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Pune’s Bhima Koregaon riots caused due to intelligence failure, says Ambedkar

Urges judicial commission to summon chief minister, intelligence heads for cross examination

Nadeem Inamdar
Hindustan Times, Pune
Pune,Bhima Koregaon,Karjat taluka
Advocate Prakash Ambedkar comes out of Bhima Koregaon judicial commission on Tuesday(Sanket Wankhade/HT PHOTO)

Bharipa Bahujan Mahasangh president Prakash Ambedkar on Tuesday urged the judicial commission probing into the Bhima Koregaon riots to summon chief minister Devendra Fadnavis and the heads of Maharashtra intelligence, state minister for home (rural) Deepak Kesarkar and state minister home (urban) Ranjit Patil for cross examination. Earlier,Chief minister Fadnavis had himself said that the Bhima Koregaon riots had not erupted over intelligence failure.

Referring to his application seeking Fadnavis’s examination in the judicial commission hearing, Ambedkar said the chief minister was attending a programme in Ahmednagar’s Karjat taluka, barely 40 km from Bhima Koregaon on January 1, the day the riots broke..

“ I myself contacted the Chief Minister’s Office (CMO) regarding the rioting that took place but to no avail,” he submitted before the two-member commission comprising justice (retd ) JN Patel and former chief secretary Sumit Mullick.

Ambedkar said there is a need to find out whether the police officers who had information about the incident informed the chief minister about the emerging situation. “Whether the on-ground information was passed to the higher authorities needs to be examined and brought on record. Bhima Koregaon riots have taken place due to intelligence failure,” Ambedkar said.

He pointed out that the gram sevak of Vadhu Budruk had informed in writing that the five grampanchayats of the surrounding areas had declared a bandh on account of January 1. This information does not match with the information given by the police and there is a need to cross examine the then police inspector of Shikrapur police station, Ambedkar said.

“This revelation has come out for the first time in the public discourse and I will submit the necessary documents before the commission. It is not the duty of the public servant to give a bandh call and he as gram sevak has communicated the decision of gram panchayat to the government,“ he said.

Ambedkar added that the commission must take into account and record the incidents which happened from December 26 to December 31, 2017, preceding the riots.

He said that the rural police intelligence wing had information regarding a particular telephone number from one district which was operational from December 28 to January 1 and this needed to be brought on the record. He alleged that conflicting information was coming from Pune rural and Pune city police on the riots.

He rejected the allegations that the banned CPI ( Maoist ) had funded the Elgar Parishad held at Shaniwarwada and said, “A retired Supreme Court judge cannot accept funds from a banned organisation. His reputation and integrity is on par and he is a very respected nationalist legal luminary. The allegations being made against him are false and frivolous in nature,” he said.

Ambedkar, who donned the lawyer’s coat, said the government version in terms of affidavits being submitted was changing from time to time and this must be explained by the government, He also submitted a list demanding access to public documents related to the police, case diary, recorded voice conversations, Daund WhatsApp group and other police investigations.

Bhima Koregaon Judicial Commission lawyer Ashish Satpute in his reply said that according to the law the privileged documents cannot be produced before the commission. The counsel cited various case laws related to non-sharing of secret, privileged, confidential and unpublished documents of the state citing state secrecy.

Justice Patel said that the commission can call for all and any type of document as it wants facts to come out. He assured that the confidential documents won’t be made public” and that the objective is only to know the truth.

Forced to withdraw case under police pressure

BG Bansode, lawyer for the victims, alleged before the judicial commission that the Dalits who had filed the atrocity case against the villagers of Vadhu Budruk for desecrating the samadhi of Govind Gopal Mahar were forced to withdraw the case under pressure from Pune rural police.

Advocate Nihal Singh Rathod who appeared for Ramesh Gaichor, a Kabir Kala Manch member, stated that the state was terrified and unwilling to get its top officers examined before the commission. Advocate Dhairyasheel Patil moved an application seeking examination of arrested Dalit activist Sudhir Dhawale before the commission.

Lock-up bad for health: Gadling

Advocate Surendra Gadling, lodged in the Yerawada central jail, complained to Uapa Judge K D Vadane on Tuesday about the filthy conditions of the lock-up in the court premises.

Gadling said that he spent three hours in the lock up which reeked of a foul smel and was littered with human refuse and spit. “It’s bad for the health of inmates,” he complained.

Justice Vadane will hear Gadling’s bail application on November 16. The court will also hear the bail applications of Rona Wilson, Mahesh Raut and Sudhir Dhawale on November 16. The court also restricted Advocate Nihal Singh Rathod from addressing the court directing him to file a vakalatnama. Accordingly, Gadling moved an application seeking assistance of Adv Rathod before the court which was agreed to by the judge.

Gadling along with other four persons were arrested by the Pune Police on June 8 for alleged “Maoist link

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India – False allegations against Human rights Defender, Degree Prasad Chouhan

Following the arrest of human rights defender Sudha Bharadwaj and four others on 26 October 2018, there is an imminent threat of false charges being brought against Dalit activist and human rights defender, Degree Prasad Chouhan. The police have already implicated the defender by name in a fake letter produced by them on 31 August 2018, which they claim was written by advocate Sudha Bharadwaj. There is a clear attempt by the police to smear the human rights defender as a Maoist militant and draw a false link between Degree Prasad Chouhan and the Bhima Koregaon violence which took place in January 2018.
About Degree Prasad Chouhan

 Degree Prasad ChouhanDegree Prasad Chouhan is a human rights defender and a law graduate in Chhattisgarh’s Raigarh District. He is the convenor of Adivasi Dalit Majdoor Kisan Sangharsh, a community group set up by Adivasi villagers to respond to the alleged unlawful dispossession of their land by two companies. He also serves as Vice President of the Chhattisgarh chapter of the of People’s Union for Civil Liberties, one of India’s oldest human rights organisations. Over the past 15 years, Degree Prasad Chouhan has advocated for justice for the human rights violations committed against Dalits and the Adivasi community, including illegal land grabbing and forced displacement of indigenous people by state agents, security forces and corporate business interests. He has also worked on extra judicial killings, illegal detention, torture and attacks on minorities.


View or Download Urgent Appeal

At a press conference on 31 August 2018, the Maharashtra police read out a fake letter allegedly written by Sudha Baradhwaj. The letter purports inter alia that “Comrade Degree Prasad Chouhan, who was sent into the interiors by me, has returned on successfully completing the said operation. As promised, he has to be paid his reward now”. This is a clear

attempt to smear and implicate the defender, paving the way for his possible arrest under the regressive Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA). Sudha Baradhwaj through her lawyer has refuted the claims of the Maharashtra Police and expressly stated that the allegations against Degree Prasad Chouhan are baseless.

Sudha Baradhwaj and four other activists have been in police custodyunder the UAPA since 26 October 2018, when a Pune Sessions Court denied bail to the activists and also refused to extend their house arrest. On 6 November 2018 they were sent to jail..

Degree Prasad Chouhan believes that he faces an imminent threat of being falsely implicated as a Maoist militant or of instigating in some way the Bhima Koregaon violence, which occurred on 1 January 2018 during the commemoration of the 200 year anniversary of a battle the Dalits had won against the Peshwas (upper caste rulers). The current spate of persecution of human rights defenders through surveillance, threats, arrests and judicial harassment, is an attempt to curb the growing movement for Dalit and Adivasi rights, which has over the years achieved some successes in their fight to preserve their land and rights.

Front Line Defenders expresses grave concern regarding the smear campaign and attempts to falsely imply Degree Prasad Chouhan is a Maoist militant or terrorist, as it strongly believes that they are directly linked to his peaceful and legitimate work in defence of human rights.

Front Line Defenders urges the authorities in India to:

  1. Immediately cease any harassment against Degree Prasad Chouhan, including attempts to smear his name through the media and to criminalise him.

  2. Ensure that Degree Prasad Chouhan is protected within India and the Chhattisgarh state and permitted to continue his human rights work without hindrance or harassment.

  3. Immediately and unconditionally release the five human rights defenders, including lawyer Sudha Baradhwaj, as their arrest is directly linked to their peaceful and legitimate work in defence of human rights.

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Activist Arun Ferreira ‘beaten in custody’: Amnesty India demands probe

Arun Ferreira (File photo)Arun Ferreira (File photo)

NEW DELHI: Amnesty IndiaThursday demanded an impartial probe after activist Arun Ferreira‘s claimed he was beaten by a Maharashtra police officer in custody, and asserted the alleged ill-treatment shows how India is becoming a “dangerous place” for human rights defenders.

Ferreira, who was arrested in August for alleged Maoist links along with four other prominent activists, told a Pune court on Tuesday he was “hit” by the investigating officer.

He said he was “hit” on his face “eight to ten times” by Assistant Commissioner of Police (ACP) Shivaji Pawar on November 4 during interrogation.

Asmita Basu, programmes director at Amnesty India, said Ferreira’s submission is alarming and this raises serious questions about the government’s treatment of human rights defenders.

“The authorities must conduct a prompt, thorough and impartial investigation into his allegations.”

Amnesty India claimed Ferreira’s lawyer Sidharth Patil spoke to them.

The Amnesty statement said Patil told them that Ferreira was admitted to a local hospital soon after the incident and his injuries were recorded in the medical report. “The report has been submitted to the court. Arun is recovering and his family met him in jail yesterday.”

Amnesty India said in a series of brutal crackdowns on human rights defenders, Maharashtra police on June 6 arrested activists Surendra Gadling, Rona Wilson, Sudhir Dhawale, Shoma Sen, and Mahesh Raut.

On August 28, Maharashtra police arrested activists Sudha Bharadwaj, Gautam Navlakha, Vernon Gonsalves, Ferreira, and Varavara Rao from across the country and raided the homes of several others.

Authorities have alleged that the 10 human rights defenders and activists had incited Dalits at a public rally on December 31, 2017, leading to violent clashes the next day in which one person died and several were injured.

Hundreds of Dalits had gathered in Bhima Koregaon village in Maharashtra on January 1 to commemorate a 200-year-old battle in which Dalit soldiers of the British army defeated the ruling Peshwas.

“Reports of Arun Ferreira being beaten in custody are a reminder of how India is fast becoming a dangerous place for those demanding accountability from the state. Amnesty India believes that arrests in relation to the Bhima Koregaon incident, are politically motivated and are aimed at chilling peaceful dissent.

“The Indian government seems to have failed in its obligation to protect human rights defenders, and the freedom of expression and assembly,” said Basu.

The body said ill-treatment and torture in police custody are widespread in India, but are rarely punished.

While torture is not recognised as a distinct crime under the Indian law, the Supreme Court has ruled that torture and other ill-treatment violates constitutionally guaranteed rights to life and personal liberty, it added

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India -The force of a dissenting verdict

The writer is a women’s rights lawyer

In his dissenting verdict, Justice Chandrachud disagreed with the views of then Chief Justice Dipak Misra and Justice A.M. Khanwilkar.

Poet-Social activist Varavara Rao

 Poet-Social activist Varavara Rao

There have been times in history when dissenting verdicts have not only pointed to the failure of a majority ruling to protect the fundamental rights of citizens but over time, the principles upheld by minority rulings have moved on to become the law of the land. The much-acclaimed minority view upholding the citizen’s right to life and liberty under Article 21 of the Constitution even in an Emergency in the ADM Jabalpur case by Justice H.R. Khanna immediately comes to mind.

The dissenting verdict of Justice D.Y. Chandrachud in the PIL by Romila Thapar and four other eminent citizens against the arbitrary arrest of five left-leaning activists — Varavara Rao, the 77-year-old poet from Hyderabad, advocate Sudha Bharadwaj, who works for the rights of adivasis, advocate Arun Ferreira and Vernon Gonsalves, activists from Mumbai and Thane, and journalist and former member of the editorial team of acclaimed journal Economic and Political Weekly Gautam Navlakha — in the Bhima-Koregaon incident does precisely this. It outweighs the majority judgment in legal and factual reasoning.

Eminent jurist and constitutional law expert Soli J. Sorabjee, in a recent article, expressed the hope that this brilliantly-articulated dissenting verdict may, at some future date, become the majority view of the Supreme Court. He explains that a judge on a bench does not usually dissent from the views of his/her companion judges. However, when a judge believes that the court’s judgment would not be in the public interest or results in subverting the Constitution or results in gross violation of the fundamental rights of a group of people, he or she is constrained to write a dissenting judgment.

When the issue concerning the personal liberty of the arrested persons came up before the Supreme Court, the majority did not accept the plea that the arrest of the five activists was unjustified and directed them to approach the subordinate courts for appropriate relief, and ordered the continuation of their house arrest for a further period of four weeks.

The PIL was not seeking to establish the innocence of the arrested activists. It was merely seeking an independent inquiry by a court-appointed special investigation team. Therefore, the issue before the court was whether the investigation carried out by the Maharashtra police was fair, unbiased and unmotivated. In this context, the majority verdict overlooked the lapses which were sufficient to indicate that the investigations were not being carried out in an impartial manner.

In his dissenting verdict, Justice Chandrachud disagreed with the views of then Chief Justice Dipak Misra and Justice A.M. Khanwilkar. The dissent endorses judicial interference on the core issue of liberty as the constitutional duty of the court to ensure justice is not compromised.

“Dissent is a symbol of a vibrant democracy (where) voices in opposition cannot be muzzled by persecuting those who take up unpopular causes,” Justice Chandrachud held, and listed several circumstances which cast a cloud on the ability of the Maharashtra police to carry out a fair and impartial investigation.

Of particular relevance is the press conference held by Pune’s joint commissioner of police hours after the Supreme Court admitted the PIL on August 29 and stayed the transit of arrested activists from their homes to Pune, saying the police had sufficient evidence. On August 31, the additional director-general of the Maharashtra police held a press briefing, where several letters were selectively flashed to the media to suggest that the arrested activists were involved in a plot to assassinate the Prime Minister. A few months before her arrest, a letter attributed to advocate Sudha Bharadwaj was flashed on a television channel on July 4 to create the impression that she had links with Maoist organisations.

These letters were not produced before any court of law and were not mentioned in the remand applications filed before the magistrates. These incriminating letters did not form part of the case diary in the investigation against the activists. Additional solicitor-general Tushar Mehta had himself submitted before the Supreme Court that there was no basis to link the five arrested activists to the alleged plot to assassinate the Prime Minister. But though there was no allegation on record that the activists were involved in a plot to assassinate the Prime Minister, the police made an attempt to create a public impression to that effect through its media briefings.

Based on these circumstances, Justice Chandrachud held that there was an attempt by the police to tarnish the reputation of the arrested activists by selectively leaking information to the media. The police revelations fuelled the narrative that the arrested activists were “urban Naxals”.

Justice Chandrachud also noted that the investigation, which started as an inquiry into the Bhima-Koregaon violence on January 1, 2018, got deflected with allegations of a plot to assassinate the Prime Minister. He also dealt with procedural lapses over the arrests and glaring discrepancies in the investigation. It was undisputed that none of the five were present at the Elgaar Parishad in Pune on December 30, 2017 which the police claimed had incited the violence on January 1, 2018.

A cumulative effect of these circumstances, especially the selective media revelations by the police to besmirch the reputation of arrested activists by linking them to an assassination plot that had no mention in the case diary, led Justice Chandrachud to hold that “this is a proper case for the appointment of a special investigation team”.

What is surprising is that the majority opinion written by Justice Khanwilkar makes no reference to the circumstances listed by Justice Chandrachud. It makes a curt statement that “no specific material facts and particulars are found in the petition about mala fide exercise of power by the investigating officer”. There is no reference to the press conferences held by the Maharashtra police to create the impression that the activists were “urban Naxals”. However, the activists hailed the verdict as it opened up the avenue to approach the high courts for bail. Justice S. Muralidhar of the Delhi high court, based on the shoddy arrest procedure adopted, has already granted bail to Gautam Navlakha, one of the activists placed under house arrest in New Delhi. It is here that the minority verdict which discussed the issue threadbare will come to the aid of the arrested activists.

The day after the Supreme Court verdict, addressing a press conference, eminent historian Romila Thapar asked the government to define the phrase “urban Naxal”, saying either the government does not understand the meaning of the term or activists like her do not. “We were all born Indians, lived as Indians all our lives. These activists are fighting against social injustice. Terming them ‘urban Naxal’ is a political move,” she said.

Asian Age

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Arun Ferreira, Vernon Gonsalves file bail pleas in Pune court

Arun FerreiraArun Ferreira
PUNE: Activist-lawyers Arun Ferreira and Vernon Gonsalves, who were among the five persons arrested by the Pune police on August 28 in the Elgar Parishad probe, filed separate bail applications in the Pune sessions court on Friday.

Siddharth Patil, counsel for Ferreira, and Rahul Deshmukh, who is representing Gonsalves, told TOI the bail pleas were filed in the court of additional sessions judge K D Vadane.

Patil said, “We have made out a case of bail for Ferreira primarily on the grounds that he has been under house arrest for more than a month now and the police have found nothing incriminating from the material recovered from him. Our plea also states that his arrest was a ploy to keep him away from legally representing some of the already arrested activists.” Ferreira has also argued that he has been acquitted in all the previous cases regsitered against him and that he deserves to be granted bail relief in the instant case.

On his part, Deshmukh said, “The plea by Gonsalves has questioned the legality of his arrest. We have argued that a combined reading of the September 28 judgment by a three-member bench of the Supreme Court, which extended the house arrest of all activists by four weeks to enable them to exercise other remedies available under the law, makes out a case against their custodial interrogation by the police.”

Activist-poet P Varavara Rao’s bail plea is expected to be filed on Saturday by a team of lawyers from Hyderabad while activist Sudha Bharadwaj’s bail plea is likely to be heard on October 10. Lawyer Hafeez Kazi told TOI, “The state government has already moved a special leave petition in the Supreme Court against the Delhi high court’s October 1 order that ended the house arrest of Gautam Navlakha (the fifth activist). We will have to wait and see what view the apex court takes on the SLP.”

All five activists were arrested for alleged links with the banned outfit CPI (Maoist), which, the police claims, was behind the organisation of the Elgar Parishad. Alleged inflammatory speeches and provocative statements at the Parishad contributed to the January 1 violence at Koregaon Bhima, the police claim, and that Elgar Parishadwas part of a larger Maoist conspiracy to create social unrest and overthrow a democratically elected government.

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India’s Unforgivable Laws

Several unconstitutional laws in India repress its citizens. A reading list from the EPW Archives.

As the second branch of government, the purpose of the legislature is to make laws that uphold the fundamental rights of all citizens. However, when met with extraordinary circumstances, the Indian legislature has made laws that have not only neglected fundamental rights, but also contradicted them. Often the use of these draconian laws has continued well after the circumstances in which they were created have passed. But they have endowed the state with excess powers to violate constitutionally guaranteed rights at both the individual and community level.

There is a need to conceptualise these laws in terms of what they purportedly combat, and what they actually combat. Usually, these unconstitutional laws are designed with a protectionist rhetoric against a threat (which could be real or imagined). But what they actually protect is the ruling dispensation’s ability to bypass human rights.

The most recent example of this is the use of the National Safety Act (NSA) to arbitrarily arrest 160 Muslim men in Uttar Pradesh, in the one year that Yogi Adityanath has been its chief minister. In August, the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) was used to arrest five human rights activists, by accusing them of being “Naxals” operating against the state.

Through EPW’s archives, we look at how India’s draconian laws are sometimes mobilised to serve partisan interests.

1) ‘National Security’ Laws to Suspend Fundamental Rights

In 2000, the NSA was used in Uttarakhand to target two civil rights activists Jasodhara and Abhijit Dasgupta, who ran the NGO, Sahayog. They had published a booklet, AIDS aur Hum, promoting sexual health that scandalised the local community. From Harsh Sethi’s article, which documents this incident, it is apparent that here, the use of the NSA was not politically motivated. It was used because the booklet was seen as explicit and perceived as a moral offence to society. The NSA simply served as an excuse to humiliate the activists and hold them to account in the name of public decency.

Even a cursory examination of the actual sequence of events, makes clear that despite the widespread dismay, even anger, at the ‘foolishness’ of the concerned NGO, what is today being termed ‘public protest’ has been carefully organised and orchestrated. For nearly a month before the offices of Sahayog were ransacked, both staff and trainees at their field office roughed up, and leading activists arrested, the local media in the region had been carrying on a campaign against the group, targeting in particular the booklet.

Perhaps more sinisterly, NSA has been deployed against those who have protested against gross human rights violations committed by the military and the government. In 1992, Niloy Dutta, Parag Kumar Das and Ajit Bhuiyan were arrested in Guwahati under unspecified sections of the NSA. It was alleged that they were disrupting the process of peace-building in Assam and were involved in “anti-national” activities that threatened the sovereignty of the country. They were released eight weeks later after the arrests were met with much protest. They were the founding members of Manab Adhikar Sangram Samity (MASS), which had been compiling evidence of military atrocities in the state for the past year.

MASS had accumulated incontrovertible evidence of army atrocities and flagrant violations of human rights by the armed forces during operation Rhino. It had sent three groups fully equipped with audio and video gadgets to three zones of the slate to compile cases of army atrocities. Braving severe restraints imposed by the army and civil authorities, these groups had succeeded in recording cases of arrest, torture, molestation, rape, killing and so on. With painstaking effort they compiled a comprehensive 65-page report enlisting the cases of army atrocities, which included 13 cases of death in army camps, seven cases of rape, as many as 120 cases of brutal torture, 139 cases of illegal detention and 63 cases of indiscriminate army raids in villages, unlawful public beatings and torture, all with specific dates, places and blow-by-blow accounts of the incidents, fully substantiated by physical evidence. They also recorded the most brutal incidents on films. Most damaging of all was a video cassette which had recorded the atrocities on women much of which cannot be written and shown in public.

2) Detaining Kashmiris in the Name of ‘Public Safety’

The Public Safety Act (PSA) is another act that has been used indiscriminately in Kashmir to facilitate preventive detentions of “suspected militants”, especially since Burhan Wani’s death in 2016. The PSA has been called a “lawless law” because of the arbitrary nature in which it is used. In his article published in May 2018, Gaurav Bhawnani pointed out that in the 130 days following Wani’s death, over 500 PSA detention orders were issued to clamp down on the turmoil in Kashmir. Bhawani argues that the arbitrariness of the act is best illustrated by human rights activist Khurram Parvez’s arrest.

The scope for arbitrary detentions under the PSA is tremendous. On an average, each person has been identified as having committed offences under three first information reports (FIRs). However, most of these FIRs are “open FIRs.” The police merely record that a certain incident has occurred, and even if some names are recorded, the FIR also states “and others.” Therefore, any person can be arrested under these FIRs as having been involved in the protests. The scope for misuse is best highlighted by Khurram Parvez’s case. The police dossier listed four FIRs as the grounds for his arrest. However, he was not named in a single one of these FIRs. He was just one of those “others” to have been arrested as a consequence. Another case that highlights the scope of misuse is that of Abdul Rasheed Bhat. As per the records of his government job, he was present at work at the time of the offence, but was named under all three open FIRs listed in his PSA dossier.

3) ‘Anti-Terrorism’ Laws to Repress Dissent

After the November 26, 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967 was amended to become India’s main anti-terrorist law — merely four years after the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) was repealed. However, some of the provisions introduced in the UAPA’s amended version were almost replicated from POTA, and broadened even further,  wrote Ravi Nair. The provisions for arrest under the amended UAPA were as vague as they were in POTA. Nair wrote that the key problem with the UAPA is that it fails to understand the multidimensional nature of terrorism, and what makes acts of terrorism distinct from other forms of crime.

The 2008 UAPA Amendment extends the maximum period of pre-charge detention to 180 days, if after 90 days the public prosecutor can show that the investigation has progressed but more time is needed. This standard is inadequate. A judge considering the extension of pre-charge detention should consider whether there is adequate evidence against the accused, justifying his/her continuing detention, not merely whether the investigation is progressing.

The UAPA has been misused rampantly, and several controversial arrests have been made under it. For instance, the arrest of Delhi University professor G N Saibaba, and his comrades, on the allegation of being Naxals. Susan Abhraham’s 2017 article details the case against Saibaba and his consequent imprisonment based on flimsy evidence. She also points out various procedural lapses.

The major charge of the prosecution is that the accused in this case were waging war against the country and supporting the ideology of a banned organisation, CPI (Maoist). Anybody can easily understand that to “wage a war” somebody needs weapons and none of the six accused were shown as possessing any weapon on them when arrested, nor did the police find any in searching their houses. Supporting an ideology, even if the same ideology is adhered to by a banned organisation, cannot be a crime. Such a verdict would not have been possible without the extreme provisions found in the draconian anti-terror UAPA.

In June 2018, in an article titled Urban Maoist, Anand Teltumbde wrote that the “draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) gives the police unaccountable authority to arrest, slap any number of charges, and ensure that the arrested rot in jail as the law meanders through the courts”. He was writing in defence of Sudhir Dhawale, Surendra Gadling, Shoma Sen, Mahesh Raut and Rona Wilson – all Dalit activists –  who were arrested under the UAPA, allegedly for being associated with the “Elgar Parishad”. The state insinuated that they were Maoists or Naxals who engaged in inflammatory speech that eventually precipitated the violence at Bhima-Koregaon. Incidentally, in August, Teltumbde himself faced arrest under the UAPA, ostensibly for being an “urban naxal”.

While the search warrant clearly mentioned “Bhima–Koregaon,” the chief minister stated that they did not have anything to do with Bhima–Koregaon. On 6 June, the police arrested four of them and Mahesh Raut, a noted social activist and member of the Prime Minister’s Rural Development (PMRD) fellowship who after passing out from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) has devoted his life to the tribals of Gadchiroli. The police made out a story that the Elgar Parishad was organised and funded by the Maoists, which was duly publicised by the media ignoring the repeated explanation of Kolse Patil that he along with Justice Sawant was its convener, that they did not spend any money, and that none of the arrestees had much to do with it.

4) Terrorism Laws to Target Minorities and Marginalised Groups

In 2003, activist Gautam Navlakha wrote, “A law is bad in itself when it overturns all notions of natural justice on its head and allows the executive to apply the law at its subjective discretion.” Navlakha was discussing the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA), which in February 2003 was used to arrest 28 Dalit and Adivasi agricultural workers in Uttar Pradesh, who were allegedly Naxalites. Some of those arrested were later shot in an encounter killing. Navlakha outlined how the “preventive” nature of POTA allows the law to be misused.

Like its predecessor TADA the promulgation of POTA falls in that category of law where persecution is embedded in it. Let us recall that TADA’s pathetic conviction rate of 1 per cent obscured its wide use as a preventive detention measure where more than 76,000 persons were detained for years on end destroying lives, and ruining their kith and kin…POTA has established itself as a piece of legislation that is meant to terrorise precisely those sections of the population which are vulnerable and are victims of gross injustices and therefore the maximum numbers of those charged under POTA are landless or land-poor dalits and adivasis accused of being Naxalites, Kashmiris fighting against oppressive Indian rule or Muslims accused of working in tandem with Pakistan’s ISI.

Writing in 2004, Ujjwal Kumar Singh argued that “like all extraordinary laws, it [POTA] bypasses due process, so that abuse/ misuse is woven into its provisions”. But he also identified a larger trend which suggests that POTA has been used surreptitiously to restructure centre–state relations away from federalism.

POTA epitomised an executivisation of law, giving the executive extraordinary powers of initiating procedures and investigations under the act. Subsequent developments have shown a further deepening of this executivisation through (a) the judicial affirmation of the procedures laid down in POTA, and (b) further augmentation of the process by authorising a review process as a quasi-executive and quasi-judicial function.

POTA was preceded by the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act, 1985 or TADA. When it was repealed a decade later, a report in EPW said, “The abuse of TADA is built into the law itself. By replacing normal law and procedure it eats into the foundations of democracy.” According to the report, by mid-1994, 76,166 people had been arrested under TADA but less than 4% were actually found guilty.

Today it is widely accepted that TADA has been thoroughly misused. Large numbers of innocents have been arrested. Protests against the Act have also grown. In this situation every political party has suggested some change in the Act to curb large-scale arrests. However, it is not so widely accepted that the provisions of TADA are themselves responsible for such a state of affairs.

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Pune Court slams Yerwada jail for witholding books

Court slams Yerwada jail for witholding books

Surendra Gadling
Prison authority showcaused for sharing 2 out of 10 books

The sessions court on Thursday slammed the Yerwada central prison authority for not providing books to Surendra Gadling, the lawyer and activist, who has been lodged in the jail for alleged Maoist link.

The district and sessions judge, KD Vadane, issued a show-cause notice to the prison authority for not following the court’s order.

Gadling and Shoma Sen, who was arrested on June 6, also for alleged Maoists links, filed for bail before the court.

Their bail application were heard on Thursday.
During the hearing, Gadling’s lawyer Nihalsing Rathod filed a complaint against jail authorities alleging that they did not provide books to Gadling. On June 25, the court had passed an order to provide him books.

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Bhima Koregaon case -WSS condemns the majority judgment of the Supreme Court


WSS deeply condemns the majority judgement of the Supreme Court which has dismissed the PIL filed by Romila Thapar, Devaki Jain, Satish Deshpande, Prabhat Patnaik and Maja Daruwalla and has in effect granted the notorious Pune Police impunity to carry on with its fabricated and malafide investigation in the Bhima Koregaon (FIR No. 4/2018) case. The Court in its vague majority judgement has failed to do its duty as a Constitutional Arbitrator and as the vanguard of the fundamental rights under Articles 14, 19 and 21 of the Constitution of India to protect the liberty of the dissenting activists – who have been arrested by the Pune police which unabashedly flouted due process.  

The short sighted majority judgement has held that there is no form of malice in the investigation conducted by the Pune Police and refused to interfere with the current investigation and dismissed the prayer demanding that the investigation be referred to a Special Investigation Team (SIT). It has further held that the arrests were not initiated to curb dissent but to investigate the connection of the aforementioned activists Advocate Sudha Bharadwaj, and activists Vernon Gonsalves, Arun Ferreira, Varavara Rao and Gautam Navlakha, to banned organisations.

On the other hand, the exhaustively reasoned dissenting judgement of Justice D.Y. Chandrachud most explicitly states that on inspection of the evidence submitted by the Maharashtra Police, its claim of connecting all the accused persons to a banned organisation is contrary to logic.  He further takes cognizance of the use of electronic media by the Maharashtra for besmirching the reputation of the above activists. The dissenting judgement deemed the press conferences held by the Pune Police and the leakage of such letters which are still under investigation stage, ‘disturbing’ and to be “causing serious concern” and holds that the manner in which the ADG has behaved casts a cloud on the investigation and purports bias on the part of the Pune Police. Furthermore, he also specifically mentions and condemns the vilification campaign run by Republic Channel against Sudha Bharadwaj, who is one of the arrested activists and member of WSS.

He further goes on to say that the police are not adjudicators nor can they announce guilt and very strongly asserted that the Pune Police “is manipulating public media” to create and facilitate a media trial. He further in his judgement takes stock of the lack of credibility in the letters and finally holds that “the conduct of the Pune police fortifies the need to a fair investigation” and that “Dissent is a part of a vibrant democracy”, however unpopular the dissent is Criminal law is amenable to Constitutional mandate and hence the court as the constitutional arbitrator has the duty to exercise its jurisdiction under Article 32 to ensure that liberty is not sacrificed at the altar of conjecture. In the past few weeks we have been witness to several judgements of the Supreme Court such as the Adultery Judgement, the Sabrimala Judgement, and the Sec. 377 Judgement, where civil rights and liberties have been invoked and elaborated upon, loftily reading them as the spirit of the Constitution and the democratic framework. As these civil liberty claims are given a much needed boost and careful articulation by the Supreme Court, matters of political import have met with a cold, rigid, conservative approach.  All these lofty judgements and the principles on which they are based will cease to have meaning if they are not applied by the court in cases where individual liberties and claims are impinged upon by the State.

WSS reiterates its strong condemnation of the targeting of dissent and suppression of all resistance. The attack on democratic rights activists, lawyers, journalists and writers has happened in draconian waves, where those active in defending the arrested are picked up in the next round of arrests. The first round of arrests in this particular Bhima Koregaon case targeted WSS member Professor Shoma Sen, Advocate Surendra Gadling, activists Sudhir Dhawale, Rona Wilson and Mahesh Raut. Advocate Surendra Gadling was the lawyer for Prof. G.N. Saibaba, Mahesh Tirki, Vijay Tirki, Pandu Narote, Hem Mishra and Prashant Rahi, while the others arrested with Advocate Gadling were active in condemning that round of arrests. Prof. Shoma Sen was Head of the English Department at Nagpur University and a dedicated feminist and anti-caste activists and two months away from superannuation at the age of 60 when she was picked up by the police. Mahesh Raut however appears to have been solely targeted for being active against state sponsored displacement in Gadhchiroli and in trying to implement Constitutional provisions safeguarding adivasi rights. It appears that the attack on Sudha Bharadwaj was likewise primarily targeting her work on the ground as a lawyer and trade unionist in implementing Constitutional provisions in safeguarding adivasi land rights and labour rights for the last three decades in Chhattisgarh. As part of Janhit, an organization providing legal aid, she has taken up cases of illegal land acquisition, violations of forest rights, environmental issues, forced evictions, human rights violations, and violations of laws like the Forest Rights Act and Panchayats Extension to Scheduled Areas (PESA), etc. Apart from the scores of cases she has fought for workers across the state. Sudha had also spoken out against the previous round of arrests through the long-standing civil liberties organization, PUCL, and the Indian Association of People’s Lawyers. The repeated and concentrated attacks against Advocate Surendra Gadling, and then Advocates Sudha Bharadwaj and Arun Ferreira who were active in protesting the arrest of a lawyer who is just doing his job in defending his clients from marginalized dalit adivasi Muslim and bahujan backgrounds, show a clear pattern of clamping down on dissent even within the framework of the court system, not to mention clamping down on the social activists working outside the court system in civil society. This has a chilling effect on all activists standing with marginalized communities and sends a clear message that marginalized communities have no hope in fighting for the on-ground implementation of their Constitutionally guaranteed rights.

In the meantime, those who actually assaulted the Dalit Bahujan and Muslim communities in Bhima Koregaon roam freely with impunity. This FIR was filed first, in Pune (rural) and names Milind Ekbote and Sambaji Bhide as the instigators of the violence. It is therefore a mystery as to why the Ambedkarites who are upholding constitutional values of Liberty, equality and fraternity and were demanding the arrest of these perpetrators, were arrested instead of the perpetrators, on the basis of a second FIR filed in Pune (urban), which has no connection to any actual violence! This is meant to strike terror amongst the vast majority of people who have been daring to speak out against the anti-people policies of the state.

The entire framework of the UAPA has no place in a modern democratic system and the time has come for the Constitutional courts to hold this draconian law as unconstitutional for violating the rights of countless citizens. It is well known that in UAPA cases, the chances of bail are minimal and the time spent in custody by those charged is effectively used as punishment. It is a fear mongering and vindictive tactic of branding. Whatever happens in the court, the larger political struggle for democratic rights and opposing UAPA, and opposing the corporate assault on adivasi people in the greed for mining these lands will continue and intensify.

We demand the immediate and unconditional release of all arrested in the Bima Koregaon case, the punishment of the real perpetrators of violence and the repeal of draconian laws such as UAPA.


Women Against Sexual Violence and State Repression (WSS)


Convenors Ajita, Nisha, Rinchin and Shalini; Email ID [email protected]

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Why Open Prisons Are The Solution To India’s Overcrowded Prisons

Since 2014, murder convict Deepak Lalaprasad, 33, has been living in an open prison in Udaipur, having conducted himself well for 10 years in a conventional prison. One of 24 inmates at the open prison, Deepak now runs a stall near the Udaipur central bus depot. As many as 1,127 prisoners in 29 open jails in Rajasthan work as accountants, school teachers, domestic help and security guards.

Udaipur: Kalu Tulsiram*, 35, a bespectacled, serious looking man, was brewing tea at a stall near the Udaipur central bus depot on a recent monsoon day. It was close to noon, a busy time for the tea stalls lining the main road. A few metres away, Deepak Lalaprasad*, 33, heavier built and more relaxed in demeanour, was helming another stall, waiting for a customer.

Casual passersby or customers could never guess that these two men were convicts serving life sentences under Section 302 of the Indian Penal Code of 1860–for murder.

Since 2014, Kalu and Deepak have been living in an open prison in Udaipur, having conducted themselves well for 10 years in conventional prisons. Inmates at this prison are permitted to stay with their families and go out during the day to earn a living. As many as 1,127 prisoners in 29 open jails in Rajasthan work as accountants, school teachers, domestic help and security guards, even those serving time for murder.

Prisoners’ rooms at the Udaipur open prison. Inmates at this prison are permitted to stay with their families and go out during the day to earn a living.

Not only do these prisons present an early opportunity for prisoners’ reform and rehabilitation back into society, they also cost less in terms of money and staff, a 2017 report on Rajasthan’s open prisons said, based on which the Supreme Court in May 2018 ordered state governments to fully utilise and expand the capacity of open prisons as well as set up more open prisons.

Why open prisons

Conceptually, open prisons were developed to rehabilitate prisoners who had almost completed their sentence. In the earliest open prisons developed in the U.S. in the 19th century, prisoners nearing release were sent to work as labourers to evaluate their behaviour. In India, the earliest open prison established in 1953 in Uttar Pradesh housed prisoners who were requisitioned to construct a dam over the river Chandraprabha, near Varanasi.

It was in Rajasthan’s first open prison–a farm set up in Durgapura near Jaipur in 1955–that prisoners were first allowed to stay with their families and work on the farm or nearby.

In December 2017, the Supreme Court asked states to establish an open prison in each district based on a 2017 report that detailed the success of Rajasthan’s open jail system. It followed up this suggestion with an order on May 8, 2018, asking states to “try and utilise the capacity of these open prisons”–which number 63 and have a capacity of 5,370, but have 30% seats unutilised–adding that states should consider increasing the capacity of existing open prisons and “seriously consider the feasibility of establishing open prisons in as many locations as possible”.

In creating open prisons where the rehabilitation of prisoners could start from the day they are incarcerated, instead of after they have served the greater part of their sentence, India would not become any less safe, the report mentioned above showed.

Commissioned by the Rajasthan State Legal Services Authority and released on National Law Day–November 26–in 2017, the report showed that open prisons “reduce the burden on the exchequer”, “reduce overcrowding in prisons” and “strengthen the social fabric by mainstreaming estranged individuals who are in conflict with the law”, to quote Kalpesh Satyendra Jhaveri, executive chairperson of the authority, who commissioned the report. He is now the chief justice of the Odisha High Court.

‘Not a threat to society’

Consider this scenario: A man’s daughter is raped. The man murders the rapist to avenge the crime. He is put in jail to serve a life sentence. The man is a murderer alright, but to what extent is he a threat to society now that he has no motive to kill?

Very low, according to prison researcher Smita Chakraburtty: “Seeing all prisoners through the same lens doesn’t help use the limited funds available for prisons judiciously.”

Or, consider how Kalu landed up in jail: “I squabbled with a man over a piece of land,” he told IndiaSpend. “I had a piece of wood in my hand, so did the man I murdered, we were beating each other,” said the native of Ghosunda village, in Chittorgarh tehsil of Rajasthan.

In the scuffle, the opponent got hit on the head and died, and Kalu became a murderer. “I hadn’t planned on killing the man,” Kalu said.

Kalu Tulsiram, 35, was imprisoned after a squabble with a man over a piece of land led to the latter’s death. Such accidental or unplanned murderers constituted 57% (244) of the 428 prisoners that researcher Smita Chakraburtty met during her visits to 15 of 29 open prisons in Rajasthan.

Such accidental or unplanned murderers constituted 57% (244) of the 428 prisoners Chakraburtty met during her visits to 15 of 29 open prisons in Rajasthan. She spoke to 90% of the inmates, except those out on work during her visit, so the 57% figure is fairly representative. Eighty-one percent (347 of 428) of the prisoners were also first-time offenders, with no previous police record.

This situation is mirrored in prisons across the country. Habitual offenders or ‘recidivists’ accounted for 3% of the 186,566 convicts admitted in prisons across the country during 2015, according to the National Crime Records Bureau’s (NCRB) prison statistics for that year.

“Repeat offenders are the ones with real ‘criminal minds’, who pose a threat to society and hence must be kept in closed jails, but they are also the ones who need reform and rehabilitation the most,” Udaipur Central Jail superintendent Surendra Singh told IndiaSpend.

“Repeat offenders are the ones with real ‘criminal minds’, who pose a threat to society and hence must be kept in closed jails,” Udaipur Central Jail superintendent Surendra Singh said. Habitual offenders or ‘recidivists’ accounted for 3% of the 186,566 convicts admitted in prisons across the country during 2015, government data show.

Often, people are incarcerated merely due to lack of awareness of the law, Chakraburtty said, citing as an example people imprisoned in Rajasthan for possession of opium. This reflects a lack of understanding of the nature of their offence, she said, “Because their communities have had access to opium since time immemorial, and they have no idea of the prevailing laws.”

The possession of any narcotic is a non-bailable offence under the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act of 1985. However, the cultivation of opium is permitted, under license, in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh.

Apart from offenders who are psychopaths or who have performed exceptionally brutal crimes, most prisoners do not need to be removed from society, Chakraburtty said. They need to be watched over, made aware of their crime and rehabilitated.

“Justice is not revenge. It has to work for the victim as much as for the perpetrator,” Chakraburtty said, “If society responds with more violence, the prisoner develops vengeance for society and comes out hardened. If we ignore a prisoner’s need to earn a livelihood for his family, a man could enter the prison as a rapist and leave as a gangster.”

Open jails and prisoner behaviour

At Udaipur’s open air camp for prisoners (open prison for short), a roll-call each morning and evening keeps a count of the prisoners.

Overall, 1 in 45 prisoners in Rajasthan’s open prisons absconded from parole or escaped, while the all-India figure for closed prisons is 1 in 481, as per 2015 prison data. Chakraburtty’s report attributed most of the escapes from open prisons to “problems related to procuring parole and remission”–in other words, due to prisoners’ failure to furnish a bail bond, or due to adverse reports by police personnel willing to err on the side of caution.

“Administrative issues regarding parole are a common problem in prisons across India, and should be addressed,” said R.K. Saxena, former inspector general of prisons, Rajasthan, and the director of the 1982-83 Justice Mulla Committee on Prison Reforms. “Parole is a prisoners’ right, a conditional release and an opportunity for prisoners to assimilate into society.”

The report made several suggestions that would improve parole administration and thereby lower the number of prisoners recorded as having escaped. These are: Reducing the bond amount; encouraging personal bonds instead of requiring guarantors (unless a prisoner misbehaves); considering a prisoner’s behaviour alone based on social welfare department statements instead of police reports for the second parole onwards.

The police, on their part, could be sensitised on the role of open prisons in prisoner reform so that they make unbiased investigation reports when parole applications come up.

“A proactive approach in addressing the rights of prisoners is much needed,” said Ajay Chopra, an artist and social worker who was imprisoned in 2017 on corruption charges but was released on bail after three months. He now campaigns for greater acceptance of open prisons, especially after the Supreme Court’s endorsement. “A positive mindset towards prisoners is essential for prisoner reform,” he said.

Prisoners in Rajasthan’s open prisons have generally conducted themselves well, Chakraburtty told IndiaSpend. “Open jails in Rajasthan are doing something very right,” said Chakraburtty, a leading prison researcher and honorary prison commissioner for the aforementioned report, “Prison authorities have actually had to evict open jail inmates who asked for extensions after they had served their sentence because their children’s exams were approaching or because they were receiving decent medical care as convicts.”

In conversation with IndiaSpend, Kalu and Deepak, who are among 24 prisoners currently lodged in the Udaipur open prison, emphasised that a life of crime was far from their minds.

“Hotel business” is how Kalu described his tea stall work, something he said he wanted to continue doing after he was freed.

“I’d like to live in peace and work,” said Deepak about his plans after his prison term.

Segmenting by threat level

Rajasthan’s open prison system is considered a best practice in prisoners’ welfare and rehabilitation in the NCRB’s 2015 prison statistics. It has been acclaimed for “facilitating social adjustment and financial independence” of prisoners before their final release. Eligibility typically extends to “prisoners who have completed their one third part of total sentence and whose conduct in the jail was found good”, subject to the “recommendation of the committee formed by the State government,” the compilation notes.

Chakraburtty has proposed expanding the open prison network across the country to make it the norm instead of the exception, particularly for female prisoners; aged and physically infirm prisoners; people convicted for one-time offences, accidental offences, petty offences and those categorised as low risk for not showing any violent trait in prison; accused persons who surrendered; and prisoners undergoing extradition requests.

While the existing system provides for only convicted prisoners to be kept in open prisons, Chakraburtty has also recommended extending the facility to undertrials–who account for two in three people in prison in India today–to significantly lower overcrowding and inhuman living conditions in prisons.

But not everyone agrees with this idea.

“A person is denied bail and sent to judicial custody only when a magistrate has applied his mind and assessed that if not incarcerated, the evidence may be tampered [with] or investigation hampered, or there is a flight risk, thus disabling the trial process,” said Sugandha Mathur, senior programme officer for the prison reforms programme at the Delhi-based advocacy, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative. “If none of these reasons exist, an accused should be released on bail to uphold their right to liberty,” she said, implying that basically, if the circumstances warrant bail, the undertrial should be freed, and if not, the prisoner should be put behind bars and not in an open prison.

Mathur is a member of the sub-committee convened by the Bureau of Police Research and Development in February 2018 to draft the Model Uniform Rules for the Administration of Open Correctional Institutions.

Economic sense, societal benefit

India has 63 open jails with a capacity of 5,370, enough to house 1.28% of the 419,623 prisoners across the country. However, 30% of their seats are unutilised, the Hindustan Times reportedon December 12, 2017.

While Rajasthan tops with 29 open prisons, Maharashtra has 13, Kerala and Tamil Nadu have three each, and Gujarat and West Bengal have two each, according to Prison Statistics 2015.

The Rajasthan report advocated opening two open prisons per district because they are better suited to prisoner reform and pose less of a financial burden on the state. By comparing monthly spending on prisoners, it showed that Jaipur’s Central Jail was 14 times as expensive as its open prison in Sanganer town.

The report also recommended making legal aid and health services available to open prisoners and helping them get gainful employment by negotiating working hours with potential employers to facilitate their timely return to the camp. Keeping prisoners in their home district and improving the remuneration for those employed on state farms and facilities were some other recommendations.

“You can’t put people in prison and expect them to come out as Gandhi after seven (or however many) years unless the system is conducive to reform, which the existing closed prison system isn’t by any measure,” Chakraburtty told IndiaSpend, adding, “Open prisons should become the norm, the prisons of the future.”

Why prison reform is needed urgently

The fact remains that overcrowding is a pressing issue involving the “violation of human rights”, to quote the Supreme Court.

In 2015, the prison occupancy rate exceeded 200% in Dadra and Nagar Haveli (276.7%), Chhattisgarh (233.9%) and Delhi (226.9%), according to NCRB data. Prisons in another 13 states were full beyond capacity.

Source: Prison Statistics 2015, National Crime Records Bureau

In a recent TEDx talk, Chakraburtty, who has interacted with 30,070 prisoners lodged in closed jails in Bihar, described prisons so overcrowded that inmates tied themselves to the bars to sleep because there was no space to lie down.

Adopting the concept of open prisons–or “semi-open prisons” where eligible convicts could be allowed to work within the jail premises during the day, or in a factory after making special arrangements for their secured transport, which Mathur proposed–would free up scarce resources, in terms of funds as well as staff.

The Jaipur Central Jail spends 14 times as much as the Sanganer open prison–Rs 7,094 as against Rs 500–on each prisoner each month, Chakraburtty’s report said.

In the Sanganer open prison, Rajasthan’s largest with a capacity of 400, one staff-person manages 80 prisoners while in Jaipur Central Jail, one manages six prisoners (the recommended number is one staff for four prisoners), Chakraburtty recorded.

Staff shortages are a reality across prisons. In Rajasthan, of the 4,426 sanctioned jail department staff positions, nearly half or 2,129 are vacant.

“We’re managing roughly 1,250 prisoners with 155 guards today, while in the 1970s we had 165 guards to manage 250 prisoners,” said Singh of Udaipur Central Jail.

Staff shortages are a reality across prisons. “We’re managing roughly 1,250 prisoners with 155 guards today, while in the 1970s we had 165 guards to manage 250 prisoners,” said Surendra Singh, superintendent of Udaipur Central Jail.

Having more open jails would enable better management of closed prisons too.

“If only every state could set time guidelines for parole applications to be processed, and make prisoners aware of these rights and actively implement them, possibly fewer prisoners would abscond from parole and make open prisons a stronger proposition in prisoner reform,” Mathur said.

*The prisoners were introduced by their first name and their father’s name, as is prison convention in Rajasthan.

(Bahri is a freelance writer and editor based in Mount Abu, Rajasthan.)

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India – Modi and the art of distraction

‘The arrests of Sanatan Sanstha members for committing murder and stockpiling explosives with the alleged intent of committing mass murder must be embarrassing to a majoritarian government,’ notes Devangshu Datta.

The great Jadugar K Lal once told me that stage magic just involved using imagination, followed by careful scripting and practice.

He said the really difficult thing was learning the art of distraction.

Misdirecting the audience’s attention was, he said, a skill that far transcended the performance of smooth sleights of hand and the crafting of clever mechanical illusions.

It is a skill that the current political establishment has learnt well.

Whenever it’s under pressure, it creates some sort of distraction to drag attention away from the embarrassment of the moment.


The dawn raids by the Pune police on activists across the country was undoubtedly an attempt to do just that.

It succeeded since the arrests have dominated the news cycle for the next two days.

The question is, what was so embarrassing that the Centre decided to risk public opprobrium and ridicule by arresting elderly academics and lawyers on absurd charges?

It’s hard to find answers.

Could it have been demonetisation?

A Parliamentary committee had just criticised the exercise in no uncertain terms, pointing out the many undesirable outcomes.

The Reserve Bank of India’s annual report has also underlined the futility of the foolish exercise, which, if you remember, led to the deaths of over 100 people and caused misery to hundreds of millions.

Practically all the cash came back.

Cash held by the public now is back above pre-demonetisation levels.

The structure of household savings has changed for the worse, with the aam jantapulling money out of banks.

Bureaucrats told to defend the move have been reduced to risible statements like ‘Demonetisation worked, don’t ask how.’

Or, perhaps, it’s the meanness displayed in disbursing relief funds to Kerala? The southern state will require many, many thousands of millions to bootstrap out of this calamity.

The Centre is being niggardly in releasing tiny amounts in dribs and drabs.

Enough ‘friends of the establishment’ have pushed out faked images of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh delivering aid to lead the cynical among us to wonder why no real images could be produced.

And the less said about refusing aid from abroad the better.

The excuse is that this is government policy.

Well, surely this brave decisive government could change the policy?

However, it might not be Kerala or demonetisation that required fuzzing out of primetime focus.

The arrests of Sanatan Sanstha members for committing murder and stockpiling explosives with the alleged intent of committing mass murder must be embarrassing to a majoritarian government.

Maybe the civil rights activists were arrested in order to ensure that mass media did not focus on those arrests?

Or is it actually the Rafale controversy that the government doesn’t want debated on primetime?

There are so many weird elements to that story that it would be hard to peddle it as fiction. One government negotiates for 126 planes.

The next government decides to pay much larger sums for 36 planes.

What’s more, an industrialist who has never fabricated a plane in his career and whose companies owe over Rs 450 billion, suddenly becomes a joint venture partner of Dassault Aviation.

The French say they have no objection to the costs being mentioned in Parliament.

The Indian government says it can’t mention the numbers because it has a secrecy clause in a treaty with France!

Maybe it’s not the Rafale controversy either.

It could just be the record prices of diesel and petrol and the record weakness of the rupee.

After all, the current prime minister spent a lot of time excoriating the last government for the weak rupee and the high price of fuels.

Or, it could be the release of the Sudipto Mundle-led committee report on real sector statistics that suggested the last government did a better job in terms of generating growth.

Or, it might be Doklam, where the People’s Liberation Army has apparently been settling down.

Or, it may be the failure of helicopter diplomacy in the Maldives.

That’s a lot of potentially embarrassing stuff that could have made it to the news cycle.

Instead, we had the spectacle of 70-year-old academics being interrogated on why they read books on Marx and Mao.

Well played!

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