India: from segregation to labour, Manu’s caste law governs the prison system

In several states, prison manuals still dictate that labour within the prison should be assigned on the basis of caste.

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”.

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.”

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.

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.”

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.