Hard to believe that in this 21st century, and even after seven decades of our Constitution coming into effect, Rajasthan Prison had the rules that dictate the type of work supposed to be done by prisoners on the basis of their caste. This Act, framed during the British era, twelve decades ago, discriminated between prisoners on the basis of caste while delegating tasks such as cooking and cleaning in jail.
While it is a crying shame for entire India, the fact that Honourable High Court of Rajasthan took suo motu cognizance of this evil practice and reprimanded the government, has bolstered the trust in Indian Judiciary by upholding Article 15 of the Indian Constitution which prohibits discrimination on the grounds of caste. This resulted in a government order on 2nd February 2021 abolishing all labour allocation of the prisoners on the basis of caste in Rajasthan prisons. The law was titled “Rajasthan Prisons (Amendment) Rules, 2021”.
Rule 67 under Section 2 talks about the rules governing the “cooking of food” for the inmates and prison staff. Up until this amendment, the rule read as “any Brahmin or sufficiently high caste Hindu prisoner from this class is eligible for appointment as cook”.
This has been amended as “No inmate shall be selected for cooking on the basis of his caste or religion.”
Rule 13 of Section I of Part 10 covers the restriction on the employment of convicts as tradesman- This section of the rule earlier stated that “Barber shall be a non-habitual prisoner. Sweepers shall be chosen from among those who perform sweeper’s work by the custom of the district in which they reside. Anyone who is not a professional sweeper may also volunteer to do this work. However, the person who is not a profession sweeper shall not be compelled to do the work”.
After the aforesaid amendment, the section now stipulates that “No tradesman shall be chosen on the basis of his caste or religion.”
In addition, a division bench consisting of Justice Devendra Kachhawaha and Justice Sandeep Mehta of Rajasthan High Court had further directed the State Government to ensure maintenance of proper hygiene in the prisons, by installing mechanized/automated cleaning facilities in all the prisons of Rajasthan instead of using prisoners for this work.”
Rule 17, Clause (d) of Section 1 in Part 15 which defines a habitual offender as “any member of a criminal tribe subject to the discretion of the Government” has now been deleted.
The Chief Minister of Rajasthan also took this matter very seriously and directed the concerned authorities who helped amend the act within 20 days which was a record in itself.
The intervention of High Court followed by the Amendment by the State Government has come way too late, in fact after seven decades of our constitution coming into effect. The fact that High Court had to step in to amend such a derogatory, unconstitutional and utterly shameful prison rules has brought into light that this practice might still be prevalent elsewhere in India. This amendment should be an eye opener for the rest of the states in India and should be emulated with immediate effect. The sanctity of Article 15 of Indian Constitution which prohibits any kind of discrimination on the grounds of caste, religion, race, sex and death of birth has been restored with this amendment. While subtle discrimination in Indian villages by some are being noticed and overlooked often, the prevalence of such discrimination in the state machinery going unchallenged for several decades is detrimental to the very fabric of our Constitution.
The opacity of judicial remand hinders knowing the dreadful conditions in which punishments are delivered inside the enclosed spaces. Practices inside the prisons are merely a reflection of what is prevalent outside in the society. But people outside the prison at least have grievance redressal mechanisms, which is commonly denied to those in jail. These changes in rules will not ensure a change in mentality unless the state has a strict enforcement procedure in place and a stringent punishment for its violation, especially by the government machinery.
A prisoner does not cease to remain a human being even after punishment. Furthermore, the restraint on liberty imposed by law does not withdraw ones right to dignity enshrined under the Constitution of India. As per the Constitution of India and the Prison’s act, 1894, the prisoners are also entitled to basic human rights behind bars.
Despite this, only few states in India have formulated Acts or Rules which are finetuned or customized to suit the 21st century. Even the changes incorporated so far in various states have been too little in providing for the rights of the prisoners. The Courts have stepped in on several occasions to restore the rights of prisoners and recover the wrongdoings of the executive or legislature.
This article is written by Rakesh Behera, of Sambalpur University.