Mumbai: “Disturbed” by a report published in The Wire, the Jodhpur bench of the Rajasthan high court has directed the state government to undertake steps to ensure the complete overhaul of the state prison manual.
The Wire, on December 10, published a detailed investigative piece on the caste practices prevalent inside prisons across different states in India. These practices, as per archaic prison manuals, were followed in most states that sanction caste-based occupation in jail. While prisoners of the Brahmin caste group in most states are assigned only cooking, or supervision work, those from the ‘lower’ castes are forced to carry out menial work like manual scavenging and cleaning.
Both caste-based discrimination and manual scavenging are criminal and unconstitutional.
The Rajasthan high court was hearing two separate writ petitions filed by a Jodhpur-based prisoners’ rights lawyer, Kaluram Bhati, seeking adequate open-air prisons in Rajasthan. The petitions have also raised concern over the number of prisoners who drop out due to the dated Rajasthan Prisoners Open Air Camp Rules of 1972.
Alongside these, the court also took serious note of The Wire’s article on caste-based labour division mentioned in the Rajasthan prison manual. The court observed, referring to the published article: “We are of the firm view that no under trial prisoner can be assigned such (caste-based) duties in a prison.”
The division bench of Justice Sandeep Mehta and Justice Devendra Kachhawaha further directed the additional advocate general Farzand Ali to “apprise the court regarding the proposed steps for complete overhauling of the Prison Manual and to ensure that the prisoners are not forced to indulge in menial jobs like cleaning toilets etc. merely on the basis of their caste and also that no under trial prisoner is forced to perform such jobs in the prison”.
“Rather, considering the progressive democratic set up of our country and in order to ensure maintenance of proper hygiene in the prisons, it would be expedient in the interest of justice that the state government considers installation of mechanized/automated cleaning facilities in all the prisons in the State of Rajasthan,” the order further states.
The order has reproduced several findings by The Wire and has termed them as “striking”.
“The report also refers to the fact that the prison manuals of various states are still plagued by the archaic and derogatory caste system, which the Constitution of India pledged to eradicate,” the order states.
The case is listed for further hearing on February 4.
The Rajasthan high court has, however, wrongly mentioned The Wire’s report as a part of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI).
The article, an original work of The Wire, is one of the first in a series launched in collaboration with the Pulitzer Center, which will be looking at several issues plaguing the Indian prisons system. The published article meticulously examines prison manuals and the caste discrimination experienced by incarcerated prisoners on the ground.
Prisons manuals are a state subject and becomes a guiding force behind the functioning of prisons in every state. These manuals, borrowed from the Prison Act, 1894, have barely changed over the past decade. Rajasthan is one such state.
In the original report looks at the story of a young former prisoner who was pushed to carry out manual scavenging work inside Alwar central prison in 2016. The prisoner, barely 18 at that time, says the experience has scarred him and he has been struggling to come to terms with the indignities forced upon him. “Sab kuch jaati ke aadhar par tha (It was all based on caste),” the prisoner had told The Wire.
Similar practices, many of which are unconstitutional and caste-based, are followed in prisons of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh, Punjab, and Haryana among other states.
Disha Wadekar, a Delhi-based lawyer, had compared the prison laws with the regressive “laws of Manu”. A mythical figure, Manu is believed to be the author of the Manusmriti, which had sanctioned the degradation of humanity on the basis of caste and gender in ancient times.
Even in some states where changes have been made and the caste practice have been dropped, the practice on ground has barely changed. In Maharashtra prisons, for instance, changes have been made on paper, but that has not stopped the prison authorities from giving preferential treatment to several prisoners on the basis of their ‘higher’ caste standing.
Discrimination is done not just while assigning labour but also while placing prisoners in jail. In Palayamkottai central prison in southern Tirunelveli district of Tamil Nadu, prisoners are segregated as per their caste. This unlawful practice was raised before the Madurai bench of the Madras high court a decade ago but the state prison authorities “justified” the practice claiming that they were “helpless” and that “segregation was the only way to ensure law and order in jail”. These claims were accepted by the court and the practice has continued for over two decades.
In 2016, the Bureau of Police Research and Development (BPRD) came up with an elaborate model prison manual. The model prison manual is aligned with international standards such as the United Nations Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners (UN Bangkok Rules) and the UN Minimum Standards for Treatment of Prisoners (the Mandela Rules). Both call for the repeal of practices that discriminate on the grounds of race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or any other status.
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, propounded by the United Nations in 1977, to which India is a party, has clearly stated that: “No one shall be required to perform forced or compulsory labour.”
Acknowledging the problems in the existing prison manual of different states, the model prison manual states, “Management of kitchen or cooking of food on caste or religious basis will be totally banned in prisons.” Similarly, the model manual also bars any kind of “special treatment” to a prisoner on the basis of her caste or religion. In fact, the model prison manual lists “agitating or acting on the basis of caste or religious” as a punishable offence. But implementation of the model prison manual remains a far cry in India.