Forced confinement is loss of dignity, says Teesta Setalvad

The activist describes her incarceration at the Sabarmati jail, and the highs and lows of it all

September 11, 2022 06:57 am | Updated 12:26 pm IST - Mumbai

Human rights activist Teesta Setalvad. Photo: Special Arrangement

Human rights activist Teesta Setalvad. Photo: Special Arrangement

“Forced confinement, unfair unjust confinement made me feel a loss of dignity...” said human rights activist Teesta Setalvad, 60, who was granted bail by the Supreme Court last week after she was incarcerated in Sabarmati women’s jail for 63 days. She was arrested by the Gujarat Anti Terrorism Squad in a case of alleged forgery and preparation of false records after Godhra riots, a day after the Supreme Court gave a clean chit to then Chief Minister Narendra Modi in the riots. Ms. Setalvad talks about the condition of her barrack with 24 other women and seven children, and all the labour that women had to do inside the cell.

What was your routine like in prison?

The day would start around 5.30 a.m., half an hour before the barrack would open; the matrons would do their rounds to shake us awake with a call. Then, I would roll up the floor bedding, do the morning routine that included a half-hour to forty-minute walk. It was then time for the rotational barrack clean up, tea and maybe some nibbles from the “jail nasta”. Then, I would go to the library, which was rarely open and would shut at 12 noon. The day crawled as I tried to pack it with lots of reading and writing and it was difficult to get fellow undertrials to agree to keep lights on after 6.30 p.m.

There are Mondays and Friday rounds, where all the women undertrials from four barracks had to assemble, strictly at attention with our prison IDs in hand, in advance, as the Jailor comes. He moves around as we stand in silence ostensibly to record prisoner/undertrial grievances or complaints. Rarely do one-four people speak up: inquire about their cases, legal aid, being disallowed visits etc.

How would you describe the state of the cell you were in?

I was in the women and children (including pregnant women) barrack, barrack 6. It was reasonably clean, a state maintained by all of us together in rotation. Everything happened at the floor level — eating, sleeping, sitting, reading. There were 24 of us women and seven children while I was there.

What was the condition of the toilets and bathrooms?

There were toilets at the end of the cell and one bathroom outside the barrack. Keeping the toilets clean was a collective responsibility that had to be ensured. While once a day one of the women convicted prisoners did a cleaning job, the toilets and bathroom had to be cleaned several times a day. Issues like leaks in the toilet were, however, not promptly dealt with by the administration and staff despite repeated reminders.

Were medicines, sanitary napkins, access to doctors easily available?

There was a clinic/dispensary and a woman doctor available throughout the day. You are taken to the Sola Civil hospital if you put in a request for a dental procedure or anything else.

Was there enough clean water to drink and bathe?

Mostly, the water supply was alright. On the odd day, we had to wait for the motors to be put on as supply stopped. Ahmedabad water is heavily polluted; apart from that, the drinking water is not tested. On three occasions during my incarceration, when the RO stopped working, there were serious implications — stomach ailments for many of us.

How easy or difficult was it to access books in the library?

The Sabarmati Women’s Jail has a rather nice building called a “Study Centre”, which houses an 18-seater library. In the first fortnight, it was open from 8.30 a.m. to 11.30 a.m. and then again from 3.30 p.m. to 5 p.m. This was abruptly stopped in mid-July. As far as books are concerned, there are a fair number in Gujarati, fewer (very few) in Hindi and English.

How was the food served to you? How many times were you given it?

Jail food is rotis, vegetables, dal and rice. This is cooked by the women convicts, served at 9/9.30 a.m. and 5 p.m. A few of us got tiffins (from one of two vendors) that we shared with others. In fact the entire political economy of the jail appears to run on the hard labour (7 a.m. to 7 p.m.) of approximately 20 convicted women prisoners: the slogging, cleaning, cooking, paper work, the warden/orderly duty in barracks. For this hard work — almost slave labour — they are “paid” a pittance: ₹3,000 a month.

Could you easily make phone calls to family or lawyers? What was the procedure you had to follow?

There is a facility run on the paper coupon (when I first entered), which changed to a white ATM card mid-way that grants you/allows you to make one call of 4.45 minutes three times a week. This has to be on one of two pre-chosen numbers. There are not enough phones. The matrons allow these calls to be made only from 9 a.m. to 12 noon. However, most of the time the phones are not working or the pile up of demand is too high.

Was there a canteen you could go to? What were the items sold there and at what price?

The tea from the jail canteen (that) was available for ₹10 was preferred by many of us to the jail tea served inside. A “cart” was sometimes brought with packets of wafer and chivda for ₹10, washing powder, soap, hair oil, hair dye, shampoo pouches, coffee pouches, agarbattis. Stocks were sparse and availability completely ad hoc.

Did you feel a loss of dignity when you entered the Sabarmati jail?

Forced confinement, unfair unjust confinement means a loss of dignity. The constraints of living, physical and mental, hit you [when you are inside] and there is no way of getting out of it. After all that, human beings are survivors and you bond with others, build relationships, even if these are tenuous, find strength in the postcards and letters that creep through the strong arms of the state — I got over 2,500 such from all over the country, some from abroad — and carry on. There are women undertrials who have been there for eight years...this is a travesty of justice. What was truly humbling, at least for me, was how the whole barrack celebrated bail, which means freedom for one of the fellow inmates. These are not days that one can easily forget or live down..

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