Bhopal: While the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has sought action against Bhopal jail staff for subjecting 21 prisoners to torture, the challenge of getting the Madhya Pradesh government’s arms to implement such action remains. Local media also seems to have become the government’s extended limb in this matter.
Advocate Pervez Alam, who is fighting cases on behalf of six of these undertrials, says the Supreme Court is the only forum left where he might get justice for his clients, a majority of whom are alleged members of the Student Islamic Movement of India (SIMI).
“The Madhya Pradesh government, particularly chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan, has a visceral contempt for the torture victims, whom he calls dreaded terrorists although none of them is facing charges for any terror acts or sedition,” Alam told The Wire.
“I have absolutely no illusion that the state government will even look at the report, much less act on it.”
Social activist Madhuri Krishnaswami, whose initiative was crucial in bringing about the NHRC report, however, says “We cannot give up the fight for the tortured prisoners just because the state government is insensitive to their plight.”
Talking to The Wire, Krishnaswami said the prisoners could have gone insane or even died due to the persistent torture within the four walls of the prison, without the outside world ever knowing about them, had human rights groups not intervened to bring the jail staff’s barbarity to light. “Now that the NHRC’s scathing indictment of the jail staff is public, the state government must be feeling pressure to act.” She, however, is deeply disappointed by the local media’s negative role, saying that unless the press takes up such matters proactively, it is not possible to arouse awareness in civil society about such atrocities.
“The NHRC report was sent to the state government in October, and the fact that no action was taken in this regard indicates its complicity in the matter,” she said.
Krishnaswami, as a representative of the People’s Union of Civil Liberties, presented the report before the media on March 30 in Bhopal. Others who addressed the press meet included representatives of the All India Forum for Right to Education and All India Democratic Women’s Association, along with concerned citizens.
The social activist says such shocking treatment of prisoners, especially undertrials, is not only illegal but also unconstitutional and in violation of Supreme Court guidelines.
Krishnaswami expressed dismay over the NHRC not taking any action in this regard. “The report has been languishing before the commission for the last nine months,” she pointed out.
Advocate Syed Sajid Ali said undertrials cannot be kept in solitary confinement under any circumstances.
Alam says he last met his clients four years ago, when they had come to court for a hearing. Advocate Zeenat Anwar, who has highest number of cases involving these undertrials at 15, has never met her clients.
According to Alam, when they tried to meet their clients, jail authorities wanted them to identify themselves as relatives of the undertrials. “The prison officials wanted me to sign a form identifying myself as their relative. I wanted to strike down ‘relative’ and replace it with ‘clients’, but they did not let me do so and misbehaved with me,” said Alam.
He filed a complaint against the jail officials at Gandhinagar police station and also approached the chief judicial magistrate’s (CJM’s) court in Bhopal, seeking direction to meet his clients.
The CJM ordered the jail officials in November 2016 to allow the counsel to meet his clients for 20 minutes. But the Madhya Pradesh government challenged this through a revision petition in the sessions court, arguing that it was in violation of the jail manual.
Additional District Judge Ramkumar Choube struck down the government’s plea, observing that advocates cannot be stopped from meeting their clients as per the jail manual. The court also removed the time limit of 20 minutes.
“But all this went in vain as the jail authorities did not enable us to meet the clients. When I went to the jail, the jailer misbehaved with me,” alleges Alam.
Advocate Sajid says that the “jail officials want us to meet our clients through glass and communicate with a phone which we cannot do because we don’t know who else is listening to our conversation through an additional connection”.
Bhopal jail superintendent Dinesh Nargava denied the lawyers’ allegation, saying that all undertrials are allowed to meet lawyers in a particular room, but the SIMI men wanted meetings in a separate room, which was not permitted.
A long wait
Forced to live a life that some may call worse than death in the fortified Bhopal central jail, the alleged SIMI operatives are caught in a hopeless battle against the combined might of a communal state government, the jail staff, a hostile local media and a largely indifferent society. Tortured and traumatised, the prisoners have been desperately awaiting court verdicts for various criminal charges against them for years, ranging from five to ten, without knowledge of their cases’ progress or permission to meet their lawyers.
After all these years of waiting, only two of them have been convicted. Abu Faisal has been sentenced to life imprisonment twice – the first time last year for the murder of a police constable, and again on March 31 this year on the charge of robbing jewellery and cash from a Bhopal branch of Mannapuram finance limited in August 2010. Another accused, Iqrar Sheikh, also got life imprisonment in the robbery case from an National Investigative Agency court in Bhopal. The other 19 are undertrials who were shifted to the Bhopal jail from various parts of Madhya Pradesh.
The jail staff would initially call them names, abuse them as ‘anti-nationals’ or ‘terrorists’ and even hurl communal slurs at them. However, the undertrials were spared physical assaults. Although offended, they say they gradually grew accustomed to the jail staff’s verbal humiliations.
Physical assaults on the suspected SIMI men began soon after eight of their co-inmates allegedly escaped from the jail on October 31,2016 night, only to be gunned down under highly questionable circumstances a few hours later on a hillock near Bhopal.
Police told the media that the eight undertrials – Amjad Ramzan Khan, Zakir Husain, Sheikh Mehboob, Mohammad Salik, Mujeeb Sheikh, Aqueel Khilji, Khalid Ahmad and Majeed Nagouri – had escaped from the high-security prison after killing a jail security guard, and were then gunned down in return fire by the police and the Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS) team.
However, leaked videos of the encounter suggested that the accused were unarmed and deliberately killed, and the cops were seen taking orders on the phone from higher officials. The audio tapes leaked from the police control room also suggested that the encounter had been staged and the cops had orders from the top to kill these prisoners.
The deaths led to public outrage, but the Shivraj Singh Chouhan government not only brazened it out, but even publicly valorised the policemen who killed the escapees. A day after the prisoners were gunned down, the chief minister rewarded the policemen involved in the encounter and dubbed the deceased as “dreaded terrorists” not deserving any mercy.
Taking a cue from the chief minister’s unconcealed contempt for the “dreaded terrorists’, the Bhartiya Janata Party celebrated the police encounter as an exemplary act of patriotism across the state. The ruling party’s open bigotry emboldened the jail staff to unleash their communal hatred against the remaining co-prisoners.
The NHRC report says,
“The jail staff seems to harbour a sense of religious antagonism against these 21 prisoners, which is reflected in inhuman treatment. Forceful pulling out of beard is a form of torture alleged by prisoners Abdullah and Iqrar.”
It further states,
“After the jail break, prison conditions have changed drastically. These inmates are allowed to go to their cells only for 10-15 minutes. They are not allowed to talk to anyone. Their cells are fitted with exhaust fans, but they are not switched on. The injury marks on the prisoners’ bodies could only have been a result of assaults in jail. The prisoners are required to give khairiyat (a way of showing one’s presence in the barracks in response to the sentry’s call) every four hours, but in the Bhopal jail, it is done every one-to-two hours – depriving them of necessary sleep.”
The aftermath of the controversial jailbreak witnessed tighter security, more CCTV cameras and enhanced vigil in the prison. A substantial amount was sanctioned to fortify the central jail. Visitor entry was curtailed.
Media plays along
The local Hindi media, which had unabashedly joined the ruling party’s patriotic celebration of the police encounter, widely reported the fortification plans. Most reports suggested that that the jail authorities need not bother too much about human rights of “terrorists” and do everything possible to ensure that another jail break does not take place.
As the media played along, jail officers started planting stories about how they are facing challenges in taming down aggressive ‘terrorists’ in the jail. Several stories in local newspapers said that SIMI operatives often demand homemade biryani and dry fruits, and when denied they attack jail warders. Some stories had jail department sources telling reporters that SIMI operatives threatened to have their children abducted if the inmates’ freedom was curtailed.
Alam admits that constant torture may have turned some of the undertrials aggressive. The NHRC report also corroborates this. It says that the prisoners testified to being kept in solitary confinement in 5×8 feet cells without fans, from where they were let out for only a few minutes a day for filling water and cleaning the area outside. This had led to behavioural disorders like anxiety, depression and frustration, resulting in some of them turning aggressive.
However, the NHRC report says that barring one instance, there is nothing to show that the prisoners had attacked jail officials during ‘searches’, used as a justification for beating the inmates.
“The jail officials had no answer to injury marks when photographs were shown to them. They tried to explain that force was necessary to keep the prisoners under control and maintain discipline and order. Therefore, the direct inference is that the so-called resistance/refusal/non-cooperation by prisoners during search is nothing but a made-up ground to justify torture and beating of prisoners.’’
The local media, however, never reported on the torture, although it is hard to believe that the reporters did not know about that. Most local newspapers also blacked out the press conference wherein the NHRC report was presented.
Incidentally, a day before the press meet, local newspapers had uncritically reported the chief minister’s remark that criminals don’t have human rights. The remark had come against the backdrop of police thrashing criminals and molesters in public in Bhopal and Indore “in order to instil fear of the law among them”. Endorsing the police action, the chief minister said if anybody raises an objection to beating up and parading the criminals on streets, the police may very well say “they have Shivraj Singh’s order for that”.
Senior journalist N.D. Sharma says he is appalled by the glaring unprofessionalism of the local media. “Such an abject surrender to Hindutva forces in the media is galling,” he told The Wire.
National Secular Manch convenor and veteran journalist L.S. Herdenia says a big chunk of the local media is eating out of the public relations department’s hands. “From experience, I can say that often owners don’t specifically forbid doing objective reporting of cases of prisoners’ torture, but it is reporters who seem to be swayed by Hindutva ideology and betraying their anti-Muslim mindset. It’s a case of more loyal than the king, which is dangerous for the press freedom.”
Deliberate omission of the torture incidents was also evident in the fact that relatives of the victims had harrowing tales of the jail staff’s atrocities to share with media after each jail visit since November 2016, but these tales never appeared in the Bhopal media.
Attempts to fight for justice
For nearly seven months, torture of the inmates continued unabated, till their relatives approached some social activists to help them lodge a complaint with the NHRC in May last year. Civil rights organisations such as the People’s Union for Civil Liberties, Jamia Teachers Solidarity Association, People’s Watch and others met NHRC member Justice (retd) D. Murugesan in this regard. Relatives of the undertrials were also present.
In her complaint, Shama Parveen, wife of undertrial Mohammad Javed, alleged that he was kept in solitary confinement after the jailbreak and was allowed out only once in 15 days, when his family went to visit him. “They allow us to meet him for only five minutes, though the jail manual says meeting time is 20 minutes. He was not allowed to take bath for two months and was made to stay in one set of clothes. He was subjected to regular beatings by the other prisoners on the directions of the jail authority.”
“During the meeting, we were asked to submit our photographs and Aadhaar card. Some of them even photographed us with their mobile phones after making us remove our veils. We feel harassed every time when we go there,” said Amreen Bi, a resident of Maheedpur in Ujjain.
Anwar Hussain, brother of undertrial Javed, said, “They are deprived of even basic facilities. During the winter, they were not given blankets or warm clothes and now in summer they were given a single bottle of water to drink, bathe with and for their daily use.
Irfan’s sister Raziya Bi claimed they aren’t allowed to sleep at night. “Every two hours they are woken up and assaulted by prisoners or jail authorities.”
Mohammad Ikrar says he had made a statement during a video conference with the session court on April 26, 2016 saying that he was subjected to repeated physical torture by jail authorities. Another inmate, Abu Fazal, said he too had given a statement to the court that his leg was fractured due to repeated torture.
The rights panel sent two three-member panels to the prison last year – in June and December – to investigate alleged human rights violations.The NHRC set up a team of its own officials to probe allegations of “inhuman custodial torture and solitary confinement”.
In their separate statements to the NHRC team, each undertrial corroborated the allegations of torture that their relatives had levelled against the jail authorities, according to their lawyers.
On-camera statements from the undertrials were recorded for ten hours in the central jail premises in June last year.
The team, headed by the commission’s senior superintendent of police Puppul Dutta Prasad, met more than 50 persons, including the family members of the 21 undertrials, their lawyers and representatives of civic and human rights organisations.
In its 24-page report, the NHRC has recommended action against jail authorities directly or indirectly involved in the beating, torture, criminal intimidation and denial of basic human rights to the 21 prisoners. The commission has also sought appropriate action against jail doctor Premendra Sharma, for not mentioning the mode of injury to the SIMI men; asked the government to show cause why suitable compensation should not be granted to their family members; asked for a high-level probe into the grievances of prisoners; and called for guidelines to jail authorities, including relaxation of solitary confinement as far as possible.
“SIMI prisoners are not permitted to converse with each other. Two prisoners alleged that they were forced to chant anti-religious slogans, and jail staffers often pulled at their beards. They also complained that the guards would verbally abuse them and disrespect the holy book,” the report observed.
The NHRC also finds credible the prisoners’ allegation that they were forced to shout slogans against their religious beliefs and beaten up if they refused to do so.
Regarding the prisoners’ complaint about inadequate food, the NHRC report says that food was being served as per the jail manual, but the inmates could not buy eatables from the canteen like before. This had affected their health, the NHRC says.
However, prison authorities insist that the NHRC report is one-sided.
“We submitted a point-to-point rebuttal of its first report in January 2018,” said director general (jail department) Sanjay Choudhary.
Bhopal jail superintendent Dinesh Nargave said, “These are pressure tactics to extract more facilities and concessions. The district judge and other judicial officers who regularly visit jail premises did not find anything amiss. Everything is in accordance with law and court orders,” he said, adding, “The security of prisoners is also important.”
Rakesh Dixit is a Bhopal-based senior journalist.