Starvation Rations, Zero Rights, No Phones: My Three Months in a Bengal Jail

On paper, the prisoners of the Midnapore Central Correctional Home have the right to a balanced diet. In practice, they get just enough food to survive. No one cares.

After 14 days in police custody, we were somewhat relieved when we were sent to jail. Thinking of sleep undisturbed by ridiculous summonses for interrogation, we disembarked from the prison van near the gate of Midnapore Central Correctional Home quite happily.

A young prison guard was counting loudly as I entered this gate for the first time. I did not know then that it was a gate to another world; a wholly different world from the one we had earlier known, inhabited by two distinct species: Human and chor (thief). For prison authorities, every prisoner is a chor. That made me one too.

But I was no thief. I had been picked up by the police along with three colleagues on November 12, 2018, when we were in the Jungle Mahal belt of West Bengal doing a survey on the cases lodged against villagers during the Lalgarh Movement of 2009. The four of us had been booked on charges that fell under IPC sections related to war and conspiracy against the state – basically, sedition – and after 14 days of police custody, we were now at the Midnapore Central Correctional Home.

‘My friends and I were ‘Maobadi’ cases’. Representative image. Photo: Kim Daram/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

As we stood in line after entering the gate, our bodies and belongings were searched by the guards. My friends and I were ‘Maobadi’ cases (with a history of Maoist activity in this region, any case related to sedition is referred to as a ‘Maobadi’ case) and urban sophisticates compared with our fellow prisoners, so we were spared the body search that the other inmates had to accept: ‘searches’ with touches tantamount to harassment.

When we finally entered the prison, we faced a minor hassle with the discipline officer. He was eager to teach me a lesson about ‘nationalism’ via quotes from the country’s ‘most vocal TV anchor’ (you know who). Two of my colleagues in our case were taken to the medical ward due to ill health. The third of our quartet and I were taken to the cells. There we found we were really not alone. A man in his sixties was waiting for us in the adjacent cell.

This was Patit Paban Halder, aka Patit da, a man who had been imprisoned for having the courage to stand against the establishment. In 2019, after 14 years of imprisonment, the Calcutta high court cleared him of all charges. A few months later, he died.

But at the time, as I entered my cell with my dinner in hand (we had arrived at the prison at 8 pm), he warned me: “Ruti’r dhar ta phele dio khabar age (‘Tear off the edges of the chapatti and throw them away before you eat’).” These were wise words: long term prisoners knew that the edges of the prison rotis were never fully cooked and, if eaten, would cause stomach problems.

By the second day of my imprisonment, I had learned that the inmates of Midnapore Central Correctional Home referred to the prison as “Punishment Jail”. You will soon see why.

Wrongs, not rights

On the morning of the second day of our imprisonment, we were summoned for a mandatory medical check-up. The doctor, who never forgot to use a derogatory word in every second sentence, ordered us to remove our pants and show him our private parts so he could check for hydrocele (inflammation of the scrotum). This did not take place in a private room; it happened in front of swarms of people. After a heated argument during which I flaunted my knowledge of medical science, I finally convinced him to spare us this horror. Then, as we returned to our cell compound, we met the only inmate with the status of a political prisoner: Dhritiranjan Mahato, a man from Jungle Mahal, who had been arrested in 2010 in connection with the Silda EFR camp attack case. At the time of his arrest, he had been 23. In prison, to pass the time, he wandered the corridors and solved crossword puzzles published in newspapers.

Dhriti came from a family of modest means. Since there was no phone booth in the Midnapore Central Correctional Home – though all other central jails have them – this meant that Dhriti could not keep in touch with his family as much as he would have liked to. They could not travel to meet him every week and it took much time to get a letter through the scrutiny of the prison’s annoyingly inactive welfare officer – the person appointed to help prisoners through their problems.

Patit da told me he was never allowed parole, even though it is a legal right of convicted prisoners. When we submitted an application for access to the library and for pens and paper, it took nearly one and a half weeks to be cleared. When we asked why there was no phone booth, we were told that setting one up would be unprofitable, since most of the inmates of the prison are Adivasis and it was assumed that their relatives will not have phones.

Representative image. Photo: Raffaella/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

But this was a violation of the prisoners’ right to communicate with their families. Each week, a prisoner would be permitted about 10 to 20 minutes for an interview with his family. (My own interactions with family members were invariably curtailed, thanks to unnecessary interruptions from the Intelligence Bureau officer.) Since most of the prisoners’ families could not visit them every week, a phone booth was necessary to maintain communication. But the superintendent either felt otherwise, or just did not believe that the issue of communication was important when it came to chors.

For lunch, we were served rice, dal and a sabzi with minimal use of oil or spices. According to the schedule, we were to get egg, fish, and meat for dinner on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, but during my three months at ‘Punishment Jail’, before I was transferred to another prison, I saw the egg only once. Whenever we asked the authorities about the eggs we were entitled to, we received the same answer: the suppliers did not deliver. When we told them it was their duty to provide the prisoners with the food they were entitled to no matter what the problem, there was never an answer.

According to the prison manual, available on the website of the West Bengal correctional services department, prisoners have the right to 75 grams of fish per week. We believed we never got more than 30 grams; in fact, we often joked that the jail authorities used safety razors to cut the fish into pieces.

What we were provided with in the name of meat could have easily been used as rubber bullets. Since I was to be at ‘Punishment Jail’ for just three months, I never touched the meat. But the other inmates had no option but to eat whatever was served: they got barely enough nutrition to survive.

We also had the right to 25 grams of soya beans a week. We never got it. According to the other prisoners, they hadn’t had soya beans for a long time.

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So though the prison diet has been formulated by the government, what the prisoners actually got was completely different. The authorities at the Midnapore Central Correctional Home continuously denied the prisoners their minimal right of nutrition with impunity, because complaints were either not publicly voiced or, if they did reach the ears of the higher authorities, they were simply ignored because there is no genuinely neutral observer of prisons.

Abandon hope, all who enter here

The health infrastructure in the Midnapore Central Correctional Home was practically non-existent. Though there is a hospital with three doctors, there was no infrastructure to deal with even mild complications. Patit da, a spondylitis patient, was denied a cot for a long time, despite repeated applications. He finally got a cot when a deputy inspector general came for inspection, only to be transferred to another prison where he had to fight again to get another.

Midnapore Central Correctional Home. Photo: www. wbcorrectionalservices.gov.in

Now I must tell you about Mongol da, a soft-spoken septuagenarian Adivasi man on death row. Mongol da – and six of his fellow villagers – were charged with murdering a woman whom they had declared a witch. The crime was heinous, of that there can be no doubt. But it is not hard to guess that he and his co-conspirators received the death sentence so easily because of their Adivasi identity. It seemed to me that instead of accepting that it has failed to educate people, the administration is good at blaming soft targets to avoid responsibility. Since I met him, I have frequently asked myself: “Does the death penalty that people like Mongol da get solve systemic errors?”

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We were released within three months of imprisonment, but everybody is not that lucky. People like Patit da had to survive this ordeal for 14 years; scores of others have been spending years in prison and we don’t even know their names. A prisoner has no right to vote, so who cares about her or him? Prisoners die in jail because of negligence at all levels. But somehow, there seem to be no consequences. And prisons like the Midnapore Central Correctional Home, where prisoners are completely isolated from the outside world due to the lack of means of communication, are more vulnerable than the rest, because nothing of what happens within its walls reaches the world beyond.

Most of the prisoners of the Midnapore Central Correctional Home are from humble backgrounds. The majority are Adivasis. Mostly uneducated and unknowing of the rights they have been given by the constitution, they cannot fight the authorities with any hope of winning.

Almost two years have passed since I stepped out of the gates of the Midnapore Central Correctional Home. Patit da is no more. Dhriti is still waiting for justice. I don’t know if we will meet ever again in the free world. I don’t know what happened to Mongol da and the hundreds of others who could have led a reformed life if they were given a fair chance.

But prisoners don’t vote. So who cares?

Shantiniketan-based Arka Deep has been associated with leftwing student politics since 2013-14.