Deshbhakts at Arthur Road Jail: Susan Abraham

This is a guest post by SUSAN ABRAHAM

Shahid Azmi

It took Shahid Azmi’s cold-blooded murder on 11th February 2010 at his office near Kurla, for the world to come alive to his  importance.  Soft spoken and modest, it is the sweep of the cases he fought, challenging the State’s calculated targeting of innocent Muslims, that marked Shahid’s  remarkable achievements as a lawyer within a short span of six years in the legal profession.

One of these cases related to the brutal lathi charge in Arthur Road Jail in central Mumbai, on 28th June 2008, by the jail staff along with convicts and undertrials from the so-called `patriotic’ underworld gangs,  on a select group of undertrial-inmates. This assault was conducted under the overall supervision of the-then Jail Superintendent Swati Sathe. To the outside world, Ms Sathe was a tough no-nonsense, non corrupt woman officer who probably wished to become the next Kiran Bedi. But underneath her stiff khakhi uniform ruled a tough no-nonsense hindutva heart, no less.

Sathe’s true colours were described to me by my husband Vernon Gonsalves and his co-accused Shridhar Shrinivasan, both political prisoners arrested as “Maoists” by Mumbai ATS in August 2007 on concocted charges of conspiring to set off explosions in different parts of the city. After two months in continuous police custody with a number of cases foisted on them, they were sent to judicial custody at Arthur Road jail in October 2007 after a writ petition was filed in the Bombay High Court challenging their arrests. Vernon and Shridhar were in Arthur Road Jail till the beginning of 2009 and got first hand experience of the communalized divisions within the jail walls.

Classified as `high security’ prisoners, they were lodged in the `anda’ cell, so named for its panopticon shape designed by the British colonialists, i.e. a circular prison barrack with a central surveillance station and so designed that the jail staff can see each inmate all the time without being seen. In local lingo, it became `anda’ cell for its ovoid shape.  Soon Vernon & Shridhar got to meet the fellow inmates of the `anda’ barracks who ranged from muslim terror suspects to members of various underworld gangs, ranging from  Dawood’s gang to Chota Rajan’s,  to city gangster Arun Gawli (“daddy”) himself.  Shahid Azmi was one of the lawyers in the defence team of Indian Association of People’s Lawyers (IAPL) in Vernon & Shridhar’s case.

Before long, they got to know of the communalized segregation of these gangs. Whereas the Muslim terror suspects or Dawood’s gang members are easily labeled as `atankwadis’ or `Pakistani’ agents, the identification of those on the Hindu divide is much more benign. Chota Rajan’s men are referred to as `deshbakt’ gangsters, and the Hindu bomb blasts accused are also referred to as `deshbhakts’. These so-called `deshbakt’ undertrials  and the Muslim `gangsters’ or `terror suspect’ undertrials are segregated in separate barracks.

In the former category were the dozen-odd accused in the 7/11 train blasts case of the serial train blasts in Mumbai of 11th July 2006. Arrested within months of the blasts, they are undergoing trial before a special MCOCA judge in Mumbai. (Shahid Azmi, who was representing some of the accused had challenged the use of MCOCA in such cases and succeeded in getting a stay on their trials from the Supreme Court.)

In the latter category, there were the six accused in the 2008 bomb blasts at Thane, Panvel and Vashi, members of the Sanatan Sanstha and Hindu Janajagruti Samiti. In October 2008, the high profile Hindutva terror suspects of Malegaon blasts were added to this group. (The blasts had taken place two years earlier on 8th September 2006.) Those arrested initially were the usual “Muslim terror” suspects.  Following investigations carried out by Hemant Karkare (killed in the 26/11 Mumbai terror attack; many have indicated a probable larger conspiracy behind Karkare getting killed) on the 2008 blasts around Mumbai city, Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur and 10 others, including  Lt Col Purhit, a serving officer of the army, Dayanand Pandey, a self-styled swami, were arrested. All the male accused were in lodged in Arthur Road jail.

Vernon’s letters of that time explained the disparate treatment meted out to the two groups. For Col Purohit, Swami Pandey and their cohorts, Ms Sathe ensured VIP treatment. One whole barrack was emptied for the latest `patriotic’ arrivals, they were given all the facilities listed in the jail manual, which included a blanket, pillow and utensils (which for example, Vernon & Shridhar were not provided with even after a year in Arthur Rd jail). Senior-most jail officials were present to welcome them. The letters also described the religious favours granted to this group. Every morning, there would be loud and hour-long bhajan singing from the `deshbhakt’ barracks ending with lusty chants of `Bharatmata ki jai’. After the arrival of Malegaon blasts accused, “Swami Dayanand Pandey ki jai” was added to the chants!

Compare this to the brutal treatment meted out to the 7/11 accused undertrials by Ms Sathe and her officials on 28th June 2008. Ms Sathe without an order of the court ordered the transfer of these undertrials to other jails. The undertrials whose trial was going on in a special court in Mumbai, in one voice opposed the transfer and insisted on an order from the court. In a clearly pre-planned move, Ms Sathe ordered the jail staff to lathi charge the prisoners. This was done with the assistance of the `deshbhakt gangs’, local police and a number of convicts brought from Pune. The 7/11 undertrials were beaten and some of them had theirs ribs and legs broken, nevertheless they were forcibly taken to jails outside Mumbai.

The ensuing publicity in the media too was well orchestrated by Ms Sathe. She gave statements and the media faithfully reported, that the jail administration had to use force because it was these undertrials who began attacking the jail staff with bricks and stones while shouting “Pakistan zindabad, Hindustan murdabad”. We were all concerned at such blatant falsification of facts but felt rather helpless. But not Shahid Azmi. Moved by the plight of the victims, some of them who were denied medical treatment for weeks despite broken bones and other wounds, Shahid filed a petition in the Bombay High Court on behalf of the victims of the lathi charge and succeded in obtaining an order for a judicial enquiry into the incident.

Principal Sessions Judge T V Nalawade’s report into the incident was stinging. It pointed in no uncertain terms to the lies woven by Ms Sathe (some of the gems she stated on affidavit were: (i) that the majority of inmates of Arthur Rd were Muslims and the jail being situated in a predominantly Muslim locality posed a threat to the jail and the jail staff; (ii) the Muslim prisoners refuse to talk to the staff in Marathi; (iii) they ask for meat in their diet etc). The report indicted Sathe by holding that the lathi charge was uncalled for and that excessive force had been used. The Bombay High Court disposed of the petition filed by Shahid Azmi by ordering the transfer of Ms Sathe from Arthur Rd Prison and for an FIR to be lodged against her for excessive and unwarranted use of force against the undertrials.

Shahid reported to colleagues about this order with a quiet satisfaction and no fanfare in the first week of February this year. A week later on February 11th he was killed by assassins’ bullets.

Here again we see the tragic discrepancy in the treatment meted out to lawyers representing so-called terrorists of both sides. In July 2009, four persons, allegedly with weapons, were arrested by Mumbai police . Within days of the arrest, Joint Police Commissioner Rakesh Maria held a press conference that these men belonged to Chota Shakeel gang and were in the city to kill Sadhvi Pragya’s lawyers. It did not take long for the Bombay High Court to establish that the charge of conspiracy against Sadhvi’s lawyers was nowhere to be found in the chargesheet against these four men.

Shahid Azmi on the other hand, had received real threats from Chota Rajan gang members before his death. He had alerted the police about it. The police did nothing to protect the life of this very young and brilliant lawyer who represented sterling qualities in using the law in the pursuit of establishing truth and ensuring justice. The media was quick to report about revenge killing by patriotic dons since Shahid had been representing Muslim terror suspects.

Why was the Mumbai Police so pro-active in the case of the lawyers defending Hindutva blasts accused and so lax in preventing the killing of Shahid Azmi?

The answer lies in the simple maxim that for the Indian State “All Dons are equal, but some Dons are more equal than others”.

3 thoughts on “Deshbhakts at Arthur Road Jail: Susan Abraham”

  1. Susan, thanks for bringing into the bright light of day the hidden world of jail vigilantism. The communal division of Arthur Road jail is chilling and macabre, but unfortunately not very surprising, given the long history of jails in the modern world. The most blinding and false of our articles of faith is the idea of the jail as a neutral space, a place where convicts quietly serve out their sentences, barring the occasional jailbreak or violent clash with superintendents. In other words, as the logical last link in the chain of systematic, transparent constitutional justice.

    Nothing could be farther from the truth, as your article so masterfully demonstrates. About Arthur Road itself, the novel Shantaram has described it as a dog-eat-dog-world where prisoners have to obey hundreds of unwritten rules to escape daily brutalities. Bullying, sodomising younger inmates, the informal economy of cigarettes and other luxuries which is traded in kind (from sexual favours to manual labour), alliances between jail authorities and powerful convicts (in this case, the deshbhakt brigade), an intricate pecking order enforced by cowboy justice…

    The first illusion we must let go is of the jail as a place where the hierarchies and structures of the outside world cease to operate, of the jail as the great leveller. Modern jails only seem to magnify the power structures outside. Is it natural to wonder if pre-modern systems of justice for all their brutality, fulfilled the principle of transparent justice better?


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