India: What’s in a name? / FRFI 215 Jun/Jul 2010

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FRFI 215 June/July 2010

The demand for political prisoner status

On 11 April 2010, 469 inmates in Alipore Central Jail in Kolkotta (Calcutta) in West Bengal went on hunger strike, demanding recognition as political prisoners. The previous April, two prisoners in the district of Cooch Behar went on a fast to demand political status. On 14 September 2009 an unspecified number of inmates in Nagpur, the second capital of the state of Maharashtra in western India, went on a one-day hunger strike to demand political prisoner status.

What’s in a name? One might ask. It is one thing to ask for fair trial, injunctions against torture and such, but why this insistence on labels – ‘P’ for political, ‘C’ for criminal? Political status does not automatically lead to any special privileges or concessions other than the things civil liberties groups demand for all prisoners: fair and expeditious trial, humane treatment, prohibition of physical and sexual torture, and an end to graft. Yet the very resilience of this demand for categorisation indicates its importance for the civil liberties and democratic rights movements in India today.

In the first place, categorisation helps to count how many people are in jails for political reasons. A simple head count of ‘P’ category prisoners will deconstruct Indian democracy in ways that academic or legal analysis of security laws, or dissertations on Indian democracy cannot do. The trade unionists, the indigenous people opposed to forced sale of lands to corporations, the villagers opposed to chemical or nuclear plants in their village, the women protesting against rape by soldiers or army occupation, Muslims, Kashmiris, Nagas, Mizos, Assamese and other religious and ethnic minorities demanding cultural and social freedoms, slum dwellers protesting against demolitions or forced evacuations, the list could go on, but all of these would count as ‘P’ class. That would reveal the authoritarian and repressive character of the Indian state and the true face of Indian democracy. The CRPP estimates that in the Indian-occupied state of Kashmir alone 75,000 people were detained for political reasons. It is virtually impossible for civil liberty groups to count political prisoners where access is strictly controlled. After the Kolkotta hunger strike this April, the Inspector General of Prisoners announced he would stop interviews of all prisoners (Indian Express 11 April 2010).

Without such categorisation, the state tars all opposition with the same ‘criminal’ brush. Two consequences follow. First, politics is criminalised, circumscribing democracy to an elite group, the beneficiaries of the system. Criminalisation of politics makes it possible for the Indian state to sanitise democracy for the national and global elite. Second, it delegitimises those struggling for justice in the eyes of the wider society. The concerns they raise about society: the conditions of workers, slum dwellers, indigenous peoples, democratic rights, effects of WTO policies, political corruption and so on become marginalised. Moreover, it creates a rift between those adversely affected by state policies and those who might, potentially, sympathise with the demands for justice.

There is in India today an internal schism. What kind of society should India be and what does democracy mean in a divided society where half the population is undernourished, and vast numbers of the other half are integrated into the global elite of academics, intellectuals, professionals and business people? According to Planning Commission figures published last year 37.7% of the population suffer from chronic malnutrition and 49.9% from undernourishment.

This schism is sustained by the very architecture of India’s laws and institutions constructed assiduously since colonial times. One set of repressive laws for those opposed to the state and another set of democratic laws for those supporting it span the post-independence era. India adopted its republican constitution in January 1950 and enacted the Preventive Detention Act 1950; Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act 1958, Maintenance of Internal Security (MISA) 1971; National Security Act (NSA) 1980; Terrorist and Disruptive Practices Act (TADA) 1985; Prevention of Terrorist Activities Act (POTA) 2002, the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) 2009 and other state statutes interspersed with numerous special ordinances in between. These laws are used routinely to arrest striking workers, political opponents, the poor, and other sections of the population for demanding justice. On the other hand a multiparty democracy and judiciary allows freedoms for those supportive of the state’s approach to the economy and society. The ‘P’ label will lay bare the schism. It will make apparent the scale and scope of exceptional national security and anti-terrorism laws, and the exclusive and limited reach of regular democratic procedures.

What’s in a name? A great deal indeed!

Radha D’Souza