24, Jan 2019 | Teesta Setalvad
Over the past 15 years, India’s jails have seen a rise in women inmates by 61 per cent, even though they constitute only 48.18% of the national population (according to the World Bank, 2017). Moreover, the Indian prison system has failed to respect their rights. From custodial torture, rape, denial of health services, lack of clean food and water and sheer ignorance on behalf of the state, women inmates languish amidst inhuman conditions in Indian jails.
All this and more was brought to light by activists, young leaders and journalists spanning six states in India, shared their emotional and eye-opening testimonies from prisons, in a public hearing in Delhi termed Women in resistance, Women in Prison: Bandini. saw speakers like tribal rights activist from Dantewada Soni Sori, forest rights activists from Sonebhadra Sokalo and Kismatiya Gond, senior advocate Vrinda Grover and many others.
CJP stands against custodial abuse and torture in all its forms. We demand that India immediately ratify the UN Convention against Torture. We also demand urgent prison reforms and special emphasis on improving the living condition of women inmates. Donate now to help CJP help women activists jailed on false charges.
“The young 14-year-old girl in a remote prison in Raipur, cried for days at a stretch after facing severe harassment at the hands of the prison authorities. She wanted to die than be in prison,” said activist and teacher Soni Sori, who is now a symbol of resistance and inspiration for women across the country, sharing her experience after having been in five prisons across India.
Sori, who was arrested in 2011 and charged with acting as a Maoist conduit, accused police of often subjecting her to electric shocks to extract a confession. “I wonder what gave me the endurance to bear it all,” she said. “Most inmates were ill and received little medical care. The food in the jail was infested with worms and insects. We resolved to go on hunger strike and threatened to produce the food in court. Only then were many of us made to oversee the kitchen,” Sori said. She said the situation in women prison was worse.”We were made to clean the common toilets daily. Under-trials going through such things in jail is illegal. Adivasi prisoners are almost always the most vulnerable,” she said.
Sharing an emotional and thought-provoking testimony, Soni Sori described her experience of being falsely accused. She said, “Women live in crammed prisons, with a shortage of food, clothes and even sanitary napkins. Women face sexual violence and harassment at the hands of the policemen in forests. Young girls aged 14 are impregnated as a consequence and spend their time in jail in denial and depression.” Shedding light on her own personal struggle, Sori said, “They tried very hard to shut me up so that the world does not know as to what happens behind those closed doors. I was physically and sexually tortured. When they failed to shut me up with this, they even tried to pit my own husband against me. My daughter was thrown out of her school only because of my struggle. However, we led a movement, and now we want to focus on solutions.”
In the public hearing, it was noted that women who were involved in the struggles to protect the land, water and forests and those resisting the anti-people policies unleashed by the governments were the worst affected in the prisons. While actively resisting these inhuman models of development, the women are implicated in fabricated cases forged by the ‘protectors’ of law and order. Today, thousands of women are wasting away in jails, not being treated like humans, held over false cases, being raped and tortured by police officials, and most of them belong to underprivileged sections of the society, alleged the speakers.
Adivasi Forest Rights activist Sukalo Gond spent 45 days in jail sleeping on the bathroom floor but, she says, that was not the worst pain she endured in prison. A member of the Gond tribe, largely found in central India, she had to eat food infested with insects, drink contaminated water and share space with other women she did not know. Sukalo had to suffer the trauma — daily — for one and a half months because she was against an irrigation project in Sonbhadra district of Uttar Pradesh. The Kanhar irrigation project was conceived more than 30 years ago, and was taken up in 2014. It, however, soon landed in trouble. In April 2015, there were violent protests by villagers who feared displacement and contamination of their source of water.
“We were targeted because we spoke against powerful people. I knew I was in jail because of this movement (against the project),” said Sukalo, now 51. Recalling her days in prison, she said, “The food was infested with insects. Our drinking water was dirty; I survived by eating an apple every day.” She said the inhuman treatment meted out to her in Mirzapur jail changed her as a person. On Friday, she was among several women who gathered in the national capital to demand better living condition in prisons for women.
Roma Malik, the general secretary of the All Indian Union of Forest Working Peoples (AIUFWP) an activist fighting for the rights of women living in prisons, said there is a kind of hierarchy one has to follow in jail. “These women are fighting on many fronts. The irony is: they are invisible to most people, and that is why not enough attention is paid to their suffering,” she said. “Over-crowding is another very big issue. It can lead to rioting and fights among prisoners. And that is what commonly seen too,” she said.
Anjum Zamarud Habib, an activist from Kashmir, was jailed and booked under POTA in 2003. Habib said she was verbally stripped by police and had to face very hostile attitude.”Getting a paper and pen was a struggle. Jail culture has rules and regulations of its own. There are customs one needs to follow and if you resist you are brutally abused,” she said. She spent five years in Tihar Jail, after being implicated in multiple cases. Shedding light on her experiences, she said, “Young Kashmiris including women are locked up in multiple prisons across the country. They are attacked, their voices silenced, as they are reduced to their immediate identity of being Kashmiri and Muslim.”
Recalling an instance, she said, “A pregnant woman inmate was made to suffer in pain for over six months. Some high-risk prisoners were to be taken to court, therefore they could not provide security to her if she had to go to the hospital. This is the level of injustice against women in prisons.” Women’s physical health and their mental health take a huge hit during their time in prison, reducing them to mere tools to be used by the government and the authorities.
Another activist, Xavier Amma, who is fighting against the Kudankulam nuclear atomic plant questioned, “How would you feel if there was a power plant in your backyard which could potentially damage generations? I have been agitating for our land and safety, I was attacked with tear gases which had several repercussions for me.”
Women in Indian jails are not and have not been a major policy concern for the State. For decades, they have suffered the lack of basic infrastructure, health care, vocational training and humane treatment. A larger cultural understanding of criminality dictates that crime is masculine in nature. Thus, any women who dare to fall within this perverse idea of masculinity are further dehumanised and made invisible.
From the report of women in prisons published on June 2018, by the Ministry of Women and Child Development ‘A majority of female inmates are in the age group of 30-50 years (50.5%), followed by 18-30 years (31.3%). Of the total 1,401 prisons in India, only 18 are exclusive for women, housing 2,985 female prisoners. Thus, a majority of women inmates are housed in the women’s enclosures of general prisons.’
Overcrowding of prisons is another issue flagged by these women survivors. Sori said over 600 women reside in a prison with a capacity for 250. “Due to a lack of space, many of us would just have space to sit and not even to lie down,” she said.
The jury in the public hearing consisted of activist Uma Chakravarty, lawyer Vrinda Grover, and activist Prafulla Samantara. The jury and the activists collectively asserted that focus should now be on building alliances of activists, with access to healthcare, speedy redressal of cases and access to hearings being a top priority.
Vrinda Grover said there is a need for a movement to improve jail conditions and focus should be given to political prisoners. “Special attention needs to be given to those women who are targeted because of their human rights activism.”
Academic and human rights activist Uma Chakravorty echoed Grover, saying the movement would need participation from all sectors and not just the civil society. “About 74 per cent respondents in India feel that torture can sometimes be justiﬁed to gain information that may protect the public,” it said.
Despite being a signatory to the United Nations’ Convention Against Torture, 1997, India has not ratified the convention so far, since ratification required an enabling legislation to reflect the definition and punishment for ‘torture’.
Various studies done within Indian prisons have always concluded that majority of prisoners are Adivasis, Dalits or from other marginalised communities that are being criminalised. Their social and economic backwardness makes them vulnerable, being unable to defend themselves legally and financially.
BRIEF INTRODUCTION OF THE WOMEN ACTIVISTS 1. Sukalo Gond- Sonbhadra, Uttar Pradesh Sukalo Gond hails from Majholi, Sonbhadra in Uttar Pradesh. She belongs to an Adivasi community and has been the face of forest rights struggles in Uttar Pradesh under AIUFWP’s banner. On 8th June, last year, she along with two other members of the Union were illegally arrested by the U.P. Police when they were returning from Lucknow. For the next 5 months, she was jailed illegally in Mirzapur. She was booked under a series of IPC sections; serious allegations were made but officially her name did not even appear in the F.I.R sheet. She continued to resist within the walls of the jail, refusing to partake prison food. Her resistance empowered her community and various other forest dependent communities across the state. She has been a part of initiating the filing of various Community Rights claims under the FRA and continues to be an active part of the Union. 2. Kismati Gond- Sonbhadra, Uttar Pradesh Kismati Gond belong to Lilasi village in Sonbhadra, Uttar Pradesh. Under the banner of AIUFWP she holds the position of Secretary of Forest Rights Committee. She was arrested along with Sukalo Gond on the 8th of June, 2018 from Chopan Railway station. She along with Sukalo were on their way back from Lucknow where they filed complaints against the Forest Department and the police department in Lilasi for unleashing violence on innocent villagers. After her arrest, she was also detained in Mirzapur for over 5 months. She has been a part of the Union for a long time and has continuously struggled along with her community to retain their traditional and community rights over the forests. 3. Zamrooda Habib- Srinagar, Jammu and Kashmir Zamrooda Habib served 5 years in Delhi’s Tihar jail after she was booked under POTA, Prevention of Terrorism Act. She has worked with various issues including women’s rights and empowerment in Kashmir and has been resisting oppressive militancy within the state. She has also worked closely with jailed women and their families, her time in Tihar led to her writing a book titled, Qaidee No. 100. The book is a record of what she witnessed as an under-trial. Violence within jails, prisoners being tortured at the hands of prison guards and officials, and she herself suffered massive trauma at the hands of fellow inmates. Her books have been translated from Urdu to English and Hindi. She has written consistently about various issues and published two more data based short books titled, Forgotten Prisoners and Our Widows. She continues to resist, struggle and fight for women’s participation in state politics and key decision making processes. 4. Soni Sori- Dantewada, Chattisgarh An Adivasi school teacher turned political tribal rights activist from Dantewada in Bastar, Soni Sori has borne the brunt of an oppressive state police for years. In the politically and socially unstable environment in Bastar, one that has been created by the State, Soni Sori and her family were caught in crossfires of the police and the Maoists. She was falsely fabricated numerous times and in 2011, while in police custody, she was tortured. She was hounded by the police for refusing to act as an intermediary between certain corporations and the Naxal groups in the region. She has since been fighting for Adivasi rights, against State-sponsored violence and has been resisting against fake encounters and sexual violence in the conflict zones in central India. 5. Lalti- Ramgarh, Uttar Pradesh Lalti is from Ramgarh in Uttar Pradesh. Lalti has been an active member of the Union for over 15 years. From fighting for proper implementation of Forest Rights Act to resisting State-led oppression, she has faced a lot of obstacles as a woman in a social movement. She has been jailed 3 times, each time on false allegations. The police have, each time, labelled her as an anti-state figure, a terrorist and a Naxalite to build their case. She has witnessed police brutality on many occasions and has consistently protested against it. She has been beaten up by Forest Department officials and police for knowing her rights and fighting for them. Like most women in social movements, she has been an easy target for the police to puncture the growing movement, in her case it is about the actualization of forest rights across the country. 6. Kamla- Chota Barda, Madhya Pradesh Kamla is an active member of the Narmada Bachao Andolan for the past 20 years. She hails from a village called Chota Barda in Badwani, Madhya Pradesh. Kamla joined the movement at a time when she was unaware of just how massive the struggle would build into. In her own words, she says she has built herself through the movement, from learning how to write to campaigning for women empowerment, documenting field conditions to speaking on public platforms regarding various social issues including the havoc that the Sardar Sarovar Dam has wrecked on hers and many other villages. She has been taken into police custody a few times and each time it was done due to false allegations that seemed to say that she was meddling with government’s work and development of the nation. She has witnessed many incidents where the police have brutalised people within the movements and she strongly resists such injustices, she courageously advocates for environmental rights and women’s role in social movements. 7. Jagadalpur Legal Aid- Chattisgarh The Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group (JagLAG) is a group of lawyers who seek to provide legal assistance to the economically and socially disadvantaged groups in Bastar and Dantewada. JagLAG was instituted in July 2013 with the aim of documenting the working of the criminal justice system in the conflict zone of South Chhattisgarh, and provide timely interventions to secure justice for adivasi villagers in jail with the aim of providing legal services to the weakest sections of society. The lawyers initially worked in the Kanker, Bastar, Dantewada, Sukma and Bijapur courts and after their exodus from Jagdalpur in 2015, they work in the Chhattisgarh High Court. The lawyers work with the people to make the state institutions more accountable and conduct documentation of instances of custodial violence and illegal detention and forward complaints of the same to the National Human Rights Commission. Apart from representing individual villagers, JagLAG is also representing the villagers of Sarkeguda, Kottaguda and Rajpenta before the Commission of Inquiry as well as the villagers in the Edesmetta Commission of Inquiry. 8. Manorama Khatua- Jagatsunghpur, Odisha Manorama Khatua resides in Dhinkia, Jagatsunghpur, Odisha. She was a former school teacher and became an active member of the anti POSCO struggle from 2005 – 2015 which was primarily against the corporate loot of natural resources. She was the organiser of the women’s wing. More than 50 false criminal cases including murder charges were put on her and at present she is facing court trials. However, despite the fact that she is suffering from severe health problems and is undergoing treatment, she continues to engage with other social movements too. 9. Harabati Gond- Nawarangpur, Odisha Harabati Gond hails from Ekamba, Nawarangapur, Odisha and was spearheading a struggle over land against the landlords in Raighar Block from 2001 to 2005. She was jailed five times during struggle and the cases are going on without trial. At present, she is involved in the implementation of Forest Rights Act in Umarkote , Jharigam and Raighar Blocks. 10. Xavier Amma- Idinthakarai, Tamil Nadu Xavier amma is among the forefront when it comes women leaders in the struggle against the Koodankulam Nuclear Power Project in Tirunelveli district of Tamil Nadu. Xavier amma from Idinthakarai, was among the three women who were imprisoned in Tirchy Women’s prison. They later had to stay in a church in Madurai for a month, after being given conditional bail, before being permitted to go to back to their village. She along with her fellow women activists were sitting in protest when they were arrested. Of the 50 arrested, the court released 47 people, excluding three women, who were incarcerated for more than 80 days on serious charges of carrying sickles and crowbars, sedition and waging war against the Government of India.