Stan Sway has been waiting for more than 20 days to get access to a straw and sipper. Swamy, an 83-year-old activist currently in jail after being arrested in the Bhima Koregaon case, put in a request for a sipper and straw on November 6 because he has Parkinson’s disease and is unable to hold a glass.
When he was arrested in Ranchi, Jharkhand, in October, he carried a small bag that contained a few belongings, including a straw and a sipper, said his lawyer Sharif Sheikh. However, the contents were not handed to him when he entered jail, Sheikh said.
It took the National Investigating Agency nearly three weeks just to inform the court overseeing the matter that it did not have Swamy’s straw and sipper since it had not confiscated them. The agency then told the court it would need another 20 days to respond to a petition asking for permission to get access to the sipper, as well as winter clothes. But the matter will now be taken up on December 4.
In the larger scheme of things, callousness of this sort, from both the agency and the court, could seem minor. After all, it occurs at a time when draconian laws like the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act are being invoked recklessly, when the simple act of organising protests that are critical of the government is considered criminal, when others accused in the Bhima Koregaon case have been kept behind bars without trail for years.
And indeed, treatment like this is par for the course, given the inhuman, overcrowded jail conditions that confront most of those behind bars, seven in 10 of whom are undertrials and not convicts. Data points to how undertrials disproportionately tend to be Dalit or Adivasis, how few have access to decent legal representation and the shocking number of accused in prison who are eligible to be released but simply have not been.
Jail time is often used as a punishment for undertrials, whether or not they will eventually be convicted. In Delhi, which may be looking at one of the coldest winters on record, students and activists arrested in the violence cases this year have alleged that they are being denied access to warm clothes and medicine.
Research has pointed out how the share of undertrials in jail for more than three years has gone up by 140% since 2000, how the inmate-to-correctional staff ratio is a whopping 756-to-1 with welfare officers often entirely absent, and how deaths in prisons are increasing at a higher rate than the increase in population of prisoners.
Relative to all this, what can only seem like a deliberate delay in providing Swamy with a basic amenity may not appear to be a major complaint. Yet it is instructive.
If even in the case of a disabled, 83-year-old man – who says he has fallen multiple times in jail, is losing his hearing, has Parkinson’s disease and is not asking for much more than a straw and sipper, in a matter that is likely to be covered by the media – the agency and the court are not moved to promptly respond with a modicum of humanity, what does it tell us about our justice system?