Editor’s Note: This article has been reposted with permission from the writer, Sukanya Shantha & The Wire, with illustrations by Pariplab Chakrabarty. It is also available in Hindi, Marathi, Urdu, Tamil, and Malayalam. This article, part of the series ‘Barred–The Prisons Project’, is produced in partnership with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
On his first day at the Alwar district prison, Ajay Kumar* was gearing up for the worst. Torture, stale food, biting cold and harsh labour – Bollywood had already acquainted him with the grisly realities of jails. “Gunah batao (Tell me your crime),” a police constable, placed at the undertrial (UT) section, asked him as soon as he was escorted inside a tall iron gateway.
Ajay had barely mumbled something, when the constable snapped, “Kaun jaati (Which caste)?” Unsure, Ajay paused and then hesitantly said, “Rajak”. The constable was not pleased with the response. He further inquired, “Biradari batao (Tell me the caste category).” An inconsequential part of his life so far, Ajay’s caste identity, as part of a “Scheduled Caste”, was now to shape his 97-day stay in the prison.
Ajay, barely 18 years old in 2016, had to clean toilets, sweep the verandah of the ward and help in other menial work like storing water and gardening. His work would begin before dawn and continue till 5 pm each day. “I had assumed it was something that every new prisoner had to do. But in a week or so, it was evident. Only a select few were made to clean toilets,” he says.
The arrangement was clear – those at the bottom of the caste pyramid did the cleaning work; those high above handled the kitchen or the legal documentation department. And the rich and influential did nothing; they only threw their weight around. These arrangements had nothing to do with the crime that one was arrested for or his conduct in prison. “Sab kuch jaati ke aadhar par tha (It was all based on caste),” he says.
It has been close to four years since he was sent to jail. He was charged with theft by his employer. “Boxes of newly acquired switchboards had gone missing from the workshop. I was the newest employee, also the youngest. The owner decided to pick on me. He called the police and turned me in,” he recalls.
After spending 97 days in jail and subsequently facing a trial at the Alwar magistrate’s court, Ajay was finally acquitted. Alwar city, however, was no more an option; he soon moved to Delhi. Now 22, Ajay works as an electrician at a mall in central Delhi.
That short period in the prison, Ajay says, changed his life in more than one way. “Overnight, I was branded a criminal. Additionally, I was also reduced to a choti jaat (a lower caste person).” Ajay’s family, originally from Sambhuganj block of Bihar’s Banka district, had migrated to the national capital in the early 1980s. His father works at a courier firm in Delhi and his brother as a security guard at a nationalised bank. “We belong to a dhobi or a washerman caste. But no one in my family ever was engaged in the caste occupation. My father intentionally chose a life in a city, almost as if he was running away from the harsh caste realities of a village.”
But inside the jail, Ajay says, his father’s efforts were undone. “I was trained as an electrician. But inside jail that meant nothing. I was now only a safaiwala (a cleaner) in this confined space,” Ajay shares, sitting at his rented barsati in North Delhi.
The most painful of all, he recalls, was when the prison guard summoned him one day to clear up a choked septic tank. The toilets in the prison ward had been overflowing since the night before. But the jail authorities did not call in anyone from outside to fix the problem. “I was stunned that they (jail officials) wanted me to do this job. I meekly protested, and told the guard that I did not know this kind of work. But he said there was no one as thin and young as me. He raised his voice and I caved in.” Ajay had to strip down to his underwear, pry open the tank lid and lower his body into the cesspit of human faeces. “I thought I would die of the putrid stench. I began howling. The guard did not know what to do and asked other prisoners to drag me out.”
While manual scavenging was outlawed in India three decades ago, the law underwent an amendment in 2013 to recognise the use of men for cleaning of sewers and septic tanks as “manual scavenging” in the amended The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act. What the guards made Ajay do is a criminal offence.
“Every time I think of the incident, I lose my appetite,” he says. Each time he sees a cleaner or a sweeper on the street, he flinches. “The sight reminds me of my own helplessness,” he says.
Shocking as it may sound, Ajay’s is not an uncommon case. He says everything in prison is decided by a person’s caste. He was able to tell a person’s caste merely by looking at the life they lived in prison. Ajay was a pre-trial detainee, and unlike those convicted, pre-trial detainees are exempted from working in jail. But at the undertrial prison, where convict prisoners were only a handful, detainees like Ajay were called in for free labour.
When the rules themselves are casteist
Caste-based labour, in fact, is sanctioned in the prison manuals of many states. The colonial texts of the late 19th century have barely seen any amendments, and caste-based labour remains an untouched part of these manuals. While every state has its own unique prison manual, they are mostly based on The Prisons Act, 1894. These jail manuals mention every activity in detail – from the measurement of food and space per prisoner to punishments for the “disorderly ones”.
Ajay’s experience matches what the Rajasthan Jail Manual lays out. While cooking and handling medical care in the prison is considered high-caste work, sweeping and cleaning is straightaway assigned to the lower castes.
For the cooking department, the prison manual states:
“Any Brahmin or sufficiently high caste Hindu prisoner from his class if eligible for appointment as cook.”
Similarly, Part 10 of the manual titled, “Employment, Instructions and Control of Convicts”, as also mentioned in the rules under section 59 (12) of the Prisons Act, states:
“Sweepers shall be chosen from among those who, by the custom of the district in which they reside or on account of their having adopted the profession, perform sweepers work, when free. Anyone else may also volunteer to do this work, in no case, however shall a person, who is not a professional sweeper, be compelled to do the work.”
The rule, however, remains silent over the issue of consent for those from the “sweeper community”.
These rules are drafted essentially keeping the larger male population in mind and get replicated in women’s prisons too, in states where women-specific rules have not been formulated. In the absence of a woman prisoner from the “appropriate” caste groups, the Rajasthan prison manual says, “…two or three specially selected male convict Mehtars may be taken into the enclosure by a paid worker under the condition…” Mehtar is a caste name, denoting those engaged in manual scavenging as a caste occupation.
On medical workers, the manual says, “Two or more long- term prisoners of good caste should be trained and employed as hospital attendants.”
Across states, prison manuals and rules stipulate the labour that needs to be carried out on a daily basis. The division of labour is roughly determined on the dichotomous ‘purity-impurity’ scale, with the higher castes handling only work that is considered “pure” and those lower in the caste grid being left to carry out the “impure” jobs.
Consider the case of Bihar. The section titled ‘Preparation of food’ opens with this line: “Of equal importance is the quality, proper preparation, and cooking of the food and its issue in full quantity.” Further, detailing the measurements and cooking techniques in jail, the manual states: “Any ‘A class’ Brahmin or sufficiently high caste Hindu prisoner is eligible for appointment as a cook.” The manual further specifies, “Any prisoner in a jail who is so high caste that he cannot eat food cooked by the existing cooks shall be appointed a cook and made to cook for the whole complement of men. Individual convicted prisoners shall in no circumstances be allowed to cook for themselves, unless they are specific division prisoners permitted to do so under rule.”
Not just on paper
These are not mere words printed in an official book and forgotten. The caste practice ubiquitous in the Indian subcontinent manifests in more ways than one. Several prisoners who were approached shared their experiences of being segregated and pushed into doing menial jobs purely on the basis of the caste they were born into. While Brahmins and other high caste prisoners considered their exemption to be a matter of pride and privilege, the rest had only the caste system to blame for their condition.
“The jail tells you your right aukaad (status),” says Pintu, a former prisoner, who spent close to a decade at Jubba Sahni Bhagalpur Central Jail and a few months at the Motihari Central Jail. Pintu belongs to a ‘nai‘ or barber community, and throughout his stint in prison, he served as one.
The Bihar prison manual too formalises caste hierarchies in labour. For instance, it says for those assigned sweeping work: “Sweepers shall be chosen from the Mehtar or Hari caste, also from the Chandal or other low castes, if by the custom of the district they perform similar work when free, or from the caste if the prisoner volunteers to do the work.” All three castes fall under the Scheduled Castes category.
From time to time, prison manuals have gone through a few tweaks. Sometimes this was triggered by public outcry or the Supreme Court or a high court’s intervention; sometimes the states themselves felt the need for it. In most states, though, the issue of caste-based labour practices has been overlooked.
In some states, for instance Uttar Pradesh, “religious scruples and caste prejudices” are considered important for “reformative influences”. A separate chapter focusing on reformative influences in prison says, “Reasonable respect shall be paid to religious scruples and caste prejudices of the prisoners in all matters as far as it is compatible with discipline.” The prison administration holds sole discretionary power over the extent of the “reasonability and compatibility” of these prejudices. The “reasonability”, though, has only meant furthering blatant caste prejudices while assigning work and exempting some from harsh labour – both in male and female prisons.
The Madhya Pradesh Jail Manual, which was amended only a few years ago, continues with the caste-based assignment in conservancy work – the official term used for manual scavenging. The chapter titled “Mal Vahan” or conservancy states that a “Mehtar prisoner” would be responsible for handling human excreta in the toilets.
Identical practices find mention in the Haryana and Punjab state prison manuals and rules too. Selection of sweepers, barbers, cooks, hospital staff among others are all pre-decided as per one’s caste identity. If any prison faces scarcity of prisoners of a certain caste to carry out the requisite labour, prisoners are to be brought in from nearby prisons. However, no exceptions or changes in rules are mentioned in the manual.
When Sabika Abbas, a programme officer working with the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI), a non-governmental organisation working on prisoners’ rights, recently visited prisons of Punjab and Haryana, she said the blatancy of the practice shocked her. “Male and female prisoners alike shared their experiences of caste and caste-based labour work assigned to them. Some were compelled to carry out the work due to poverty and lack of financial support from their families. But these prisoners too were primarily from the backward caste groups,” says Abbas.
Her research, commissioned by the Legal Services Authorities of Haryana and Punjab, covers a plethora of issues plaguing the prison system. Abbas observes that even though pre-trial detainees are exempted from carrying out labour in prison, the prevailing system compels them to work. “In most prisons in both states, we observed that the posts for sweepers and cleaners were lying empty for years. It was understood that those menial jobs will be carried out by prisoners belonging to lower caste groups,” she observes. Unlike other state prisons which are still following the colonial prison rules, Abbas points to the amendments in the Punjab manual. “Punjab is relatively newer. It was last updated in 1996 but still did not do away with the caste-based provisions,” she adds.
West Bengal, perhaps the only state that makes special provisions for prisoners arrested in connection with “political or democratic movements”, continues to be just as regressive and unconstitutional as others when it comes to assigning labour according to caste. Similar to Uttar Pradesh, the West Bengal prison manual follows “non- interference with religious practices or caste prejudices”. Certain specific preferences are accommodated in the manual – a Brahmin wearing “sacred thread” or a Muslim desiring a certain length of trousers. But with that, the manual also states: “Food shall be cooked and carried to the cells by prisoner-cooks of suitable caste, under the superintendence of a jail officer.” Likewise, “Sweepers should be chosen from the Mether or Hari caste, also from the Chandal or other castes, if by the custom of the district they perform similar work when free, or from any caste if the prisoner volunteers to do the work.”
These practices have remained in the prison rule book but have gone unchallenged. Dr Riazuddin Ahmed, a former Inspector General of Prisons in Andhra Pradesh and former director of the government-run Academy of Prisons and Correctional Administration in Vellore, says the issue of caste has never been deliberated upon while making policy decisions. “In my career spanning over 34 years, the issue has never come up for discussion,” he says. Ahmed feels that clauses mentioned in the manual are mostly a reflection of the state’s attitude towards those incarcerated. “Prison officials, after all, are a product of the same caste-ridden society that exists outside. Regardless of what the manual states, it is entirely up to the prison staff to ensure dignity and equality of prisoners,” Ahmed feels.
Disha Wadekar, a Delhi-based lawyer and a vocal critic of the Indian caste system, compares prison laws with the regressive “laws of Manu”. A mythical figure, Manu is believed to be the author of the Manusmriti, which had sanctioned the degradation of humanity on the basis of caste and gender in ancient times.
“The prison system simply replicates Manu’s dandniti (laws). The prison system has failed to work on the normative penal system that is built on the tenets of ‘equality before the law’ and ‘protection of law’. On the contrary, it follows Manu’s law that is founded on the principles of injustice – a system that believed that certain lives are to be punished more than others and that some lives have more value than others. The states have stuck to the ascribed caste-based understanding of “justice” and decide on punishment and labour as per an individual’s standing in the caste grid,” explains Wadekar.
Indian states, barring West Bengal, have borrowed from the Prison Act, 1894. “Not just borrowed but also remained stuck there,” Ahmed adds. In 2016, the Bureau of Police Research and Development (BPRD) came up with an elaborate model prison manual. The model prison manual is aligned with international standards such as the United Nations Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners (UN Bangkok Rules) and the UN Minimum Standards for Treatment of Prisoners (the Mandela Rules). Both call for the repeal of practices that discriminate on the grounds of race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or any other status. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, propounded by the United Nations in 1977, to which India is a party, has clearly stated that: “No one shall be required to perform forced or compulsory labour.”
No desire for change?
Since prison is a “state subject”, it is entirely on the states to implement these changes suggested in the model prison manual. Acknowledging the problems in the existing prison manual of different states, the model prison manual states, “Management of kitchen or cooking of food on caste or religious basis will be totally banned in prisons.” Similarly, the model manual also bars any kind of “special treatment” to a prisoner on the basis of her caste or religion. In fact, the model prison manual lists “agitating or acting on the basis of caste or religious” as a punishable offence. But implementation of the model prison manual leaves much to be desired.
It is not as if state prison departments have not struck down inhumane and unconstitutional practices from the books. Goa did, so did Delhi, Maharashtra and Odisha. They specifically stated that caste won’t have any relevance in running prisons. Over the years, several inhuman practices like using fetters and whipping as a mode of punishment were done away with, so were caste-based occupations in some state prisons.
But did that weed out the caste practice entirely? “No,” says Lalita*, a former prisoner. Between 2010 and 2017, Lalita faced multiple cases in Mumbai and other parts of Maharashtra. While most of her incarceration period was spent in Byculla women’s prison, she was also taken to other prisons from time to time. The travel and interactions with other prisoners and prison officials gave her the opportunity to understand the carceral system in all its complexities.
Unlike the male prisoners, women are fewer in number and so are the provisions made available to them. Lalita was a fierce fighter in jail, demanding basic rights and dignity for herself and her co-prisoners. So, when women prisoners revolted against the prison authorities, demanding better food quality and more frequent supply of poultry and meat, Lalita was at the forefront.
Prison rules are plenty and prisons authorities quote them each time to prevent any intervention by prisoners and their legal representatives. But these official documents are seldom accessible to common people, let alone an incarcerated individual. “Nothing is more dangerous than an informed prisoner asserting her rights,” says Lalita.
Ahmed agrees with Lalita. And to explain the unavailability of the updated manual, Beluah Emmanuel, professor and a senior faculty at the Academy of Prisons and Correctional Administration in Vellore, says that on average, it takes at least 15 years for changes in the manual to reflect. “Each time states introduce any change to the manual, it is merely noted at the official level. The revision to the prison manual reflects only when it is reprinted once in 15 years. Finding all amendments at one place is practically impossible,” adds Emmanuel. The Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI), which has been working on prisoners’ rights for several decades, has been unsuccessfully trying to access updated prison manuals for a long time. “Only about 10 states have prison rules/manual on the state prison websites. It is extremely difficult to access updated rules of other states. In our experience, access to prison manuals is a challenge for prisoners as well. Ideally, all prison libraries must have a copy of the prison rules,” says Sugandha Shankar, a senior programme officer at CHRI.
A sadhvi in the mix
In Maharashtra, Lalita says, unwritten caste practice is rampant. Her stay in Byculla prison coincided with that of Pragya Singh Thakur, a prime accused in a bomb blast case of 2008 in Malegaon, a town in northern Maharashtra. Thakur, on her release in 2017, was inducted into the ruling Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) and later in 2019, became an elected member of parliament from her hometown, Bhopal.
At the time of her arrest, she was merely a self-appointed seer. That, however, did not stop her from growing her clout in prison, nor did it prevent her from influencing prison officials. Thakur was lodged in one of the three “separate cells”, which doubles up as both a “VIP cell” for the rich and influential seeking privacy, or in the case of erring prisoners, a torture or a solitary cell.
Outside the separate cell, three other undertrial prisoners, appointed as her ‘sevikas’ or attenders, would be placed to exclusively attend to Thakur’s command. One undertrial woman, from the same Thakur or “warrior caste”, was deputed to take care of her food. The trial court had granted Pragya permission for home-cooked food, after she accused the prison authorities of feeding her “worms” and “egg particles”. Her brother-in-law, Bhagwan Jha, would travel over 280 km every day, from Surat in Gujarat to Byculla prison, with a multi-decker food box. The freshly cooked home food would reach the jail before the crack of dawn, and the Thakur sevika would rush to collect it from the prison office. Her sole job was to serve Pragya food three times a day. Similarly, another woman, an alleged drug lord belonging to the dominant Jaat community, was appointed her “bodyguard”. A local Dalit woman had to clean her toilet.
Pragya’s religion, her caste location and her political clout determined her position in jail, as well as that of her attenders. Pragya sought their services as if they were her legitimate right – and the state appeared to agree. “It did not matter whether or not such provisions were permitted in the jail text. What matters is that this happened and with the complete knowledge of the jail staff,” Lalita says. Several other former prisoners who had spent time in jail around the same period too corroborated this practice.
Among 60 district and central prisons in Maharashtra, Byculla is the only exclusive prison for women undertrials, with a capacity to accommodate 262 prisoners. But at any given point in time, the numbers exceed the official capacity dramatically. Barring a few convicted prisoners, who are exclusively lodged here to take care of the day-to-day chores, most labour work is carried out by the undertrial detainees. Among them, the most vulnerable are Bengali-speaking Muslim women, who, invariably, end up in jail on charges of being undocumented immigrants who crossed over from neighbouring Bangladesh.
When a person is arrested, the outside world often snaps ties with them, fearing police action. Noorjahan Mandal*, a 33-year-old domestic worker from Mumbai’s Reay Road area, did not have a single visitor during the four months she spent in Byculla jail. “My family was too scared to contact me or even send me a money order. I had no money to even buy myself a small snack when hungry. I was entirely dependent on the menial work in jail to take care of myself,” says Mandal, a Dalit Muslim from a town in West Bengal bordering Bangladesh. She would sweep, mop and help aging women prisoners bathe. In exchange, she would earn a few canteen coupons.
Like her, in the five prisons located in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region (MMR), several Bengali-speaking Muslim prisoners end up doing menial work in lieu of some money or food items. “Both caste and poverty are an underlying factor here,” feels Lalita. “You won’t see any poor Brahmin woman ever being pushed to such a desperate situation in jail. Both the Indian state and the society is built in a way to support her. This ecosystem is missing for others.”
A prison mapped by caste
In the summer of 1994, a family fight broke out in a temple of a nondescript village in Tirunelveli district, Tamil Nadu. What had begun as a benign argument soon turned violent and led to the death of a young man. Selvam*, a man in his mid 20s, was one of the nine involved in the murderous attack. They soon surrendered before the local police. It was the first time Selvam had been involved in a criminal act. After spending a few days in a local sub-jail, he was moved to the larger Palayamkottai central prison in Tirunelveli. “I was there for close to 75 days,” he recalls. The prison, like any other carceral structure, had several wards and cells. “I was placed in ‘Quarantine Ward 2’,” Selvam says. ‘Quarantine’ is local lingo for undertrial cells in Tamil Nadu.
Four years later, Selvam was convicted and awarded a life term. He was sent to jail once again in mid 1998. “The prison now was a different place. Wards were newly named as per castes. Thevars, Nadars, Pallars, everyone had their separate structure dedicated for themselves in the undertrial section,” he recalls. Selvam belonged to the Kollar or blacksmith caste, a numerically small community in the southern districts of Tamil Nadu. “The prison authorities had identified a few castes as ‘warring castes” and decided to place them separately. The rest were placed as per their caste locations,” he explains.
These barracks are organised as per caste dominance. The Thevars, an Other Backward Class, yet dominant in the southern Tamil Nadu region, are placed closer to the jail canteen, library and hospital; next is the Nadar (also, an OBC caste) block and the farthest is the Pallar block, where prisoners from the Dalit community are lodged.
This practice, however, has remained primarily restricted to only the undertrial section, and segregation is not as restrictive in the convicted prisoners’ section. One plausible explanation is the relative access to the justice system of the undertrial prisoners when compared to those convicted. “Prisoners are dealt with severely by prison officials in jails. But prison officials are most often wary of using excessive force on the undertrial prisoners, since the chance of them petitioning the court is much higher. Convicts, on the other hand, don’t have access to courts or the outer world as easily, and the prison officials feel they can be brought under control more effectively. Hence, the difference in segregation rules,” says K.R. Raja, a lawyer and founder of the Global Network for Equality, an NGO working with the children of prisoners. Raja, a trained counsellor, has worked at Palayamkottai prison for over six years, meeting prisoners from across barracks and helping them cope with their anxieties in jail.
Raja has studied the Palayamkottai prison structure very closely. He connects the transition in the jail with the socio-political changes that took place outside around that time. “After all, prisons are just a reflection of the society outside,” he explains. In the mid 1990s, Tamil Nadu, more particularly the state’s southern districts, witnessed some of the most gruesome caste violence against Dalit communities. In June 1997, in Melavalavu village of Madurai district, six leaders from the Dalit community were hacked to death by caste Hindu Thevars, an OBC community with significant presence, following the village council presidency election. “A series of violent attacks had broken out in the Thoothukudi, Tirunelveli, Madurai and Dharmapuri region. The state government was finding it hard to control the dominant caste groups and as a knee-jerk reaction, they decided to segregate those incarcerated as per their caste,” explains Raja.
The practice continued for over a decade without any public outcry. And in 2011, R. Alagumani, a lawyer practicing at the Madurai bench of the Madras high court, moved a petition. “Since I preferred interacting with my clients directly, I would frequently visit jails. I still remember the first time I visited Palayamkottai to meet a prisoner named Murugan. I had very little information and was hoping that the jail guard finds the right person. When I mentioned Murugan, the guard asked me the person’s caste. I was bemused. I did not know Murugan’s caste and so, the guard could not help me find him either. That is when I realised that at the Palayamkottai, to meet a prisoner, his name and case history is not enough. You have to know his caste too,” Alagumani says.
The practice was unconstitutional, but had been institutionalised over the years. Alagumani decided to challenge it in the high court. He was hopeful the court would take note of it and an immediate intervention will be made. “Instead, the prison authorities claimed that they were helpless and segregation was the only way to ensure law and order in jail. The court accepted the affidavit and the case was disposed of,” Alagumani says. With that, a discriminatory act was passed off as the only “plausible way” to ensure peace in the society.
It is more about a matter of convenience, Alagumani argues. “Can the Indian state justify segregation and discrimination outside prison? How, then, is it justifiable in jails?” he questions.
While the practice in the Palayamkottai prison is more widely known, similar caste-based segregation is seen in other district and central prisons too, mainly in the southern region of Tamil Nadu. Madurai central prison, for instance, not just practices segregation, but is also accused of continuing caste-based labour practices in jail. The prison authorities notoriously assign cleaning work to only prisoners from the Dalit community. A petition challenging this practice, again filed by Alagumani, is pending before the Madurai bench.
The National Crime Records Bureau data has consistently pointed to the over-representation of Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and OBCs in Indian jails. However, barring a few anti-caste organisations, and individual lawyers like Alagumani and Raja, most rights groups have overlooked the caste realities of the carceral system in India. Research and advocacy campaigns largely focus on tangible violations. Violative practices like caste discrimination don’t make it to the discourse.
This, advocate Wadekar says, is also symptomatic of a graver problem of lack of representation of marginalised communities in positions of influence. “Almost all prisoners’ rights organisations and academics in India have shied from engaging with the issue of caste. When they do, it is treated like an addendum and not an integral part of the issue. Forced erasure of caste from the discourse on prisoners’ rights is unethical,” Wadekar says. How else can anyone explain the conspicuous absence of caste from the popular discourse around prisons and the carceral system in India, she asks.
*Some names have been changed for anonymity.
Article Notes: We would like to thank CHRI for giving us free access to their library and their collection of prison manuals. We are also thankful to advocate K.R. Raja for organising ex-prisoners’ interviews in Tamil Nadu and translating them from Tamil to English.