Stan Swamy’s death exposes the state of the elderly in India’s prisons

Updated on Jul 07, 2021 12:42 PM IST

Just as Swamy foretold his death during his medical bail hearing in May to the Bombay high court, suffering as he was from a progressive neurological disorder like Parkinson’s, there is a growing elderly population in prisons that struggles to get basic health care needs

Members of The Bombay Catholic Sabha hold a memorial mass outside St. Peter's Church in Bandra on Tuesday for rights activist and Jesuit priest Father Stan Swamy, who died on Monday. (HT PHOTO) PREMIUM
Members of The Bombay Catholic Sabha hold a memorial mass outside St. Peter's Church in Bandra on Tuesday for rights activist and Jesuit priest Father Stan Swamy, who died on Monday. (HT PHOTO)

The death of 84-year-old tribal rights activist and Jesuit priest Father Stan Swamy at a hospital in Mumbai, while fighting for his right to get bail, throws up a larger issue — the lack of care for the elderly in prisons.

Just as Swamy foretold his death during his medical bail hearing in May to the Bombay high court, suffering as he was from a progressive neurological disorder like Parkinson’s, there is a growing elderly population in prisons that struggles to get basic health care needs, has to move elaborate applications just to get basic medicines, and fights, often without success, for medical bail.

The priest was the eldest and the last one to be detained in the case related to the conspiracy to instigate violence at Bhima Koregaon village in Maharashtra on January 1, 2018.

Amid a reformist push, an arrest

Ironically, around the time that Swamy was arrested under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) for alleged links with Maoists, the Supreme Court (SC) was trying to implement the idea of decongesting prisons during the pandemic.

Also Read | Swamy family remembers him as fearless man dedicated to tribal rights

Between April and June 2020, high powered committees (HPCs) in all states and union territories started an exercise to decrease prison population. It had patchy success, with most states being able to reduce their inmate population by about 10% but Bihar, Jharkhand and Uttar Pradesh managed to increase the number of inmates, according to a report compiled by the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI). The report says that even though health experts warned of the vulnerability that the elderly faced from Covid-19, very few states agreed to make it a criteria for release during the pandemic.

“While this is a health crisis that is disproportionately impacting senior citizens, it is disappointing to note that only five state HPCs (Mizoram, Punjab, West Bengal, Delhi and Jammu & Kashmir) considered cases of elderly prisoners for release. Similarly, barring three (Mizoram, Punjab and Delhi), no other HPC considered undertrials who were suffering from co-morbidities, chronic diseases and pre-existing conditions like chronic diabetes,’’ said the report released by Justice Madan B Lokur in December last year.

At the time of Swamy’s arrest, all that the National Investigation Agency (NIA) presented were alleged extracts of his communication showing sympathy for Maoists but the UAPA terror charges ensured that he, or anyone else charged under the law, couldn’t even be considered for release by the HPC. Swamy feared and eventually contracted Covid 19 in jail before dying of a cardiac arrest on Monday.

During his eight-month stay in Taloja jail, Swamy’s struggle to get basic amenities is now an infamous part of legal records. In November last year, he asked NIA for a sipper and straw to help him deal with the tremors induced by Parikinson’s. The agency took four weeks to process the request, informing the court only next month that apart from the two basic items, they had also provided a wheelchair, walker and walking stick.

It didn’t stop there. As NIA rejected his medical bail, forcing him to move a higher court, Swamy kept reiterating his deteriorating condition. “When I first came here, I could bathe, take a walk, write a bit, all by myself. But now, I need help with everything,”, he said in May but no one paid heed.

The case of Kobad Ghandy

Seventy four-year old Left ideologue Kobad Ghandy’s experiences in jail, documented in the book Behind Bars(by this writer) mirror Father Stan Swamy’s experiences.

Ghandy spent a decade in jail for 14 cases involving UAPA charges, to be acquitted of them and released in 2019. The book documents his elaborate struggle with prison authorities for all his basic needs and the cruelty that the system inflicts on inmates’ health.

In a series of these letters to his friend Gautam Vora, Ghandy talks about how the prison system of random searches everyday proved back-breaking for an elderly person like him.

“Sometimes conducted daily, it involved the Tamil Nadu Special Police (TSP) coming into your cell while you took all that was dear to you outside and waited for them to ruffle everything together....They are geared to harass as they throw everything around”, reads an extract from Ghandy’s application to the Delhi high court, requesting them to assign him a “sewadar” or helper for a payment. The application was denied.

The list of denied items included hot compressions (as it was too tricky in a high-risk ward), doctor consultations that led to complications in his left eye, slipped disc, arthritis and cervical spondylitis. Even getting vitamins from his relatives outside the jail was considered a security risk by jail authorities. To tackle the poor jail diet, when they stopped his sister bringing him dry fruits, Ghandy approached the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) but they are rarely able to step in and help. In another petition to the high court, Ghandy pleaded with the court to intervene so that his medicines and diet continued to be provided, even if he was transferred to another section of the jail. Any shift usually results in the inmate having to make fresh applications yet again.

Arun Ferreira and his story

One of those detained in the same case, human rights lawyer Arun Ferreira, has written his own account of the lack of medical facilities in jail, in his book, Colours of my Cage. Ferreira talks about his previous stint in custody fighting charges of being a Maoist. All charges were dropped in 2012 but the book recounts his experiences of Nagpur jail. Ferreira has been in Taloja jail since 2018 for the Bhima Koregaon case.

“If a prisoner got sick at night, the jailer, being the only officer, was quick to shift the responsibility to someone else. Hence, he would order the patient to be shifted to the jail hospital immediately, where the DIC (Doctor in Charge) would then become the person in charge. If things became too difficult for the DIC, he would order the patient to be shifted to the government hospital in the city. This system of passing the parcel often resulted in delayed treatment, as each official hoped that the next person on duty would get down to treating the patient.”

Ferreira claimed that this occasionally caused the death of the patient in jail. “When this happened, a huge cover-up operation would then take place. Intravenous glucose would be injected into the corpse and it would be transported to the city hospital. The official record would show that the patient had left the prison alive, but had died during the journey, before being admitted to the city hospital. In 2010, the NCRB recorded 102 deaths of inmates in Maharashtra prisons, the second-highest figure in the country. Not a single death was attributed to ‘negligence or excesses by prison personnel’.”

There were other problems too, for the sick and elderly. Ferreira writes about how jail hospitals don’t have regular supply of medicines and doctors wouldn’t give full doses, fearing that inmates could use it in a suicide attempt. This may seem fair but led to complications as there was no guarantee of seeing the doctor the next day, leading to incomplete medication.

Age matters, but only for the privileged

There was no bail for Swamy despite his advanced age, but there are many precedents of courts giving reprieve to accused even in serious cases citing age.

One major example was in the Uphaar case where Sushil and Gopal Ansal were held responsible for 59 persons, including children, being killed in a cinema fire in 1997. The court said that at the age of 75 and 67, the industrialist brothers were “too old” to go to jail and gave them an option to pay a fine instead. 60 crore was set as the price for freedom. Gopal Ansal spent only six months in custody.

In another case, a top police officer SPS Rathore was convicted of sexual harassment of Ruchika Girhotra in 2009, but the court allowed him a reduced sentence because of his age of 70.

Activists hope that Swamy’s case will bring back the focus on human rights and dignity of prisoners in jail. And force a scrutiny on the provisions of the UAPA that makes bail an exception, rather than the rule it is meant to be.

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

    Sunetra Choudhury is the National Political Editor of the Hindustan Times. With over two decades of experience in print and television, she has authored Black Warrant (Roli,2019), Behind Bars: Prison Tales of India’s Most Famous (Roli,2017) and Braking News (Hachette, 2010). Sunetra is the recipient of the Red Ink award in journalism in 2016 and Mary Morgan Hewett award in 2018.

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