Shamim Modi is an assistant professor at Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), and is also an activist working in Harda, Betul and Khandwa districts of Madhya Pradesh. She was arrested on February 9, 2009. She narrates her 23 days spent in jail, explaining how basic needs are not met and humiliations are part of almost each passing day. She strongly believes that there is a lot that Soni Sori would like to speak about, about the way she is being (ill)treated in jail in Chhattisgarh.
Modi's narrative is essential because it tells us about the ways in which jails attempt to kill the inmates' every shred of human emotions, as has been visible with the way Soni Sori is being tortured.
Here is the complete transcript of Shamim's words:
My name is Shamim Modi. I am associated with Shramik Adivasi Sangathan and Samajwadi Jan Parishad, working in the districts of Betul, Harda and Khandwa districts of Madhya Pradesh since the last 18-19 years, for the. We work for rights of people, mostly adivasis. I can understand and feel all that is being discussed today about the way Soni Sori is being treated in jail, because even I was implicated in several false cases fabricated by the Madhya Pradesh government. They shifted me from Harda jail to Hoshangabad jail, because they knew that since I was popular in Harda, they wouldn't be able to harass me the way they preferred. I can empathise with Soni Sori because I faced similar harassment and torture at Hoshangabad jail. There is constant humiliation and if they decide, they can ensure torture every minute.
They would sometimes hang an inmate upside down, or not allow her to sit down. Strip search is very common, in case one is carrying a pen. They consider the pen to be such an ammunition! The police personnel wouldn't do anything by themselves, but would give utmost freedom to other inmates and convicts with the simple words, "Straighten her". And going by my experience of how they tried to "straighten me", I can well imagine what they must be doing to Soni Sori.
They are very creative about finding new ways and methods of humiliation. They would tell something like, the inmate needs to be taken outside the jail for a pregnancy test. I told the jailer to just do a urine test; what's the need for a test through intrusive methods? But they wouldn't agree, stating that this was not the rule. I later learnt that the police personnel at the jail feel that once outside the jail, the inmates are not their responsibility and they are free to do anything under which they cannot be held liable; whereas the truth is that under jail custody, the inmates' well-being is completely the responsibility of the jail staff. So they took around 8 women together and I was with the group too. People in the area had known about my arrest and so they were quite inquisitive about it. Yet, they took us to the OPD which only had sliding doors and windows and no curtains, and we were examined in a gynecological manner. When we protested, the guards were called in to strip us. And we were stripped.
One of the biggest issues is that the general public doesn't know that even the jail inmates have certain rights. Because they are not aware, they think that the inmate being ill-treatment is something that he/she deserves. This makes it very difficult to mobilise support from the general public for the rights of jail inmates.
I have been part of people's movement since so many years now and that does toughen up people like us. We are prepared for anything. Then all we have to do is just console our own selves when the torture begins. It begins with not allowing us to meet our visitors or that we will be charged under the National Security Act. We have to explain why certain things are published in the media. How am I supposed to know how were newspapers publishing their articles? But they still demanded an explanation as to how did the news "leak" that I was being tortured inside the jail. There was also a tendency to feel that if our colleagues/compatriots were doing something outside, I would be made answerable to it within the jail.
There were women in the jail accused of chain snatching. There were adivasi women who had made a small hut but arrested for occupying the forest and her jail custody extended repeatedly. These women cannot voice their concerns when they are in jail. Once they are out, they still do not want to talk. Tell me, how many women who would be released from the jail would want to fight for against the ill-treatment meted out to jail inmates and to ensure their rights? It seemed tough to get the women inside the jail to feel strong and demand their rights. Outside, people were not being mobilised because they do not know and cannot see what is happening inside the jail. The police tortures people in public view. Just imagine what they are capable of doing behind the closed doors of the jail! Despite public criticism, one cannot really deter them from what they want to do.
I encouraged the women to speak up and give their testimonies on the ill-treatment being meted out to them, and they did so too. I was suggesting to them that when they would be produced in the court after 15 days, they could put forth their views. But the moment they reached the jail, the guards threatened them saying that I would be left off soon and then the rest of the women would have to fend for themselves with them (the jail personnel).
There was a 55-year-old woman inside the jail who was mentally disturbed and felt guilty about her crime. In the middle of the night, the other jail inmates would get her to stand up and then strip her naked. It was so humiliating for me to even see this. I told the jailer that since I am a clinical psychologist, I can see that the woman was mentally disturbed and that she needs medical help. The jailer, "Give her two rough slaps and she will be fine." This is the only way in which women jail inmates are treated. The first step towards punishing a woman inmate is to strip her, which is why women keep mum inside. There is not a shred of human rights inside the jail; you are not allowed to feel human. And anything can be possible.
Some people say that all the noise about the way Soni Sori is being tortured is exaggeration. I don't feel it is an exaggeration; I believe it is being "under-reported". She would be going through much more, and there would be things which she wouldn't be able to tell. I know what could be possibly happening to her.
Later the women inmates told me, that as soon as I had entered the jail, they had got orders from outside to "straighten" me. Those who are given the mandate to do this pour out all their pain and agony and emotions on that new inmate who has to be "straightened". So if you want to survive in the jail, then there is just one way in which you can survive in the jail: disconnect your body entirely from your emotions. You have to forget all your socialisation processes, else you won't be able to survive.
I have been to the jail several times; but that was with about 50-100 people, during protest movements. But that is a completely different scenario, because then you are kept in custody in a group for just a day or two, in a large hall. So that doesn't really explain well about all that goes on inside the jail, and they are very deft at hiding that reality. So even when I was in jail custody by myself, and if there were inspectors coming in, then every such thing would be hidden away which shouldn't be there in the first place. Now I realise that the inspectors would not be able to detect anything because they don't know where to look.
Rotis are dried so that they can be used as fuel to light the stove. Plates are somehow bent so that food can be cooked in them, and the jailer is well aware of all this.
Other than stripping naked, there are other ways of torture. They will show a tiny dark room which hasn't been cleaned and infested with insects. They threaten to pour jaggery water over the naked body and leave the inmate in the room naked, through the night.
The stress hence builds up over a period of time. Circumstances are such that one is not even told about the charges under which the jail custody has been granted. I was told constantly that I would be slapped with the charges under the National Security Act and nobody could me without the permission of the District Collector. This means we really do not know what is happening outside.
My son was suffering from jaundice and I was yearning for at least some news. It is not that people cannot visit or meet under-trials, but I was told that upon the orders od politicians, I should not be allowed to meet anyone. In fact, the jailer also told me that his own phone was tapped. So even if he got me to speak to my ill son, a minister would get to know about it and that would be bad.
My bail plea was rejected because of the cases under which I had been arrested -- dacoity, loot, kidnapping, kidnapping with the intention to murder. I was sure that I would be out on bail because they were all evidently false and frivolous cases. I mean, how could I possibly commit dacoity? But somehow, the local court was managed and my bail plea was rejected. When they shifted me overnight, that's when I understood that they had the malafide intention of harassing me in jail.
Rats run all over the body, nibble on the feet. In the morning if there are blood stains on the floor, then all the inmates check each others' feet to see whom did the rat bite the previous night. There are electricity cuts of about 16 hours in Hoshangabad. So when we are eating food in the dark, rats woul come to the plate, snatch the roti and walk away, while we would just watch. What does one do?
Harda jail is infested with rats. We would sleep with a sheet over us and the limbs of rats would get entangled in the hair -- there is nothing that can be done. We told the jailer to do something about the rats. He replied, "This is a jail madam; not a five-star hotel." I asked him to show the jail manual, stating that if it mentions that inmates should be bitten by rats, then we would agree to what he says. I told him to at least give us mosquito nets. If not for the mosquitoes, then at least it would keep the rats away. But they said that the nets were not allowed too; if the politicians got to know that we were being given nets then their jobs would be at risk. So we slept through the nights that way. I was really afraid of rats then -- I do not fear them now, after having been desensitised for the 23 days inside the jail.
When in Harda jail, cops came in 2 vehicles in the middle of the night and took me away. I asked them for the time and where were they taking me; they asked me to keep mum and walk with them. I ws convinced that they would kill me in a fake encounter because of these discreet ways. Somehow I found some piece of paper; I always hid a pn with me. I scribbled, "I don't know where am I being taken"; signed it and dropped it on the road when the vehicle began to move, hoping that at least it would reach somebody and it would be read. Later I got to know they were taking me to Hoshangabad jail (about 90 kms away) and there they instructed the inmates to "straighten" me. They would search bags and the body outside, and then check again inside.
But inside, it was a different story. Of the 32 inmates, some of them would be scared, but there would be about 20 of them who were really cruel. They pour out their aggression against the system on the new inmate to be searched. One of them snatched the bag and overturned it. Everything -- sanitary towels, clothes, undergarments -- everything would be thrown away and would get soiled in the mud. Then 2-3 women would pounce on the clothes worn. Somebody would pull out the knot of the string of the salwar (pants); someone who put their hands inside the undergarments; someone would pull out the kurta. They can do anything. I asked them back if this was the way that they conduct search. They would reply that the CO (convict officer) would explain how searches are done, who would order, "Go get a baton and strip her naked and show her how searches are conducted inside the jail." Then I felt that it was strategically best to stay quiet. Until when can one fight? And if the inmates themselves collect themselves together, then there is hope. But I would scream out and say that I had spent my entire life for people like them, fighting for their rights, so please do not behave with me like this. But at that point of time they are consumed by some kind of force whereby they cannot listen to anything.
I also felt that when an under-trial comes in and later leaves the jail, the other inmates are made to keep that under-trial's belonging. One reason for this is that they know that the person will get released, so that translates into some sort of an anger. The other factor is that they want to know what things is the inmate carrying, which they can order her to leave behind later. They also might be feeling that educated women would be carrying some cash which they could keep to themselves. Some do this to command their own authority. For 2-3 days I was very stressed. As an activist, we are ready for everything; even dying. But a humiliation of this kind, every day, every hour -- "Sit down", and then moments later, "Why did you sit, woman? Stand up!" -- and the extremely rude, obscene language gets suffocating.
I was arrested suddenly, with cops entering my room forcefully and catching hold of me, without telling me the charges levied on me, not letting me to know about my child's well-being, no knowledge whether my husband and colleague has been arrested, what they could be doing to him if he has been arrested too.... all of this aggravated my health (I am hypertensive since the last 20 years). I began to develop chest pain and anxiety. I said that I needed to see a doctor. But they gave me a tablet of Sorbitrat to chew and assurance that this will be enough. If a doctor came by in the evening, then I could get a check-up. I was on medications for high blood pressure and I was bot able to take them. So when the doctor arrived in the evening, it was found that my pressure had shot higher and that it was fine by then. When I was produced in the court on the 15th day, I told the judge to instruct the jail personnel to provide me with pen, paper, reading material and my medicines.
I was hoping that no matter how many days, months, years I would be in the jail, I shouldn't fall ill. Thirty-five women sleep in the space meant for 15, and most of them have gynaecological problems. During periods, they are not given any cloth or sanitary towels. So whatever they can lay their hands on -- damp, dirty blankets, or any other rotten material -- they use that. Everybody suffers from vaginal white discharge. Some adivasi women from the villages wear the 9-yard saree. They use the same saree as a sanitary towel; they use one end of it and wash it and dry it, and then use the other end. So the same saree which they are wearing is being also used as a sanitary towel. The question of personal space doesn't even arise. There is just one toilet which doesn't have a door. The new inmates get the space next to the toilet; the "seniors" sleep in a corner away. Within that packed confines, where someone is suffering from diarrhoea or another is suffering from vaginal white discharge, we have to live. There is nobody to who would listen to the agony. We are not humans anymore. I think people who have been in the jail for long periods of time are convinced themselves that they are not humans.
Some people I know brought papayas for me later because they know I like it. But when it reached me, all I got was its pulp in a polythene bag. When I asked about it, I got the reply, "There could be arms and ammunition inside the papaya." They were constantly inventing new methods for harassment. I asked them how could arms and ammunition get inside a papaya? They replied that it had happened so once earlier! So why couldn't they just cut it and check its inside, inside of making its pulp with the hands? They do so, so that the inmate cannot eat it. Later I realised that the things that were being sent for me reached the jailer's house. They never reached me. This happens to all the inmates.
When I was produced in the court on the 15th day, I asked the judge that at least some good cloth should be provided for the women to using when they menstruate. But they did not do so. They brought sanitary towels worth Rs 500; nobody could use them because they had no undergarments to wear!
Everything is a big farce inside the jail and we should do something about it."