Published in Frontier, 28 August 1971
There was much hue and cry — termed by a local newspaper as “wide public resentment” over the firing in Patna Jail on July 7 and in Hazaribagh Jail on July 25 in which 2 and 17 prisoners were killed respectively.
At both these places the killings were attributed to alleged “jail-breaking” attempts by Naxalite prisoners.
In Patna Jail there was a scuffle between the prisoners and the jail staff over the death of a convict — described by the jail officials as a suicide case. However, it was alleged in the Assembly that the convict did not kill himself.
Following the death of the fellow prisoner, the prisoners, in a riotous mood, allegedly damaged the office records, burnt the grain godown, damaged the central observation tower and ransacked the carpentry and iron-smithy shops of the jail.
In the melee ten prisoners including, five Naxalites, escaped. (Later on, a CPI-ML wall-poster claimed that “they are safe among the masses.”)
Indiscriminate firing started (about 150 rounds were fired) in which two prisoners were killed and 42 wounded. And as usual, the prisoners — especially the Naxal boys –were taught a good lesson.
There was a heated discussion in the State Assembly and the Chief Minister was compelled to order a judicial inquiry into the episode.
But what happened in Hazaribagh Central Jail on the evening of July 25 was “a case of coldblooded murder”– as a Patna daily called it. The newspaper commented: “It is for the first time in Independent India that so many prisoners have been killed in a firing inside the jail without any policeman or warder or any other jail official losing his life. It is also significant that no prisoner escaped from the jail. No gate was broken. There is no indication that any damage was done to the jail walls.”
The story, as gathered from various sources, goes like this: At about 3 p.m. some Naxalites attempted break out. According to the jail officials, they exploded 15 bombs — later the number was brought down to a reasonable four — in their bid to escape. They were fired upon which quelled them down.
But this was not enough. The jail authorities let loose the hardened criminals supported by warders on the Naxalites. This, said the Deputy Commissioner of Hazaribagh, was in accordance with Rule 366 of the Jail Manual according to which “the convict prisoners could assault fleeing prisoners to maintain discipline within the jail premises. They could even use weapons except firearms to face such a situation.”
Later, the preliminary enquiry conducted by the same D.C. revealed that 13 Naxalites died as a result of the operation of Rule 366 of the Jail Manual, The report said that only four out of the 17 Naxalites killed died in the firing and the remaining 13 from “other types of injuries caused by convicts and officers.”
So, the 109 rounds fired in the jail proved less fatal than Rule 366 of the Jail Manual. A deeper enquiry into the episode confirms this opinion. All the 27 injured Naxal prisoners undergoing treatment in the jail hospital had received bullet injuries. It means that all those who had received “other types of injuries caused by convicts and officers” died instantaneously.
The Chief Minister, Mr Bhola Paswan Shastri, was happy over the West Bengal way of tackling the Naxalite problem and he lost no time in declaring that the firing was “certainly justified”– even before a departmental investigation was held.
After visiting the jail for 90 minutes he came to the unavoidable conclusion that the prisoners deserved to be murdered by the jail authorities. Congratulating those criminals who helped the authorities in “quelling the Naxalite attempt”, he further disclosed that his Government was thinking of rewarding these ‘lawful’ criminals.
As expected, these ‘reactionary’ statements of the Chief Minister evoked wide resentment among the leaders of the leftist brand. Almost all the ‘left’ parties demanded a judicial inquiry into the episode, in whose absence, a fire-eating MLC of the JSP threatened, it would be treated as “a plot to kill the Naxalites.”
But the Chief Minister would not yield. He instead ordered two official inquiries –one by the Commissioner of Chotanagpur and the other by Mr S. V. Sohni, additional member of the Board of Revenue — both of almost the same rank.
Pleading for judicial inquiry, a Patna newspaper wrote: “Nearly three weeks ago when there was firing in Bankipore Central Jail, in which two persons were killed, the Bihar Government took a few hours’ time to decide that a judicial inquiry should be held into the incident. In the case of Bankipore Central Jail the prisoners did actually break jail and some actually escaped. In the case of Hazaribagh Central Jail there was no jail-breaking…If the legislature had been in session, the CM could not have treated the grave development so lightly.”
What the outcome will be of the official inquiry — being held in camera — in the light of the Chief Minister’s unequivocal verdict — the firing is “certainly justified” can be easily imagined. Is there any bureaucrat with enough courage to come to a different conclusion?
Frontier, 28 August 1971