Angela Harish Sontakke is a 45 year old political undertrial prisoner facing charges of being a Maoist party member who has been incarcerated since April 2011. Most of this period has been spent in Byculla Jail at Mumbai. Eight out of her 11 co-accused have been released on bail. Angela herself has been acquitted in 15 of the 16 additional cases foisted on her and has been granted bail in the 16th case. She has been denied bail in Sessions Case No. 655 of 2011 under various sections of the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (a law akin to the draconian TADA & POTA) A highly educated lady, she has a double M.A. and has taught in various schools and colleges in Maharashtra.
Angela requested an urgent mulaqat, so, Maharukh Adenwalla and Susan Abraham, both lawyers, visited Byculla Jail on 8.4.2015 at 12 noon.
During mulaqat Angela informed that on 1.4.2015, male jail staff arrived at Barrack No. 3, women’s barrack (where Angela was lodged) with cables. When the inmates made enquiries, they were informed that CCTV cameras were going to be installed inside their barracks. Angela and the other inmates protested that this would be a clear invasion of their privacy since women inmates change their clothes, apply medicines (as skin infections are rampant in the overcrowded condition of the jail) and in the height of summer without any fans, women use minimum clothes while sleeping in the barracks.Angela also asked that they should be shown the notice allowing CCTVs inside the barracks.
The Jail Superintendent Mr Indurkar came to Barrack No. 3 in the evening and next day morning, and said that he was in no mood to hold discussions with the inmates, and accused Angela of instigating other inmates. He threatened to: (i) put her in 24 hour isolation and (ii) to put a case on her for not allowing jail officials to perform their duties. Angela and the other inmates explained that they have no objection to CCTV cameras at the entrance of the barracks, corridors, court yard, at the gate, steps and offices, but that they cannot be installed inside the barracks.
On 2nd April 2015, after bandhi, at around 6.30 p.m. about 10-12 jail staff came to Barrack No. 3 and took Angela away saying that she was being kept in a “separate” cell – obviously as punishment for opposing the CCTV installation. Angela protested by starting a hunger strike that evening itself. On 3rd April 2015, no jail staff came for rounds because of it being Good Friday and a public holiday. On 4th April 2015, Angela met the Chief Medical Officer and informed him that she was on a hunger strike. The Officer took her weight and taking note of her frail health, he informed the staff to inform the higher officers.
Angela also got to see a copy of the circular issued by Meera Borwankar, I.G., Prisons where it is stated that CCTV cameras ought to be installed at: (i) main gate; (ii) judicial office; (iii) High Security Cells; & (iv) mulaqat rooms. The Circular does not state that cameras should be installed inside the barracks.
Again there was no round taken by the jail staff the next day, i.e., 5th April 2015, as it was a Sunday. Angela was on continued hunger strike. On Monday 6th April 2015, when bandi was opened, (i.e., the jail inmates are allowed to come out from the barrack into the jail courtyard), all other inmates were told not to talk to Angela. Angela submitted her letter to a prison officer -that she was on a hunger strike and demanded that (i) the CCTV cameras not be installed inside the barracks; and (ii) that she be returned to the barracks. Instead of considering her demands, Angela was further punished by putting her in an “isolation” cell with no contact with other inmates.
Since Angela continued her hunger strike for the 5th day, and her weight had come down to 57 kgs., the Superintendent came to meet her on 7th April 2015, and told her that she was always obstructing measures he was trying to implement. She pointed out that she did not oppose measures which were in the interest of women inmates, and pointed out that CCTV cameras inside the barracks were in violation of women inmates’ right to privacy. He finally gave an assurance that he would consider. She was removed from the isolation cell by evening. Based on this, and the assurance given to her, Angela withdrew her hunger strike on that evening.
After the jail mulaqat of Angela, Maharukh and Susan met the Jail Superintendent, Mr Indurkar. They pointed out that installing CCTV cameras inside the barracks was a direct invasion of the inmates’ privacy and dignity. When Mr Indurkar explained that only women would operate the cameras, they pointed out that even women staff could misuse the footage and anyone else can easily have access to the footage.Mr Indurkar gave an assurance that he would consider their suggestions fairly.
CPDR believes that the installation of CCTV cameras within the women’s barracks in jails amounts to violation of the right to privacy and dignity which is a fundamental right guaranteed under the Constitution. It is important to note that the Supreme Court has repeatedly held that merely because a person is imprisoned, he does not lose all his fundamental rights. It is also most alarming that when a prisoner protests the violation of fundamental rights, she is isolated and threatened with action for obstructing officials from performing their duties!
DR ANAND TELTUMDE
Committee for the Protection of Democratic Rights (CPDR)