Mumbai: On October 7, a 31-year-old convicted prisoner was found hanging inside a prison cell. The deceased convict, Asghar Ali Mansoori, who was in prison for a little over 14-years in connection with a murder case, had allegedly strung together several elastic straps found in masks and used it to hang himself to the prison ceiling. Mansoori, who was allegedly harassed by many members of the jail staff, had anticipated that the officials would hush up the real cause of his death. So, he wrapped a two-page detailed suicide-note in a polythene bag and swallowed it. The note was found in his abdomen at the time of post mortem.
Mansoori’s suicide note names five prison officials, police inspector Manisha Raut of the Nashik Road police station confirmed to The Wire. “The note elaborately mentions the extent of harassment he was subjected to while in jail. He has mentioned the names of one Baviskar, Chavan, Sarpade, Gite, and Karkar. We have informed the family about the letter,” Raut said. When asked if the police have filed an FIR, since a suicide note was recovered from Mansoori, Raut said the police have asked the family to come forward to file a complaint. “The letter is written in Marathi. But the family has claimed that he did not know how to read and write, so we are still inquiring into it,” Raut claimed.
Mansoori’s family was informed about his death, but by the time the family got to Nashik, Mansoori’s body was sent for post mortem. “In the past six months, we had not been able to meet him but were in touch with him on a video call. He was a jovial person and did not speak of any stress to us,” his sister Rubina told The Wire. But a fortnight before his death, Rubina says, Mansoori had told a passing remark that has now taken greater significance. “He said he lost interest in life. I scolded him and he said he was joking. I did not think about it much, but two weeks later, he was gone,” she added.
Rubina is among the other family members who travelled to Nashik after Mansoori’s death. She says at the Nashik Road police station, PI Raut had shown her the letter and read out “important parts”. “Since the letter was in Marathi, I could not read it. But Raut madam mentioned a few names,” Rubina said. She says she is not surprised that the letter was found in Marathi, saying that Mansoori would have taken the help of other prisoners in drafting the letter. “What surprises me is that someone helped him draft a suicide letter but did not try to stop him from dying,” she adds.
According to the authorities, on October 7, when the jail officials visited his cell around 5:45 am for a roll call, he was fine. But at 6 am, when the prisoners were called out for their daily activities, Mansoori was not present. “Later, we found him hanging,” an official shared, on the condition of anonymity.
The jail source also mentioned that the cloth strap that Mansoori used to hang himself was meticulously stitched together. “He had access to the tailoring department. He must have kept this ready over some time,” the source added.
According to the source, soon after Mansoori was declared dead and an Accidental Death Report (ADR) was registered with the Nashik Road Police station, few cops had visited the jail. However, he claims, those prisoners who were lodged at neighbouring cells and were close to Mansoori were not allowed to give their statements. “Instead, the jail officials propped up their own people and made them give false statements. Since a senior jailor’s name has cropped up in this case, prison officials are trying every bit to cover this up,” he added.
According to prison sources, Mansoori who was earlier lodged in a common circle, was shunned into a separate cell as “punishment”. “He had been in a separate cell for close to six months. Earlier three persons were lodged together in the cell but a week ago, Mansoori was moved alone in a cell which did not have even a ceiling fan,” a prison source shared with The Wire. On October 6, during the usual prison round, when jail officials, including senior jailor Ashok Karkar came to the separate cell section, Mansoori pleaded to him, the source says. “He asked to be moved back to the circle and said he was wrongly punished. Karkar abused him publicly,” the source said. The Wire tried to get in touch with Karkar but he could not be reached. The article will be updated once he responds.
Jail officials, according to sources, have tried to hush up the case claiming Mansoori was mentally unstable. “This would be a lie. Asghar was a jail warder for years. Only a week ago, Baviskar took away the responsibility from him. If he was mentally unstable, the department would not give him such responsibility. More so, it was their duty to make psychiatric treatment available for him, in case he was unwell. That did not happen in Asghar’s case.”
Mansoori, who was in the Nashik prison for several years, was convicted for killing a man. Mansoori’s sister Rubina says he was still a minor when he committed the murder. “When the police took our father into custody, Asghar turned himself in. He accepted his crime and stayed in jail for 14 years. We were hoping that because of his good behaviour, he would soon be released and integrated with the family,” Rubina says.
Co-prisoners corroborate Mansoori’s claims
While the family did not know about the reasons for Mansoori’s death, his co-prisoners have corroborated the allegations he has levelled in his letter. The Wire is in possession of at least six letters written by six convicted prisoners testifying in support of Mansoori. One of them says, “Asghar was a jovial and helpful person. Subedar Baviskar was harassing him for a long time. Bavsikar would smuggle ganja and a cell phone into the jail, and he suspected that Asghar was informing the higher officials. So, he had ensured Asghar was separated from the other prisoners and shifted from a circle to separate cell.”
Another prisoner too narrates the same story, adding that Baviskar would favour those prisoners who were willing to dance to his tune and that others would be punished. “Baviskar had, on several occasions, abused Asghar publicly and also said that he would implicate him in a drug case,” the prisoner writes.
All six prisoners have stated that they want to depose under section 164 of the IPC before a magistrate. They have also expressed a threat to their own life. One prisoner writes, “Once they find out that I have written a letter, they (accused officials) will have me killed or ask other prisoners to attack me.” These six prisoners have sent their letters to the chief justice of the Bombay high court, the inspector general of prisons, the principal judge of the Nashik district court and others. Even then, the police have not filed an FIR.
Each of these prisoners have sought action against the jail officials mentioned in Mansoori’s suicide note. They have demanded an FIR be registered against them under section 306 of IPC, for abetting suicide.
Since the prisoners feared that no action would be initiated despite complaining to the higher authorities, they had secretly sent letters with a prisoner who was recently released from jail. The recently released person then approached the laywer Wahid Shaikh, who has since been helping Mansoori’s family in fighting the case. Shaikh is a prison-rights activist and also an ex-prisoner who was incarcerated for over nine years in the 2006 Mumbai serial train blast case and was eventually acquitted.
Shaikh told The Wire that it is impossible to know the reasons behind a prisoner taking a sudden decision to die by suicide. “Asghar knew it well that even in his death, he would not get justice. He knew if he were to leave a note next to him, the jail officials would destroy it. He was compelled to swallow it before ending his life. Despite the opacity around the incarceration system, it is a big deal that in this case, a suicide note has been recovered. Now it is on the state to ensure that the police get to the bottom of the case and his family gets justice.”
Harassment, assault of prisoners is not new
This is not the first time that prison officials have come under the spotlight for harassing or assaulting prisoners in their custody. In June 2017, a woman prisoner, Manjula Shetye, was assaulted brutally by five prison staffers, including the jailor at Byculla women’s prison. Shetye’s death had triggered protests by other women incarcerated in the jail against the staff, attracting widespread media attention and leading to a public outcry, a rarity in such cases. The incident highlighted the inhumane conditions that exist behind the high walls of prisons.
Deaths are also common in prisons. A total of 1,775 incarcerated persons died in prisons in just 2019. The highest number of deaths were recorded in 2018, when 1,845 persons died in judicial custody. While the cause of most deaths is recorded as illness, many prisoners die by suicide too. Among the 165 unnatural causes of deaths in prisons in 2019, 116 were death by suicide, followed by 20 accidental deaths, murder by inmates (10), deaths due to negligence and excess by jail personnel (2), and other reasons (15).
Besides those deaths that are explicitly categorised as murder or caused due to negligence and excess by jail personnel, no other deaths are inquired into. In 1993, within weeks of its constitution, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) issued its first-ever guidelines relating to custodial deaths and rapes. District magistrates and police superintendents were directed to submit a preliminary report on the incident within 24 hours of its occurrence. These reports, in most cases, do not capture the details or reasons that caused a prisoner’s death. In Mansoori’s case, prison officials claim a report was sent but did not divulge any details.
The judicial magistrate inquiry, which is a bare-minimum prerequisite prescribed under Section 176 (1A) of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC) is yet to be initiated in the case. The director general (prisons) Surendra Pandey declined to comment on the case and the additional director general (prisons) Sunil Ramanand told The Wire that the department is following due process in the case. “Under section 174 of the CrPC, the local police should take up an inquiry into cases of suspicious deaths. The same procedure is being followed in this case,” Ramanand said.
If you know someone – friend or family member – at risk of suicide, please reach out to them. The Suicide Prevention India Foundation maintains a list of telephone numbers (www.spif.in/seek-help/) they can call to speak in confidence. You could also refer them to the nearest hospital.