This article, part of the series ‘Barred – The Prisons Project’, is produced in partnership with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
New Delhi/Mumbai/Bangalore: On his first day at the Alwar district prison, Ajay Kumar* was gearing up for the worst. Torture, stale food, biting cold and harsh labour – Bollywood had already acquainted him with the grisly realities of jails. “Gunah batao (Tell me your crime),” a police constable, placed at the undertrial (UT) section, asked him as soon as he was escorted inside a tall iron gateway.
Ajay had barely mumbled something, when the constable snapped, “Kaun jaati (Which caste)?” Unsure, Ajay paused and then hesitantly said, “Rajak”. The constable was not pleased with the response. He further inquired, “Biradari batao (Tell me the caste category).” An inconsequential part of his life so far, Ajay’s caste identity, as part of a “Scheduled Caste”, was now to shape his 97-day stay in the prison.
Ajay, barely 18 years old in 2016, had to clean toilets, sweep the verandah of the ward and help in other menial work like storing water and gardening. His work would begin before dawn and continue till 5 pm each day. “I had assumed it was something that every new prisoner had to do. But in a week or so, it was evident. Only a select few were made to clean toilets,” he says.
The arrangement was clear – those at the bottom of the caste pyramid did the cleaning work; those high above handled the kitchen or the legal documentation department. And the rich and influential did nothing; they only threw their weight around. These arrangements had nothing to do with the crime that one was arrested for or his conduct in prison. “Sab kuch jaati ke aadhar par tha (It was all based on caste),” he says.
It has been close to four years since he was sent to jail. He was charged with theft by his employer. “Boxes of newly acquired switchboards had gone missing from the workshop. I was the newest employee, also the youngest. The owner decided to pick on me. He called the police and turned me in,” he recalls.
After spending 97 days in jail and subsequently facing a trial at the Alwar magistrate’s court, Ajay was finally acquitted. Alwar city, however, was no more an option; he soon moved to Delhi. Now 22, Ajay works as an electrician at a mall in central Delhi.
That short period in the prison, Ajay says, changed his life in more than one way. “Overnight, I was branded a criminal. Additionally, I was also reduced to a choti jaat (a lower caste person).” Ajay’s family, originally from Sambhuganj block of Bihar’s Banka district, had migrated to the national capital in the early 1980s. His father works at a courier firm in Delhi and his brother as a security guard at a nationalised bank. “We belong to a dhobi or a washerman caste. But no one in my family ever was engaged in the caste occupation. My father intentionally chose a life in a city, almost as if he was running away from the harsh caste realities of a village.”
But inside the jail, Ajay says, his father’s efforts were undone. “I was trained as an electrician. But inside jail that meant nothing. I was now only a safaiwala (a cleaner) in this confined space,” Ajay shares, sitting at his rented barsati in North Delhi.
The most painful of all, he recalls, was when the prison guard summoned him one day to clear up a choked septic tank. The toilets in the prison ward had been overflowing since the night before. But the jail authorities did not call in anyone from outside to fix the problem. “I was stunned that they (jail officials) wanted me to do this job. I meekly protested and told the guard that I did not know this kind of work. But he said there was no one as thin and young as me. He raised his voice and I caved in.” Ajay had to strip down to his underwear, pry open the tank lid and lower his body into the cesspit of human feces. “I thought I would die of the putrid stench. I began howling. The guard did not know what to do and asked other prisoners to drag me out.”
While manual scavenging was outlawed in India three decades ago, the law underwent an amendment in 2013 to recognise the use of men for cleaning of sewers and septic tanks as “manual scavenging” in the amended The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act. What the guards made Ajay do is a criminal offence.
“Every time I think of the incident, I lose my appetite,” he says. Each time he sees a cleaner or a sweeper on the street, he flinches. “The sight reminds me of my own helplessness,” he says.
Shocking as it may sound, Ajay’s is not an uncommon case. He says everything in prison is decided by a person’s caste. He was able to tell a person’s caste merely by looking at the life they lived in prison. Ajay was a pre-trial detainee, and unlike those convicted, pre-trial detainees are exempted from working in jail. But at the undertrial prison, where convict prisoners were only a handful, detainees like Ajay were called in for free labour.
Caste-based labour, in fact, is sanctioned in the prison manuals of many states. The colonial texts of the late 19th century have barely seen any amendments, and caste-based labour remains an untouched part of these manuals. While every state has its own unique prison manual, they are mostly based on The Prisons Act, 1894. These jail manuals mention every activity in detail – from the measurement of food and space per prisoner to punishments for the “disorderly ones”.
Ajay’s experience matches what the Rajasthan Jail Manual lays out. While cooking and handling medical care in the prison is considered high-caste work, sweeping and cleaning is straightaway assigned to the lower castes.
For the cooking department, the prison manual states:
“Any Brahmin or sufficiently high caste Hindu prisoner from his class if eligible for appointment as cook.”
Similarly, Part 10 of the manual titled, “Employment, Instructions and Control of Convicts”, as also mentioned in the rules under section 59 (12) of the Prisons Act, states:
“Sweepers shall be chosen from among those who, by the custom of the district in which they reside or on account of their having adopted the profession, perform sweepers work, when free. Anyone else may also volunteer to do this work, in no case, however shall a person, who is not a professional sweeper, be compelled to do the work.”
The rule, however, remains silent over the issue of consent for those from the “sweeper community”.
These rules are drafted essentially keeping the larger male population in mind and get replicated in women’s prisons too, in states where women-specific rules have not been formulated. In the absence of a woman prisoner from the “appropriate” caste groups, the Rajasthan prison manual says, “…two or three specially selected male convict Mehtars may be taken into the enclosure by a paid worker under the condition…” Mehtar is a caste name, denoting those engaged in manual scavenging as a caste occupation.
On medical workers, the manual says, “Two or more long- term prisoners of good caste should be trained and employed as hospital attendants.”
Across states, prison manuals and rules stipulate the labour that needs to be carried out on a daily basis. The division of labour is roughly determined on the dichotomous ‘purity-impurity’ scale, with the higher castes handling only work that is considered “pure” and those lower in the caste grid being left to carry out the “impure” jobs.
Consider the case of Bihar. The section titled ‘Preparation of food’ opens with this line: “Of equal importance is the quality, proper preparation, and cooking of the food and its issue in full quantity.” Further, detailing the measurements and cooking techniques in jail, the manual states: “Any ‘A class’ Brahmin or sufficiently high caste Hindu prisoner is eligible for appointment as a cook.” The manual further specifies, “Any prisoner in a jail who is so high caste that he cannot eat food cooked by the existing cooks shall be appointed a cook and made to cook for the whole complement of men. Individual convicted prisoners shall in no circumstances be allowed to cook for themselves, unless they are specific division prisoners permitted to do so under rule.”
These are not mere words printed in an official book and forgotten. The caste practice ubiquitous in the Indian subcontinent manifests in more ways than one. Several prisoners who were approached shared their experiences of being segregated and pushed into doing menial jobs purely on the basis of the caste they were born into. While Brahmins and other high caste prisoners considered their exemption to be a matter of pride and privilege, the rest had only the caste system to blame for their condition.
“The jail tells you your right aukaad (status),” says Pintu, a former prisoner, who spent close to a decade at Jubba Sahni Bhagalpur Central Jail and a few months at the Motihari Central Jail. Pintu belongs to a ‘nai‘ or barber community, and throughout his stint in prison, he served as one.
The Bihar prison manual too formalises caste hierarchies in labour. For instance, it says for those assigned sweeping work: “Sweepers shall be chosen from the Mehtar or Hari caste, also from the Chandal or other low castes, if by the custom of the district they perform similar work when free, or from the caste if the prisoner volunteers to do the work.” All three castes fall under the Scheduled Castes category.
From time to time, prison manuals have gone through a few tweaks. Sometimes this was triggered by public outcry or the Supreme Court or a high court’s intervention; sometimes the states themselves felt the need for it. In most states, though, the issue of caste-based labour practices has been overlooked.
In some states, for instance Uttar Pradesh, “religious scruples and caste prejudices” are considered important for “reformative influences”. A separate chapter focusing on reformative influences in prison says, “Reasonable respect shall be paid to religious scruples and caste prejudices of the prisoners in all matters as far as it is compatible with discipline.” The prison administration holds sole discretionary power over the extent of the “reasonability and compatibility” of these prejudices. The “reasonability”, though, has only meant furthering blatant caste prejudices while assigning work and exempting some from harsh labour – both in male and female prisons.
The Madhya Pradesh Jail Manual, which was amended only a few years ago, continues with the caste-based assignment in conservancy work – the official term used for manual scavenging. The chapter titled “Mal Vahan” or conservancy states that a “Mehtar prisoner” would be responsible for handling human excreta in the toilets.
Identical practices find mention in the Haryana and Punjab state prison manuals and rules too. Selection of sweepers, barbers, cooks, hospital staff among others are all pre-decided as per one’s caste identity. If any prison faces scarcity of prisoners of a certain caste to carry out the requisite labour, prisoners are to be brought in from nearby prisons. However, no exceptions or changes in rules are mentioned in the manual.
When Sabika Abbas, a programme officer working with the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI), a non-governmental organisation working on prisoners’ rights, recently visited prisons of Punjab and Haryana, she said the blatancy of the practice shocked her. “Male and female prisoners alike shared their experiences of caste and caste-based labour work assigned to them. Some were compelled to carry out the work due to poverty and lack of financial support from their families. But these prisoners too were primarily from the backward caste groups,” says Abbas.
Her research, commissioned by the Legal Services Authorities of Haryana and Punjab, covers a plethora of issues plaguing the prison system. Abbas observes that even though pre-trial detainees are exempted from carrying out labour in prison, the prevailing system compels them to work. “In most prisons in both states, we observed that the posts for sweepers and cleaners were lying empty for years. It was understood that those menial jobs will be carried out by prisoners belonging to lower caste groups,” she observes. Unlike other state prisons which are still following the colonial prison rules, Abbas points to the amendments in the Punjab manual. “Punjab is relatively newer. It was last updated in 1996 but still did not do away with the caste-based provisions,” she adds.
West Bengal, perhaps the only state that makes special provisions for prisoners arrested in connection with “political or democratic movements”, continues to be just as regressive and unconstitutional as others when it comes to assigning labour according to caste. Similar to Uttar Pradesh, the West Bengal prison manual follows “non- interference with religious practices or caste prejudices”. Certain specific preferences are accommodated in the manual – a Brahmin wearing “sacred thread” or a Muslim desiring a certain length of trousers. But with that, the manual also states: “Food shall be cooked and carried to the cells by prisoner-cooks of suitable caste, under the superintendence of a jail officer.” Likewise, “Sweepers should be chosen from the Mether or Hari caste, also from the Chandal or other castes, if by the custom of the district they perform similar work when free, or from any caste if the prisoner volunteers to do the work.”
These practices have remained in the prison rule book but have gone unchallenged. Dr Riazuddin Ahmed, a former Inspector General of Prisons in Andhra Pradesh and former director of the government-run Academy of Prisons and Correctional Administration in Vellore, says the issue of caste has never been deliberated upon while making policy decisions. “In my career spanning over 34 years, the issue has never come up for discussion,” he says. Ahmed feels that clauses mentioned in the manual are mostly a reflection of the state’s attitude towards those incarcerated. “Prison officials, after all, are a product of the same caste-ridden society that exists outside. Regardless of what the manual states, it is entirely up to the prison staff to ensure dignity and equality of prisoners,” Ahmed feels.
Disha Wadekar, a Delhi-based lawyer and a vocal critic of the Indian caste system, compares prison laws with the regressive “laws of Manu”. A mythical figure, Manu is believed to be the author of the Manusmriti, which had sanctioned the degradation of humanity on the basis of caste and gender in ancient times.
“The prison system simply replicates Manu’s dandniti (laws). The prison system has failed to work on the normative penal system that is built on the tenets of ‘equality before the law’ and ‘protection of law’. On the contrary, it follows Manu’s law that is founded on the principles of injustice – a system that believed that certain lives are to be punished more than others and that some lives have more value than others. The states have stuck to the ascribed caste-based understanding of “justice” and decide on punishment and labour as per an individual’s standing in the caste grid,” explains Wadekar.
Indian states, barring West Bengal, have borrowed from the Prison Act, 1894. “Not just borrowed but also remained stuck there,” Ahmed adds. In 2016, the Bureau of Police Research and Development (BPRD) came up with an elaborate model prison manual. The model prison manual is aligned with international standards such as the United Nations Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners (UN Bangkok Rules) and the UN Minimum Standards for Treatment of Prisoners (the Mandela Rules). Both call for the repeal of practices that discriminate on the grounds of race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or any other status. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, propounded by the United Nations in 1977, to which India is a party, has clearly stated that: “No one shall be required to perform forced or compulsory labour.”
*Some names have been changed for anonymity
Illustration: Pariplab Chakraborty