A Glimpse Into Hell

Byculla jail riot must trigger important inquiries into the institution of the jail. The temerity that the woman prisoner, Manjula Shetye, demonstrated in complaining about missing items in the food allotted to her ward defied a central expectation from a prisoner — submission and silence.

Written by Pamela Philipose | Updated: July 4, 2017 12:36 am
byculla jail death, indrani Mukerjea, indrani Mukerjea case, byculla jail indrani Mukerjea, india news, indian express news Five Byculla Jail guards, accused of killing a murder convict in the jail, being produced in Killa court in Mumbai on Sunday. (Source: PTI Photo)

For the media, Indrani Mukerjea has remained a Person of Interest, even after she disappeared behind the walls of Mumbai’s Byculla jail. Much has been written about the events that led to her imprisonment and it clearly concerned a murder most foul; there can be no defence of her alleged actions or the apparently monstrous drive to acquire fame, power and wealth that they indicate. Today she is back in the news, this time for allegedly “rioting in jail”.

Yet this story must not be about Mukerjea but about the rare glimpse the Byculla Jail riot provided into what goes behind the fortifications of an Indian jail, and one that has been described as “narak hai”, a hell no less. We should not have a mediatised figure like Mukerjea deflect us from trying to understand the structures of power and control that this hell signified.

The temerity that the woman prisoner, Manjula Shetye, demonstrated in complaining about missing items in the food allotted to her ward defied a central expectation from a prisoner — submission and silence. The series of assaults on Shetye was the logical outcome of her obstreperousness. The only inconvenient development was that Shetye ended up dead. While there may be a dispute about the exact circumstances in which she died, there can be no doubting that inanimate body for which the jailers were responsible.

Such experts in the art of breaking both human limbs and the human will are a legion in our institutions of incarceration located — to use the old cliché — from Kanyakumari to Kashmir, especially Kashmir. Within their dark interiors, modes of torture, new and old, proliferate like flesh-eating plants in the forests of Borneo.

In 1999, I interviewed Justice J.S. Verma for this newspaper after he had become chairperson of the National Human Rights Commission. My first question concerned, incidentally, a riot that had broken out at that time in the Chennai Central Jail. I asked him what that riot told us about the criminal justice system.

Justice Verma replied, “The police… must be made to realise that they are prosecutors, not persecutors. The brutality they display comes from the fact that they perform their functions as persecutors.” He was very conscious of the fact that the philosophy of punishment had shifted from the retributive to the reformative, observing, “The basic thing to remember here is that the dignity of an individual is a matter of concern… for society as a whole.”

But what of the rest of us? We believe that the opaque institutions of the criminal justice system exist to shield us from the evil-doers, people not like us. When stories like Shetye’s reach our ears, we may allow ourselves a shudder but rationalise that she, as a social deviant, inevitably fell foul of the law, even within prison walls, and that her minders were deserving of our gratitude. It is this egregious gratitude that has allowed 600 known (“known” is an important word to underline) cases of death in police custody between 2010 and 2015, according to a 2016 Human Rights Watch report.

It also revealed modes of torture that our police routinely resorted to, ranging from the international model of waterboarding to the homespun satyashodhak patta or “truth-seeking belt”. No police officer has been convicted as a result of these custodial deaths. Could it be because they had come to be consecrated in the public mind as truth-seekers?

Instead of being distracted by the “Indrani Mukerjea factor” in the Byculla jail riot, we would do better to question the exact circumstances that caused it. Across the world, riots in prisons have triggered important inquiries that have changed the way prisons are regarded as social institutions.

In France in the early Seventies, Michel Foucault, on behalf of the Groupe d’information sur les prisons (Prison Information Group), issued the following statement: “Little information is published on prisons. It is one of the hidden regions of our social system, one of the dark zones of our life. We have the right to know; we want to know.” Today, we in India need to know.

The writer is a senior journalist

For all the latest Opinion News, download Indian Express App

  1. P
    Pooja
    Jul 5, 2017 at 7:39 am
    How to ask me,my question and how to I show it's solution
    Reply
    1. K
      K SHESHU
      Jul 4, 2017 at 7:48 pm
      Not only condition of jail are pathetic, but the condition of prisoners is worse. On top of it, the managers ruthless behaviour is affecting psyche of the inmates to a reat extent
      Reply
      1. I
        indian
        Jul 4, 2017 at 6:13 pm
        I generally disagree with Pamela's political views but this is something I do agree with her on. We should expect transparent and fair treatment - even to those in jail. That's what sets us apart from barbarians.
        Reply
        1. I
          Ivan
          Jul 4, 2017 at 5:15 pm
          Conditions in jail are as the author describes. The prison service has more than its fair share of psychos. For this reason the well to do among the convicts, pay bribes to secure some measure of relief. Even a high profile ward such as Rajan Pillai met his end in Tihar jail. The criminal is already undergoing the prescribed punishment. Why is he to be doubly punished by being under the mercy of thugs running the prisons?
          Reply
          1. S
            sri
            Jul 4, 2017 at 1:39 pm
            Readers of Indian Express please note that Pamela Philipouse is the Editor of The Wire Tabloid in which the infamous Partha Chatter called General Rawat as General Dwyer. It is in this context that you should read her garbage in this article and evaluate it
            Reply
            1. A
              Anon
              Jul 4, 2017 at 2:35 pm
              Be ashamed that you fail to see the inhumane issue at heart. A criminal maybe a wrong doer (in our country its mostly the innocent who end up languishing in prisons!). Our justice system, through its courts sentences the convicted to prison not to brutal torture or lack of food etc.
              Reply
              1. L
                Lovely
                Jul 4, 2017 at 3:40 pm
                So much kindness for convicts.No need to weep . Please go and meet victims also.
                1. L
                  Lovely
                  Jul 4, 2017 at 3:55 pm
                  Anon, this is called MISPLACED SYMPATHY. I am not condoning the jailors high handedness, but convict should suffer consequences.That is my view.You have no faith in judiciary? The other options are police encounters! Do you like that?
                  1. A
                    Anon
                    Jul 4, 2017 at 6:28 pm
                    Lovely - you seem to miss the point or are incognizant of the issue. Less than 200 years ago, the at ude to prisons, prisoners and punishment was brutal and barbaric. 2017 nothing changed. For all the progress we make, we continue to regress as a society if we indulge in barbaric and brutal acts. Let the law of the land prevail not the law of the jungle. For a any prisoner, a female in this instance, to be tortured and treated as in this case is reprehensive and heinous. The perpetrators must be tried and handed the harshest of punishment - let them be imprisoned and have a taste of their own medicine.
                  2. I
                    Ivan
                    Jul 4, 2017 at 4:57 pm
                    Look you clown, I don't care if the article is written by Adolf Hitler. If it is the truth is doesn't matter who writes it. Kindly confine yourself to kindergarten articles if you are such a wilting flower.
                    Reply
                  3. L
                    Lovely
                    Jul 4, 2017 at 12:45 pm
                    In India jails are Hellish Abodes. We can not have western country type jails, Many death convicts are awaiting execution and govt is giving comforts to select few at the cost of tax payer money. Jails can not be like star hotels. The punishment should given without exception.
                    Reply
                    1. T
                      TIHAEwale
                      Jul 4, 2017 at 11:01 am
                      today police is staffed by criminals who got thro paying bribes so no surprise policemen do the duty for the highest bidder
                      Reply
                      1. A
                        Arjun
                        Jul 4, 2017 at 8:54 am
                        What do you mean India wants to know? It's you who wants to know so you go right in the dark fortified region of our social system and stay there. We are happy outside with the criminals including you locked up inside. 😂😂😂
                        Reply
                        1. I
                          Ivan
                          Jul 4, 2017 at 5:05 pm
                          Who the h e ll is asking you to read this? Did you pay for any content? You are another example of why things should not be available for free.
                          Reply
                          1. P
                            PK
                            Jul 4, 2017 at 5:20 pm
                            I see you are quite confident about your political connections to keep you away from that hell-hole when you fall foul of the system. Because in that Byculla jail, out of the 327 inmates, 287 were under-trials, that is their crime was not yet proven, so many can be as well innocent. I just hope you do not end up in a similar situation someday.
                            Reply
                          2. Load More Comments