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.