— By The Wire Staff
Editor's Note: This report was originally published in The Wire. Read the story here.
Supreme Court Issues Notice on PIL Filed by The Wire Reporter on Caste-Based Prison Rules
Prison manuals in India continue to retain unconstitutional caste-based labour rules. The Wire's series on caste discrimination in prisons, which was the basis of the public interest litigation (PIL) filed in the apex court, has won awards both in India and abroad.
Mumbai: The Wire’s detailed investigation revealing the prevalent caste-based segregation and labour rules in Indian prisons in 2020 has now been converted into a public interest litigation.
The petition, filed by The Wire reporter Sukanya Shantha, came up for its first hearing today before a Supreme Court division bench comprising Chief Justice of India (CJI) D.Y. Chandrachud and Justices J.B. Pardiwala and Manoj Misra.
The court has issued notice to 11 states where the prison rule-sanctioned practice continues, along with the Union home ministry and the academy of prisons and correctional administration in Vellore, and sought responses within four weeks.
CJI Chandrachud noted that the petition raises some “important issues” and took note of the points raised by senior advocate S. Muralidhar, who is representing Sukanya in the case.
The petition was filed through advocate-on-record S. Prasanna.
The apex court took note of three aspects in which discrimination is prevalent in prisons. The first is the division of labour on the basis of caste. The second is the issue of the segregation of prisoners on the basis of their caste, and the third is the discriminatory provisions used specifically against the Denotified Tribes.
CJI Chandrachud also called upon solicitor general Tushar Mehta, who was also present, to assist the court in the matter.
Mehta, who claimed to be unaware of the practice, described it as “unacceptable” and told the court he would work with Muralidhar on the matter.
The court also noted The Wire’s work "From Segregation to Labour, Manu’s Caste Law Governs the Indian Prison System," which became the basis for this petition.
This article was produced as part of the five-part prison series Barred: A Prisons Project, which Sukanya and The Wire’s deputy editor, Jahnavi Sen, had produced in partnership with the Pulitzer Center.
The series has won several awards both in India and abroad.
Prisons are a state subject and are run as per the prison manuals of individual states.
While these prison manuals have gone through a few changes in the past decades, some continue to retain unconstitutional caste-based labour rules.
For instance, the Madhya Pradesh prison manual of 1968 says: “conservancy work, or manual scavenging, shall be carried out by a Mehtar prisoner who would be assigned for handling human excreta in the toilets.”
Mehtars are a Scheduled Caste and have for long engaged in manual scavenging work.
Similarly, along with assigning sweeping work to those from Dalit community, the West Bengal jail code also states that those belonging to the “high caste” group shall be appointed as cooks.
Soon after the story was published in December 2020, the Jodhpur bench of the Rajasthan high court had suo motu taken the case up and directed the state’s home department to change its prison rules.
For the first time in 70 years, the rule book was finally changed and all mentions of caste-based practices were finally dropped.
However, this wasn’t replicated in other states.
In addition to the story covered in 2020, Sukanya, along with lawyer and anti-caste scholar Disha Wadekar, further looked at problematic aspects in the prison manuals across the country.
The Model Prison Manual that most states have slowly begun adopting was also studied.
It was found that along with caste segregation, the prison manuals also sanction a discriminatory approach towards the Denotified Tribes. These communities, who have for long faced criminalisation just by virtue of their birth, are exempted from the most basic rights in jail.
Muralidhar pointed out to the court that they have long faced discrimination in society and their ill-treatment continues even when they go to prison.
Along with accessing prison manuals — documents that most states have kept away from both prisoners and their lawyers — The Wire‘s story also looked at the physical segregation of prisoners on the basis of caste in the Palayamkottai central prison in Tirunelveli.
Here, prisoners are assigned barracks as per their caste. For instance, a prisoner belonging to the dominant Thevar caste would be sent to the “Thevar barrack” and one from the Pallar caste (a Scheduled Caste) will be assigned a different barrack meant for that specific caste.
In 2011, when petitioner C. Arul moved the Madras high court, the state’s home department justified the segregation, saying it was essential to “prevent caste rivalries.”
The court too had accepted the state’s claims.
In the petition before the Supreme Court, the high court’s order too has been challenged.