Prison Conditions in Tamil Nadu
Naxalite Lifers

By Claude Alvares
(with Civil Liberties activists from Tamil

(PUCL Bulletin Nov 1981)

On the 27th of July this year, Ghanshyam Pardesi, the legal correspondent of the Statesman, Delhi wrote a letter to Supreme Court Justice P.N. Bhagwati, informing him that several Naxalite prisoners in Tamil Nadu had not yet been released on parole, even after serving more than ten years of their life terms. He also added that these prisoners had been systematically tortured with the specific intent of damaging their neurological systems so as to incapacitate them for any future political activity in life.

Pardesi backed up his information with a number of affidavits, including two from 56 year old KaliaPerumal, and Valluvan, his son. Justice Bhagwati accepted the letter as a writ position on the 31st of July (4252 of 1981), and asked for medical reports on the state of the prisoners by the 10th of August. When these were duly presented, it was obvious that some of the allegations were indeed correct, and the Court ordered immediate medical treatment for the identified prisoners. In the course of passing direc-tions, Justice Bhagwati observed that "the right to live with human dignity and the entitlement to the exercise of the fundamental rights under Art. 21, were rights which the prisoners, excepting the fact of their captivity, also enjoyed as any other citizen in the country."

Since Pardesi's writ petition raised more funda-mental issues about jail conditions and reforms, the Court asked counsels Kapil Sibal, Gobinda Mukboty, S. Ganesh and M. Mudgal, to formulate propositions as to how best questions relating to treatment of prisoners, to facilities in regard to communication with the outside world, and to uniformity in granting remissions and paroles should be examined by the Court. The hearings are to begin in February 1982, and may well lead to a comprehensive review of the rules and regulations concerning prisoners, including Naxalites all over the country.

In his affidavit attached to Pardeshi's petition, Valluvan (32) reconstructed for the first time for the Court the history of the treatment meted out to him, members of his family (altogether seven) and to other Naxalites convicted for various offences. He wrote: "In 1972, 950 Naxalite undertria!s were brought from West Bengal to Cuddalore Central Prison in Tamil Nadu, as the prisons there were overcrowded. No one can deny that the culture and food habits of Tamil Nadu are different from that of Bengal. Those who made arrangements for bringing those comrades from several hundred miles away should have made arrangements for the supply of the kind of food they were used to. Instead of doing this, the prison autho-rities supplied them the worst kind of gruel which the poorest in Tamil Nadu living below the poverty line are forced to take in order to exit."

The Bengali prisoners decided on a protest hunger strike. The authorities decided to teach them a lesson. The usual procedure (at least in West Bengal) before a lathi charge is to hoot a siren : those prisoners who wish to surrender go back to their cells and shut the doors. Those who want to resist remain outside. The 950 under-trials on that day decided to go back to their cells. The jail authorities locked the cells first, then opened one cell after another, dragged out the prisoners one by one for "special treatment". No one knows how many bones were fractured that day.

Besides this beating, Valluvan adds that since ninety per cent of the Bengal prisoners were young men, and graduates, the prison authorities forced them to homosexual acts with other life prisoners from Tamil Nadu.

In October 1972, the jail authorities in Tiruchi prison let loose another vicious attack. The reason this time was a hunger strike demanding treatment of prisoners according to jail rules. After nine days of fasting the authorities tried to force-feed the strikers, and when they encountered resistance, there was another lathi charge. Kaliaperumal, Gurumurthy, Thyagarajan (all sentenced to death), Valluvan, Das, Kuttappan, Sellapan, Krishna Pillai (lifers) and under-trials Chandrasekharan, Sivadas and Rahmohan, all landed in hospitals. Kaliaperumal sustained head injuries and his condition became serious, and most people thought Valluvan was dead.

In 1974, prisoners like Valluvan, Sivadas, Rajmohan and Chandrasekaran were once again on a hunger strike against disgusting prison conditions, particular-ly food. When their condition deteriorated, the dis-trict medical officer intervened, and stopped the strike by giving them assurances. The jail superintendent hardly bothered about it all, so that the DMO in ex-asperation wrote a complaint about this in the Journal. In the same year, in the same prison, the Medical Offi-cer, Dr Andiappan was beaten up by the jail superin-tendent, Mr. Cheralathan and a case fled against him, because he tried to interfere in these matters in favor of the prisoners. Towards the middle of 1974, a new-jail authority was posted to Vellore, but there was no change there either. Prisoners Valluvan, Chinnaswamy, Chandrasekaran and Rajmohan resorted to a relay fast for four months, which lasted from Dec. 21. to April 21, 1975, the longest such attempt in Tamil Nadu jails.

The Deputy Inspector General of Prisons visited the jail twice during the fast, but did not either attempt to meet them or stop them. Emboldened, the jail authorities became violent and towards the middle of April (1975) pelted the strikers' heads with stones Sivadas was taken to hospital in a delirious condition. Valluvan stopped his fast only after his mother ob-tained a visiting card through a DMK friend of hers and met him.

A neurologist who examined Kaliaperumal in 1976 recorded in the Journal that he should be sent to a hospital, but the Q Branch police were able to pre-vent this.

In 1978, Kaliaperumal, Tamilarasan, Muniraj, Ramakrishnan and Radhakrishnan attempted to es-cape for Tiruchi jail. After they were caught (about a dIstance of a kilometre from the prison), they faced the usual brutality : Tamilarasan was unconscious for two weeks. They were tried in the Tiruchi Sessions Court. for the escape attempt. During the trial, the autho-rities themselves were forced to confess about the conditions under which prisoners live. The court observ-ed in its judgment that the prisoners were indeed treated cruelly and that this would only isolate them further from the social mainstream. The judge also condemned the disgusting habit of serving food in pots used for carrying phenyl for the toilets.

Ananthanayagi's case beggars description. When she was arrested on trumped up charges together with the Kaliaperumal family, she was 52 years old. On the prison records she was given a younger age so that a review board would not agree to her release on the grounds of age after reaching 55. Today she is 63. Prison authorities in a similar manner never record the proper weight of a prisoner on his entry into jail; it is understated, so that the impact of prison life on his health cannot easily traced.

The callousness and sadism of the jail and govern-ment authorities are routinely directed at all lifers in Tamil Nadu. On the 4th of September this year, Mr. P.V. Ganesan, Duty Counsel, Central Prison, Coim-batore, wrote the following letter which appeared in the Indian Express:

"Under Section 433 -A of the Criminal Procedure Cede, notwithstanding anything contained in section 432 Cr. P.C. where a sentence of imprisonment for life is one of the punishments provided by law or where a sentence of death imposed on a prisoner has become commuted under Section 433 into one of im-prisonment for life, such person shall not be released from prison unless he has served at least 14 years of imprisonment.

"In view of the judgment of the Supreme Court in Maru Ram Vs Union of India (A .1.R. 1980 S.C. Page 2142) the prisoner having been convicted before Section 433-A Cr. P.C. came into force goes out of the pale of the provision and as such he is entitled to enjoy such benefits which accrued to him before Section 433-A Cr. P.C. entered the statute book. This means that every person who has been convicted before December 18, 1978, shall be entitled to the benefits accruing to him from the remission scheme or short sentencing projects as if Section 433-A did not stand in the way. In view of the said judgment of the Supreme Court, the mandatory minimum of 14 years of actual imprison-ment will not operate against prisoners whose cases were decided by the respective trial courts before December 18, 1978 when Section 433-A Cr. P.C. came into force.

"Prisoners, whose convictions by the Courts in the first instance were entered prior to the above date are clearly entitled to immediate consideration for prema-ture release by the respective State Governments on the strength of remissions already earned by them. It would, therefore, follow that the prisoners having been convicted to imprisonment for life before the date on which Section 433-A Cr. P.C. came into force, their cases for premature release before the expiry of the full period of 14 years should necessarily be consi-dered by the respective State governments immediately and necessary further orders passed in the interest of justice

"In the Central Prison at Coimbatore, as the sole Duty Counsel appointed by the Tamil Nadu Legal Aid and Advice Board, High Court Buildings, Madras, I have come across instances where about 26 life convicts have been undergoing imprisonment for periods even exceeding 16! years and 250 life convicts suffering imprisonment for well over 10 years. All such prisoners, in view of the said decision of the Supreme Court are clearly entitled to immediate consideration by the respective State Governments for their release on the strength of earned remissions and entitled to claim releases from prison forthwith."

The Supreme Court once observed that "the op-portunity to move, mix, mingle, talk, share company. with co-prisoners if substantially curtailed would be a violation of Article 21 of the Constitution unless the curtailment has the backing of law." There is only an unwritten law at the moment that justifies the ill-treatment of prisoners by uniformly categorizing them as Naxalites. The procedure has been started from 1970. Here is a secret Tamil Nadu Government direc-tive to jail authorities regarding censorship of letters from Naxalite prisoners :

"In view of the serious nature of offence in which the Naxalite prisoners are involved, adherence to the path of violence, misbehavior, the incoming and out-going letters of Naxalite prisoners should be censored by an officer of the CID-Q Branch and objectionable matter withheld before they are sent to the addresses so that this arrangement will virtually eliminate the possibility of code words communication between the outsiders and Naxalite prisoners."

Another directive states

"The Superintendent should obtain from Naxalite prisoners list of their close relatives and bonafide legal advisers and send the same to the CID Q branch, get them verified and keep them in their possession so that the bonafide interviews of Naxalite prisoners may be conducted in the presence of Q branch representa-tives without delay. In this connection, he is informed that only persons who are bonafide legal advisers and whose names are approved by the State CID Q branch should be permitted to interview the Naxalite priso-ners and that interviews should be conducted strictly in accordance with these instructions."

These orders have no legal sanction. As pointed out by K. Chandru in Deccan Herald (May 2, 1981), "any statutory notification issued under the Prison Act, 1894 and the Prisoners Act 1900 has to be placed before the legislature. Therefore, the only convenient method to get over them is to by-pass them." Chandru further writes : "Anguished by the inhuman treatment meted out to them and that too in utter disregard of the legal provisions, eight life convicts from Coim-batore Central Prison wrote to the Madras High Court complaining about the illegalities of these orders."

The court ordered the chief judicial magistrate, Coimbatore, to inspect the prison. In his report, the magistrate observed that the cells in which these prisoners are kept in Block 10 of the jail do not even have windows. Even the century old jail manual pres-cribes two windows for each cell.

Once a person is convicted by a criminal court and imprisoned, there can be no discrimination between prisoners. But Naxalite prisoners are always delibera-tely isolated, A subtle way of discrimination has been suggested in the 1978 report of the Jail Reforms Com-mission (Tamil Nadu) headed by the late R.L. Narasim-han. According to this retired ICS judge, "a political prisoner is one, who for the purpose of furthering any political cause without any personal benefit, con-travenes the law and is imprisoned for the same for an offence which has not involved using force or violence and also the prisoner should by his speech and action have been thorough out non-violent.. .

Apart from this observation, the Commission has also suggested that "Naxalites" and anyone arrested in connection with student and kisan agitations should be segregated and not permitted to mix with ordinary criminals because of the danger of their attempting to influence them with their ideas.

Finally, it is not only conditions within prisons that affect the life and conditions of Naxalite prisoners; their relationship with their close relatives is purpose-fully kept to a rude minimum by constant transfers from one jail to another. Poor relatives must spend whatever money they have to struggle to earn (with the men folk in prison, this is difficult enough as it is) tra-velling long distances to meet the prisoners. Kalia-perumal's affidavit goes into some detail about this major instrument of harassment:

"Ever since we were all arrested, the State machi-nery tried its best to keep us separate from one ano-ther. After my arrest I should have been lodged in a jail nearest to my native place within the jurisdiction of the Sub Magistrate's court at Vridhachalam or at the District Headquarters Jail at Cuddalore which is 80 kms. from my native place. - But I was detained in Madras Central prison which is 200 kms. from my native place. The other five co-accused were detained in the Central Prison at Trichy which is 110 kms. from my native place. "Myself and Valluran, after receiving death sentences were detained in C:ntral Prison, Trichy and the rest were sent to Vellore Central Prison. When Valluvan's sentence was modified into that of imprison-ment for life, he was separated from me, not permitted to see me and subsequently transferred to Vellore Cen-tral Prison in 1972. In 1975 he was transferred to Palayamkottai Central Prison which is at a distance of 430 kms. On 6th June 1978 he was transferred from Palayamkottai to Madras Central Prison.

"One can imagine the hardships my wife has had to undergo all these years to go from one prison to ano-ther to see myself, my sons, my brother, my sister-in-law and my relatives who were all separated and kept in separate jails at far away places. She and the womenfolk of my relatives have undergone indescrib-able woes. My wife has to leave behind in my village our three grown up daughters to see us in the prison. How many times she was simply refused permission and/or unnecessarily teased before she was finally given permission. Has the epoch of Ramrajya dawned in our land where women can freely move about ?"

The intervention of the Supreme Court has already brought some relief to these prisoners. Ms. Anantha-nayagi was operated on for cataract and will soon be fitted with glasses. (She is 63 years old and therefore being illegally detained).. Valluvan has been operated for piles. Thannasi had been sent for a check-up to an eminent cardiologist in Madras (who in his report to the Court suggested that the ailment was a "conge-nital" defect and not brought about within prison walls by repeated beatings and torture : he volunteered this information unasked).

When last seen by this writer in the third week of November, these prisoners ware able to meet freely with friends and relatives, were cheerful and able to converse without a police official listening on. Than-nasi remains the worst off physically, is weak, thin and almost with no strength in his limbs. Since he is due to be released in six months, the authorities are callo-usly delaying a necessary heart operation, for should they default, he will have to foot the bill on his own after his release. Valluvan was taken to the hospital and chained to his bed. There is photographic evidence of this.

Of course, besides the Kaliaperumal family there are many other Naxalite prisoners that could do with some critical intervention from the outside, and one hopes that our Tamil Nadu activists will start work on these cases soon

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