Political Prisoners' Day - 13th September

Aug 31, 2023
By Seema Azad

Originally written in Hindi and available on the PUCL Website 

13th September is “Political Prisoners’ Day. When democracy is endangered in any country, for political/social/human rights activists going to jail becomes a part of their work. That’s what is happening in India today.  The number of “anti-nationals” in jails is growing day by day. From Kashmir to Kanyakumari and from Punjab, Rajasthan to north – eastern states, all the jails, the number of people is increasing for protesting against their governments. These political prisoners are deprived of books and health. 

From the time of independence struggle, political prisoners had to fight against disorder in jails. Later, human rights organizations also raised the issue at the  international level. 

During the period of the independence struggle Bhagat Singh and his comrades fought for providing better conditions to Indian prisoners and revolutionaries. Political prisoners have been continuing the tradition even today. From the basic needs like the quality of food, water, electricity, bed, medicines, treatment to political facilities like books, notebooks, correspondence, table-chair etc, political prisoners have to fight for. 

Books, notebook and a pen  are necessary items for political prisoners as these are their best companions. From past to present and in India as well as the world, best literature as well as cinema has emerged from jail writings. However, the  jail administration tries to keep political prisoners away from these very items. The present government is wary of books and of the  pen especially. 

To underline the importance of political prisoners, 13th September is observed as “Political Prisoners’ Day” in India. The day marks the martyrdom of Yatindra Nath Das, a comrade of Bhagat Singh, after a long hunger strike in jail. Bhagat Singh and comrades had started a hunger strike demanding the status of political prisoners and against the discrimination against the Indian prisoners. Instead of accepting their demands, the British government began feeding milk forcefully through a tube. Due to this,  milk used to go into the  lungs. Yatindra Nath Das died on 13th September, 1929, on the 83rd day of the strike. After his martyrdom, the British jail administration accepted most of their demands.Tragically of course,  Yatindra Nath Das was not alive to witness the success of their struggle.  Later, the practice of observing “Political Prisoners’ Day” on his martyrdom day began. Today,  the marking of  prisoners day is even more significant. Bhagat Singh and his comrades were treated as political prisoners till the trial was complete and the status was withdrawn only  after they were sentenced. However our government treats undertrial political prisoners as criminals. Leave alone, the question of  books and medical treatment, they have to approach courts for basics such as  table – chair, bed and even a  mosquito net !  Father Sten Swamy died in jail for the want of treatment. For a simple demand of providing him a sipper, the court was approached and the court did not provide the relief. Father Sten Swamy’s death has once again underlined the mistreatment of political prisoners in jails. 

Who are political prisoners anyway? 

From the time of British, there are two kinds of political prisoners. Bhagat Singh’s kind, against whom IPC section 121 (waging war against the government) is applied. The section is used against the people who just don’t want to change the government but want to change the system based on exploitation. 

The other kind was against someone like  Gandhi, against whom 124A which means sedition was applied. It covers anti-government activities including writing, insulting national symbols or exciting disaffection against  the government. (according to new changes in law, the sedition act has been repealed but it’s all the provisions have been included in section 150 of Bharatiya Nyay Sanhita making them more draconian).

People like Gandhi, against whom section 124A was applied, were treated as political prisoners by the British government. However, likes of Bhagat Singh, against whom, the section 121 was applied, were treated as “terrorists” and not as political prisoners. The tradition continues till today. Presently, a “terrorist” and a “revolutionary” are put in the same category. These are separated by “violence and non-violence” factor not only in our country but on international level. 

In 1961, according to Amnesty International’s definition those people who were put behind bars due to their political,  religious, ethnic, gender, linguistic, place of origin, colour or faith and not because of use or support of violence were political prisoners. 

In fact, by including “use or support of violence” in this definition ended the possibility of treating many persons  as political prisoners. Because, anyone who is ideologically against the system, would like to change it using any possible method. On national as well international level because of including “violence/ non-violence” distinction  in defining  of political prisoners, in reality no one is termed as a political prisoner. Even if one is miles away from violent means, the government could use allegation of “provoking violence against the government” and deny the status of political prisoner. The government alleges “conspiracy of overthrowing the government” even on Gandhians who believe in non-violence. 

The demand of providing the status of political prisoners to people associated with revolutionary parties was raised in 2012 after Kolkata High Court gave verdict of giving the status of political prisoners to six persons who were in jail on the allegations of association with Maoists (Chhattradhar Mahto, leader of Lalgarh revolution was one of them). 

The Court passed this Order under “Paschim Bengal Correctional Services Act passed by the left government in West Bengal in 1992. The  Act came into force in 2000. While, the human rights organizations were happy, the ruling class became upset.  Both the Mamta Banerjee government  as well as the  UPA government joined hands immediately on this issue.

The union home Ministry ordered the West Bengal government to challenge this verdict in Supreme Court. Mamta Banerjee complied with these orders of the central government and the verdict could not be applied.

Today, the situation has become more undemocratic. The number of people protesting the government has also increased. The categories of protestors have also expanded. 

  1. Adivasis/farmers/workers/students/intellectuals protesting economic policies.
    2. Religious minorities.
    3. People/Dalits opposing caste system
    4. Women opposing Manuvadi practices
    5. People fighting for rights of self determination 

That’s why people opposing economic policies, adivasis opposing the sale of natural resources including Jal, Zameen, Jungle and intellectuals are put behind bars. 

Muslims and people standing with them opposing fascist impositions like CAA, NRC, Hindutva’s unconstitutional plans, laws are being sent to jails. 

People, who associate the history of Bhima Koregaon with the self respect of Dalits, people opposing the caste system are being imprisoned. 

Women who refuse to obey Manuvadi laws, break the cage, are being jailed. 

In Kashmir, Nagaland and Manipur, people fighting for the rights of self determination, are not heard and being put in jails. 

The government does not treat any of the above as political prisoners but terms them “anti-nationals, terrorists”. Even with respect to  those people, who remain away from armed revolutions, the government creates narratives  of their involvement in violence or provoking violence. Laws like UAPA help the government in this. The government has banned many organizations and parties under these laws.  Political opponents are being termed members/associates of these banned organizations and labeled as terrorists. Thus, the number of political prisoners is increasing. 

Jails are the test of the democracy of any country. The number of under trials casts a shadow of doubt about the nature of the  democracy. 

An even more precise test is the number of political prisoners. In India, the democracy fails on this count. To hide this fact from international view , governments deny the status of political prisoners to anyone and everyone. Therefore, the issue of political prisoners is important not only for the people going to jails but for the health of democracy as well. This should be the main issue and the  demand for Human Rights in any democratic country.


Featured Image – The Wire