The high handedness of the Taloja Central Jail administration was evident in the events leading to the death of the octogenarian Bhima Koregaon undertrail, Stan Swamy on July 5, 2021. Almost immediately, the remaining BK undertrials protested the arbitrary jail conditions imposed by the then Superintendent, Kaustabh Kurlekar by observing a one-day hunger strike. However, far from bringing such persecution to an end, a new repressive regime has been installed by Superintendent UT Pawar. Its latest manifestation is the transfer of Vernon Gonsalves, Sagar Gokhale, Ramesh Gaichor, Surendra Gadling, Sudhir Dhawale and most recently on 12 October 2021 Gautam Navlakha to the ‘anda’ circle, the high security prison area in Taloja Jail. Imprisonment in the anda cell is a form of solitary confinement which is blatantly illegal in the case of undertrial prisoners. It is well known that solitary confinement in the egg-shaped (anda) high security concrete structure is aimed at exacting a severe physical and psychological toll on detenues.
In the past, Superintendent Kurlekar had applied at least three times before the NIA Court to shift the Bhima Koregaon inmates to separate jails on the grounds that they were spreading malicious rumours about the jail administration, as they exposed the deplorable prison conditions and medical neglect in Taloja. Even as recently as 26 August ten of the accused had complained to the Maharashtra Home Minister Kolse Patil that their letters were being scanned by a jail official and protested against this “illegal political censorship” in prison. The shift to the anda cell, a form of soft torture, is meant to ‘break’ the solidarity of the BK prisoners by imposing on them segregation practices.
The jail administration has justified the shift as providing security and comfort to the accused because unlike the overcrowded barracks there is greater space in the anda cells which saves them from suffocation. Their explanation begs the question that why this sudden concern for the BK accused and what is the basis for prioritizing their so-called well-being over that of all others? Whatever the jail authorities might say the confinement is cruel and suffocating. In the eight hours the inmates are allowed out of their anda cells their movement is restricted to a 7 feet X 7 feet concrete corridor surrounded by high walls within the circle with no sunlight. Not being allowed outside the anda circle automatically means no access to the library, canteen and greener spaces all of which lie outside.
While imprisonment in the anda cell doesn’t necessarily take away visiting or telephone rights, the fact of the matter is that Taloja Central Jail has recently stopped phone calls on the pretext that physical mulaquats have now been resumed. The lack of phone calls means that the access of the Bhima Koregaon to family, legal help is severely curtailed. This measure of the jail authorities is an escalation in the harassment, psychological torture and neglect of the Bhima-Koregaon accused since the time of their incarceration over the past three and a half years. The Bombay High Court’s pulling up the jail administration in December 2020 for obstructing access to necessary aids such as spectacles, noting that “humanity is most important. Everything else will follow” has been of no avail.
In the current scenario, we apprehend that Gautam Navlakha who is nearly 70 years of age and suffers from various ailments including hypertension is at risk. It is a logical assumption that conditions in the anda cell will only intensify his existing health problems, including a recently developed lump in his chest. Gautam Navlakha’s partner, activist and writer Sahba Husain, in her statement of 24th October has expressed concern over the toll that the confinement and denial of telephone rights is taking on his spirits and already fragile health. Like Anand Teltumbde, Surendra Gadling and Shoma Sen, Gautam too has been denied medical bail by the Special Court in September.
The extended detention and denial of bail under UAPA is being further exacerbated through this newer move to the ‘anda cell’. It should be recalled that the apex court has, in its 1979 landmark judgment in the Sunil Batra vs Delhi Administration case refused jail authorities absolute discretion in deciding the space of incarceration and laid down guidelines distinguishing between undertrials and convicts, individual convicts and categories of prisoners. It also recognized that it is essential for prisoners’ wellbeing that they interact with their families and friends. In the present instance, these rights have been flouted by the Taloja administration.
PUDR reiterates that the blatantly illegal incarceration of the Bhima Koregaon undertrials in the anda cell constitutes an arbitrary and vindictive persecution for their political beliefs and a flagrant denial of their fundamental rights including rights to life and dignity, speech and expression. We demand:
- Immediate end to incarceration of all undertrials in the anda cell of Taloja Central Jail.
- Treatment of ailments and illnesses is the responsibility of the jail administration which must be held accountable for not providing relief to Gautam Navlakha and others with medical complaints.
- The rights of all inmates to communicate with family and lawyers, including over the phone, be ensured.
- Release of all prisoners held under UAPA.