The condemned remain condemned

In India, prisoners are dehumanised. Even an 84-year old Parkinson’s disease victim cannot expect humane treatment, writes TJS George.

Published: 13th June 2021 07:29 AM  |   Last Updated: 13th June 2021 07:29 AM   |  A+A-

Delhi Police

Delhi Police (File Photo | PTI)

How easily power goes to the head of politicians. When Delhi authorities were told to produce former student leader Umar Khalid in court, the police wanted to take him in handcuffs and leg chains. “Handcuffs in both hands from the backside,” as they explained in their application. The reason cited was that armed assailants had tried to free an undertrial prisoner at the GTB Hospital a couple of months earlier.

Chastising the police authorities, the court said: “The application [by the police] appears to have been filed in a mechanical manner, without application of the mind.” In words that made the police look dogmatic, the judge said: “The accused persons who are sought to be produced in fetters and handcuffs are admittedly not previous convicts. They are not even gangsters.”

Those remarks were a pointer to what has become police routine. They automatically assume that everyone in a jail is a gangster or murderer. The third degree for which Indian prisons are notorious reveal the premises on which policemen operate. No Indian today can play Nelson Mandela. The South African hero once recalled how “on the first day in prison he put his foot down and insisted that he be respected.” If an Indian prisoner today puts his foot down in similar fashion, his whole leg would be chopped off.

In India, prisoners are dehumanised. Even an 84-year old Parkinson’s disease victim cannot expect humane treatment. Stan Swamy had difficulty holding a drinking straw, let alone a glass. He applied for a straw so that he could drink fluids. The police took days to make a response. When they did, it was to tell the court that they did not have a straw and a sipper to give Swamy. It was an example of tragedy turning into comedy.

Swamy’s medical application had made it clear that he had lost hearing from both ears, had fallen in jail multiple times and had been operated for hernia twice and needed protection from Covid. Yet, the court turned down his plea, accepting the jail superintendent’s stand that “It does not speak even by stretch of imagination that the applicant is suffering from any illness for which treatment is not available in prison.”

Common sense is absent in actions of this kind, let alone basic humanitarian considerations. The only aim is to establish the supremacy of powerwielders and justify even their lack of compassion. Power is the ultimate determining factor. And power is used by our politicians and police to intimidate citizens and make them feel helpless before authorities.

This is the philosophy of police rule in less advanced civilisations like India. To see the contrast between this approach and the approach of advanced countries, we should look at Scotland Yard, the famed police establishment of Britain. The image of Scotland Yard is that of a uniformed force that looks after the public in a friendly way. A constable there is known as Bobby and a Bobby mixes with people as one of them. People feel secure in the presence of a Bobby without the Bobby having to show anything special to win that confidence. In our case, people feel nervous in the presence of a cop. It is a folk tale in many parts of India that mothers put difficult children to bed by saying, in hushed tones, “Policeman is coming. Sleep. Sleep.”

Perhaps there was symbolism in Yusuf Ali’s Lulu Group acquiring the Scotland Yard building in London in 2015 and turning it into a luxury hotel. It is more than a saying that in every nook and corner of the universe, there is a Malayalee presence. Who has not heard of the explorer who finally reached the North Pole and was relieved to see a little shop with the board “Malabar Chaya Kada.” The Scotland Yard hotel can be expected to serve tea as good as the broth in the Chaya Kada.

Scotland Yard is alien to India. The only yard we know is the Prison Yard, an outdoor space where prisoners get their exercise. There is a Prisons Act that lays down a list of dos and don’ts. But laws are notoriously twisted in prisons to let jailers do what they please with the prisoners. Privileged Indians have a good time in jail — the likes of Gurmeet Ram Rahim, Sasikala Natarajan and Abdul Karim Telgi. Ordinary Indians rot.

Why are decent citizens like Natasha Narwal (of Pinjra Tod fame) kept in jail? Why indeed is Umar Khalid kept in jail after testing positive for Corona? The Supreme Court spoke against overcrowding in prisons during the Covid wave. Who cares?


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  • Vinayak

    All he had to do was follow the law. And not incite crowds to murder. That is all.
    11 months ago reply
  • A k Sehanobis

    Two points: 1) Probably Nehru had the maximum comfort in Jail
    1 year ago reply
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