New Delhi/Mumbai: Is an inmate required to wait for a month to get basic articles, such as a sipper and straw for a Parkinson’s patient?
This was a key question that came up last week when the special NIA court in Mumbai adjourned the hearing of an application for a sipper and straw, filed by 83-year-old Stan Swamy, the Jesuit priest and activist from Jharkhand, who was arrested from Ranchi last month for his alleged involvement in the Bhima Koregaon case.
Lawyers and human rights activists have raised this question while calling out the special NIA court judge hearing the matter of Parkinson’s patient Swamy for “insensitive handling”, “inhumane approach”, and even “a violation of Article 21”, the constitutional right to live with dignity.
Many also blame the jail authorities for precipitating the situation for Swamy, as they allegedly failed to comply with prison manuals that contain detailed instructions for diet, clothing and other basic necessities for prisoners.
However, Satej Patil, Maharashtra’s Minister of State for Home, told ThePrint that Swamy had been provided with the sipper and straw he had requested, and unfair allegations were being levelled against the jail authorities in Mumbai’s Taloja central jail.
Why the request was rejected
Swamy had first moved a written request for the sipper and straw in court on 6 November, a month after he was arrested. Swamy said the NIA had seized the two articles when its officers took him into custody.
The sipper and straw, Swamy claimed, were among the belongings he carried in a bag that was handed over to Swamy by his colleagues at Bagaicha, a Jesuit social research and training centre in Ranchi. Produced before the special NIA court on 8 October, Swamy was sent to judicial custody in Taloja jail on the same day.
His lawyer Sharif Sheikh told ThePrint that the same judge who heard Swamy’s application for the sipper and straw had remanded him to jail.
“We moved the application after Swamy asked for it. Since he said the articles were in the bag, we thought the NIA officials who escorted him to Mumbai would have them,” he said.
The court gave 20 days to NIA to let it know if the agency had the objects. On 26 November, the NIA submitted a written response, denying it had possession of the two articles.
It even placed the panchnama or a seizure memo before the court, leading to the rejection of Swamy’s application.
“In view of this contention, the application, being devoid of substance, deserves to be rejected,” the court said in a one-line order.
Sheikh said he immediately moved a fresh application for the court’s permission to have the objects delivered at Swamy’s personal cost.
“When the court asked me why Swamy needed the sipper and straw, I reminded him that he suffers from Parkinson’s disease, something that the judge had been informed about on the day when he appeared before him after his arrest,” Sheikh said.
Yet, the court asked for a report from jail authorities.
The NIA clarified that the court never sought the agency’s response to Swamy’s request. “It simply asked if NIA officials were in possession of the articles. We replied we did not. The NIA is not opposed to Swamy keeping the two articles. Now, it is between the jail authorities and the court,” said a lawyer for the NIA who did not want to be named.
An NIA statement said news reports suggesting it took 20 days to respond to Swamy’s plea were “false, incorrect and mischievous”.
‘Basic human rights violated’
Experts ThePrint spoke to said for a court to take such a long time to decide on an application that asks for basic necessities reflects deep lack of empathy and understanding by the judge concerned.
Senior advocate Dushyant Dave referred to a Supreme Court order that directed Tihar jail authorities to give summer clothes and essentials to Jammu and Kashmir High Court Bar Association president Mian Abdul Qayoom, who was detained under the Public Safety Act (PSA). A bench led by Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul gave the order the same day when Dave made an oral request.
Dave said the Supreme Court and high courts need to keep a close watch over subordinate courts.
“In cases like this, when basic human rights stand violated and basic dignity is compromised, they must intervene gently or if need be, they must suo motu issue directions,” Dave said.
Senior advocate Gopal Sankaranaryanan concurred, saying: “It would take a minute to allow such a reasonable plea for a seasoned terrorist, let alone someone like Stan Swamy, against whom even the allegations appear to be flimsy.”
Senior Supreme Court advocate Sanjay Parekh called it “a case of sheer harassment”.
“V.K. Sasikala, Subrata Roy, Sanjay Chandra, Lalu Prasad Yadav and similarly placed high-profile prisoners have received preferential treatment in jail. Some have got home-cooked food; for others, separate kitchens were created; while for businessmen, office facilities were given on courts’ directions. I see no reason why Swamy, a patient of Parkinson’s, should not get a sipper and straw on an urgent basis,” Parekh said.
‘There are precedents, but jail superintendents lack knowledge’
Swamy’s case is not an isolated one. Recently, accused persons in the Delhi riots case had complained to additional sessions judge Amitabh Rawat that they were not being provided basic amenities in Tihar jail.
The judge, on 3 November, warned the jail authorities that he would conduct a physical inspection if the grievances or the issues of the accused are not resolved before the next hearing.
In a related matter, Gulfisha Fatima, one of the 17 arrested in connection with a criminal conspiracy charge in the Delhi riots case, had raised an allegation of mental harassment by jail authorities. Judge Rawat had to issue orders asking the jail superintendent to change the staff on duty in the ward where Fatima was lodged.
According to former Tihar Jail law officer Sunil Gupta, jail manuals allow convicts to seek basic facilities, which they get at home.
Gupta, who co-authored a book called Black Warrant: Confessions of a Tihar Jailer, an insider’s account of south Asia’s largest prison, also said there are precedents where a jail administration has extended facilities to inmates — some with a court’s direction, and some without.
Inadequate knowledge about jail manuals is the reason jail superintendents disregard persistent requests made by prisoners, Gupta said. “It is the jail superintendent’s job and not the court’s to ensure all facilities are provided to inmates,” he insisted.