PUDR Statement on Calcutta High Court judgement and political prisoners

November 7, 2012

The West Bengal High Court judgement of August 2012 granting ‘political prisoner’ status to seven members of the People’s Committee against Police Atrocities (PCPA) clarifies and reinforces the provision of law as stipulated in West Bengal Correctional Service Act 1992 and the definition of political prisoner therein. PUDR welcomes the judgement to the extent that it brushes aside the mystique woven by lower courts in denying the status of political prisoner to PCPA members on insubstantial grounds despite the law being vivid and clear on it. Section 24 of the West Bengal Correctional Service Act 1992 takes a broad and encompassing view of what constitutes a political offence. It includes all political and democratic movement that crusades to further social and economic justice without any personal greed or motives and despite the ideological persuasion and means or orientation towards established legal order to be political movement. Consequently, any one detained for being associated with these movements is to be political prisoner. The High Court judgement therefore brings forth the irony and contradictions of the justice delivery mechanisms in India.

The West Bengal High Court Judgement however has its own perils. The high court in its judgement refrained from striking down the category of political prisoner because the said category was not challenged on valid grounds in the legal matter before its disposal. The court found the category of political prisoner to be discriminatory and reinforcing inequality. It held that basic minimum facilities that are stipulated for the political prisoners under West Bengal Correctional Service Act 1992 shall be moderated and made accessible to all prisoners. In this concern PUDR would also like to draw attention on the colonial practice of discriminations in Indian jails, entirely based on class and various categorisations of prisoners. While the notion of equality is no doubt welcoming, HC judgment is conspicuously silent on upholding of prevalent structured inequality in Indian Jails. Secondly it would be quite disingenuous to reduce the struggle for the status of political prisoner to the notion of equal access to facilities inside prison. Contestations over status of a political prisoner or category of ‘political offence and offenders’ goes beyond prison entitlements. It is about defining the domain of ‘legitimate’ politics and diverse politics of dissent and resistance being constitutive of such domain.

The High Court Judgement in totality circumvents what it asserts in the first instance. It subverts the broader understanding political offence as defined in the West Bengal Correctional Service Act 1992 by proposing trampling of boundaries between ‘political’ and ‘routine’/ non political offence. Following this judgement the Ministry of Home Affair, Government of India swiftly moved to direct the West Bengal Government to either consider an amendment of the West Bengal Correctional Service Act 1992 or to appeal against the high court judgment in order to prohibit the conferment of the status of political prisoners to those who question and revolt against the state. Paradoxical it may seem but overall picture around West Bengal High Court Judgement and the MHA directive represents a continuum of subverting a law- (West Bengal Correctional Service Act) 1992- with democratic potential. More so it aims at redefining the contours of the political by ironing out the politics of resistance and dissent.

PUDR demands:

1. That the provision of West Bengal Correctional Service Act 1992 be adhered to and implemented in right spirit rather than cultivating pretext for its subversion.

2. That overall living conditions inside prison be made just and humane and rights of prisoners be upheld rather than simply juxtaposing and inducing unsubstantiated contradiction with privileges of political prisoners.

3. Release all political prisoners and initiate dialogue with them to comprehend and redress the fundamental causes of political unrest.