New Delhi: Sukalo 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.
Soni Sori, a teacher, who became the symbol of resistance against brutal custodial torture, also attended the gathering in Delhi. 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.
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.
Another issue flagged by these women was over-crowding.
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.
Roma Malik, 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.
Prominent lawyer 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.”
Human rights activist Uma Chakravorty echoed Grover, saying the movement would need participation from all sectors and not just the civil society.
Human rights organisation Amnesty International has expressed concern on the condition of political prisoners in the country. Its report showed India has the maximum acceptance of torture as a means of interrogation.
“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”. —PTI