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Jails are criminal dens; but who cares?
Of the three proponents, the main one has gone back to where she belongs. The second, who blew the whistle about the first’s alleged shenanigans is minding road rules. The third, who was the target of the whistleblower, was asked to go on leave as a ‘punishment’ and when, in two months, his retirement date arrived was allowed to go home with all benefits in tact.

That is the story of the Parappanna Agrahara central jail on the outskirts of Bangalore where late J Jayalalitha’s lifetime aide Sashikala Natarajan is lodged and will remain for a few more years. With neither her money power nor claimed ill health winning her parole or transfer to a safe haven behind bars in her own state, she had to make the best of the bad bargain. And she did. As things settled into place in due course and with due inducements, she got a corridor to herself and won back the luxuries she was used to. However, the latest episode in her notorious political life has come as a shocker to the political establishment in her temporary home. The response of Karnataka’s Congress government headed by Siddharamiah has been bureaucratic. He ordered the transfer of both protagonists, hoping the issue will go out of public gaze. It is a knee-jerk reaction that can cause it more harm in the coming months leading up to the Assembly elections due by the summer of 2018. The government missed an opportunity to order reform of the jail administration. 

First the facts: whistleblower and deputy inspector general (prisons) D Roopa made public an explosive letter she said she had written to the government where she had recorded hearing reports that Bengaluru DG (prisons) H N Suryanarayana Rao and other prison officials had accepted bribes of Rs 2 crore from Sashikala for granting preferential treatment to her in the jail premises. Unauthenticated video clips telecast by a few local channels showed Sashikala enjoying an entire length of corridor with several cells blocked off for herself and her kin and fellow inmate 

Ilavarasi. This was weeks ago and now surfaces another video which purportedly showed Sashikala and her sister-in-jail returning from a stroll outside the jail and in non-uniform. DG Rao rejected the allegation saying, “forget taking money. I have not accepted even a biscuit from anyone.” An inspection visit to the jail by Roopa led to demonstrations by the inmates who took sides and indulged in violence. Forced to act, the government transferred out both prison officials, with spokesmen declaring that the whistle blower was not being penalised and that she was being given more responsibility: to deal with traffic and road safety, apparently quite an onerous job in the chaos that is Bangalore traffic. Rao was asked to go on compulsory leave. There were other “transfers” too: about 30 inmates, said to have voiced support for DIG Roopa, were taken out of Parappanna Agrahara and lodged in jails at different district centres. The reason cited by officials was quite plausible: to save them from revenge attacks by other inmates and angry officials. An official enquiry is on to ascertain the truth and check the veracity of the allegations.   


Reforms are a lost cause

The Agrahara episode offers several lessons. The first and foremost is the never-officially-acknowledged need for urgent prison reforms, apparently a subject of least importance for the political class. For a brief while, there was national media focus when the former Indian Police Service officer Kiran Bedi (now attempting to clean up the Union Territory of Puducherry),  talked of the pathetic conditions in Tihar Jail in Delhi and sought to change the approach to correction and rehabilitation. Tihar benefited but then everyone forgot about prisons, the proverbial underbelly of society. Several commissions have drafted reform proposals but these have never received any priority from any of the political parties It is jungle raj inside the jail. 

Secondly, and more importantly for the democratic polity and civil society and the media, state governments must initiate steps to provide statutory protection for the whistle-blower. Ironically, while Chief Minister Siddharamiah was proclaiming that he had ordered an enquiry into the corruption charges against top prison officials, the Karnataka High Court was frowning on the government for its failure to submit a report to the court on the policy framed for protection of whistle blowers. The court-fixed deadline remained unhonoured. 

Three centuries ago, French novelist Honore de Balzac wrote that police was synonymous with power, whoever ruled in Paris, the seat of government. They knew their power and would never hesitate to wield it. As for police, so for jail police, apparently. 

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