Activists Seek Government Intervention in Prisoner’s Hunger Strike

An impression of the solitary confinement cell in Arthur Road Jail where Zabiuddin Ansari is on hunger strike for 38 days. Sketch made by Vernon Gonsalves who was himself in the cell for a while.

An impression of the solitary confinement cell in Arthur Road Jail where Zabiuddin Ansari is on hunger strike for 38 days. Sketch made by Arun Ferreira.

New Delhi: A group of human rights activists, academics and lawyers has written to the Chief Minister and Governor of Maharashtra seeking their urgent intervention in the ongoing hunger strike by Zabiuddin Ansari – also alleged to be Abu Jundal – which has now entered its 38th day. Ansari is an accused in the Aurangabad Arms haul case as well as in the terrorist attack in Mumbai in November 2008. He has been refusing food to protest his solitary confinement at the Arthur Road Jail in Mumbai.

The petition says that as Ansari is in imminent danger of collapsing. Among the signatories are Prof. Upendra Baxi, filmmaker Anand Patwardhan, Ram Puniyani and organisations such as People’s Union of Civil Liberties, Alternative Law Forum and People’s Union of Democratic Rights.

Underlining what they said was the illegality and unconstitutional nature of Ansari’s incarceration, the signatories have reminded the CM and the Governor that in the Shatrughan Chauhan v. UOI [(2014) 3 SCC 1] case, the Supreme Court had stated that “despite enduring pronouncement on judicial side, the actual implementation of the provisions is far from reality. We take this occasion to urge to the jail authorities to comprehend and implement the actual intent of the verdict in Sunil Batra (supra).”

The special barrack Ansari has been held in was built to house Ajmal Kasab and since his execution, Ansari has been its sole resident.Arun Ferreira, who was accused and jailed for six years on charges of being a Naxalite, has drawn his impressions of the cell According to the petition, the cell is lodged in the middle of a three-storied building of reinforced concrete, covered on the outside by layers of metals and a glass sheath, which has a small gate – the only point of entry and exit. Once inside the gate, it is impossible to determine whether it is night or day, rain or sunshine outside. The inner walls of the cells – three on each floor – are covered with a copper sheet and a high voltage bulb burns day and night with hardly a moment’s break.

“The switch to the electric bulb is outside his cell, depriving him of even the control of light in his room. The only human contact that Ansari has had for the past 33 months or so have been the guards who push the food in through the door. As a last and desperate resort, Abu Jundal has undertaken this hunger strike.”

Correspondence between prison authorities, the ATS and sessions court, obtained through RTI enquiries, reveals that the apparent reason for isolating him and depriving him of his rights as a prisoner, are a concern for his security and safety.

Letters by Swati Sathe (Additional DGP Prisons) and Amitesh Kumar (ATS) advise the Arthur Road Jail authorities to ensure that Jundal does not come into contact with terrorists and gangsters lodged in the Arthur Road jail. Any relief from the oppressive isolation during court appearances has also been ruled out in this case as the Home Department, Govt of Maharashtra passed a resolution (MIS0913/CR404/13/PRS-3) exempting him from personal appearance in the court where his trial is on.  This was in response to an application filed by the Commissioner of Police Mumbai, Satyapal Singh, seeking permission for Jundal’s court hearings through video conferencing. The Mumbai police claimed that there could be a bid to assassinate Jundal.

The Supreme Court ruling on solitary confinement notes that safety and security are spurious grounds to isolate prisoners. In Sunil Batra vs. Delhi Administration and Ors. etc. (1978) 4 SCC 494, the Supreme Court held: It would be extraordinary that a far worse solitary confinement, masked as safe custody, sans maximum, sans intermission, sans judicial oversight or natural justice, would be sanctioned.”

Note: This story has been edited to correct the identity of the former prisoner who sktchhed a likeness of the prison cell. He is Arun Ferreira and not Vernon Gonsalves as mentioned earlier.