From Sarabjit to Sanaullah

Are we prepared to conform to international standards of humane conduct when it comes to our police and prisons?

WrittenBy:Dr. Ashoka Prasad
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Two of my favourite literary figures from my childhood days have been Fydor Dostoveysky and Pearl S. Buck. As we grapple with our collective consciousness over the brutal attack of a Pakistani prisoner with a pick axe in the Jammu prison,I was immediately reminded of these figures.


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“The degree of civilisation in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” –Dostoveysky.

And then let us revisit Pearl S. Buck. She remarked:“The test of a civilisation is in the way it cares for its helpless members”.

The two quotations have a special relevance for all of us. We may assuage our collective shame by contrasting the inhuman treatment that was meted out to Sarabjit Singh which was in all probability state-sponsored and claim that this was an understandable reaction. I strongly disagree.

I am extremely grateful to Gopal Gandhi for touching on this issue in his Hindustan Times column. He commences the article by making this statement:

“A nation may be judged by the way it treats five categories of humans – women, the elderly, children, people afflicted by mental illness and its prisoners. And of course by the way it treats animals. Our record in these five plus one ‘rishte’ is, at its best, mixed and at its worst appalling!”

Mr Gandhi has done the country enormous service by drawing our attention to this problem at this moment and time.

For some reason,we have always been reluctant to take this matter head-on and this was clearly reflected in all the television channel discussions on the incident. They rightly devoted the bulk of their time to the Sarabjit issue and tried to get some reactions from the Pakistani guests-not very successfully as it turns out. There was the usual defensive obfuscation we have now become accustomed to. It is high time that our anchors took some measures as the Pakistani guests that they usually invite have become so predictably monotonous. Arnab’s programme specially when it includes Pakistani guests becomes a very predictable slugfest and while it may gratify the Indian viewers to observe the Pakistani participants being hollered at,we have to sit back and ask whether we are left any wiser.

I fail to see why the anchors have to rely on people like Admiral Javed Iqbal, Syed Tariq Peerzada and Ahmad Raza Kasuri on the shows. Their contribution to a reasoned debate is usually minimal and when confronted with those like Maroof Raza and G.Parthasarthy who have facts on their fingertips, they make an abysmal showing.

And as far as Zafar Hilaly is concerned,he is more interested is displaying his Oxbridge accent rather than presenting facts. Even Manish Tewari came across very well in a debate with Hilaly yesterday.

But that should not be the main purpose of these debates. I was especially disappointed to note the noted human rights activist Asma Jahamgir was missing on most of the channels I surfed. People like her could have brought some semblance of balance to the debate. The only exception was the erudite and soft spoken Mosharraf Zaidi on NDTV 24X7.While one may disagree with his views,it was clear that he was there for a reasoned debate.

But what was missing was the attempt by any news channel that I surfed to gauge the resolve of the powers-that-be and those waiting-to-assume-power to address the problem of gross human rights abuse that takes place in our prisons and police custody. Now that the Sanaullah case has eroded the moral superiority we had claimed,this is a deeper issue that needs to be addressed and addressed urgently.

There has been long-term reluctance not just among the politicians but even in the Fourth State to expound on this vexing issue. Many years ago, while abroad,I observed with increasing dismay the blinding of the people in police custody in Bihar and an attempt by the police and the political class to somehow justify this practice. I felt ashamed as an Indian and a Bihar-born.Incidentally, the Congress CM at the time, Jagannath Mishra, is now with the BJP.

We have to decide now whether we wish to effect accountability from our police/correctional services. Our reluctance to do so can only be understood as a hangover from our colonial era. Even in Tihar, which is supposedly a model jail, the horrifyingly revolting conditions were adumbrated by Kavita Krishnan, the human rights activist when she was locked up about 12 years ago.

For starters, the jail superintendent should be sacked for the lack of vigilance in Jammu. But the time is also apposite for us to learn from international experiences at ameliorating this menace.

As a long time student of human rights legislations, I can cite two European Court of Human Rights classic rulings which can serve as a lesson for all of us.

Premininy v. Russia 


The case concerned the alleged ill-treatment of a detainee, suspected of having broken into the online security system of a bank, by his cellmates and by prison warders, and his complaint that his application for release was not speedily examined. The Court found a violation of Article 3 (prohibition of inhuman or degrading treatment); two violations of Article 3 (prohibition of inhuman or degrading treatment: lack of effective investigation); and a violation of Article 5 § 4 (right to liberty and security).

Ilascu and Others v. Moldova and Russia 

IlieIlaşcu, a Moldovan opposition politician at the time, was detained for eight years in very strict isolation in the Transnistrian region of Moldova, before his conviction and sentence to death for a number of terrorist-related offences was de facto quashed and he was released in 2001. While on death row, he had no contact with other prisoners, no news from the outside – since he was not permitted to send or receive mail – and no right to contact his lawyer or receive regular visits from his family. His cell was unheated, he was deprived of food as a punishment and he was able to take showers only very rarely. These conditions and a lack of medical care caused his health to deteriorate. The Court held that as a whole these conditions amounted to torture, in violation of Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights (prohibition of torture and inhuman or degrading treatment) by Russia. (The Court found that the Transnistrian region of Moldova had been under the effective authority or at least under the decisive influence of the Russian Government at the time.)

The time has come for us to decide whether we are prepared to conform to international standards of humane conduct when it comes to our police and the correctional system – or persist with the status quo which can only bring us shame and misery in the long run. Doubtless, police apologists like Maxwell Perreira (who even justified the slapping of a woman by an ACP on television) and Radhey Shyam Gupta (whose ACP RP Tyagi was the first senior police officer to be sentenced to death for a custodial killing) would squeal at the curtailment of their authority – but I would like to believe that our commitment to the rights guaranteed under the Constitution overrides these issues.

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