On September 13, six alleged Maoists lodged in the Yerawada jail in Pune, Maharashtra, participated in a one-day token hunger strike. The date chosen was significant. Freedom fighter Jatin Das had died on the 63rd day of his hunger strike on that day in 1929.

Das and his comrades in jail were then demanding that the colonial state recognise them as political prisoners. Eighty-nine years later, the Pune prisoners had the same plea before the Government of India. The protesting prisoners were activists Surendra Gadling, Sudhir Dhawale, Rona Wilson and Mahesh Raut – arrested in June in connection with the Bhima Koregaon violence and labelled “urban Naxals”; as well as Arun Bhelke and K Muralidhar, who were arrested earlier in other cases related to Maoism. All of them have been charged under the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act.

A press note circulated on September 13 by those campaigning for the release of the activists arrested in the Bhima Koregaon case demanded that “prisoners [who] are held for certain political ideas and action based on those ideas” be recognised as political prisoners. Among other things, the note highlighted how prison authorities were continually denying them access to books “that are as essential for a thinking political prisoner as food is for a human being”. These denials are in contravention of court orders permitting the accused access to books, judgements and periodicals.

A close look at incidents that prompted the hunger strike, as well as similar instances from the past, reveals how various arms of the State collude to deny political prisoners the right to intellectual pursuit, sometimes despite specific orders to the contrary from courts. This is also in contravention of several guidelines. The model prison manual, guidelines of the National Human Rights Commission and the United Nations all stress how the provision of reading material is crucial to the dignity of prisoners.

‘Don’t know if it’s banned literature’

Lawyers Barun Kumar and Jagdish Meshram, who are part of Surendra Gadling’s defence team, say the jail administration in Yerawada started creating problems soon after the Bhima Koregaon accused were lodged there. For one, they said, the jail administration was not allowing lawyers of the accused to meet their clients. Second, they denied the prisoners access to reading material. “Gadling himself is a lawyer, and wanted to read key judgements on prisoners’ rights pertaining to jail meetings, sending and receiving letters, access to journals and periodicals, rules for hand-cuffing in prison etc,” they said. “But jail authorities told us categorically, citing orders from ‘up’, that the prisoners in question would not be allowed such reading material either.”

On June 25, Gadling’s lawyers submitted before the court hearing the Bhima Koregaon case a list of all the things that their client wanted to read. This comprised Supreme Court judgements and citations, case laws and the writings of Swami Vivekananda. The court permitted Gadling to access all this in jail. His legal team arranged for all the material and handed them over to the jail authorities. “But the authorities passed on only two books to Gadling,” said Kumar and Meshram.

They added that when the 90-day period under which the Bhima Koregaon accused had been sent to jail was to end on September 5, Gadling wanted to personally argue in court against the State’s bid to extend the detention period by another 90 days. However, the jail administration created obstacles to this.

“First, they informed him of the application for extension of detention only on the day it was to come up in court [September 1],” they said. When Gadling’s lawyers moved an application in court saying he wanted to pursue the case in person, the judge allowed his prayer, adjourning the hearing till the next day so that Gadling could prepare for the hearing. He was also allowed to access reading material, including previous Supreme Court judgments, relevant to his case.

“We put together all the material and handed them over to the prison authorities by afternoon,” said Kumar. “Yet, Gadling was given the material at 8 pm. Since lights are turned off in jail at 9 pm, he had little time to read, forget preparing for the hearing.” Gadling was consequently unable to fight his case before the court personally. On September 2, the court extended the remand for Gadling and the other Bhima Koregaon accused by another 90 days.

On September 27, when applications pertaining to denial of reading material to Gadling was taken up by the court, his lawyers made an oral argument for contempt of court by jail authorities. The judge took notice of the matter, and severely reprimanded the jail authorities.

“When the judge asked the public prosecutor why all the books and material that was allowed to Gadling was not handed over to him, the latter replied, ‘We don’t know if it’s banned literature!”” recalled Kumar, who was at the hearing. “The judge was enraged. ‘Who are you to censor material that has been cleared by this court,’ he asked, and held back from issuing a contempt notice only on being assured that the jail administration would allow Gadling access to all the said material.”

Routine denial

Gadling was not the only one. His co-accused were also not permitted by prison authorities to access books and journals such as those on the economy, ecology and the Ambedkartite movement.

The National Human Rights Council guidelines note that prisoners should be permitted to receive reading material from outside, provided it is not obscene or tending to create a security risk. “Quotas should not be set arbitrarily for reading materials,” say the guidelines. They add that the provision of reading material “should, to the maximum extent possible, take into account the individual needs of the prisoner”. The human rights body says jail superintendents should be guided by law in assessing the content of reading materials, and “not exercise his discretion arbitrarily”.

Yet, instances abound of the exercise of arbitrary discretion by jail authorities in India. Activist Arun Ferreira, who spent close to five years in jail between 2007 and 2012 as an accused Maoist before being acquitted in 2014, documented the meticulous surveillance of incoming reading material by jail authorities in his prison memoir Colours of the Cage. Books, periodicals, even personal letters – jail authorities censored everything during Ferreira’s jail term, passing on only some of what he was receiving from friends, lawyers and relatives.

Like Gadling, Ferreira – who was representing Gadling in the current case before he was himself arrested on August 28 and placed under house arrest – too had a tough time accessing jail manuals and judgements that were crucial to his understanding of the rights and facilities he was entitled to as a prisoner.

Three members of Pune-based cultural group Kabir Kala Manch, who spent a little over three years in jail for alleged links to Maoists, also recounted their struggle to access reading material in prison in an interview after their release on bail in 2017.

“Our fight [in jail] was that what we wanted to read, they didn’t have,” Ramesh Gaichor told The Wire last year. “So they said that if we want to read anything, they would clear it first.” Gaichor also recalled how jail authorities reacted with alarm to any book, periodical or magazine that contained words like vidroh (revolution), pratikar (payback) or Naxal. Often, such books or periodicals were summarily withheld from prisoners, even if they comprised poetry.

The Model Prison Manual notes that educational facilities and adequate reading material can help make jail stays less depressing and provide for the overall development of prisoners.

The experiences of political prisoners, however, show that jail libraries are poorly equipped. For instance, the members of the Kabir Kala Manch told The Wire how Navi Mumbai’s Taloja jail had a collection of over 500 books, but “most of them comprised the writings of prominent godmen, versions of the Gita and cheap books available at railway stations”. The jail neither had a copy of the Constitution, nor any books or writings by BR Ambedkar.

Curbs on dissent

Shalini Gera from the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group, a non-profit that provides free legal services to Adivasis in Chhattisgarh, said that it was not uncommon for authorities to censor even newspapers before prisoners could read them. “The arbitrary discretion of jail authorities reaches its heights when it comes to newspapers,” said Gera. “In Chhattisgarh’s jails, all news stories where the word ‘Naxal’ is mentioned are cut out from news pages. In effect, prisoners often receive perforated sheets instead of newspapers.”

The situation is no different in West Bengal.

“The arbitrary denial of books to prisoners by jail authorities has become the norm in recent years in West Bengal as well,” said Ranjit Sur, secretariat member of the Association for the Protection of Democratic Rights. Bengal is one of the few states where most political prisoners are recognised as such. “On repeated occasions, courts have allowed such prisoners access to reading material. But even writings by Tagore are checked by several intelligence agencies before being passed on to prisoners, if at all they are.”

Periodicals and journals are another matter altogether, said Sur. “As a general rule, prison authorities refrain from providing any material to prisoners that enable them to know what is happening in the world outside jails,” he said. “It is nothing but a means to curb dissent.”

Corrections and clarifications: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified Ranjit Sur as the secretary of the Association for the Protection of Democratic Rights. He is the secretariat member of the organisation.