From the inspiring slogans raised by Rajkumari di to the mellifluous voice of Shital Sathe, the day long public hearing on women political prisoners was inspirationalSabrangindia13 Mar 2023
“The reason why the governments and majoritarian machinery gets shaken up when Naudeep Kaur, Soni Sori, Teesta Setalvad, Rajkumari, Safoora Zargar, Rehana Fathima, Sokalo Gond, Roma, Sudha Bhardwaj, Richa Singh, Hidme Markam, Natasha Narwal, Devangana Kalita or Shital Sathe get bail and walk out of jails with raised fists and victorious smiles. “
March 12, 2023 New Delhi: Political prisoners hold a very important place in the history of India. During the anti-colonial struggle, there was substantial recognition of political prisoners by the Indian people, despite the negation by the rulers. In contemporary times this negation of the special category of dissenters (to policy and word) has been perpetuated by elected governments and the people seem too distanced from any awareness of this category of political prisoners in India today. In the sub-continental freedom struggle against the British, South Asia has seen equal participation of women and men, but when political prisoners are talked about in that struggle, there is a tendency to stick to the familiar names of a few men from prominent communities and identities. Despite the fact that women have many at times been the face of resistance of people’s struggles, they have never been given the same place in revolutionary history.
Today, the participation of women has increased in every field of democratic endeavour, and the strength of their resistance against violation of rights has increased globally and in the South Asia region. Whether it is the Narmada movement, the land rights struggle of Sonbhadra and Chengara, the anti-communal/fascist struggle against a majoritarian regime, several movements against displacement like in Kashipur, Koel Karo, Kudankulam or Plachimada, or the POSCO (now Jindal) Pratirodh movement in Dhinkia (Odisha), the struggle for the implementation of Forest Rights, the CAA/NRC movement or the farmer’s movement, everywhere women play an important role in taking forward the struggle. Globally, from Iran to Afghanistan, Brazil to Ireland and Africa’s, women’s role in strengthening democracy and asserting rights of the oppressed, has been significant. In this course of resistance, women have been beaten by the police, jailed and suffer many kinds of tortures and trauma, but they do not give up.
In recent years, the number of women and queer inmates in the jails has increased rapidly. Their numbers are not only considerable, their conditions are far worse too. Thousands of women and queers fighting to defend their constitutional and human rights are languishing in prisons today – with their very identity making them criminals. Fabricated cases are being framed against them and they are being treated and tortured inhumanly. Custodial torture, rape, lack of basic facilities like lack of clean food, water, health facilities, not providing sanitary napkins at the time of mensuration and lack of other basic amenities shows the sheer criminal neglect and disrespect of the state machinery towards incarcerated women and queer persons.
Various studies conducted within Indian prisons have concluded that majority of the prisoners come from Adivasi, Dalit, Muslim and other marginalized communities and are being criminalised. Their social and economic backwardness makes them vulnerable and unable to defend themselves legally and financially. In this situation, instead of helping them, the state agencies harass them greatly impacting the mental health of such persons.
According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), ‘the number of female prisoners in India at the end of the year 2021 was 22,918 while the capacity of the existing women jails in the country is enough to accommodate only 6,767 women prisoners.’ In the case of transgender inmates, the situation is more pitiable as there are no separate jails for transgender and queer in reality, though the Ministry of Home Affairs announced separate jail wards / cells for transgenders.
From the annuls of history as shared by Sarojini Naidu or Capt. Lakshmi or the life-stories narrated by Soni Sori, or Sokalo Gond or those explicitly shared by Teesta Setalvad or Safoora Zargar, it is clear that women prisoners are among the most victimised – be it in the colonial period or in the contemporary times. This accounts for the dual nature of the structural violence – women as political prisoners and women as prisoners. Each category goes through different kinds of oppression and violence; however, it is evident that they are most oppressed due to the identity and the vulnerability of the same. Even the poor quality of legal aid, health, sanitation and food are suffered by women. The brutal body searches and stripping in jails in several states typify the inhuman treatment of undertrial inmates there. The unaccountability writ large into the criminal justice system –the length that criminal trials take—doom the “undertrial” to this stigmatising status for three decades or more!
In India today, women from Muslim communities are seen as the flag-bearers of community’s resilience. This makes up for the oppression the women have to go through – from police as well as fundamentalist forces. Another category of women who are not tolerated are those who defend their traditional rights over natural resources and assert their way of life in different ways than prescribed by market capitalism. The third category are the Dalit and oppressed community women who negate the social and religious order. The fourth are those who engage in intellectual activities that challenge the state and its hegemony. The fifth category are the women solidarity activists.
The day began with dynamic Shital Sathe sang songs composed by her after the Hathras tragedy in 2020 and inspired the gathering. Teesta Setalvad, secretary Citizens for Justice and Peace (cjp.org.in) opened the days hearings and gave an overview of the issue of Women Prisons, the utter absence of any transparency or accountability in tune with the Model Prison Manual of 2016, and dotted her account with intimate personal details of 63 days of incarceration in the Sabarmati Mahila Jail in 2022.
Sokalo Gond, Rajkumari (AIUFWP), Natasha Narwal (anti-CAA/NRC agitation 2019, Vallamarthi (a young activist imprisoned eight times for a total of 150 days), Merci Alexander whose leadership of the fish workers struggle in Kerala led to fundamental reforms in the prison system in that state, were only some of the other voices that gave the day resonance and meaning. The testimony of Rehana Fathima brought the sordid history of incarceration in Jammu and Kashmir to the fore.
Roma dynamic leader of the AIUFWP, a lawyer and land rights activist in her own right moderated the days deliberations and shared her individual and the organisations collective experience of incarceration and oppression.
Imprisonment is one of the most important recognitions that comes in the life of a profound dissenter. It is important to note that jail and incarceration has not weakened these movements nor the women leaders, instead they have further emboldened these courageous women and transgender persons. This is the reason why the governments and majoritarian machinery gets shaken up when Naudeep Kaur, Soni Sori, Teesta Setalvad, Rajkumari, Safoora Zargar, Rehana Fathima, Sokalo Gond, Roma, Sudha Bhardwaj, Richa Singh, Hidme Markam, Natasha Narwal, Devangana Kalita or Shital Sathe gets bail and walk out of jails with raised fists and victorious smiles.
Aggressive corporatisation by capitalism, clubbed with new found devotion to fascist ideology and hatred towards dissent has made a dangerous concoction of the sorts in the Indian polity and society today. Assertion of counter-hegemony and celebration of resistance are important remedies, much required in these times. Narratives of Development and ultra-nationalism have polluted the air and needs deliberate de-toxification. The oppressed communities alone can provide the remedy, through assertive acts and by defending constitutional rights courageously. Today the onus of this is much more actively in the hands of the Adivasi, Dalit, queer, oppressed religious minorities, other natural resource based traditional working people and women.
In this context, a public program/public hearing titled ‘Bandini’ was organised by a collective host of organisations on March 12, 2023 at the Constitution Club of India, New Delhi. The host organisations are the All India Union of Forest Working People and Delhi Solidarity Group and Citizens for Justice and Peace. Various women activists who have been falsely implicated and have been languishing in jails addressed the hearing along with human rights lawyers, academicians and civil society leaders.
In 2019, at New Delhi, the organisers had successfully conducted the first programme of Bandini, generating much interest on the issue. The effort is to keep it up and engage with a wider audience to talk about women prisoners and political prisoners. The event marks the joint celebration of International Women’s Day, Savitribai Phule Divas etc too, together by having cultural performances and expressions.
The situation today demands focus on all sections of society including that of prisoners. In this context, the increasing number of political prisoners is a matter of grave concern and especially women and queer political prisoners who are also facing discrimination, humiliation and violence.
Deepti Priya Mehrotra graduated from St. Stephen College, and has a doctorate in political science from Delhi University. She carried out independent research supported by fellowship awarded by the India Foundation for the Arts, the MacArthur Foundation, and the Indian council for Philosophical Research. She writes in two languages: English and Hindi, and is interested in feminist thought, education, theatre, and people’s movement. She has a number of publications to her credit. Some of them are Ekal Maa, Bhartiya Mahila Andolan and Western Philosophy and Indian Feminism.
Dr. Muniza Khan
Dr. Muniza Khan is human rights activist. She did her PhD in sociology from BHU, Presently working as registrar cum researcher in Gandhian Institute of Studies, Rajghat, Varanasi. She has participated and presented papers in national and international seminars and visited many European and South Asian Countries like Canada, Amsterdam, France, Indonesia, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Pakistan Bangladesh etc.
Her Published books and work are: Socio-Legal Status of Muslim Women, Education Among Varanasi Muslims, Communal Riots in Varanasi, Land holding among Dalits, crimes against Muslim and Dalit women.
Adv. Colin Gonsalves
Colin Gonsalves is a designated Senior Advocate of the Supreme Court of India and the founder of Human Rights Law Network (HRLN). He specializes in human rights protection, labour law and public interest law. He has been awarded Right Livelihood Award for the year 2017 for “his tireless and innovative use of public interest litigation over three decades to secure fundamental human rights for India’s most marginalised and vulnerable citizens. Considered a pioneer in the field of public interest litigation in India, he has brought several cases dealing with economic, social and cultural rights. Most of these cases, decided by the Supreme Court, have been set as precedents. He also co-developed the Indian People’s Tribunal (IPT), an independent organization headed by retired Supreme Court and High Court judges to investigate human rights violations. Fact-findings presented at the IPTs have spurred public interest litigation, formed social movements and led to concrete policy changes.
Colin Gonsalves has written, edited and co-edited numerous articles and books on a range of human rights law issues.
Jarjum Ete was the first Chairperson of the Arunachal Pradesh State Commission on Women and has been in various central government committees, including for implementation of the Forest Rights Act, and the National Commission for Women. In 1985 she joined the Arunachal Pradesh Women’s Welfare Society and became an active volunteer and later rose to be its spokesperson. The APWWS has taken up many issues like women’s participation in panchayats, customary laws, need for a state women’s commission and anti-liquor laws. Jarjum herself has very strong views on legalisation of prostitution.
For more than three decades, Jarjum has been advocating women’s and children’s rights, a safer environment, and the rights of the tribals to the natural resources. A social media savvy person, she engages young crowds and is a sought-after speaker. She does not shy away from talking about relevant issues. Breaking every glass ceiling in patriarchal Arunachal, Jarjum is an epitome of perseverance and versatility
She was one of the participants to the Beijing Conference and has also visited Pakistan and other countries.
Prof. Madhu Prasad is the former professor in the Dept. Of Philosophy, Zakir Hussain College, Delhi University. Presently she is the presidium member in All India Forum for Right to Education (AIFRTE).
Hannan Mollah is an Indian communist politician and a senior leader of the All-India Kisan Sabha. He was the member of Indian parliament and elected as the Lok Sabha for (lower house of Indian Parliament) eight times from constituency of Uluberia in Howrah, West Bengal, Mollah is the member of Politburo of the Communist Party of India (Marxist).
Leo Colaco is chairperson of National Fish worker Forum (NFF) and one of the senior most leaders of the union from the state of Maharashtra.
Jesu Rethinam Christy
Jesu Rethinam has a field experience of more than 35 years with the coastal communities. At present she is the Director of SNEHA, an organisation working for the development of fishing communities and the Convenor of Coastal Action Network, a network working for the protection of coastal ecology.