What happened to Manjula Shette? The routine torture of women in India’s prisons

Manjula Shette

Manjula Shette spent about ten years in prison, in India. By all accounts, she was a model prisoner. Most of her time, Manjula Shette spent at the notorious Yerwada Prison, located in Pune, in the state of Maharashtra. There, she worked as a jail warden, which meant advocating for fellow prisoners and keeping the peace. This year, she volunteered to be moved to the notorious Byculla Jail, in Mumbai, where, among other issues, she found she was forced to work round the clock. According to family members and inmates at Byculla, Manjula Shette was very popular with the other inmates. On the morning of June 23, Manjula Shette complained that two eggs and five pieces of bread were missing from the morning rations. She was taken to an office, beaten up, deposited back in her cell, there further beaten and tortured in the presence of other prisoners, taken to hospital, and died. Later reports suggest she was already dead before she was taken to hospital. Byculla Jail prisoners erupted and occupied the jail, taking control of the rooftop and calling for justice. All 291 women have been charged with rioting and assaulting officers. Six officers are under investigation. While some are shocked, many say that what happened to Manjula Shette is an average day in India’s women’s prisons and jails. In other words, nothing really happened. No one, in this instance named Manjula Shette, was murdered by the State.

In March 2017, the Mumbai High Court formally declared that Yerwada, Byculla, and Arthur Road Jails were hellholes, and that they had to be cleaned up … by May. This decision came as part of a three-year inquiry into the conditions in these three notorious Maharashtra jails. No positive changes emerged from the High Court pronouncement. Further, those prisoners who were prominent advocates were targeted for retribution.

And Manjula Shette is dead.

According to Raja Bagga, of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, or CHRI, “Every three days, there is a death in a Maharashtra jail.” Death stalks Maharashtra’s women’s jails and prisons, as does custodial rape, extreme overcrowding, lack of adequate food, and a generally toxic environment and living, and dying, conditions. Byculla is supposed to have maximum 165 women. Currently 291 women are housed there, and that offsets the overcrowding at the Arthur Road Jail. Discrimination against women is common, and for women of various minority groups, the treatment is worse. The vast majority of women in jails are awaiting trial, and many have been for a long time.

Sanjoy Hazarika, the director of Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, added that Shetye’s death reflected the “internal rot and impunity” that characterizes India’s prisons and jails. The CHRI is calling for immediate measures to open the prisons to monitoring, as a first step. While that first step would be welcome, it does not address the calculus of rot and impunity. In India, prisoners are treated viciously because they are viewed as rot. That’s why a popular prisoner, a prisoner advocate, must be eliminated, and the elimination must be visible and spectacular. What happened to Manjula Shette? Absolutely nothing. What will happen to the prison system, as distinct from the individual prison guards? Absolutely nothing. Why is India’s women prison and jail population growing at astronomical rates? To grow the national economy. The increased and intensified torture of women in India’s prisons and jails is a key element of national development. Who will remember Manjula Shette a year from now? Her family and the women prisoners who, for a brief moment, took control of the Byculla Jail. That’s it. What is the market value of a woman prisoner’s life? Two eggs, five pieces of bread.

And Manjula Shette is dead.

Byculla Jail women prisoners occupy the roof, demand justice

 

(Photo Credits: The Hindu)

About Dan Moshenberg

Dan Moshenberg is an organizer educator who has worked with various social movements in the United States and South Africa. Find him on Twitter at @danwibg.