Imprisoning the Mind, Torturing the Body How India treats its Political Prisoners: Part 1

15, Feb 2018 | Sushmita

Through our series on Political Prisoners, we try to look at some of these cases and understand how our situation has been made more drastic by an authoritarian regime in power that has found it befitting to slap student leaders with sedition, as well as some other cases who are struggling since years without any relief in sight.


History is witness to the numerous ways in which thoughts are imprisoned. Especially if it is political thought that is not in line with the ideology of the ruling powers. Laws remain a technical matter then, to enforce this kind of imprisonment.

…for state crimes, especially the most heinous and formidable state crimes, have this peculiarity, that if they are successfully committed, the criminal is almost always secure from punishment. The murderer is in greater danger after his victim is dispatched than before. The thief is in greater danger after the purse is taken than before. But the rebel is out of danger as soon as he has subverted the Government. As the penal law is impotent against a successful rebel, it is consequently necessary that it should be made strong and sharp against the first beginnings of rebellion, against treasonable designs which have been carried no further than plots and preparations.[1]

Draft of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) by First Indian Law Commission in 1837.

The draft was enacted into law in 1860 after the assumption of direct rule by the Crown in 1858. Section 113 of the draft penal code dealing with Sedition was not included in the IPC, 1860 and was added after 10 years as Section 124A by a Special Act (XXVII of 1870), under the Chapter ‘Offences against the State’. It was a colonial power and a colonial state that enacted this section of the law to keep its ‘subjects under control’ and to ‘control rebellion’. Even after 158 years and several admonitions from the Indian Supreme Court on the anti-democratic nature of the sedition law, no government has taken the step to repeal this section.

‘State crimes’, or crimes of a ‘Political’ nature were considered especially ‘heinous and formidable’, requiring ‘strong and sharp’ measures. This passage offers a telling insight into how ‘ordinary’ crimes and ‘state’ crimes came to be distinguished in colonial era. The need to adopt extraordinary measures was emphasised through such a distinction. [2]


Crushing Political Dissent using the Law

Seven decades after independence, and one sees the tightening of state noose against its own citizens in the form of draconian laws guided by a similar mind-set-that the penal law should be made strong enough to crush any form of political dissent. Moreover, the Central and State governments constantly try to obscure difference between political offences and criminal offences in order so that the public sympathy towards prisoners who commit ‘political’ crimes (specifically, disagree or oppose the government’s policies) can be suppressed.

However, for a democracy to function, dissent and disagreements are like oxygen, quintessential to the meaning of freedom itself. Unfortunately, the apparatus of the state, driven at different moments by different powers, seems to believe that no form of political dissent must be entertained.

It is in this context that we find that certain individuals become symbolic of this dissent, and are almost in a constant state of struggle for their beliefs. The state has found the best way to tackle such struggles: make them prisoners of their conscience[3]. They can then be incarcerated simply for holding a belief which may be in the public interest, but such a stifling of freedom is propagated as in the interest of the state.


Political Prisoners

To start with, political prisoners are not officially acknowledged by Indian law. The term remains vague. However, the West Bengal Correctional Services Act 1992 defines political prisoners as,


Any person arrested or convicted on a charge of having committed or attempting to commit aiding or abetting the commissions of any political offence, whether or not the act constituting such offence comes within the preview of any offence punishable under the Indian Penal code or any other law for the time being in force, or any person believed to have been prosecuted out of political animosity or grudge, shall be classified as political prisoner.[4]


To this extent, the Indian state has enacted a series of laws, at different moments in time which in the name of controlling organized crime or terrorism, become the main weapons to curb such dissent. Historically these have included the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act (TADA), Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) and the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA)-amended multiple times to give it more teeth, apart from the Sedition law, National Security Act (NSA), Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). Each of these laws has led to gross violations of human rights by broadening and simplifying definitions of “terror’ or “unlawful” activities.

These acts have draconian provisions on bail, in-camera trials, trial in absence of the accused which are pro-prosecution and anti-accused. The last amendment of UAPA (2008) made a provision where the remand period was increased from 90 days to 180 days. The most dangerous aspect of these laws is that these can determine an ‘association’ and the Police is vested with that kind of authority. These laws also have provisions wherein if civil society groups raise funds in their support in India or outside then they too get branded as guilty under the laws. A person booked under these draconian acts has to go through the harshest form of punishment and stigmatisation. When this amendment was passed, India’s two largest political formations the NDA and UPA aligned in favour of the provisions while only the CPI (M) and CPI vociferously opposed them.

A pattern that has almost become a trend- arrests as undertrials for long years, delayed trials, slapping of multiple other charges such as murder, rape etc while the prisoners are still in jail occasioning re-arrests after they first obtain bail. The excesses are too many and due procedure followed-minimal.


Is a Ray of Sunlight enough?

“After I woke, I remembered some of the questions I’d been asked. It was like recollecting a dream: I didn’t remember all the details, but I hadn’t forgotten the highlights

Arun Ferreira on Narco test analysis, Colors of the Cage


In the absence of formidable documentation into the lives of political prisoners, especially for fear of getting labelled, their lives and interactions with the outside world remain in the dark. Targeted by the state and condemned by society, political prisoners lead a life of despair and gloom and even if they are lucky to be freed years after incarceration, the ghosts of their prison days don’t simply vanish.


The memoirs by some political prisoners shed some light on this otherwise dark and gloomy world that almost exists in parallel with the world that these very prisoners seek to change with their thoughts and beliefs.

A world that is often devoid of windows, fresh air and sunshine. Cells arranged in ovals, within each confinement, a maze of passages and corridors and even some solitary isolated cells- this is how the notorious Anda cell- a prison confinement in Nagpur is designed.

In his prison memoir, Arun Ferriera, a political prisoner who spent almost five years of his life in prison, only to be acquitted of all charges, introduces parts of this world that otherwise remain unseen. He highlights intricate details of torture the prisoners are subjected to, like walking barefoot in the crackling summer heat of Nagpur on a tar road. Arun Ferreira was also made to undergo the Narco test analysis, a form of interrogation still un-tested and under a cloud. It was only three years later in May 2012 , that a bench of Supreme court judges noted that the use of Narco, polygraph tests and brain mapping were unconstitutional if done without the consent of the subject. (Consent of the subject remaining utterly subject to the stark conditions within the prison walls)

Most political prisoners go through harsh forms of torture- mental, physical and emotional, a tactic meant to break the morale of the prisoners and also to serve as a warning to prevent future occurrences of such dissent.

A case in point here is that of Kawasi Hidme, an Adivasi woman from Chhattisgarh, who was brutally tortured for many years of her life on charges of being a Maoist. Others like Soni Sori, Linga Kodopi, Binayak Sen were incarcerated for long years of their life in a similar manner. Binayak Sen’s incarceration had an indelible impact on his health.

Inside the prison, every day is a struggle. Having to choose between a bath and a toilet, lunch and breakfast, absence of basic facilities-two all purposes soaps for the entire month, unavailability of sanitary napkins, filthy cells and more such harsh conditions are sure to play with the mind of the prisoners.



[1]Appendix, Note C in Cameron, C.H. and D. Eliot. 1888. The Indian Penal Code as Originally Framed in 1837, The

Second Report on the Indian Penal Code by the Indian Law Commissioners, p. 117. Madras: Higginbotham and Co.

[2]Ujjwal Kumar Singh, Penal Strategies and Political Resistance in Colonial and Independent India in Challenging the Rule(s) of Law-Colonialism, Criminology and Human Rights in India(2008) edited by KalpanaKannabiran

[3]The term “prisoner of conscience” was coined by Peter Berenson in 1961 to refer to anyone imprisoned for their political beliefs, and applies to political prisoners in India

[4]Explanation.- For the purposes of this clause,- (a) any offence committed or alleged to have been committed in furtherance of any political or democratic movement or any offence arising out of an act done by an Individual with an exclusive political objective free from personal greed or motive shall be a political offence


(Feature Image: Amir Rizvi)



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