What the Byculla riot tells us about the state of Indian prisons
The death of prisoner Manjula Shetye in Byculla jail last month reminds one of the 1983 Mulla committee report on prison reforms. More than three decades old, words from the report may not ring truer than now: “Do they continue to be citizens of the country or not, with all the rights guaranteed under the Constitution of India or have they become moral lepers and outcasts who have forfeited these rights? Are they only wild beasts to be tamed or quite a large number amongst them are just ordinary cattle who have strayed away and who, with proper direction can be brought back to the field?”
While the media went to town with high-profile prisoner Indrani Mukherjea’s role in the riots that followed Shetye’s death, the brutal violence meted to the prisoner—the post-mortem report shows severe head and body injuries—who later died in custody, was lost in the clamour.
Eventually though, as realization dawned that what had happened in Byculla jail was a grave crime and Mukerjea’s role in the riot was, frankly, secondary, there were some swift developments—six jail officials were arrested for the crime, the Mumbai Police Crime branch took over the investigation and the Maharashtra State Commission for Women promised to set up a special investigation team (SIT) to enquire into the crime.
Why did close to 300 prisoners riot after Shetye’s death? Why did Shetye die at all? Was it because Shetye asked the jailors for missing bread slices and eggs? Was it because she continuously stood up for other inmates? Or was it because she was herself corrupt, taking and giving illicit favours in prison? The narrative keeps changing and all of these bits may indeed be part of the whole truth.
But they mustn’t take the conversation away from the real issue plaguing our criminal justice system—the unsettled question of whether we want a purely retributive justice system or whether we want one which has reformation and rehabilitation of the convict at the centre. Three decades and more after Justice Mulla’s observations and recommendations, India is still struggling with widespread torture and attempts to cover up the absolutely horrific conditions of its prisons.
In 2015, Leslee Udwin’s documentary on the rape and murder of the 16 December rape victim was banned due to its “objectionable content”, most crucially its interviews with one of the rapists in jail. Following this and the worldwide storm that the film and the ban created, the Union ministry of home affairs (MHA) issued a set of guidelines. Titled “Guidelines for allowing visit inside jails by individuals/ NGOs/ Company/ Press for the purposes of undertaking research, making documentary or interviewing the inmates etc”, these new rules have made it extremely difficult and near impossible for organisations and individuals to conduct research, write articles, take photographs or make documentaries in an independent manner on the realities of the prison system.
The guidelines require researchers to obtain permission before a prison visit. This is a cumbersome process, and even if permission is granted, the jail superintendent may only allow the visitor into the prison once an undertaking is given along with a security deposit of Rs1 lakh. Also, permission may only be granted if the state government feels that the research is for the purposes of “creating positive social impact” or related to prison reform or if the government itself invites the visitor.
During the course of the visit, the new rules require that the jail superintendent or the next senior most officer accompany the visitor and be present at all times in order to “immediately intervene” in case a “certain video clip or an interview being conducted is not desirable”. After the visit, all the equipment has to be handed over to the superintendent for a period of three days so that anything “objectionable” can be deleted. The final version of the documentary/film/research paper/article/book must be submitted to the authorities for a “no objection certificate” before it can be released.
The rule of law, as always, remains a shimmering mirage in India. It seems laughable to even attempt to answer whether reformation and rehabilitation needs to be part of our prison policy when the state is hell bent on preventing anything that is “not desirable” from exiting the system. But this conversation must be a part of every debate that is a result of the present inadvertent exposure of the horrific innards of Indian prisons. The widespread use of torture and violence to teach criminals a lesson, as demonstrated by Shetye’s murder, shows that revenge and retribution form the primary foundation stones of our criminal justice system.
Shetye’s murder and the subsequent riots give us the perfect opportunity to demand that the MHA guidelines be repealed, an independent commission set up to enquire into the state of Indian prisons, and finally, a domestic law criminalizing torture enacted speedily. Alongside, we must begin examining how to re-engage with prison officials, criminologists and psychologists to enable a truly rehabilitative and reformative prisons system.
Urmila Pullat is a lawyer and researcher with the Hong Kong-based Asian Human Rights Commission.