“Ora Bhagat Singher Bhai/Ora Kshudiram er Bhai” — thus ran a popular protest song in Bangla in the post-Naxalbari period. Referring to the political prisoners as “brothers” of Bhagat Singh and Kshudiram, the song, nevertheless, played an extremely important role in popularising the issue of the political prisoners, leading to a populist measure by the then newly-elected Left government to release quite a few of them. However, coding the political prisoners as “brothers” of the great revolutionaries of an earlier era, the song also rendered invisible the women political prisoners. A tradition of invisibilization that continues even today, in the spheres comprising both the state and the civil society, as well as the activist realms, the women political prisoners continue to languish in the prisons in West Bengal, rendered a “non-issue” for almost all concerned. Sananda and Arkadeep throw light on this important issue, showing how a discussion of the women political prisoners cannot help draw our attention to the overall conditions inside the prisons, as well as gender norms, and the ways in which the latter are enacted behind the bars.
“Many prisoners in Bankura jail have tested Covid-19 positive, Kalpana Maity is currently lodged in that jail. Her health was already deteriorating from multiple ailments.” The other day we woke up to this text message sent by a Kolkata based human rights activist. It was the time when the COVID-19 pandemic was in its early stage. Globally, the human rights organizations were urging the state authorities to decongest the prisons. In India, too, the Supreme Court has issued guidelines to decongest the prisons, keeping an eye on the hugely overcrowded facilities.
On a winter morning in 2010, almost all the leading news dailies published in Kolkata carried the news of the arrest of five ‘deadly’ Maoist leaders from Kolkata. Kalpana was one of them.
The period was one of the most politically volatile periods in the recent history of the state of West Bengal. The state was rocked by an unprecedented wave of movements against the long-standing rule of Communist Party of India (Marxist) and their anti-people “industrialization” policy, often couched in terms of “development.” In reality, though, such a policy of industrialization and “development” was bound to cause wide-spread eviction of the farmers from their ancestral lands. Along with the outrage against the eviction, the questions regarding the existence basic democracy in the everyday lives of the marginalized people in the state came to the forefront when the community leaders from certain areas in West Midnapore around the small town of Lalgarh raised their voices against the instances of police brutality on the Adivasi residents of the area. The subsequent movement attracted the attention of civil society, including, but not limited to the vocal support provided by many of the notable intellectuals of the state to the movement. Amongst many, the CPI (Maoist) party was also observed to be one of the stakeholders of the movement. And pretty soon, the Maoist activist, Kishenji, had become a familiar name to anyone interested in the movemental politics of the state. However, very few knew anything about the woman, who got arrested soon after, and who belonged to the same movement which had succeeded in raising such vital questions within the political scenario of the state, and had transformed its face even if it was for a brief period of time.
After the initial sensational reports of the arrest, Kalpana was not able to hold the light of public attention on her much longer, as other “larger” events had already taken over the center-stage. Slowly, Kalpana faded away from public memory. A decade has passed since her arrest. However, Kalpana’s trials are far from over. Like many other under-trial political prisoners in India, she is awaiting for the final verdict in her cell-block.
This is a condition that doesn’t give her any relief, as she continues to be imprisoned. Kalpana, though, is not the first or even the only woman political prisoner here in the state of West Bengal, who has been facing incarceration for years. As anyone even vaguely familiar with the politics of the state knows, the judicial process, here, never ends. Since the British period, dozens of women have faced a similar fate for their participation in political movements. More often than not, these women remained nameless and faceless in a society where women’s political agency has rarely been acknowledged.
Bengal’s own tradition of women’s participation in political struggles, is by no means recent. One can think of the women’s involvement in the movements in the pre-independence era. Their participation in the anti-colonial movements often brought unimaginable horrors of torture upon them. In this, they were not any different from their male comrades. Still, most of them have been forgotten. Neither have they made it to the list of National Heroes.
One such woman in the anti-colonial struggle is Bina Das. Bina was sentenced to nine years of rigorous imprisonment after her attempt to assassinate the British Governor Stanley Jackson in 1932, and was arrested again within four years of her release. In independent India, when her semi-decomposed body was discovered in a ditch in 1986, she came into public view again, having lived most of her life in the post-Independence era in relative obscurity. Although, she was awarded the Padma Shri in 1960. According to some reports, she died in a state of “destitution and poverty.” Sources that could tell us how she lived her life after India gained its independence from British rule, are scant.
In the post-independence period, Archana Guha’s case had attracted some attention. However, though, prison-writings by male political prisoners, especially those belonging to the radical-left, have garnered lots of attention both from the civil society at large, and the political spaces, attention to political women’s narratives from the prisons, remains more sporadic, thus often lending the women political prisoners further into a realm of invisibility. This leads us to think of how, as we speak and write, even the most progressive and radical of the Indian activist spaces remain dominated by men – and a masculinist worldview – often leading to an erasure of the contribution of the women. In our progressive literatures too, we are accustomed to see the women mostly as supporting actors, or the lovers of the glorious male rebels. In the case of Kalpana, too, she has often been introduced as the partner of Akash, instead of a revolutionary in her own right. In other words, Kalpana’s trials and tribulations are, to a large extent, a reflection of the patriarchal biases of both our “mainstream” society and radical-progressive spaces.
There is a need, then, to place Kalpana’s story within a longer historical continuum, as I have attempted to do here. However, that narrative would remain incomplete without a reference to Archana Guha, the story of her custodial torture, and the court case that ensued.
The Case of Archana Guha
In independent India, during the raging years of the 1970s, a number of women were imprisoned and brutally tortured by the state authorities. Krishna Bandopadhyay, Jaya Mitra, Minakshi Sen and Rita Banerjee have written at length both about their experiences of radical left activism following the Naxalbari uprising, and time inside the state’s prisons, as political prisoners. A number of women activists have suffered through the regimes of state’s systemic violence, which can only possibly be described as a form of draconian aggression of the male authority, on its “out-of-control” female subject, which customarily uses sexual violence as a weapon. Of such cases, Archana Guha’s, had garnered considerable amount of local, national and international attention.
But Archana in particular was not an active political worker in that sense. Being the sister of a radical-left political activist, Soumen Guha, she had been picked up from her home, along with her sister-in-law Latika Guha, and tortured in custody. The gory details of what she went through in the custody, enclosed later in the essay, might offer a representative picture of what life-behind-the-bars have historically meant for women political prisoners in West Bengal.
Though, Archana was not politically active herself, she was arrested and subjected to heinous torture, merely for being the relative of a political activist. Cases such as hers, are by no means, rare. Archana Guha’s narration of her experience shows us how the state treats a woman who, it thinks, has dared to step out of the state-defined idea of femininity. Women’s bodies are also used by the state to force the male activists, who also happen to be rebels and activists, into submission. Archana said,
Then I was taken to the torture chamber (in the police headquarters at Lalbazar Police station)and they hung me head down in that crouching position. They had tied me up with ropes and put a rod through my bending knees. Then they started hitting on my feet. Runu Guhaniyogi4 kicked me with boots from time to time and singed my elbows, toes, nails with his cigarette. (….)A few hours later they started a new technique. I was hanging. They put a water-vessel right above my head and drops of water started to fall on my head continuously. After a point of time each drop seemed like a bludgeon. (…) A strapping policeman made me stand up by pulling my hair and then threw me with force on the wall. But just before my head hit the wall he caught me and pulled back. He went on doing this. Then one of them caught my head tightly and started to pull out my hair. I was semi-conscious. Then two of them stood up on two chairs side-by-side and started to hang me between them with my hair. (…) Runu asked two of his men to bind my hands and then hit me on head with a leather club. (…) After four days I completely lost consciousness.
-form an interview of Archana Guha, Bengali Daily Pratikshan, 1987
Archana Guha’s case was highlighted in an Amnesty International’s report on custodial torture, rape and death, and did succeed to garner some amount of international attention. However, the police officer involved in the gruesome torture got away with minor penalties, after a court case that had dragged on for years. Archana remained in prison for three years without any trial. In 1977, she left prison in a wheelchair, with her two legs paralyzed.
Bina, Archana, Kalpana are representatives of three different generations of women who fought against oppressive state regimes, were associated with the radical, dissenting political cultures of their times, got incarcerated and were then forgotten. Right at this moment, as you are reading this article, several women who remain nameless and faceless for most of us, are roaming around the corridors of various prisons of West Bengal who never get featured in any media. A society which is inherently violent towards its women, does not think of paying any attention to the women it has imprisoned. As such, the issues of women prisoners have always been neglected throughout the world. India, and more specifically West Bengal, are no exceptions.
For the middle-class, the very specter of the prison raises an alarm. The prison is where the society disposes of its “anti-social” elements. The prison is where the “criminals” are dumped. Therefore, the middle-class psyche has often been trained to think of both the prisoners and the prison as deplorable, symbols of anything and everything that it does not want in its midst. The dehumanization of the incarcerated, therefore, doesn’t bother the so-called civilized society. Especially, when the prisoners happen to be women, the verdict of the society becomes much harsher. That is why, prisoners at large, and women prisoners, specifically, rarely find any mention in the public discourse, as the cases under discussion also show.
Behind the bars
The world inside the prison and that of outside are alien to each other. As “outsiders”, we succeed to get glimpses from the other side only through various accounts shared by the people who have been incarcerated at some point of time or the other.
Sharmistha Chowdhury was arrested in 2017 for her involvement in a movement at Bhangor, against setting up of power grids on agricultural lands, by evicting the farmers. She spent a few months in Alipore Women’s Correctional Home in Kolkata, one of the two women’s jails in the state. Sharmishtha mentioned that, during her time in prison, for the most of the time, it was occupied by more inmates than it was meant for. At that time, the number of prisoners in Alipore women’s jail was around 350.
Another civil rights activist, Nisha Biswas, who was arrested in 2010 in West Midnapore, speaks of a similar experience. Unlike Sharmishtha, Nisha, however, was lodged in a transit Women Jail, which was situated in Midnapore Central Jail. Nisha says, “There was only one ward to lodge, officially 30-35 prisoners. But, most of the time, it had more than 50 inmates, and occasionally the number crossed 65.”
In India, overcrowding of prisons has always been a serious issue. And, Bengal is not an exception. In the state of West Bengal, there are only two prisons exclusively for women. Other jails have separate enclosures for women. The occupancy rate in the prisons of West Bengal stands at 142%, which is almost two and a half times of the national average (58%).
Both Sharmistha and Nisha share that an overwhelming number of the women who are incarcerated belong to backward classes and castes. Due to the vulnerability of their socio-economic position as women, as Dalits and/or Adivasis, or as members of working classes, they are often unable to access proper legal resources, which, in turn, lengthens their period of incarceration.
During their time in jail, both Sharmishtha and Nisha observed, the women inmates were always encouraged to observe religious practices, rituals and superstitions. Nisha adds, it’s mainly the Hindu rituals that were encouraged and promoted inside the jails. While it’s true that the Muslim women were also free to offer namaz and observe the rituals during Ramzan, but the way authorities used to get involved in Hindu rituals was remarkable. Hindu spiritual gurus used to visit the jail frequently. He would tell the inmates to pray to the god dutifully, and the god would absolve the sins, for which they were imprisoned. More than fifty percent of the books in the jail library, which was generally accessed by the male inmates, were on religious topics.
However, their engagement in intellectual practices were always discouraged. Some women who have already been convicted, mostly with life sentences, are often picked by the authorities to groom themselves as “ideal prisoners,” through a process of teaching of several skills. But this is not the general picture as such. Thakurmani Murmu, an Adivasi political prisoner, has continuously been harassed and denied permission to continue her education. Due to this negligence from the jail authority, she had to halt her further educational plans.
Thakuramani, who had studied till grade eight before her arrest, appeared for her 10th grade examinations from jail and passed with flying colors. However, the jail authorities denied her the permission to opt for studying in science stream for her post-secondary education. She had to begin a hunger strike to get the permission.
Thakurmani, who was born in a poor Adivasi family in Jhargram district in West Bengal, got involved in revolutionary politics at a tender age. During the Lalgarh movement, she took a center stage in organizing the people, especially the women from the Adivasi communities. Her extraordinary leadership quality and empathetic political engagement made her a role model for hundreds of young Adivasi women in that region. After the setback in the movement, Tara, along with other Maoist activists, went underground. In 2016, right before the State Legislative Assembly elections, Thakurmani along with her partner Mansharam Hembram, alias Bikash, were arrested by the STF. The police claimed they were arrested from the Maidan area in Kolkata. However, according to human rights and political activists, they were actually picked up from an Adivasi village in the Hooghly district of West Bengal. Thakurmani was charged with more than ten cases, of which in eight cases, she has already got bail.
Even if there was no official dress code, Sharmishtha says, the inmates were not allowed to wear anything except saree and salwar kameez, and were prohibited to roam around without a dupatta. Jail authorities are also apprehensive about two women inmates becoming close, as they think, such closeness can lead to a lesbian relationship, which, they, of course, do not approve.
In the cases where the woman inmate’s husband, son or other relatives are lodged in the same jail campus, it is always men who are brought to the women, and never vice versa, says Nisha. Whenever there was a need for any maintenance work, male inmates were brought to do the work and the women were herded into a corner or pushed deep within the barrack, so that the men could not see them.
Unhealthy living conditions, regular harassment, strip-searches, and lack of proper diet are some of the common issues faced by all the women prisoners on a regular basis. Nisha says, “Jail kitchens house special skills to cook extremely tasteless food.” As she was in a transit jail, there was no separate kitchen in the female ward, the food for women used to come from the male ward’s kitchen. The food was bad, lacked any nutritional value and used to be poorly cooked. As the jail was in a rural setup, many women didn’t prefer to eat ‘rotis’ as dinner, and, thus, they used to keep a portion of the rice served in lunch, so that they could have that during dinner. No arrangements were made by jail authorities to serve rice to the women who wanted it for dinner.
In Midnapore Jail’s women’s enclosure, where Nisha was lodged, there was only one tap for nearly 60-65 inmates. The same tap was used for collecting drinking water, bathing, washing clothes and utensils and cleaning. There was no provision for disposal of used sanitary napkins, thus one could find them in every dark corner of the jail. During her stay, Nisha says, the sanitary napkins were supplied regularly. However, she had also heard that there were days when the supply dwindled.
Due to the unhygienic living conditions, many of the inmates suffer from skin diseases, vaginal infections and stomach ailments. Sharmishta shares that, in Alipore women’s jail, there were two doctors who would regularly visit the jail to check-up on the health of the inmates, but Sharmishtha never saw them touching any of the patients. They would keep a “safe” distance with the prisoners, and thus their service was ineffective and inept. In Midnapore jail, where Nisha was lodged, there were no female doctors. The jail doctor would visit the female ward on every alternate day, and even if inmates fell ill on other days, he would refuse to visit. Jail authorities are also never prompt enough to commute the prisoner to medical facilities outside the jail premises.
The same is echoed by the human rights activist Ranjit Sur. According to Sur, there are at least two women political prisoners in West Bengal, who have been continuously denied urgent medical attention.
Parobai Patel, who is currently lodged in a jail in Kolkata has lost her ability to move around without help due to years of medical negligence. Parobai, originally from Telangana, was picked up in Mumbai in 2012 and was sent to Kolkata. She was visiting Mumbai to get medical treatment, while she was arrested, and since then, never got any proper medical attention.
Kalpana Maity was also arrested while visiting Kolkata to see a doctor, and after a decade behind the bars, she is now suffering from spondylitis, diabetes, thyroid disease and depression.
The “Other” Kind of Women Political Prisoner
During her prison days, Sharmistha got company of three other political prisoners, Kalpana Maity, Razia Biwi and Alima Biwi. When Sharmistha went to prison, Kalpana had already been inside the bars for seven years. Kalpana, who hailed from a middle-income farmer family of a small town of Chandrakona, in the West Midnapore district in West Bengal, got involved in revolutionary politics during her student days. During the mid-90s, Kalpana became a full-time political activist, and began to work as an organizer in the Adivasi regions of the state. She was implicated in seven cases in different courts across three districts of West Bengal. Out of all these cases, she secured bail in six, and nobody knows when the last remaining case will conclude.
The other two political prisoners, Alima Biwi and Razia Biwi, were in jail primarily because of their husbands’ involvement in a blast that took place in 2014 in the district of Burdwan, West Bengal. It was a low intensity blast, killing two people, who were allegedly involved in making the bombs inside a house. Razia’s husband was injured in the blast, and died in police custody, whereas Alima’s husband was arrested, and continues to be imprisoned.
Both Razia and Alima live in the jail with their children. Razia and Alima were present in the house while the blast took place and allegedly blocked the police from entering the house after the event. Sharmishtha found Razia and Alima to be two bubbly young women, religious and devout Muslim women, who hardly had any exposure to the “public” world before coming to jail. Sharmishtha narrated, “While all other inmates lived in wards, Razia and Alima with their children were lodged in a very unhygienic cell with no proper light or ventilation.” She also mentioned that Razia and Alima were not allowed to come out of their cells and communicate with the other prisoners. Other inmates were also hesitant to talk to them due to the social taboo against ‘Muslim terrorists’. They didn’t even have access to the dining hall where the inmates ordinarily got a chance to talk to each other, make jokes about the bad quality food and engage in lighthearted banter.
When the National Investigation Agency produced thousands of pages charge-sheet against the blast accused, Razia and Alima were charged under some most stringent Acts, including Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act and sedition. Even if the case ran smoothly in the court, it would take ages to come upon any conclusion. To avoid this ordeal, Alima and Razia, along with 19 other accused, entered into a plea-bargain. In other words, they accepted their guilt. Considering their young age and the future of their children, Razia and Alima were sentenced to six years of imprisonment. Thus, they should have been out of jail sometime later in 2020. We have not been able to confirm their current status. As such, the Muslims in India have always been easy targets for the harsh anti-terror laws, often systematically targeted precisely because of their religious identity. Muslim women, often, have been imprisoned as “political prisoners”, because of their family and/or romantic relations with men who are interpreted by the Indian state as “terrorists.”
Further recalling her time in the prison, Sharmistha talked about a prisoner named Kabita Pyne. Kabita was convicted for murdering her husband, and was serving a life sentence. When Sharmistha met her, Kavita had already been in prison for nearly 14 years. She was employed as a “writer” (a person who maintains the list of the prisoners). Kabita was not liked by the other inmates, as she was accused of being a spy of the authorities, who passed on the information about the activities of the prisoners. However, Sharmishtha saw it as her “survival mechanism.” Kabita didn’t know if she would ever get a chance to go out of prison in her life, and the only pale hope she had, to see the light of the “outside” world, was a certificate of “good conduct” from the jail authorities. However, the last year when any inmate got released on the basis of conduct, was 2012. Later Sharmistha found out that the Kolkata High Court had overturned the earlier judgement passed by the lower court on Kabita’s case, and had declared that the murder was committed only in self-defense. After spending 16 years in prison, innocent Kabita was acquitted and was released from jail.
Nisha shared a story of a prisoner named Satarupa, who was implicated for conspiring a political murder, simply because she was not ready to give in to the demands of the local political leaders. Satarupa had formed a self-help group with fellow village women, and the local political leader wanted a part of the money she raised for her group. Because she had denied it, she was implicated in the case and sent to jail.
As such, both Nisha and Sharmishtha had gone into the prison as political prisoners. Involved with progressive, feminist, democratic and left-revolutionary politics, from before the times they spent in the prison, both of them are highly educated, and if seen with the naked eye, do not have much in common with “ordinary” prisoners such as Alia and Shatarupa. Yet, for both of them, their time inside the prison, had made them further aware of the kinds of vulnerabilities where state oppression intersects with gender and other kinds of socio-economic marginalities in profound ways, that are hard to account for, in terms of our everyday middle-class lives. These are realities they were both aware of, even before going into the prison. But their times inside the bars had given them a different kind of consciousness about the criminal justice system. As one might recall, there is a long tradition of such solidarities in Bengali left-revolutionary women’s writings. Both Minakshi Bandopadhyay and Jaya Mitra’s prison memoirs – titled Jailer Bhetore Jail and Hanyaman respectively – have attempted to be witnesses to the trials and tribulations of such marginalized women, keeping their own stories of suffering inside the jail to the minimum.
The “Foreigners” and the Borders Inside the Women’s Prisons
The essay would, however, be incomplete without any reference to another category of prisoners, who constitute a sizable number of inmates in all of the women’s jails in Bengal, and are from Bangladesh.
The NCRB data 2018 states that the highest number of foreign convicts and under trial prisoners held in India are lodged in West Bengal. At the end of 2018, there were a total number of 5,168 foreign nationals, who were imprisoned in various Indian jails, and amongst them, as many as 2,316 (44.8%) were lodged in West Bengal. Bangladeshi nationals constitute a majority of these prisoners. They cross the border for myriad reasons and in the process, get arrested and jailed. The West Bengals’ women jails and women’s wings of the jails are thus overflowing with Bangladeshi women, many of whom have crossed the border, and have come into India in search of a better life. A number of these Bangladeshi women prisoners were victims of trafficking, and hardly had any control over their movement, while crossing the border. Many others crossed the border to escape abusive marriages or exploitative jobs and were conscripted into brothels. Some of them were lured with false promises, while others “chose” such solutions for sheer survival.
There are also some incidents where Muslim women, who are indeed from West Bengal, but couldn’t produce their documents, and were dubbed as “Bangladeshi” in courts of law.
A large number of women, innocent or guilty, continue to survive the most brutal oppression obscured from public memory. Coming from the margins of society, a majority of these women are not even aware of their basic rights while inside the jail. There is a serious lack of access to the resources that could ensure their rights, or make the prisoners themselves conscious of them. Most often, they are abandoned by their families and it becomes extremely difficult for them to assimilate back into society after serving their prison terms. If we look into the nature of the crimes committed by these women, we would see, often they spent their lives in jail either for committing petty crimes, or for getting implicated in a crime where they didn’t have much choice. Nisha shares, most of the women she met during her days in jail were charged with dowry related murder. The cases connected to trafficking and narcotics came to a close second.
The stories of these women prisoners, the stories of their struggle and their dreams largely remain unheard in our everyday lives. If they do get featured in any mainstream media, they do so as “criminals.” The state doesn’t bother about their wellbeing; the mainstream political parties never take them into cognizance.The political prisoners, for all of their invisibility, at least, have a certain kind of social and political awareness about their own rights, about the political nature of the criminal justice system in general. The “ordinary” prisoners, as such, remain even more beyond our political radar. The irony lies in the fact, it is often times, through the stories and memoir like accounts of the women political prisoners, that, we, in the larger civil society, begin to gain a form of limited access to the stories of the ordinary women prisoners, thus demonstrating, that the line between the “political prisoner” and “ordinary prisoner” is, indeed, thin and blurry.
While carrying all the burden of oppressions on their shoulders from the state, society and even from the progressive political strata itself, the women political prisoners have never ceased to exercise their agency. Bina Das wrote two autobiographies – Shrinkhaler Jhankar and Pitridhan. Jaya Mirtra’s Hanyaman has also become one of the most remarkable prison-narratives to emerge in Bengali contemporary Bengali literature. And those who haven’t tried their hands in the literary ventures, have often continued to fight against the patriarchy inherent in the society, and in the progressive movements, often addressing larger concerns. We don’t know yet when Kalpana will be released from prison. In the last one month, some progressive women’s organizations have taken up the issue of women political prisoners in the jails of West Bengal. A petition has been submitted to the ADG of Correctional Facilities. While we can only hope, the unconditional release of the women political prisoners becomes an issue for the progressive movements of the state and the nation at large, one also needs to appreciate the resilience and courage often demonstrated by these prisoners themselves in not submitting to the dehumanization that the state has put them through. Often, they show such courage through their organizing work inside the very walls of the prisons, but that is a story for another day.
Arkadeep and Sananda are Kolkata -based activists.
Cover Image courtesy: The Palestine Project