Plans of a Swanky Prison Cell for Vijay Mallya Violate Equality Before Law

Inhuman conditions in Indian prisons is a real problem, but creating small islands of human rights for affluent individuals while other prisoners languish is anomalous in nature and against the principle of justice.

Mumbai’s Arthur Road jail plans to build new cells in a bid to facilitate millionaire expat Vijay Mallya’s stay in prison under ‘humane conditions’. The liquor tycoon is wanted in India for alleged money laundering charges. Mallya had complained to a London court about ‘inhuman conditions’ of Indian prisons. The court asked Indian authorities to submit video footage of the Arthur Road jail cell in which Mallya would be kept post-extradition. According to media reports, the prison officials have claimed that they will make few cells which will meet international standards of human rights. The new cells will be constructed within six months. Other wanted expats who have sited similar grounds for not returning to India might also be kept in these newly constructed cells.

Inhuman conditions in 1382 prisons

Inhuman conditions in prison is a very serious problem in India, something even former chief justice of India R.C. Lahoti wrote about. The Supreme Court, in a suo motu petition (Re-inhuman Conditions In 1382 Prisons), decided to address the problem. Presently a bench comprising justice Madan Lokur and justice Deepak Gupta, is hearing the matter and passing inter-alia orders. The case is being heard since 2014. The apex court had long ordered the states to come up with a plan of action to decrease prison overcrowding. But hardly any state came up with a plan. Finally, suo motu writs started under the chief justice bench in all the high courts of the country to tackle endemic problems such as prison overcrowding and custodial deaths. The Bombay high court too passed orders regarding improvement of prison conditions.

The Maharashtra prison department, instead of complying with the existing court orders and implementing them across the state, suddenly chooses to make an exception. By creating a handful of cells in Arthur Road jail which will have ‘humane conditions’ for a certain individual of privilege, the Maharashtra prison is breaching the constitutional provision of equality before law. Arthur Road jail is an overcrowded prison, housing more than 2000 prisoners who suffer in inhumane living conditions. To create a small bubble of human rights for an affluent individual, that too under the pressure of a foreign court is nothing but a watershed moment in the history of Indian prisons.

Arthur Road jail in Mumbai. Credit: PTI/ Mitesh Bhuvad

Privileges enjoyed by the imprisoned Bahubalis in Bihar

It may be argued here that there is nothing new in creating special prison structures for the rich and influential. The stories of imprisoned “bahubalis”, or king makers of Bihar are not unknown. Bahubalis are men who essentially have serious criminal antecedent before joining politics. They exert immense political clout in the state. Even while imprisoned, they are alleged to enjoy political patronage.

While inspecting Bihar prisons, I have personally met and spoken to some imprisoned bahubalis such as Sahabuddin, Anand Mohan Singh, Anath Singh. They were all given special accommodation inside the prison. While the Bihar prison manual provides for some special treatment for imprisoned MPs and MLAs, the department definitely went overboard.

Anand Mohan Singh was serving a life sentence with rigorous imprisonment inside Saharsa District Jail in 2015. He was kept in the Naxal ward, which was built in the early 1980s to house surrendered Naxalites. As surrendered Naxalites were considered political prisoners, the ward had a separate library. But Singh had turned the entire ward into a solo accommodation, with a private library, kitchen and a sitting room where he met visitors. He had a gazebo and a fountain set up by the lawn. The Naxal ward had turned into a swanky private bungalow facing a sprawling manicured garden. While other prisoners remained huddled inside filthy overcrowded wards, the man flaunted his kitchen and library to me. He offered me snacks made by his personal cook, who was also a prisoner. There were also rumours that his wife Lovely Anand (another well-known politician) would also visit him frequently.

In 2015, Sahabuddin was lodged in Siwan district jail. It was a small, dilapidated and overcrowded district prison, but Sahabuddin had an entire three-storey ward to himself. He had a kitchen and gym for himself. He had a store room where he would keep fancy running shoes and gym gear. He had regular visitors and was allowed food from outside. He had made imprisonment look like a symbolic affair. Prison was just another address, where he was available at all times for his followers. I was told that there was political tension due to the upcoming state elections, so he was practicing self-restraint as his wife was contesting elections, but otherwise enjoyed a free run. A special court was set up inside the jail because taking him to court proved a headache for the administration. Thousands of followers marched to the district court during every hearing.

Anant Singh was arrested only a month before I met him in Beur Central Jail. His arrest had come as a shock to him, as his political patron had suddenly abandoned him. This fall out was the result of a freshly formed election alliance between the RJD and JDU. Ananth Singh, who was famed for travelling across Patna in a horse driven chariot, was lodged in a huge room (cell) inside the prison. He didn’t have a ward to himself yet. When I met him, he spoke elaborately about being allowed to fight elections as an independent candidate and asked for permission to get milk and food from his home regularly. Other than a gas oven and a wooden bed, he had no TV or AC in his room. He had only those facilities which were permissible under the strict prison rules.

Anand Mohan Singh, Shahabuddin, Anant Singh. Credit: PTI Illustration: The Wire

Turning a blind and active participation

Even if the imprisoned bahubalis in Bihar were given fancy accommodation, it was not at the expense of public exchequer. The Bihar prison department definitely broke the rule by making an exception. But the administration was still playing a passive role in these aberrations. An element of secrecy and shame is involved in discriminating against other prisoners by turning a blind eye to the special facilities that high profile inmates were enjoying. The Maharashtra prison administration is actively participating in perpetration of discrimination against ordinary prisoners by constructing special cells only for ‘high profile’ prisoners.

The Maharashtra prison department is setting an aberrant precedent by normalising discrimination. The prisoner is not a non-citizen and rights of a citizen do not stand eclipsed while in prison. Every citizen has the right to equality before law. Prison is a state subject, a public institution at large and therefore cannot practice discrimination. This decision of creating small islands of human rights for affluent individuals while other prisoners languish in the same prison, is anomalous in nature and against the principle of justice.

Inhuman prison conditions is a compelling reality. There is a long standing movement demanding humane living conditions for prisoners. A prison structure which will comply with international standards of prisoner rights should be a welcome effort. But to build it specifically to house an affluent expat is deeply problematic. If Mallya is extradited, it might help the government score some political points during an election year, but this extravaganza is unnecessary. There could be several alternatives to gain his custody, rather than creating a handful of special cells. The prison department should instead utilise this budget to improve overall conditions inside Arthur Road.

The problem can only be addressed through systemic reforms and policy changes regarding matters of bail, speedy trial and remission, not through cosmetic changes by building a dozen swanky cells. It is important to look into alternative and progressive prison systems such as an open prisons system.

Smita Chakraburtty is an independent researcher of prison related issues.