Also see, Saswati
Bora wins the 20th PUCL 'JOURNALISM FOR HUMAN RIGHTS' Award
Respected Mr. Sankaran, Mr. Era Sezhiyan, Mr. Kannabiran, Prof. Chhibbar,
Mr. Ravi Kumar, Mr. Venugopal, Dr. Suresh, Ms. Sudha Ramalingam, and distinguished
members of the audience.
When I first wrote
the Arthur Road story, I never realised at the time that it would lead
me here and that I would be addressing such a distinguished group of people.
I feel extremely overwhelmed and privileged and, at the outset, would
like to thank PUCL for this Award.
The series on Arthur Road began on June 21, 2000 when one of my sources
called me up to tell me that four inmates of the Jail had lodged a complaint
against prison officials. I remember that it was a particularly busy day
in the office. The great dotcom dream was still on and, like most newspapers
we were understaffed as most people had left in search of greener pastures.
Immediately after I heard the story, I called my boss, the resident editor,
who told me to forget everything else and just follow the story, as it
was too serious to be ignored.
However, after enquiring, the story turned out to be much more serious
and complex - at that time we found that least 40 undertrials had been
brutally assaulted by a circle officer and his subordinates. As Arthur
Road is a central prison there is no access to prisoners and hence most
such stories get concealed.
When I tried to find details of the case, I met with total resistance
from prison officials. Although, I had copies of the first few complaints
filed by four prisoners in the court, prison officials still refused to
acknowledge that there was a problem. Finally we had to resort to a veiled
threat - we told the superintendent that the story would be published
the next day and, if he wants us to be fair, he should give us his version
of what exactly happened. Finally he "cooperated" and we managed
to speak to the concerned circle officer over the phone.
In the days that followed, we found more and more details about what exactly
happened around 6.30 pm on June 19. The greatest revelation for me was
June 28 when I landed in Court with our photographer and found the undertrials
waiting for me with written, signed statements, not only of theirs, but
also their friends in Jail who had been assaulted by the same jail officer
and his subordinates. They also showed me the injuries on their body.
Although, the problem started when a fight broke out between two inmates.
The prison officials, instead of sorting it out, went berserk and assaulted
more than 100 inmates who happened to be in the barrack. Some of these
inmates were old, one as old as 65 years. One Afzal Hayat Qureshi tried
to commit suicide a few days later.
One of the prisoners whom I met in the court, told me that the circle
officer who led the attack was a "psychic" case. The officer
once cornered him in prison, held a baton over him and told him that he
should kill the inmate right there and then. "I agreed that he could,"
the inmate told me.
It also came to light to have an easy time in jail; it was necessary to
pay prison officials. Over the months, especially after I started covering
courts on a regular basis, I have become friendly to many undertrials.
The well-off ones told me, very matter-of-factly, that they regularly
bribe jail officials. The attitude is, since they are stuck in prison
they might as well as make sure they have a comfortable life there. But
what about the poor undertrials who cannot afford to bribe? They are the
ones who regularly complain in courts about assault.
However, it would be very easy to blame all the problems in prison officials.
It would be very easy to call them the "villains" of the story
and blame them instead of looking at the larger picture.
At this stage, it is important to know that our Indian prisons are very
overcrowded. While the capacity of the Arthur Road Jail is 804, there
are approximately 2200 inmates lodged at a time in the Jail. There are
two constables, one subedar and one jailor guarding each circle. When
the series was published, there were 2147 inmates in the jail, out of
which only 75 were convicted prisoners. The rest were under trials and
detainees. The maximum that a person is innocent until proven guilty is
not followed in the treatment meted out by officials in the jail.
The jail officials are also under tremendous pressure. The situation inside
the jail is very volatile as most of the inmates are from rival gangs.
So any development in the outside world, for example, if Chhota Rajan
is shot in Bangkok, the repercussions will be felt in Mumbai jails. The
superintendent once told me that absolute caution has to be followed so
that one group of inmates do not mingle with their rival gang members.
They are kept in separate barracks, they go to courts in separate vans
and, sometimes, they are even kept in separate jails.
The jails officials are over- worked and mostly under-paid. There is frustration
that sometimes transforms into violence and it is not easy to avoid the
temptation of getting a quick buck from the inmates.
Although new jails are coming up, the problem is not restricted to just
prisons. If such brutal assaults are to be avoided, the judicial system
should be improved. It takes years to prove that a man is innocent, or
guilty, as the case might be. Till then, our jails keep on getting filled
up. There is an urgent need not only to increase the number of jails,
but also courts, and make sure that justice is served speedily.
And most importantly, there has to be more transparency in the system.
Not everyone is corrupt, some of the inmates have told me that the superintendent
of Arthur Road Jail is a nice man who never hits anyone. But what is the
need then for the superintendent to protect one of his officers who is
not no nice.
A few months back, a tussle occurred between two groups of inmates. I
had already acquired a reputation of being a trouble maker, so the Superintendent
was hesitant in giving me details of the incident even though two of his
own officers had been injured in it. "When there are so many things
happening in the outside world, why do you keep on writing about us"?
he asked me.
He didn't understand it is not my intention to "create trouble"
for them but to have more transparency in the prison administration. Only
when there is transparency, will there be accountability in the system.
The undertrials in the prison are just that. They are not criminals and,
even if they are, they do not deserve to be treated like animals.
At this point, a word has to be put in for my paper The Asian Age, which
did not bury the reports in some obscure corner of the paper and, in fact,
gave very good coverage to it. The Asian Age also published the stories
in the front page of other editions so that the stories came out in all
other cities beside Mumbai where the paper had its edition. Without that
coverage, it would not have been possible to highlight the issue.
Many human rights organisations picked up the story and Nirbhay Bano Andolan,
a Mumbai based human rights organisation, filed a writ petition demanding
an inquiry. The case came up in court a few weeks back and the division
bench found it to be too urgent and serious to be ignored any further.
The case has now been transferred to the Chief Justice of the Bombay High
The best part was that the officers who assaulted the prisoners were transferred
following the media reports. But this is just a small-term solution to
the problem. The real solution might take years but it is high time that
a systematic improvement is brought about in our judicial and prison system
so that stories, such as the one written by me, does not get written again
. -- Saswati Bora