Last week, it emerged that 86 people lodged at the Anantnag district jail in South Kashmir had tested positive for the novel coronavirus. That included a member of the prison staff, someone who brought supplies to the prison and a labourer, said Anantnag jail superintendent Syroz Ahmad Bhat.

The jail is built for holding 60 people. It currently houses 193, which means about 43% of its inmates have tested positive. “Forty eight of them have been quarantined at a different facility and 38 have been quarantined within the jail,” said Bhat.

Across the country, Assam’s Guwahati Central Jail was in the spotlight after it was found that Akhil Gogoi, a peasant leader and one of the activists arrested for the anti-Citizenship Act protests in December, had tested positive for coronavirus.

As antigen testing concluded in the Guwahati Central Jail this weekend, the total number of Covid-19 infections in the prison ballooned to 438 – three of them prison staff, said Dasarath Das, Assam’s inspector general of prisons. Since the jail houses around 1,000 prisoners, it meant about 43% of its inmates had been infected. All prisoners were tested, Das said.

Of those infected, 154 prisoners are currently being treated in various medical facilities in and around the city. “The rest of them have recovered and are back in jail,” said Das.

Both the Guwahati and the South Kashmir jails hold prisoners in some of the most politically sensitive cases in the country, many of them charged with offences against the state. While jails across India were partially emptied as the pandemic hit the country, there has been little reprieve for such prisoners.

‘Disturbed areas’

Once the coronavirus reached India’s overcrowded, unhygienic prisons, it was difficult to stop the virus spreading like wildfire among inmates. Fearing this, the Supreme Court had ordered states and Union Territories to decongest prisons back in March, when the lockdown to contain the virus was first imposed.

Since then, 4,129 inmates were released from three jails in Delhi as of June 20. Uttar Pradesh claimed to have released 18,000 prisoners as of June 26.

Far from the national capital, in Assam and Jammu and Kashmir, prisoners were being released, too. Both regions are still notified as “disturbed areas” under the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, a law which gives the military executive powers to open fire and search with a warrant.

Concerns about militancy and cross-border tensions with Pakistan are cited as reasons to keep Jammu and Kashmir under AFSPA. In Assam, militancy has been on the wane for years, but protests about the new citizenship laws and the National Register of Citizens, updated in the state last year, have been put forward as reasons to keep extending AFSPA.

In May, it was reported that Assam had released 3,550 inmates since the Supreme Court order in March. That included 300 people lodged in detention centres for those declared foreigners by Assam’s foreigners’ tribunals, quasi-judicial bodies tasked with deciding on matters of disputed nationality.

The newly created Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir set up a high-powered committee to decide on which prisoners would be eligible for parole or release. When the former state was stripped of special status and split into two Union Territories on August 5, thousands were imprisoned to quell dissent. Many were detained under the Public Safety Act, a preventive detention law where prisoners can be held up to a year without trial if detained for the maintenance of law and order, and for up to two years if deemed a threat to national security.

As of April 23, at least 288 prisoners were released in Jammu and Kashmir, many of them undertrials and detainees under the Public Safety Act, whose detention orders were now revoked by the government. Among those not eligible for parole or release were prisoners held on militancy-related charges or under the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act.

Those who remained behind in overcrowded jails had to face the brunt of the virus.

Security forces at the site of a gunbattle with militants in Anantnag district in 2017.

Kashmir’s overcrowded jails

“We took precautions from way back in March,” protested jail superintendent Syroz Bhat. “Anantnag district jail was the first jail across Jammu and Kashmir which organised a workshop about Covid-19 in March. After that we continued spraying disinfectants and fumigation within the jail premises on a regular basis.”

The jail also disallowed visitors and home-cooked food for inmates to prevent the spread of infection, he said. “But social distancing was not possible because jail was overcrowded,” he admitted.

South Kashmir has only two prisons – the Anantnag district jail and the Pulwama special jail, he explained. The two jails serve four districts of South Kashmir – Kulgam, Shopian, Anantnag and Pulwama. These are the four districts where local militancy is most widespread. Gunfights, search operations and large-scale detentions are routine here.

“It always remains overcrowded because there’s no jail in Kulgam district and almost 70-80% of inmates are from Kulgam,” said Syroz Bhat. “If we had a jail in Kulgam, it wouldn’t be overcrowded. We also have some PSA detainees from Kupwara and Baramulla.” The director of prisons was trying to shift 40 prisoners to other jails, he added.

Only a few inmates from the Anantnag jail were released after the Supreme Court order to decongest prisons. “Eighty percent of the inmates are OGWs and militancy-related cases,” Syroz Bhat said. “OGW” or overground worker, is the local name for non-combatants who provide logistical support for militant groups. “The rest of the prisoners are ordinary criminals and those arrested under the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act.”

Samples were collected only after an inmate, Zahoor Ahmad Bhat, tested positive on July 10. Zahoor Bhat, who had been detained under the Public Safety Act, is a member of the banned Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front, a separatist organisation which works in tandem with the Hurriyat. He is also the brother of Maqbool Bhat, one of the founding members of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front, hanged in 1984 after being charged with acts of terror. Zahoor Bhat himself has been in and out of prison for years, booked for murder and conspiracy in 2014, never convicted but detained multiple times under the Public Safety Act.

The prisoner was shifted to Anantnag district hospital after he tested positive. Syroz Bhat said he was “normal and stable”.

The prison superintendent thought the infection might have entered the premises with doctors who came to check on the inmates. “After the first case, we got all the 240 people tested for Covid-19, including 40 staff members, some labourers and all the inmates – the reports will come in some days,” he said.

Undertrials to be tested in Guwahati

In Guwahati Central Jail, the first case was detected on June 4 and the prison was declared a containment zone immediately, said Das.

“Swab samples of everyone who was in direct or indirect contact with the positive person were taken and all of them were kept separately till the test results were declared,” said Das. All contacts, he said, tested negative.

As the jail’s containment zone status was revoked 14 days later, several fresh prisoners were admitted. “It is most likely the new undertrial prisoners who brought the virus in,” conceded Das.

As cases surged, protests broke out among prisoners, who demanded that the jail authorities adhere to Covid-19 containment protocols. The agitation dovetailed with a hunger strike to release Akhil Gogoi, who has been in judicial custody for over 200 days. According to reports in the Assamese media, the protest was spearheaded by the leaders of North Eastern insurgent groups and civil society outfits housed in the Guwahati Central Jail.

A file photo of Akhil Gogoi leading a black flag protest. Photo: PTI

Many of the jails inmates are undertrials. That includes several highly publicised arrests in the wake of the citizenship protests. There Gogoi and other members of the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti, arrested and booked by the National Investigation Agency for allegedly orchestrating protests that turned violent in Assam last December. There is also Sharjeel Imam, the Jawaharlal Nehru University student booked for sedition after a speech made at the citizenship protests in Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh last year.

Also interned at the Guwahati Central Jail is Ranjan Daimary, chief of a faction of the National Democratic Front of Bodoland, serving out a life sentence after being convicted of serial last in Assam in 2008. Other rebel leaders at the jail include Shanti Meitei of the United People’s Party of Kangleipak and Arnold Singh of the People’s Liberation Army, both from Manipur. There is Rahul Islary, a Bodo militant. There are several cadres of the United Liberation Front of Asom, including Pranamoy Rajguru and Amrit Ballav Goswami. Then there are the former Dimasa rebel leaders, Jewel Garlosa and Mohit Hojai.

Daimary tested positive for the virus and was briefly hospitalised for treatment. He is now back at the jail. Gogoi’s colleagues from the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti, Dharjya Konwar and Bittu Sonowal, also went on to contract the disease. Both have since been released on bail, even as Gogoi still undergoes treatment in the Guwahati Medical College and Hospital.

Stung by criticism of the way they handled infections, jail authorities say they will be more careful in the future. “We will not admit any undertrial without a test report,” said Das.