its products were worth Rs 87 lakh. “Tihar jail with 5,000 convicts registered production of Rs 4 crore. If you consider production per convict, my jail will rank among the best in the country,” says superintendent Rajendra Gaikwad.
“It has become a sort of industrial jail. They can be absorbed in the society after their release,” says DG Nayak.
In a March 23 statement, Maoist leader Ganesh Uike said, “Jail officers make prisoners work as bonded labourers… several do not work, but their accounts get credited and the money goes to officers.” The department says Rs 75 lakh was given in 2011, half of which went to the families of their victims.
Arun Sarkar, 44, convicted of murdering his wife, is the jail accountant. “I learnt typing and computers here,” he says. Lingaram Kodapi, an accused in Essar-Maoist payoff case, too is lodged here. In letters he has written from jail, and which have surfaced, he has alleged torture by jail officials.
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