West Bengal – Release of political prisoners : Review Committee debate revisited

June 27, 2012

by Ranjit Sur

“Giving a huge sigh of relief to the TMC leaders and party workers implicated in various cases in connection with both the cognizable and non-cognizable offences, the West Bengal government has now decided to withdraw charges against them. The state government is planning to withdraw simple charges as well as serious charges like murder, possession of illegal arms and the cases in which non-bailable warrants have been issued against the Trinamool workers. West Bengal Law Minister Malay Ghatak has said that Trinamool workers were framed due to the political rivalry by previous left regime. Sources say that the government has issued directions to withdraw cases against nearly 500 party workers implicated in various cases concerning to the previous violent protests in Singur, Nandigram and North 24-Parganas. The state Law Ministry has asked all the public prosecutors concerning to these cases to act in this direction and ensure their release. Following the orders, the public prosecutors have already sent a proposal to the concerned DMs in this regard.”(JPN/Bureau)

With this order, the Government of West Bengal has resolved a long-standing debates amongst the rights workers and political forces of “third stream” in West Bengal. When questioned by members of the media, the West Bengal Law Minister and Government pleader rightly argued that the Government has every right to withdraw cases and release prisoners by applying Sec 321 of CrPC , adding that the Government wanted to apply that rule only. They are not doing any illegal thing. The Law Minister and the Government Pleader is absolutely right in their argument. What they had not said but should have said is that even convicted prisoners can be released applying Sec 432 of CrPC.

But where is the debate and how it is resolved ?

As we all know, it was Ms Mamata Banerjee’s election pledge that her Government will release Political Prisoners if voted to power. Accordingly, in her first Cabinet Meeting on 20 May 2011, a Review Committee to release the political prisoners was decided to be formed. In 1977, the first Left Front government under the Chief Ministership of Jyoti Basu had similarly decided in their first Cabinet Meeting to release political prisoners. But between the two government decisions, there is a gulf of difference. The Government of Jyoti Basu decided and implemented the release of political prisoners unconditionally by withdrawing all cases against them. Even the convicted political activists were released. Several political activists who had been sentenced to death, were not only released but even got back their Government jobs. But Mamata Banerjee’s Government decided to review ‘case to case’ ie each case against each political activists would be reviewed and acted upon according to the merit of the case. She was not ready to withdraw the cases and release unconditionally. So from the first day, the majority of the rights activists opposed the new government’s decision of case to case review. All the rights organizations and political organizations of ‘third Stream’ demanded unconditional release of all political prisoners following 1977 model and applying rule Sec 321 of CrPC for undertrial prisoners and rule 432 of CrPC for convicted prisoners.

Sec 321 of CrPC reads :
“ 321. Withdrawal from prosecution.
The Public Prosecutor or Assistant Public Prosecutor in charge of a case may, with the consent of the Court at any time before the judgment is pronounced, withdraw from the prosecution of any person either generally or in respect of any one or more of the offences for which he is tried; and upon such withdrawal,
(a) If it is made before a charge has been framed, the accused shall be discharged in respect of such offence or offences;
(b) If it is made after a charge has been framed, or when under this Code no charge is required he shall be acquitted in respect of such offence or offences: ……”

and Sec 432 of the CrPC reads :
“(1) When any person has been sentenced to punishment for an offence, the appropriate Government may, at any time, without conditions or upon any conditions that the person sentenced accepts, suspend the execution of his sentence or remit the whole or any part of the punishment to which he has been sentenced. “

Several organizations including APDR hit the streets again and again to realize this demand. But ignoring all protests and deputations, the new government ordered the formation of Review Committee on 4th June under the Chairmanship of retired Justice Moloy Sengupta. The terms of conditions of the committee were very derogatory and rights activists of all hues opposed them. But the government did not change anything. Yet ignoring the stiff resistance of most of the rights workers, Bengal’s most famous “human rights worker” joined the Review Committee as a member along with 6 IPS/ IAS officers and 5 more non-government but pro-TMC persons, one of whom is now a TMC MP and another one is an adviser to CM in his Secretariat. The Review Committee started work on 4th June 2011.

Gradually the famous “human Rights Worker” became the unofficial spokesperson of the Committee and started to defend all government decisions in this regard. He and a few other newly baptized pro-government leaders crossed even the Government brief and supplied arguments to the Government and said that the issue should be looked in a new perspective after 9/11 and 26/11, as the world has changed. According to him, no government can now release political prisoners unconditionally and withdrawing cases against them directly is next to impossible in this changed world. His contention was that after the enactment of 1992 Political prisoners Act, no prisoners can be released without declaring them political prisoners by the court of law. He declared a roadmap of his own for release of political prisoners. According to his theory, first of all, political prisoners should apply to court for the status of political prisoners as per the act of 1992. Secondly, after getting the political status, they will have to apply to the Review Committee for consideration for recommendation to Government for bail. The Review committee will give its recommendation to the Government and if the Government accepts the recommendation, then they will apply to court for bail. And then, on one fine morning, Government will think over withdrawal of cases. The rights workers of Bengal tried to argue that attaining the status of Political Prisoners has nothing to do with the withdrawal of cases. Political Prisoner status only gives one some facilities in jail custody like access to newspapers, books etc. But the propagators of the review committee were not ready to listen any argument. The famous “human Rights Worker” even declared in a full-house public meeting in University Institute, College Square, that by releasing all political prisoners through this process, he will prove that he was right and his critics are all motivated and frustated CPM supporters in disguise !

But alas ! After one year of the Government and nine months of the functioning of the Review Committee, not a single, I repeat, not a single political prisoner from South Bengal has been released. Not a single Maoist or PCPA member of Junglemahal or SUCI prisoners have been released. Around 30 Political Prisoners from KLO and Greater Coochbehar Movement got bail after Trinomul Congress (TMC) reached an understanding with their political organizations. The tenure of the Review Committee was over on 3rd March 2012. On behalf of the Review Committee, our famous “human rights worker” gave statements again and again that they have recommended lots of names for release on bail. But we heard nothing from the Chairman of Review Committee or from the Government.The end result is that not a single political prisoners from south Bengal has been released. What happened to the Review Committee recommendations ? We are afraid! Did the Government thrown away the recommendations to the dustbins along with its propagators ?

The question is more relevant in the light of the recent government announcement of releasing the TMC workers asPpolitical Prisoners, as quoted earlier, following the same model of the Left Front Government of 1977, by applying Sec 321 of CrPC. Now the Government action says no Review Committee is necessary for the release of TMC workers and existing law gave them ample power to withdraw cases for any political worker if the Government wishes to do so. Infact the Government has already applied this model in case of one Congress worker of Shantipur, Nadia and released him by withdrawing all cases against him including the charge of murder. So, now it is proved that release of Political prisoners by withdrawing cases including case of murder is possible even in this ‘changed world’ and even after passing the Political Prisoners Act of 1992 in West Bengal. The political will of the Government is the necessary and sufficient condition for the unconditional release of the political prisoners. Thus the Governemnt of Mamata Banerjee itself resolved the debate created by its decision of forming Review Committee.

Even after that, very recently in Junglemahal area, the TMC party initiated a move for release of political prisoners in Junglemahal area, keeping in mind the forthcoming Panchayet Election. They realized that it would be the main issue in Panchayet Election of the Junglemahal area and so they have taken initiative to pacify the anger of the people as almost every house of the area has one or more members either in jail or out in bail but virtually bankrupt in fighting the cases distributed over several districts. So TMC leaders distributed an undertaking form (See the attachment) in which it stated that he/she was a TMC worker and the Left Government, being politically vindictive, had slapped cases against him/her. So the new Government should release him/her so that he/she can undertake his/her political task in future. An implicit undertaking is that the released person will have to work for TMC in future. Every democratic organisation opposed the humiliating conditions imposed by the TMC leaders and demanded unconditional release of all the prisoners. Yet a point is there to be noted – no reference to and recommendation from Review committee is proposed in this case too. TMC also demanded direct withdrawal of cases. Even they have not demanded that Political Prisoners status should be attained (as our famous “ human rights worker” had claimed) before applying.

So it is clear once again that the Review Committee was a ploy to deceive the people of Bengal and the Government has sufficient legal support to withdraw the cases and give unconditional release to all political prisoners. What is needed is the political will of the Government in power. And thus the debate is resolved and confusion, if any, is clear. Now let us have a fresh beginning hitting the streets demanding unconditional release of all political prisoners and withdrawal of all cases pending against those who are out of jail in Bail. Enough time has passed. Our dear ones are rotting in the jails. Let us bring them home to their dear ones. This is the task of the moment. Let us fulfil it.