Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Securing Indian jails against Naxal threats

As the country grapples with growing law and order problems in one form or the other, the Naxals have been systematically escalating their fight against the so-called bourgeois Indian state. They have found new ways to organize themselves and make their presence felt.

Today, they are not only better-motivated and better-organized, but also better-trained and better-equipped against an ill-motivated, and poorly trained and equipped police force. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has termed the Naxalite insurgency as the single greatest threat to the country's internal security.

The Central government is busy coordinating with the affected state governments to work out a synergized policy to deal with the Naxal menace, including the formation of a specialized anti-Naxal force. However, the Naxals seem intent on upping the ante and taking the fight to higher levels as apparent from their recent drive to freeing their comrades lodged in different jails of the country.

There have been a string of incidents recently where the Naxalites have attacked jails in different parts of the country and succeeded in freeing a good number of hardened criminals (read Maoists) booked for waging war against the Indian state.

What initially appeared to be a one-off incident/accident seems to be have become a regular feature and reflects very poorly on the prison security system. While earlier jailbreaks used to be examples of dare-devilry by individual prisoners, the Maoists seem to be making it a habit, and now executing it in a well-planned and coordinated manner, highlighting serious lapses in the policing and prison systems.

In the celebrated Jehanabad jailbreak of November, 2005, about 1,000 well-armed Naxalites not only successfully managed to set free 341 prisoners lodged in that jail, but also succeeded in killing several Ranvir Sena men and cops.

Again in March 2006, about 200 armed Naxalites raided a jail in Gajapati town in Orissa and succeeded in freeing more than 40 prisoners after an extended encounter. In March 2007, there was a jailbreak in Nizamabad in Andhra Pradesh in which 72 under-trials, including Naxalites, escaped from the district jail. in December, 2007 when some 300 insurgents and their supporters were freed by Naxalites during a mass jailbreak in Chhattisgarh.

In the same month, hundreds of agitating Maoist inmates also took control of the inner wing of Patna's high-security Beur jail, protesting against alleged ill-treatment by jail authorities. Besides these jailbreaks, there have been regular reports of recovery from the inmates, of huge caches of arms, cash, mobile phones and other such items.

It only points to lax security inside the jail, and connivance and collusion by the jail staff. All these facts taken together underline the ills afflicting the Indian prison system. It also drives home the point that not only are initiatives needed for ensuring security inside jails, but there is also a need for better training and infrastructure for prison personnel to tackle such threats from any quarters including Naxalites.

The various security measures for preventing such jailbreaks include the installation of a bio-metric system of access control as recommended for installation in the nine prisons of the Tihar jail complex by the S K Cain Committee. In this system, the fingerprints of all the prisoners and jail staff is saved in a database and entry and exit from the complex will be permitted only if the fingerprints are matched.

This system should be installed in all jails across the country without exception. Besides, simple security measures like installation of closed-circuit cameras, metal detectors and automatic security lock systems should also be considered for better security of our jails and to pre-empt such daring jailbreaks as seen in recent times.

Manpower shortages have been the bane of the Indian prison system and needs to be addressed up for better prison management and security. If the state is really serious about improving the law and order and justice system, then it really needs to do some hard thinking about all these issues. India cannot hope to tackle the Naxal threat with a ramshackle prison security system. 

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