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Lack of policy concern despite 61% increase in women prisoners in India since 2001

Sukalo Gond, Sudha Bharadwaj, Soni Sori
Counterview Desk
A public hearing, to be held on January 18, 2019 at the Constitution Club of India, New Delhi by the All India Union of Forest Working People and Delhi Solidarity Group, has been planned on women activists allegedly falsely implicated and are languishing in jails. It will be addressed, among others, by women rights leaders, human rights lawyers, academicians and civil society activists.
The public hearing has been organized in the memory of Bharti Roy Chaudhary, who was a pioneer in raising women’s forest and land rights issues as a founding member of National Forum of Forest Working People (NFFPFW) and Uttar Pradesh Land Right and Labour Rights Campaign Committee.

Concept note*: 

India’s jails have seen a rise in women inmates by more than 61% since 2001. However, they are only 4.3% of the total inmates in the nation’s jails and thus are unable to raise any red flags in the larger scheme of things. Women in Indian jails are not a major policy concern for the state. For decades, they have suffered the lack of basic infrastructure, health care, vocational training and humane treatment.
A Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) report says that there were 11,094 women prisoners, forming 3.5% of the total prison population in 2001. Fifteen years later, Indian prisons house 17,834 women inmates, an increase of 61 percent. In the last decade, 477 women inmates have died inside prison. A larger cultural understanding of criminality dictates that crime is masculine in nature. Any women who dare to perform this masculinity deserve to be dehumanised and made to be invisible.
A report of women in prisons published in June 2018 by the Ministry of Women and Child Development says, “A majority of female inmates are in the age group of 30-50 years (50.5%), followed by 18-30 years (31.3%). Of the total 1,401 prisons in India, only 18 are exclusive for women, housing 2,985 female prisoners. Thus, a majority of women inmates are housed in women’s enclosures of general prisons.”
From custodial torture, rape, denial of health services, lack of clean food and water and a sheer ignorance on behalf of the state, the Indian prison has failed to respect the rights of the inmates. Various studies done within Indian prisons have always concluded that majority of prisoners come from Adivasis, Dalits and other marginalised communities are being criminalised.
Their social and economic backwardness makes them vulnerable, being not being able to defend themselves legally and financially. They are targeted by the State more than citizens belonging to upper caste upper class gentry. This then brings into question the role of the prison, the State and their goal when it comes to countering crime.
Crime by definition means the gross violation of law, the subjectivity of the act of crime requires investigation, and judicial intervention. But as many reports have found, a majority of confessions from prisoners who come from socially and economically underprivileged background are forced out of them through torture and blackmail.
In such cases, fundamental rights and basic human rights are flouted openly. In colonial era jails, Indian women who fought for the country’s freedom were thrown in jails to languish for years before they were let out. In those times, women being thrown into jail had two very important consequences.
First, it was the fact that women were no longer being viewed as docile and submissive citizens of the country, the authorities had a new wave of people to contend with; and secondly, women were able to join this to the larger fight of equality with men. Their participation in the freedom struggle and facing the same hardships as their male counterparts was a huge blow to gender norms and prescriptive roles that women were expected to play.
It is important to note that the struggle to protect the land, water and forests led by women across India is resisting the anti-people policies unleashed by the governments. While actively resisting these inhuman models of development, the women are implicated in fabricated cases forged by the 'protectors' of law and order.
Today, thousands of women are wasting away in jails, not being treated like humans, held over false cases, being raped and tortured by police officials, and most of them belong to underprivileged sections of the society. Women who have been active in the forefront of protecting the natural resources have been falsely implicated in cases by the police of each state respectively.
Activists like Soni Sori and Sudha Bharadwaj, forest rights activists like Sukalo Gond, Rajkumari, Kismatiya, Sobha of All India Union of Forest Working Peoples, women from Narmada Bachao Andolan women in Kudankulam, Adivasi women of Chhattisgarh, Odisha (with specific reference to Niyamgiri), cultural activist like Sheetal Sathe etc. are among many who are continued to be persecuted by the State on a daily basis.
This state of affairs needs to be examined in the light of the way in which governmentality is being thrusted upon people who work with the Adivasis, Dalits and marginalised communities struggling for their survival.
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*Slightly edited. Prepared by Ashok Choudhary, Roma (All India Union of Forest Working People), and Anil Tharayath Varghese (Delhi Solidarity Group)

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