PUCL Bulletin, May 2001

Saswati Bora's Speech

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 Court.
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