Over the past few weeks, prison authorities in Maharashtra have denied basic amenities such as mosquito nets and telephone facilities to undertrials in the 2018 Bhima Koregaon case, which pertains to caste violence as well as an alleged attempt to assassinate the prime minister. Nearly five years later, even as independent reports have pointed to the fact that the electronic devices of the accused were hacked using military-grade spyware available only to governments, the trial in the case is yet to begin.

The mistreatment of Bhima Koregaon accused in jail is part of a larger pattern where political undertrials, yet to be declared guilty by a court, are denied basic rights by jail authorities.

This happens because the prison rules governing conduct in jail give prison officials immense discretionary power. Further, there is political pressure that determines how prisoners are treated.

Facilities not given

Among the amenities denied to two people accused in the Bhima Koregaon case are mosquito nets. The authorities claimed that Gautam Navlakha and Sagar Gorkhe could used the nets to strangle people.

When they challenged this before a court, their plea was rejected. Instead, the court asked them to use mosquito repellents and ordered the officials to fumigate prisons regularly.

Activists Gautam Navlakha and Sagar Gorke. Credit: AFP and Facebook

No telephone

Navlakha was also barred from phoning his lawyers and relatives. When he challenged this before a court, the state government cited a March 25 circular saying that prisoners charged with “serious offences” cannot avail of the phone call facility that is allowed to other prisoners twice a week. They said that he can only have physical meetings or write letters.

Previously, prison authorities have withheld letters written by Bhima Koregaon accused to their friends and relatives.

There are other ways in which authorities control a political prisoner’s communication with the outside world. GN Saibaba, an author and human rights activist, who has been imprisoned for alleged links to Maoists, was told by prison authorities that he can only use Hindi or English when writing letters or speaking to his relatives, and not his mother tongue Telugu.

Even Malayali journalist Siddique Kappan, who was arrested in October 2020 while he was travelling to Hathras, Uttar Pradesh, to report on a rape incident, is allowed to talk to his wife only in Hindi – a language she cannot understand.

Some of the people accused in cases such as the Bhima Koregaon case have also been denied winter clothes, food items and medicine.

Previously, prison authorities had denied giving 83-year-old Stan Swamy a sipper and straw, even though he could not drink from a glass because of Parkinson’s disease. He had to approach a court to get a sipper. The process took almost a month.

Swamy died in July 2021 after his health deteriorated. His advocate asked for a judicial inquiry into his death because he believes that the jail authorities did not send Swamy to hospital on time.

How jails are regulated

Each state has its own set of rules governing the facilities given to prisoners. These rules play an important role in depriving inmates of basic amenities.

In some circumstances, the rules discriminate between inmates based on crimes with which they are charged. For instance, the Delhi Prison Rules 2018 allow the segregation of inmates believed to be “Naxalites, extremists and terrorists”.

“Prison manual [rules] provides a lot of discretionary power to the superintendent,” said Sunil Gupta, author and former law officer of Tihar jail. “It is on his subjective discretion that prisoners are allowed things which may ordinarily be banned.”

Apart from the prison rules, political pressure may also play a role in these situations. “There is a lot of political interference [in the running of prisons],” Gupta said. “For instance, if a minister, whose party is in power, is in jail, then whatever they ask, you will have to give.”

This means that inmates often have to approach courts, even for basic amenities.

Students protesting against the death of tribal rights activist Stan Swamy. Credit: Sajjad Hussain/ AFP

Discriminatory actions

Such a system allows arbitrariness in how prisoners are treated. For instance, Sunil Mane, accused in the case where an explosive-laden car was found outside the house of industrialist Mukesh Ambani, was allowed access to mosquito nets by a court. The prison authorities did not challenge Mane’s plea and the court noted that Mane’s demand seemed genuine.

Even for Bhima Koregaon accused, the prison superintendent could allow basic facilities, like telephone calls or mosquito nets, lawyers point out. “The rules do not [completely] bar giving these items,” said senior advocate Yug Mohit Chaudhry who has represented several people accused in the Bhima Koregaon case. “There is a positive obligation on the superintendent to allow this.”

Not allowing these items shows that “cruelty is inbuilt in the system”, he said. “The fact that the mighty Indian state can be threatened by a mosquito net speaks a lot about the absence of humanity in the prison system.”