Plight of Political Prisoners: Condition inside Hooghly Jail, West Bengal

August 17, 2014

By Amit Bhattacharyya

Yet another case of mistreatment and intimidation of a political prisoner has come to our notice very recently, this time from Hooghly jail that stands on the bank of River Ganga. This jail built long time back during the colonial period had once housed many political prisoners arrested in Chandannagar and elsewhere. There is a cell there particularly marked as the abode of Kazi Nazrul Islam, the revolutionary poet of Bengal, as we have one in Presidency Jail in memory of Arabinda Ghosh and one in the Cellular Jail in the Andamans in memory of Savarkar.

This Hooghly Jail at present is the abode of one political prisoner named Raja Sarkhel. Raja has been in prison for nearly five years since 2009 under the draconian UAPA. The beauty of this act is that it is very difficult to get out even on bail in case one is branded by the Indian God—that is the all-mighty Indian State–as a ‘Maoist sympathizer’ without any specific charges framed against him or a ‘terrorist’ belonging to any Muslim organization. Raja, known also by his nickname—Tinku—was a close friend of many among us. Along with him, we jointly took part in processions over so many people-related issues during the last fifteen years, be those against police terror, or for the release of political prisoners, or in solidarity with people’s struggles.

Raja was a member of the Gana Pratirodh Mancha and he took part in the people’s struggles in Singur and Nandigram along with some who are now in power in this ‘Valley of Death’(‘Mrityu Upatyaka’,to use late Nabarun Bhattacharya’s words), in the Lalgarh Mancha or the Lalgarh Andolan Sanhati Mancha and many others until he was picked up by the police on 5 October 2009 from Jadavpur near his residence. That day Prasun Chatterjee, another political prisoner and now lodged in Purulia Jail, was picked up from his residence at Garia and both were tagged in the same case along with Chhatradhar Mahato, the convener of the People’s Committee Against Police Atrocities(PCAPA) and others.

Raja had been staying in the Medinipur Central Correctional Home for a long time until he was shifted to Hooghly jail some months ago. He has been put up in a cell which is next to the cell where Kazi Nazrul Islam passed his days in prison. The cell does not have any ventilation system. Raja suffers from acute asthma which makes it difficult for him to breathe inside the cell. Despite periodic requests to the jail authorities to take some positive steps in this respect, nothing has been done by the prison officials. Sukla, his life-partner, visits him every week with dry food and other things needed to meet basic needs. There is nothing illegal about it. The jailor, however, did not like it at all. ‘Why do you come with food every time you come? Do we not provide the prisoner food’?, he sometimes asked Sukla. ‘Do you know that he gives his food to other prisoners?’ Raja is very popular among his prison-mates, as persons with fellow-feelings should have. That is something which is difficult for a jailor to accept.

Raja is given a newspaper to read—‘Ananda Bazar Patrika’–by the jail authorities as he enjoys the formal status of a ‘political prisoner’ by a verdict from the Kolkata High court. Besides that paper, he buys two others—‘Bartaman’ and ‘Ei Somoy’ out of the money deposited in his account at the jail office. What happened on 9 August last was something for which Raja was not at all prepared. On that day, all on a sudden, the jailor came to his room with forces, took possession of the three newspapers he used to get every morning and tore them apart; he even took away one issue of a little magazine named ‘Ebong Jalark’ from him without any rhyme or reason. That little magazine was actually censored and passed by the Medinipur jail authorities earlier.

When Raja protested to the jailor that he should not do such things and asked the jailor why he had been acting in the way he did, the jailor could not give any definite reply. On the contrary he asked Raja drawing his attention to a piece of brick on the wall of his cell why that brick was loose. That prison building is more than 150 years old and has not been renovated for a long time to make it fit for human living. ‘Why should I be blamed for this?’ Raja replied. Raja felt intimidated and a bit nervous. One of his lawyers reportedly was contacted and he visited Raja and talked to him. Legal steps are to be taken for the protection of Raja Sarkhel; side by side, democratic voices should also be raised so that such attempts at intimidation do not recur not just to him but to any other prisoner in future.

We should also strongly raise our voice for the unconditional release of all political prisoners. Let us in one voice raise the slogan: “Away with the Dungeons Let us Strive for a Prison-free World”.