Behind Bars of Sunetra Choudhury Exposes the Deep Rot inside the Gaols

Young journalist Sunetra Choudhury deserves kudos for taking up this issue in her recently released tome Behind Bars published by the Roli Press. A volume like this was long overdue. She has identified a number of individuals and elaborated on their experiences within the custodial setup. The prose she employs is lucid and the narration is cogent and gripping.  Here Ashoka reviews the Choudhury’s book, Behind Bars, exclusively for Different Truths.

“You can judge a society by how well it treats its prisoners.” ~ Fyodor Dostoevsky.

If we were to accept the veracity of this aphorism from one of the foremost literary figures of our time, we in India have a long, long road to travel. Our custodial provisions are generally reminiscent of the descriptions we come across in Emile Zola’s works.

While we are only too keen to impose custodial sentences, the very purpose of depriving an individual of his/her freedom, one of the most fundamental of human rights is hardly ever debated. How many times have we come across our legislators raising a hue and cry over what happens in our gaols; or for that matter when was the last occasion we witnessed one of the major television channels debate real prison reforms.

My own generation was embroiled is student protests was back in the late 60’s and 70’s. Later on, we were involved in clandestine protests against the Emergency. That, of course, meant many of us (including this humble reviewer) were detained for short periods in the gaols and while we were segregated from most of the other prisoners, we could well make out the hell-holes they were and how unrealistic it would be to expect anyone spending time over there to come out psychologically unscathed and unscarred losing every motivation to have a stake in the preservation of the society and the values it represents. Hardly any wonder we do come across youngsters detained for the pettiest crimes emerge as hardened criminals from the prison system. And let us not forget that more than half the inmates in the prisons are under trials – technically as innocent as any of us until their conviction if it takes place.

Clearly, it is a scandal that we ignore at our own risk. We may abuse the Amnesty International for a negative report, but we cannot ignore the truth. Indian prisons are hellholes! And that is the way they have been ever since their inception.

It was only after the post-independence politicians started getting incarcerated that the society began to take notice. One would be well advised to peruse Vijayaraje Scindia’s Princess, an autobiographical account of the time she was incarcerated in Tihar. She, along with Gayatri Devi, was considered one of the most graceful ladies in India. Both of them were made to spend substantial periods in Tihar in the overcrowded unhygienic cells along with the most hardened criminals. And in their cases, it was arbitrary detention as the country had been deprived of all fundamental rights during the Emergency!

There have been some notable exceptions. Kiran Bedi did introduce some very meaningful reforms in the Tihar detention center for which she was justifiably honoured with a Magsaysay!

But there have always been some who have been able to cut corners and lead a life of obscene luxury even in these hell-holes. All of us had heard anecdotally how the prison system could be manipulated if one had the right connections and was in a position to fork out fiscal benefits to those entrusted to run it. Unsurprisingly, no politician has shown a willingness to expose the full dimensions of this egregious injustice that is rampant; after all, it affects their cartel and their benefactors.

Even the Fourth Estate has been reluctant to expound this atrocity. The suspicion that is widespread is that this matter has been kept under wraps because of a cosy relationship the journalists enjoy with the political class.

Therefore, young journalist Sunetra Choudhury deserves kudos for taking up this issue in her recently released tome Behind Bars published by the Roli Press. A volume like this was long overdue and in bringing it out, Choudhry has shamed her senior colleagues of my generation who, although being aware of this nefarious practice, had for some reason chosen to keep silent.

Choudhury has identified a number of individuals and elaborated on their experiences within the custodial setup. The prose she employs is lucid and the narration is cogent and gripping. She has, in the tradition of a competent journalist interviewed the dramatis personae and analysed the information for the readers to draw their own inferences without being overtly judgemental.

She must have had a very long list of individuals to choose from given the widespread practice. But the individuals on the final list have all made headlines for substantial periods. Interesting how we, as people, lose interest once an individual is sent to the prison. We do not appreciate that even while in incarceration, these people have the capacity to manipulate the otherwise close and a thoroughly corrupt system to their advantage. While many of us had known how Subrata Roy was able to enjoy unheard of perks in Tihar, it was a revelation to note the machinations of the likes of Amar Singh although I must admit I was not altogether surprised. The reader gets valuable insights on how big names like Peter Mukherjee are dealing with the situation they find themselves in. I personally am still sceptical about his claim that he was kept in the dark by his wife but that may well be his prime defense in the courtroom. Sushil Sharma, the felon from the Youth Congress (I) of the infamous tandoor murder had been off the radar for nearly two decades. It was interesting to listen to his rationalisations although I took them with a pinch of salt. He presented as loathsome a profile of himself as I expected.

For a qualified barrister like me, this book was a compulsive read and I would highly recommend it to everyone. I shall not delve into the intricate details that Choudhury adumbrates as they provided me immense pleasure and I would like the potential readers to experience it themselves.

The success of this laudable exercise would not depend on the sales figures but how it manages to shake our dormant consciences when it comes to the custodial systems that are available in the country. And if it succeeds in engendering fierce debates among the political class, journalists and social activists, Choudhury’s lugubration would serve as a landmark.

The only minor suggestions that I would have for her is perhaps she could have thought of including a short discourse on how judicial apathy could have played a role in the preservation of this status quo. Judges are custodians of constitutional values and technically an unconvicted person under judicial custody is the responsibility of the judiciary. While the Supreme Court has taken a very strong view on this aspect, we have had repeated instances of people being sent to the prisons by the lower judiciary which has subsequently been severely criticised on appeal to the higher courts.

We had an instance in Delhi itself when an Additional District Judge had denied a bail and on appeal, his reasoning was found to be so removed from the dictates of the Criminal Procedure Code that the Delhi High Court ordered him to enlist for a refresher course in CrPC. On appeal to the Apex Court, he apologised and admitted that he had been wrong but pleaded for the order to be set aside. It was done so after a reprimand. My point is that these shocking instances of injustice would continue to happen unless there is an effective oversight of the lower judiciary.

Time and again the Supreme Court has cautioned the judiciary not to send people to prisons without proper application of mind but this has not always been followed in letter and spirit as the higher court orders on appeal have shown. I have myself registered my concerns about three judges to the Chief Justice and asked them to take a call. The bottom line is that in order to prevent an individuals to the dehumanising and unjust experience of the prison system, the judiciary has to play an active role not just in being selective about sending someone for custodial sentence but also ensuring that the prisons are covered by the dictates of the Constitution in letter as well as in spirit.

My compliments again to Choudhury!

©Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad

Photos from the internet.

#BookReview #SunetraChoudhury #BehindBars #DifferentTruths

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