Byculla Riots – A Call for Help?

Stirred up by the gross atrocities and injustice that they were being subject to, the women in the Byculla jail came together and rioted against the intrinsic corruption the percolates through every functioning unit within the jail.

Stirred up by the gross atrocities and injustice that they were being subject to, the women in the Byculla jail came together and rioted against the intrinsic corruption the percolates through every functioning unit within the jail. The story of how an argument for two eggs and five pieces of bread caused the gruesome and horrific death of Manjula Shette is a loud call for help, and must not go unacknowledged. The riots occurred on June 24, 2017, after the death of their fellow inmate, Manjula Shette. Owing to the magnitude of the riot combined with the involvement of a high profile prisoner, Indrani Mukherjee, the Indian media awarded unprecedented attention to the issue of the rights of under trial and convicted prisoners and their treatment within such prisons.

During the entire hype that surrounded the riots, various other accounts of the horrors of the conditions of those living in the Byculla jail have come into light. For instance, women alleged that physical beatings were a common occurrence in the Byculla prisons. In an interview with the Mumbai Mirror, former inmate Sushma Ramteke alleges to have almost been thrashed to death for standing up for a fellow pregnant inmate who was being assaulted by the authorities. The former inmates have called it a ‘jail within a jail’, where even basic needs including hygiene and health, aren’t paid any heed to. The corruption within the jail is to such an extent that women are not even provided sufficient sanitary napkins in a month and often those who are unable to buy it from the canteen have to do chores in exchange for napkins from those who have family members sending them money.

Manjula Shette’s death is dire consequence of the dysfunctional State regulation and hence a case of an institutionally propagated murder. This Article culls out the issues with the governance of the prison system by an analysis of the law surrounding the prisoners and jail authorities along with the practical and societal implications of the system through the findings of the Manjula Shette incident and the riots that proceeded it.

Manjula Shette – a meddler in the system or the perpetrator of the corruption?

The Byculla women’s jail is said to have a capacity of 262 inmates. However, the jail currently houses 300 inmates, 17 of which are accompanied by their children. The need for improvement of the prison-prisoner ratio is not a new debate. Within the jail, there exists an independent hierarchy and a system of privileges. For instance, senior inmates are given better food, and the others get the leftovers. According to the Crime Branch Officials, as reported in The Hindu, this system percolates throughout the operation of the prison, to the extent that the thicker parts of the daal are given to the senior inmates. All the members of the Byculla prison, from the inmates to jail authorities, succumb to these hierarchies and rules.

Manjula Shette was convicted in 2004 for killing her sister-in-law. However, while undergoing her punishment at the Central Yerwada Women’s Jail, owing to her good behaviour, she was promoted from an inmate to a warden and transferred to the Byculla Jail. Regarding the events that led to the riots, there are two main narratives proposed in light of the events of the day preceding the day of the riots. The first is by Manjula Shette’s fellow inmates who are committed to the fact that Manjula Shette was beaten to death by the authorities as she was inquiring about the missing rations. In addition to this, a baton was allegedly inserted in her private parts. A case was then registered at Nagpada police station after the preliminary post mortem report by the J.J. Hospital authorities stating that she had sustained 11 to 13 contusions all over her body and her lungs had expanded due to the injury, thereby confirming that the victim was assaulted.

The 6 accused, one jailor and five constables, on the other hand, have given two varying accounts: first, they believe it to be an accidental death owing to her health conditions and second, they accuse her fellow inmates of assaulting her and thereby causing her death. They believe that this entire narrative has been formulated due to various personal enmities of the inmates with the prison authorities. The jail authorities portray Manjula Shette as a tyrant who would charge the inmates for food and restrict their time with their relatives during the mulaqat hours, suggesting that this could be a probable cause for them to conduct the assault.

The question that is now being asked is that was Manjula Shette, as a warden, in a position to meddle with the existing hierarchy in the Byculla jail and capable of bringing the nature of corruption, instilled within the entire operation of the Byculla jail, into public knowledge. Or was she a part of the corrupt system within the Byculla jail, adding to the horrors of the inmates? However, there is a need to go beyond this. The question that must be asked is that irrespective of all the facts prior to the incident of the assault, is there any justification to such disciplining of prisoners, which constitutes both physical and sexual abuse?

The issue with this is the authorities’ denial of the State authorities of the assault altogether. In light of this defence by the jail authorities, it is essential to highlight the unique nature of crimes committed in jails. What this shows is the need to be sceptic of the evidence and narrative proposed by the jail authorities, owing to their involvement in the procedure of the case from the very beginning.

There is always a question of validity of the investigation that is carried out. Even in this case, the DIG in-charge, Swati Sathe, who was heading the probe, was forced to step down as the enquiring officer in the matter, after a Whatsapp chat was leaked where she was openly calling for support from her fellow officers for the six members accused in this case. Further, Swati Sathe had also failed to constitute a magistrate inquiry, as required in case of death of a prisoner in jail. Such procedural improprieties are often used by various investigating authorities to shield those they favour within the system.

Further, there may be situations where evidence is tampered with during the investigation, thereby having adverse effects on the case of the accused. For instance, as reported by Indian Today, the investigating agency’s crime branch had recorded the statement of the doctor who issued the death information certificate, Dr. Vishwas Roke, who reported that there were no injuries found when Manjula Shette had been declared dead. However, a few hours later, the post mortem report noted the exact opposite. Further, Manjula Shette’s brother said that their statements had been recorded, but had been severely watered down by the Mumbai Police Crime Branch. Such crucial statements by witnesses are often tampered with, tainting the entire criminal proceeding.

Existing legal framework with respect to the rights of the prisoners and responsibility of the jail authorities

The reason there is such an abusive system in place is due to the insufficient legal system governing the rights and obligations associated with the prison system. The law perpetrates the corruption and the lack of regulation of the jail authorities, who now consider themselves to be above the law. Despite the fact that ‘prisons’ are to be governed by the states, the Prisoners’ Act 1894 (Act IX of1894) primarily governs the maintenance of prisons, duties of the officers, discipline of prisoners, health of prisoners, prison offences etc.

The Prison Act, 1894, provides for certain safeguards to the prisoners. The first kind, under Section 14 is an obligation on the Medical Officer who has a duty to report to the Superintendent cases where a threat, real or apprehended, is like to be injuriously affected by the discipline or treatment to which he is subjected. Along with this is the obligation to send a detailed report in case of any death in the prison. The second kind is provision of basic facilities such as health facilities, food and clothing, as under Chapter VIII and Chapter VI of the said Act.

However, in order to establish discipline, there are the ‘prison offences’ and punishment for such offences enlisted in the Act in Chapter XI. The Act provides for punishments such as whipping, provision of a ‘penal diet’, solitary confinement etc. Yet any disregard by a prison authority of the regulation or laws will only attract a fine of Rs. 200 or imprisonment for a period not exceeding three months. This creates a system of hostility and fear amongst the prisoners by allowing them to be penalised on the discretion of the Superintendent.

This archaic law was incorporated during the British regime, for Indian prisoners. However, the Indian government is yet to amend it to a more appropriate legislature for the modern Indian society. The law is entirely out-dated and incapable of governing prisons for citizens of a democratic nation. The law has an inherent bias against the prisoners and further perpetrates the sub-par conditions in jails and worsens the situation for the inmates.

The various judgements and committee pertaining to the rights of women prisoners have failed to address all the necessary issues. While the Supreme Court in Sheela Basre v State of Maharasthtra and RD Upadhyay v State of AP, and the Committee of Jail Reforms, 1983, Justice Krishna Iyer Committee, 1988 and the Parliamentary Committee on Empowerment of Women, 1996, have addressed issues such as parental care, free legal aid and rights of pregnant women, they have failed to move past the paternalistic governance, and address the other realistic issues within prisons such as sexual assault, physical assault and corruption.

The Indian Penal Code has acknowledged the importance the needs to be given in case of rape by a person in Authority. There is, however, a lack of supervision of such complaints within the prisons, which makes the law redundant.

The jail authorities having both the knowledge and the ability to tweak the system often find it convenient to avoid the repercussions of their actions. Hence, prison deaths are a flaky issue, since there is a possibility of two full-proof narratives, and the eye of suspicion lies on the victim, as they are already the outcasts in the society. The law and the procedure have an inherent distrust in the prisoners and they two together subjugate the prisoner in a system where they are deprived of their life and liberty by the authorities, without a solution.

However, for this very reason, the crimes committed by jail authorities in prisons should be given a higher standing, since there is an existing imbalance of power between the victims and the accused in this case. The victims in such cases do not have a permanent authority to address their complaints and grievances, and any such complaint is also capable of attracting more atrocities onto the victim. This, coupled with the knowledge of the procedure and control they have over the investigation and evidence collection, puts the entire proceeding in jeopardy and comprises the strive for justice.

The death of Manjula Shette is a consequence of the abusive institution of prisons. The State has exploited the existing legal framework and its ungoverned authority to not only enable the gruesome murder of one of its inmates but also protect the perpetrators of the assault within the system. With the entire system being tilted in their favour, they use then inmates as a source to vent out their personal enmities and agendas. The gravity of this social issue is due to the ability of the State to get away with these acts on grounds of inconclusive evidence and procedural improprieties. This is not an isolated issue and is a systematic one, where the entire prison system is now operating in violation of the basic rights guaranteed to every citizen within India.

It is not feasible to wait for another ‘media-friendly’ death of aninmate to draw attention to every prison to enforce some legal constraints on the behaviour of the jail authorities. Hence there is a dire need for establishing a non-biased complaint mechanism through which the prisoners can lodge complaints with an assurance of their safety post filing of such a complaint. Lastly, there is a need to amend the Prisoners’ Act, 1894, and mandate regular examination in order to ensure the physical and mental well being of the inmates. The focus must be governance of prisoners of a democratic countries, in accordance with the Fundamental Rights as guaranteed in the Constitution of India rather than retention of the consequences of a colonial hangover and let it further taint the system and rights of those involved.

Erica Sharma is a fifth year law student at Jindal Global Law School and she interned with Lawyers Collective. 




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