Prisoners' Right to Strike: Protests by Inmates Should Not Be Considered an Offence

This article seeks to expand the ways of engaging with prisoners and their reintegration into the society.

 

This is the third and final part of a three part series on Prisoners' Rights in India. You can read the Introduction here

 

In the unbearable heat of Rajasthan, some undertrial male prisoners in Jaipur Central Jail, locked up in small suffocating cells for up to 23 hours without ventilation or fans, resolved to take action. The prisoners started a hunger strike demanding installation of boxes where prisoners could put their complaints, and regular visits of a judge to look into their complaints (Waqar 2019). Prisoners had intimated about their hunger strike along with the demands in a letter to the prison authorities and the judge presiding over their trials. On the intervening night of 29 and 30 March 2019, some undertrial prisoners in Jaipur Central Jail were dragged and beaten up brutally, leading to fractured limbs and serious injuries. Despite the judge issuing a notice to the jail authorities, prisoners not only suffered physical beatings, but they were also charged under Sections 332 (voluntarily causing hurt to deter public servant from his duty) and 353 (use of criminal force on public servant in execution of his duties) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) for causing injury to a prison official’s finger, and inflicting self-harm (Hindu 2019). 

The most astonishing aspect of this turn of events is that the demands of the prisoners for which they started the hunger strike are the mechanisms that prison authorities should on their own be adopting as per the mandatory directions given by the Supreme Court in several cases including Sunil Batra (II) v Delhi Administration and Madhukar B Jambhale v State of Maharashtra.

On 23 and 24 June, 2017 women prisoners of Byculla Jail in Mumbai rebelled to highlight torture and murder of their co-prisoner Manjula Shetye by prison staff. If it wasn’t for their strike, Manjula’s case would never have seen the light of the day. Their strike brought so much attention to Manjula’s murder in custody that not only the accused prison staff were arrested and are currently being tried, but ministers and parliamentarians have visted the prisoners. However, an first information report against the 200 women prisoners was filed for allegedly rioting, making unlawful assembly (Dalvi, 2018).

In this article, I will answer three questions: Why do prisoners organise strikes/protests? Do prisoners have the right to protest or organise a strike? Can prisoners resort to hunger strike? Is organising a protest an offence? 

Prisoners’ Strikes: A Phenomenon from around the World

Strikes and protests by prisoners have been a regular part of prison history for many years.  According to scholars in the West, such protests can be traced to the origin of the Irish civil law around mid-18th century, Senchus Mor, according to which the the debtor used to conduct hunger strike in front of creditor’s house (Kanaboshi 2014). A decade later, attempts of strike were made in Russia where male prisoners started a hunger strike against oppressive conditions of prison and against the Tsarist regime (Grant 2011). Prison protests, especially hunger strikes gained popularity in Britain, when the women, that is, the Suffragettes who struggled for voting rights, resorted to it during their imprisonment in the beginning of the second decade of the 20th century (Kanaboshi 2014); (Grant 2011). Irish prisoners also used hunger strikes as a way to demand better prison conditions (Sweeney 1993). Similarly, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was hailed for his hunger strikes in prisons throughout the first half of the 20th century which he articulated as a non-violent weapon (Kanaboshi 2014; Srivastava 2003).

By the second half of the 20th century, the prison strikes were seen in different countries the world over. However, these strikes were met with adverse responses from the authorities. 450 Palestinian prisoners protested in December 1975, against inhuman conditions of the prisons in the region of the West Bank. These prisoners were kept locked up for up to 23 hours in overcrowded prisons with no windows or ventilations. The quality of food was not only inferior but also harmful. Prisoners also highlighted other issues related to clothing, bedding, amount of money allowed to be received by them among other issues. In response to the protests, prison authorities stopped facilities in prison, tried to force-feed them, and some were put in solitary confinement while most of them were segregated into different prisons; this occurred despite condemnation by the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) (MERIP 1977).

Another recent example is the “National Prisoners Strike” that took place in August and September 2018 which also spread to many prisons in the United States of America. Prisoners protested via many means: hunger strikes, stopping medical treatment, abandoning prison facilities, work stoppages, demonstrations, etc. This strike had enlisted 10 demands including improved prison conditions and humane treatment of prisoners, voting rights for prisoners, equal wages for work, end to racial laws and penal practices, etc (IWOC 2018). One of the prisoners on strike was quoted as saying, “... we’re asking for a little compassion here. Just treat us like humans ...” (Gross 2018). 

Prisoners Strike in India and Their Demands

Indian prisoners have similarly adopted the method of strikes, including hunger strikes, for about a century now. The Sikh prisoners of Lahore Conspiracy Case in 1918 in Hazaribagh Jail and those in the second Lahore Conspiracy Case, including 25 year-old Jatindra Nath Das who died after 63 days of hunger strike, protested against sub-human jail conditions. Nanibala, arrested in 1917 for giving shelter to the leaders of the Indo-German plot, went on hunger strike against the torture perpetrated on her by the interrogating authorities. A 45-day-long hunger strike was taken up in 1933 by prisoners in Andaman Islands against the prison conditions of the ‘kala pani’ punishment and to keep the spirit of anti-colonial struggle alive. A similar strike was taken up again in 1937, which was supported by solidarity strikes from prisoners of Alipore, Berhampur, Deoli and other jails located in mainland India. Various other strikes continued till independence, including against the racial discrimination of Indian prisoners by the colonial government (Singh 1996).

Post independence as well there have been numerous incidents of prisoners on hunger strike. For the purpose of this article, some of those are discussed from previous few years to note the various demands raised by prisoners and response of the authorities. 

Activist Soni Sori, in August 2012 during her imprisonment in Raipur Central Jail started a hunger strike against the humiliating strip search practice of prison authorities (Sanhati 2012). 

In January 2014, more than 170 prisoners including women prisoners started an indefinite hunger strike after sending a petition to the supreme court highlighting the conditions of the prisoners. They wrote how bail applications for these prisoners were continuously rejected or postponed despite it being a constitutional right of prisoners (Sanhati 2014).

There were simultaneous strikes by prisoners in Jharkhand and Odisha, taking the total number of prisoners on strike in India to more than 500. More than 100 prisoners in Jharkhand undertook hunger strikes to highlight the denial of opportunity for premature release of life convicts who have already spent more than 14 years under incarceration (Johari 2014).

The same demand was sought in 2016, when around 100 prisoners in Haridwar Jail demanded the release of those who already spent 14 years in jail as punishment, while jail authority threatened to take action against them (PTI 2016).

In Odisha’s Berhampur Circle Jail, prisoners demanded speedy trial and their regular appearance in court during trial of their cases (Johari 2014).

In April 2015, Angela Sontakkey had to resort to a five day hunger strike when jail authorities of Byculla Jail in Mumbai refused to stop the installation of CCTV in her cell. She was instead put in an isolated cell during the time of the strike. Her demand was later accepted as her hunger strike caught media attention (Dhupkar 2015).

In August 2015, 30 prisoners in a Kolkata Correctional Home started hunger strikes against the restricted access to telephone and medical facilities and more number of lock up hours. The welfare officer at the jail orally threatened the prisoners, and later on continuation of the hunger strike, each of the 30 prisoners were put in solitary confinement and with a ban on engagement with other prisoners or access to telephone facility to contact family and their lawyer (Sanhati 2015).

In March 2017, more than 60 “high security” prisoners of Ajmer Central Jail demanded an end to their isolated lock-up and provision of recreational facility and quality food by resorting to a five-day hunger strike (Times of India 2017). Prison authorities tried negotiating, but only to deny all demands with arguments that the facilities of phone call and TV would connect the prisoners to the outside world and help them pass on information whereas volleyball would lead to 'scuffle' among the prisoners (Rediff 2017). Later, these prisoners were charged under prison offences for going on hunger strike in the case of Ranjeet Singh v State of Rajasthan & Anr

In August 2015, Zabiuddinn Ansari started his hunger strike in Mumbai’s Arthur Road jail demanding to be shifted anywhere other than his dark airless cell where he was held in solitary confinement for continuous 33 months (Ali 2015). Activist Damodar Turi and three other prisoners in Giridih District Jail also protested against their solitary confinement in April 2018 (Johari 2018). Prison authorities agreed to change their lock-up conditions for day time, after a week’s hunger strike.

In 2019, Kannur Jail’s Kalidasan, Unnikrishnan and Ibrahim had to resort to hunger strike in the month of May for the basic need of adequate water (Deccan Chronicle 2019). Earlier, in January, the crisis of detention camps of Assam was highlighted by 27 inmates who refused to eat demanding interim bail or parole from their jail term (Pisharoty 2019). They had also protested to demand better food and other facilities in 2018. Assam’s detention camps housing those declared “foreigners” are in a peculiar situation. Due to lack of proper because due to lack of any related law even the authorities do not know for how long these inmates will be kept in confinement and what all facilities can or can not be provided to them. 

The adverse response of authorities on the strikes of prisoners is supported by rules made under Jail Manuals, Prison Policies and the Prisons Act, 1894.

Jurisprudence on Prisoners’ Strike: An Offence to Be Punished For?

According to the Jail Manuals, strikes or hunger strikes have been categorised as a prison offence. For example Allahabad High Court in Lakshmi Narain v The State mentions that Jail Manuals have categorised “refusing to eat food or the food prescribed by the prison diet scale” as a prison offence in its paragraph 806, Chapter XXX. 

Further, as per paragraph 742 of the Jail Manual under Chapter XXVIII:

"Prisoners who go on hunger-strike shall be warned that no request for the redress of any of their alleged grievances shall be considered so long as the strike continues, that hunger-strike is a major jail offence, that a mass hunger-strike amounts to mutiny and that hunger-strikers are liable to be punished either departmentally or by prosecution under Section 52 of the Prisons Act, 1894 (IX of 1894) under which they may be sentenced to imprisonment which may extend to one year. A hunger striker should not ordinarily be prosecuted under the Prisons Act without the previous sanction of the Inspector General."

Similarly, Delhi Jail Manual also enlists “Refusing to eat food or going on hunger strike” as a prison offence in its paragraph 46, Chapter XI.

Paragraph 58 of the Manual further elaborates:

“58. Prohibition of strikes, etc. – No person employed in the prison shall have any right to any union or join any such union either inside or outside the prison for any purpose or for making or pressing any demands to strike or start or continue any agitation inside the prison for achieve any request or demand.”

Going on hunger strike is considered equal to bad behaviour leading to non-eligibility for ordinary remission. 

Paragraph 71 of Delhi Jail Manual states: 

Ordinary remission may not be granted to a prisoner:- (d) who, due to self-inflicted injuries, is detained in hospital as indoor patient, or who has resorted to hunger-strike or work-strike (for such periods as may be decided by the Superintendent)

Model Jail Manual 2016 has continued this prohibition. Paragraph 21.09 mentions “(xxiii) Refusing to eat food or going on a hunger-strike” as a prison offence. In fact, it also categorises “(xx) Not to undertake any agitation, organized protest or hunger strike” as a duty of the prisoner. Just like the older jail manuals, this Model Manual also considers prisoners on hunger strike as ineligible for premature release, as per its paragraph 20.14.

Model Jail Manual 2016 also states that hunger strike should be treated like an emergency situation.

It furthers states: 

“13.77 Prisoners who go on hunger strike shall be warned that no redress of any alleged grievances shall be allowed as long as the strike continues and that they shall be liable to any prison punishment or to prosecution under Section 52 of the Prisons Act, 1894.”

“13.78 ….The usual concession in the matter of interviews and letters of such prisoner shall be restricted to members of the legal profession only.” 

“13.79. ….If a mass hunger strike amounts to mutiny, the prisoners shall be isolated from each other, and from other prisoners, as far as possible.”

Similarly, a Prisoners’ Handbook released by the Bureau of Police Research and Development also states that a prisoner on hunger strike will lose the ‘privilege’ of writing letters to family, meeting with family, educational and recreational facilities in the jail, etc. The handbook also states that a joint petition or complaint by a group of prisoners is not entertained by the prison administration (Model Jail Manual 2016). Indian courts however have considered hunger strike a prison offence in some cases, but have also upheld protest as a right for prisoners going on strike. 

In 1959, long ago, in Lakshmi Narain v The State (AIR 1959 All 164), the Allahabad High Court was satisfied that the act of going on hunger strike was an offence punishable under Section 52 of the Prisons Act because: “in the interests of maintaining discipline in jails the refusal to take food by a prisoner has been made an offence... and jails are not places where people can have their own choice of food or their own choice in other matters. A prisoner on hunger-strike will attract sympathy from other prisoners and this may lead to acts of indiscipline being committed on a mass scale and may even lead to mutiny.”

In 2000, when a telegram was sent to the Madras High Court by prisoners on strike it was dismissed in Viduthalai Chiravasi Punar vs The State Of Tamil Nadu (Equivalent citations: 2000 (4) CTC 1). The prisoners in the Palayamkottai Central Jail were agitating with indefinite fasting against denial of basic rights including hygiene and food to the prisoners, jail authorities’ dictatorial behavior and corruption in prison supplies. In 2016, 25 prisoners were transferred by the jail administration from one jail to another as a punishment for continuing their hunger strike for demands related to furlough, food quality, permission for food heating in cells, permission for receiving food from family, etc. The court dismissed the demands of the prisoners and upheld the punishment in Mohammed Sharif and Badshah Shamim Khan vs The State Of Maharashtra & Others (2016).

In other cases, like Subroto Mookherjee vs State Of West Bengal & Others, in 2013, Calcutta High Court did not discuss hunger strike as an offence, but simply did not issue any directions towards demands of the prisoners by stating that “steps appear to have been taken with regard to the charter of demands over which there was a hunger strike in the Correctional Home.” After a custodial death, undertrials of Midnapore Central Correctional Home had undertaken hunger strike protesting against lapses and lacunae in jail administration. 

In 2001, when all the prisoners of Beur Central Jail protested and started a hunger strike, the Patna High Court, in Sunil Singh vs State Of Bihar And Others (2001 CriLJ 3681), reprimanded the jail authorities as well as magistrate of the trial court for not taking note of the fact that prisoners were kept in custody without a remand order and were not being produced before the court for months and months together. The High Court of Jharkhand on the other hand, took suo moto cognisance of the hunger strike of prisoners as a public interest litigation (WP (PIL) No. 682 of 2014) in court on Its Own Motion v State of Jharkhand & Others. The prisoners were wanting to highlight the issue of release of the life convicts who have spent more than 14 years in prison.

The Bombay High Court, in Pandurang Tulshiram Paighan vs State Of Maharashtra And Ors. (2004 (1) MhLj 1055) stated that the conduct of the petitioner in jail (that is prisoners on hunger strike) arose out of his perception that he was not being given good food. The court also held that no violent act is committed by resorting to hunger strike to demand good food or by threatening action through court. The court also disallowed Jail Authority’s attempt to deny the prisoner the opportunity of release on furlough.

In 2009, (Judicial Magistrate First Class, Criminal Case No. 8934 of 2009 Nagpur State of Maharashtra v Babasaheb and Ors), 13 prisoners of Nagpur Jail were booked under Section 309 of IPC on allegation that they tried to commit suicide by keeping fast and starvation. The accused went on hunger strike against the jail authority for protesting against their harassment and atrocity. The court ruled that protesting against harassment or against atrocity or going on a hunger strike does not come with the meaning of Section 309 of IPC because it is (a) right of (the) accused.

Way Forward

The right to peaceful protest is a fundamental right under Freedom of Speech and Expression as per Supreme Court rulings. After the Ramlila Maidan protests against corruption were disrupted by police in the middle of the night, Supreme Court in 2011 ruled that (Jaitely 2012):

“Freedom of speech, right to assemble and demonstrate by holding dharnas and peaceful agitation are the basic features of a democratic system. The people of a democratic country like ours have a right to raise their voice against the decisions and actions of the Government or even to express their resentment over the actions of the government on any subject of social or national importance.”

In 2016 as well, the apex court repeated that the right to peaceful demonstrations can be traced to Articles 19(1)(a), 19(1)(b) and 19(1)(c) of the Constitution. The judgment recognised that demonstrations or strikes are a method for people to air their grievances and make their voices heard. 

“It hardly needs elaboration that a distinguishing feature of any democracy is the space offered for legitimate dissent. One cherished and valuable aspect of political life in India is a tradition to express grievances through direct action or peaceful protest. Organised, non-violent protest marches were a key weapon in the struggle for independence, and the right to peaceful protest is now recognised as a fundamental right in the Constitution,” said the bench (Rashid 2016).

The same was reiterated in 2018 after a blanket ban was started on protests in central Delhi (Jain 2018).

Now that it is established that right to peaceful protest is a fundamental right for citizens of this country, we need to examine if prisoners can also exercise this right. 

Francis Mullin v Union Territory of Delhi & Others (1981) states:

“No iron curtain can be drawn between the prisoner and the Constitution.”

The Supreme Court of India in judgments like Charles Sobraj, Sunil Batra (I), Sunil Batra (II) and Francis Mullin have stressed that a prison or any prison law cannot deny fundamental rights enshrined in Part III of the Constitution. Prisoners also have the right to live with dignity and divinity as informed by Articles 19 and 21 of the Constitution. Only the right of liberty curtailed due to necessity of the confinement is lost, and nothing more.

There is a need to relook at the categorisation of strikes by prisoners as prison offence. For prisoners in a confined setting, refusal to food or say work are the only minimal ways of protesting to bring attention to their grievances. 

 

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