Riots in Indian prisons are so routine they rarely make the news. But this week, rolling television coverage of a protest at Byculla women's jail in Mumbai has transfixed a nation.
According to reports, about 200 female inmates rioted June 24. Some climbed to the roof of the prison, others burned newspapers to protest the death of an inmate who had died in custody the previous day.
A postmortem report seen by the Hindustan Times said that the woman's body was battered and bruised, and her lungs damaged. In a police report, also obtained by the Hindustan Times, a witness described hearing the woman's screams as female guards forced open her legs and inserted a stick into her vagina. According to reports, the woman was beaten because she complained that prisoners were not receiving sufficient food.
She died in a hospital, where she was taken hours after being beaten, the Times reported. She had lain in the barracks bleeding until she lost consciousness, the report said.
Six female prison officials, named in the police report for their involvement in the prisoner's death, were suspended, and the women's commission of the state of Maharashtra summoned the director-general of police to explain how such a death could happen.
All 291 inmates at Byculla jail were booked for rioting in protest of the inmate's death. “Since individual roles of inmates have not been assigned, all 291 female inmates have been booked in the case,” an officer at Nagpada police station told reporters.
Indira Jaising, a prominent lawyer and human rights activist, said the case was reminiscent of the horrific Delhi gang rape of 2012, which galvanized nationwide protests after a medical student died after being assaulted on a bus. “Here is a case that has strong parallels, but is even worse because that happened out on the streets. Here, law enforcement officers were doing it. It makes you wonder what all those protests were even about,” she said.
The brutality of the killing, however, has been only a footnote in blaring news coverage of the incident in India. Instead, at the center of media scrutiny is another inmate at the prison, Indrani Mukerjea, whose status as a former high-profile media executive led to the riots being highlighted.
In news debates and front-page headlines, attention focused on Mukerjea: Did she incite riots? Had she told other women prisoners to use their children to shield themselves from prison guards? Would she use the sexual assault to get herself out of jail? Mukerjea is accused of killing her daughter Sheena Bora over a possible romantic entanglement and property dispute.
Mukerjea appeared in court Wednesday and said she had seen prison officials drag the woman prisoner by a scarf around her neck and watched her being beaten through a hole in the door. Prison officials, she said, had warned that she would face the “same consequences” if she spoke out against the assault.
Jaising said that the focus on Mukerjea rather than the slain inmate boiled down to a “class issue.”
“One of the defining characteristics of India is cruelty to people of the lower classes,” she said. “There is an utter lack of concern for the people of the working class and the underclass. If you look at the facts [of this case], shocking is an understatement.”
Conditions in India's prisons are notoriously bad. Beatings and torture to extract information or confessions are standard. Crowded, dingy cells, poor hygiene and a conspicuous disregard for basic rights are widely documented.
According to Raja Bagga, program officer of prisons at an NGO called the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, riots and clashes occur frequently in Indian jails.
“There are around 180 every year, which means every second day there's something — that's a big number,” he said. “However, this one certainly got out of hand and rooftop protests are an unusual thing.”
“Every three days, there is a death in Maharashtra jail,” Bagga said. “Deaths do happen, but a lot are reported as natural deaths. Even in this case, they wanted to report it as a possible heart failure, but they couldn't because of the protest. Often there are two sides — clashes occur between inmates. But prisons are so opaque that people get away with murder. On paper, there are oversight mechanisms, but they are not really working.”