The normalisation of racist violence in our prisons is worrying.
The June 29 status report filed by the Tihar jail superintendent in the Delhi High Court in response to allegations of “large-scale violence” made by the counsel of an inmate belonging to the Pinjra Tod group is significant on several counts. The counsel had stated that a complete lockdown had been imposed and that phone facilities were disallowed since June 16. The Delhi government’s standing counsel vehemently denied the allegation and argued that the suspension of phone calls and video conferencing happened on account of a connectivity problem and not because, as the counsel stated, of violence perpetrated by jail staff in which reportedly some “inmates’ limbs were allegedly broken”.
The status report has, instead, acknowledged that a violent incident did happen in Ward No 9, that the alarm bell was sounded at 8.30 am, that, despite use of minimum force, several persons were injured, including jail staff and, that the injured had been given necessary medical treatment. The Court was reportedly also informed that the suspended telephone facilities had been resumed.
While admitting to the incident and to the role of the jail personnel, the status report blames 15-20 foreign inmates as they refused to be counselled and “forced their way out of the ward and damaged the locks of the ward and chakkar”. The inmates insisted that their cases be considered for interim bail by the High-Powered Committee set up under the Supreme Court’s instructions in the wake of COVID-19, even while it was known that the HPC had stated that foreign under-trial prisoners would not be considered eligible for interim bail. Hence, the status report conveniently shields itself from the blame of using force by drawing attention to the unreasonable behaviour of the foreign inmates who failed to understand the finality of the rules framed by the HPC. These foreign inmates had reportedly believed that their petition would be heeded because they had urged the committee that they too were “humans and [were] at risk of contracting COVID”.
Two related issues converge via this “untoward incident” and both remain invisible as there is no public knowledge as to what happens behind high walls. One, jail violence is not exceptional, as is evident in the aftermath of the murder of inmate Manjula Shetye in Mumbai’s Byculla women’s jail in 2017. The incident of brutal beating and torture preceding the murder of Shetye triggered riots and prompted a visit by women parliamentarians who urged the need for jail reforms and stated that women’s jails should have their own manual. Shetye’s murder was the tip of the iceberg as several former inmates alleged instances of everyday forms of prison violence that are structural and invisible. Notably, in the present instance, the Tihar status report has not led to any inquiry into the incident and the use of force by jail staff. The admission of the “untoward incident” happened only because it was witnessed by another inmate who had also been intimidated by the jail staff.
The other, an equally endemic matter, is that of discrimination against foreign inmates. As per the records last updated on February 29, there are roughly 70 foreign inmates in Tihar. Apart from South Asians, mainly from Bangladesh and Nepal, there are several from Africa, with Nigerians topping the list. For all these women, however unpleasant or inhospitable it may be, Tihar jail serves as their home, and they have strung together in comradeship to tide over their everyday difficulties. However, the sisterhood between African women and other prisoners, especially Indians, rarely translates into a larger solidarity, as the jail as an institution is embedded in our culture. Not surprisingly, racism thrives in Tihar, the Africans are commonly referred to as habshis and looked down upon as a group within the larger jail community. Lodged separately, there is no intermingling between prisoners except during the open hours.
There are similar disconcerting reports about 12 women foreign nationals (of a total of 129 from Asia, Africa and other European countries) who participated in the Tablighi Jamaat congregation in March and are currently detained in Puzhal central prison in Tamil Nadu. The silence on racism within jail complexes is disturbing. The June 16 raises questions about normalisation of racist violence within penal institutions. It therefore falls on us to demand that our institutions and media should make known all facts related to such incidents of violence. For Article 21 of the Indian Constitution guarantees the right to life to all, including foreign nationals lodged in jails.