Byculla Jail violence: Indrani Mukerjea, other inmates should be applauded for standing up to atrocities
The charge against Indrani, as made out by the police, is that she learnt from the morning newspapers about the injured inmate's death and informed her fellow inmates.
Indrani Mukerjea — the media magnate who shot to notoriety after being charged with killing her daughter Sheena Bora and who has been in jail for the last two years — is in the news again, this time for both right and wrong reasons. The police has lodged an FIR against her, along with 200 other fellow prisoners of the Byculla Jail in Mumbai, on Monday for creating a near-riot like situation in prison premises.
However, Indrani also informed the Mumbai court on Tuesday that she would like to testify about the torture inflicted on the fellow prisoner by the jail staff which led to the convict's death that caused the commotion on Sunday.
The question is, was the riot-like situation a natural reaction of the jail inmates when they found that one of them, who had been severely brutalised by the prison staff the previous day succumbed to her injuries? The charge against Indrani, as made out by the police, is that she learnt from the morning newspapers about the injured inmate's death and informed her fellow inmates.
Apart from informing the jail inmates of the death, the police have also accused Indrani of instigating the prisoners to raise a 'violent protest' against the jail authorities. But, pray, what was the 'violent protest' like? It has been alleged that there were fisticuffs with the security staff, but nobody, either from the security staff or the jail inmates, have been seriously injured. There is no police record of the same.
What apparently got the jail authorities' goat was the demand of Indrani that the media, print and electronic, should be allowed into the jail premises to see for themselves the inhuman conditions that the inmates live in. She allegedly instigated the fellow inmates to come up to the roof of the jail and, as a symbolic protest to draw the attention of the outside world, burnt copies of a few newspapers.
If that makes Indrani and dozens of other inmates rioters, then so be it. It is better to speak up than suffer the indignities silently.
Occasions like this bring us around to discuss the deplorable condition of our prisons. Take the specific case of the Byculla jail where the incident happened last weekend.
About two years ago, the Bombay High Court had directed the Mumbai sessions court to conduct an inquiry into the conditions of prisons and prisoners of both the Arthur Road men's jail and the women's jail at Byculla. The additional district judge who conducted the enquiry submitted a report to the High Court that was indeed heart-rending.
In the men's prison at Arthur Road, the report said, 3800 inmates had been lodged whereas the maximum capacity of the jail was pegged at 2,300 prisoners.
The condition of the women's prison at Byculla was even worse. As of 8 October, 2015, the report said, the women's prison housed 327 prisoners as against the sanctioned strength of just 125 inmates. The jail was not just merely overcrowded, it was congested with more than two-and-a-half times of the inmates it can actually hold.
What was further distressing was that all 327 inmates had only 19 available toilets; many of these were in a terrible condition and needed immediate repair and replacement, the report further added. That is not all. All inmates just got two common bathrooms.
As a common practice, 15 women take bath simultaneously! Can any other indignity be inflicted on a woman prisoner! And, mind you, most of them were not convicted prisoners; they were undertrials languishing in jail for years. (As a matter of fact, 228 of the 327 women lodged in the Byculla jail in October 2015, according to the report, were not even convicted prisoners).
The misery does not end there. The food served in the jails, despite the high-sounding promise of the jail manual, has been barely of edible quality. The biggest highlight of the prison meal is the occasional serving of an egg to the prisoners.
In fact, last Friday was an egg day which caused the mayhem in the Byculla jail. Manjula Shetye, the 45-year-old prisoner, was accused by the jail authorities that she had stolen two eggs. Shetye was called to the jail officer Manisha Pokharkar's room, and as the witness account accounted, was thrashed by the authorities present there.
As per the police report, based on the eyewitness account, Shetye came back to the barrack writhing in pain. Soon after, a team of jail officials entered the barrack and assaulted Manjula again. The exclusive report by Hindustan Times said: "The witness said Manjula was stripped by women constables she identified as Bindu Naikade, Waseema Shaikh, Shital Shegaonkar, Surekha Gulve and Arati Shigne. The witness said Bindu and Surekha then held Manjula's legs apart and Waseema inserted the lathi into her private parts."
The report goes on to add: "Manjula was left bleeding in the barrack and no help was offered by the jail authorities, the witness said. It was only after Manjula fell unconscious in the bathroom that she was taken to the resident doctor at the jail who immediately asked for her to be transferred to JJ hospital. She died at the hospital. The post-mortem report said Manjula had about 11 to 13 contusions all over her body. The dean of JJ hospital, TP Lahane, said her lungs were damaged."
The alleged death of the convict in the hands of the jail staff, the very authorities who are in charge of the inmates' protection, would have been brushed under the carpet, had it not been for the majority of other prisoners who have now risen in protest to highlight the issue.
If Indrani did play a crucial role in mobilising the distressed inmates to come up to the rooftop and burn a few copies of the newspapers, not to condemn the media but to draw its attention to their plight, she may be legally prosecuted, but there are many reasons to applaud her.
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