IT WAS July 2008, the brute summer sun was our companion on a fact finding visit to the notorious prisons of Jharkhand, which are home to many dissidents or political prisoners. The team was headed by Professor MK Hassan, former Vice-Chancellor of Ranchi University, and respected names like Shashi Bhushan Pathak, General Secretary, People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), Jharkhand, Prabhat Kumar Dehati, former minister, Jharkhand, Prof A Marx, People’s Union of Human Rights (PUHR), Tami Nadu.
On July 19, three of us, armed with notebooks and pens, the ‘Kalashnikovs’ of rights activists, were off to Giridih prison as per our plan, with permission obtained from IG (prisons), Jharkhand. The heat had started taking its toll before we reached the prison at 11 am.
As we stepped into the office of the Jail Superintendent, we found that he was not there. Instead, the City DSP was officiating in his absence. He categorically denied any communication with the IG (prisons) and refused us entry. He also took down our addresses in his diary. When we told him that we had the requisite permission, he insisted that we meet the SP and seek his approval. We were ferried in a heavily armed police jeep with two other police vehicles tailing us. ‘Are we criminals?’ I thought to myself.
Shiv Nandan was told he can’t be Hindu because he comes from Jammu and Kashmir and sports a beard
On reaching the SP’s office we were immediately taken into custody. The reason — suspicious elements roaming around a ‘high security’ prison! And all this after we had followed every rule in the book. The arrogant SPMurari Lal Meena harboured prejudices about human rights activists. “I know all these self-appointed human rights wallahs. They are all corrupt and a bane to the society,” he told us. Our mobile phones were confiscated and each and every call that we had made was jotted down. Also, we were made to explain even the missed calls that he found in our call records.
All through this conversation, the SP feigned ignorance. He was adamant that we were Naxals trying to fool him with forged documents. “Your PAN card is forged,” he asserted, taking my PAN card in his hand. And why were we branded Naxals? I was branded one because I come from Supaul district of Bihar which borders Nepal. Another member of the team was branded because even though he hails from the southern part of the country and is a Christian, he can speak Hindi well. The third team member, Shiv Nandan was told that he can’t be a Hindu because he comes from Jammu and Kashmir and sports a beard.
The SP told us that the PUCL is the overground body of Naxalites and gets all its funds from ‘the party’. He said he had ample ‘evidence’ to support his claims and could get us booked under any clause and we would find ourselves “behind bars in the same prison without any hope of being bailed out for at least a year”. Moreover, we would be “held responsible for any jail break in the near future”. We were also photographed from every possible angle.
The trauma continued for a good five hours. We were not allowed to call even the IG who had given us permission. There seemed no way we could prove to him that we were innocent. Illegal detention would have been prolonged had our driver not called the local organiser. He got worried after we did not come out within the three hours that we were supposed to be back in. It was then that the authorities were apprised of the situation. Meanwhile, the SP also got a call from the headquarters and was told to release us.
For us, this nightmare lasted just five hours. But, for thousands of others in Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal and Bihar, this is routine. They are picked up, packed and thrown into jails, sometimes killed in cold blood. There are no fundamental rights, no Constitution, no rule of law. I often wonder, are we a democratic country? If yes, is this democracy?
Mahtab Alam is 24. He is a civil rights activist based in Delhi