Locked up without trial, death offers an escape

Siddhartha Mandal, a suspected Maoist lodged in Alipore Central Jail, recently petitioned a court seeking euthanasia (mercy killing).

The 40-year-old, whose trial is yet to begin after more than two years of detention, alleges the police framed him in false cases as a Maoist.

"It's better to die than live in this condition," his lawyer Shubhasis Roy quoted him.

Arrested over the Nandigram violence but charged with sedition in a case with Bishnupur police station in South 24-Parganas, Mandal has been given the status of political prisoner at the court's behest.

Roy said Mandal's trial could not begin because the fast-track court had lacked a regular judge since the earlier judge was transferred a year ago.

Although his euthanasia plea was rejected (the Constitution anyway lacks such a provision) Mandal's appeal underlines the detainees' desperation.

It's no wonder that political prisoners, mostly Maoists, joined the recent jail protests by undertrials. "We share their demands for speedy trial and bail,'' Pradip Chatterjee, a suspected Maoist lodged in Presidency jail, said.

Rights bodies say there are around 300 "Maoist" undertrials in the state, including around 100 booked under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA). Unlike non-political prisoners, many of them are lodged in solitary cells.

The septuagenarian Gour Chakroborty, arrested from a TV studio after participating in a panel discussion as CPI (Maoist) spokesman in 2009, said he needed treatment outside the jail for a brain ailment.

Chakroborty suffers from neurological ailments and is said to have developed partial paralysis. He was admitted to the Bangur Institute of Neurology but was shifted to a jail hospital again.

"My father did not commit any violence but aired his political opinion publicly. Is that a crime under the Indian Constitution?" asked his son Somprakash, who was in jail in connection with Maoist cases.

Another alleged Maoist, Madhushudan Mandol, who too was on fast, said he was suffering from a kidney disease.

Rina Chatterjee, whose sons Pradip and Prasun are in jail as suspected Maoists, said: "My husband has dementia and Alzheimer's. I have heart ailments. We may not survive for long."

She made an appeal to chief minister Mamata Banerjee. "My sons were framed by the Left government. We hoped to see them free after the paribartan. Before the polls, Mamata had promised to release political prisoners. I request her to keep her promise."

Fresh blow

The plight of Mandal, the euthanasia seeker, may now worsen. The state government is set to amend a Left-era jail law following pressure from Delhi to deny the status of political prisoner to Maoists and terror accused ' that is, those waging war against the Indian state.

Under the Left-era law, courts could accord the status even before the trial if satisfied that the defendant's alleged participation in violence was motivated only by political goals and not personal interest. No matter if the charges included that of waging war against the state.

Calcutta High Court accorded the status to People's Committee Against Police Atrocities leader Chhatradhar Mahato and seven Maoists in August, and the city sessions court to nine Maoists in September. The Centre's letter came soon after.

The Union home ministry fears that the status, which usually extends certain privileges to the prisoners, will enable the Maoists to mount pressure for their release, in Bengal and elsewhere.

"Yes, we shall change the definition of 'political prisoner' in the state law. Most probably, the bill will be placed in the Assembly this winter session, or the following session," the new law minister, Chandrima Bhattacharya, said.

She declined to elaborate on the nature of the change but hinted it would be done in line with Trinamul's political interests. "Whatever the reason for the Centre's prodding, we'll make the changes according to our situation," Bhattacharya said.

Government sources said the changes would make it difficult for Maoists, particularly those charged with seditious violence and booked under the UAPA, to obtain the status.

However, the amendment is expected to leave room for grant of such status to the rank and file of mainstream parties as well as members of the minority community framed in politically motivated cases.

Review panel failure

After the 2011 polls, the new government set up a state-level review committee to look into political undertrials' complaints of being framed and detained during Left rule.

The committee, made up by government and police officials, rights activists and lawyers, recommended the "release of all political prisoners" on June 11, 2011.

Around 90 undertrials, including Chhatradhar, have been given the "political prisoner" status by the courts. Rights bodies APDR and the Bandimukti Committee, however, say the actual number of undertrial prisoners "framed in politically motivated and false cases" is far higher.

Last year, Mamata decided to release on bail 50 prisoners jailed in connection with the Kamtapuri and Greater Cooch Behar movements in north Bengal. But none with alleged Maoist or SUCI connection has been freed on bail so far except on court orders.

With the government's peace initiative with the Maoists having failed, Mamata has hardened her stand on her pre-poll friends turned post-poll foes, activists said.

On January 10, the review committee again asked the government to "liberally treat the bail prayers of political prisoners" and take up their "plea for withdrawal of prosecution". But the government continued to drag its feet, prompting the panel to express its dismay before it was wound up.

Still, the government acted on the committee's recommendation for the release of most of the undertrials in cases relating to the Singur and Nandigram violence ' and for the withdrawal of the cases ' barring a few, such as those held for the rape and murder of Tapasi Malik. Most of the beneficiaries are Trinamul supporters, rights bodies said.

Evasive minister

Malay Ghatak, who was law minister till a few weeks ago, was evasive about the implementation of the committee's other recommendations when The Telegraph questioned him in September.

"The committee has been wound up. The government is considering its recommendations. We have initiated moves to withdraw cases relating to Singur and Nandigram,'' he said.

Some rights bodies say the government's selective release of prisoners or withdrawal of cases is politically motivated.

"Trinamul supporters and others who have agreed to serve the ruling party are getting a respite in Singur, Nandigram and Jungle Mahal. This is a blatantly partisan policy aimed at arm-twisting the Opposition forces," APDR secretary Dhiraj Sengupta said.

Rights activists are divided over the government's intentions. "The chief minister had requested the state directorate of prosecution not to oppose the undertrials' application for political prisoner status and bail, but the officials did not comply," said Bandimukti secretary Chhoton Das.

But Sengupta said the public prosecutors followed the government policy on political prisoners. "If the public prosecutors are calling the shots, what was the committee doing?" he asked.

Some members of the disbanded review committee are against the proposed exclusion of Maoists from the definition of "political prisoner".

"The Maoists are a political force and not the only group that engages in violence," said Sujato Bhadro, rights activist and member of the former committee. "We had recommended lenience to all political prisoners irrespective of their credo."

But minister Bhattacharya said: "When the committee no longer exists, why should we consider its recommendations?"