‘A Solitary Fan’: For Kashmiri Prisoners in Overcrowded Tihar, Delhi’s Summer Was Brutal Torture

Jul 9, 2024 | Brutality by Occupying Forces

South Asia Journal

Sukanya Shantha

Mumbai: “Now that the Indian state has exhausted every trick in the book to torture us, they have left our bodies to boil here,” a Kashmiri prisoner told his daughter in late June, during his weekly phone call from Delhi’s Tihar Jail Number 8.

The Kashmiri man has spent several summers in India’s prisons. But this year, he told his daughter, no previous experience compared to the ordeal of living in an overcrowded prison through the summer heat.

The national capital experienced an unprecedented heatwave this summer, with temperatures soaring up to 52° Celsius on some days in May. The extreme weather is believed to have claimed over 70 lives, with thousands falling ill from heatstroke and landing in hospitals.

But for prisoners, especially jailed Kashmiris facing prolonged incarceration for their political convictions, these conditions became extensions of the state’s brutal treatment of them.

The Kashmiri prisoner quoted above is one of eight men lodged together in one of the barracks in Jail Number 8 of Tihar. The prisoners sent multiple petitions to both the prison authorities and the courts seeking permission to buy air coolers during the summer. All these applications were turned down. Making matters worse, the prison authorities, he says, have placed bright high-voltage bulbs in the barrack. “These bulbs are not allowed to be turned off at any time, not even in the afternoon. With so many people packed together in one small room, with so little ventilation and the burning bulbs all across the room, the heat stays trapped inside,” the prisoner told his daughter, who spoke to The Wire.

The occupancy rate across the 16 prisons in Delhi is high, crossing over 450% in some prisons. In Jail Number 8, over 2,200 prisoners are lodged in a space meant to accommodate only 1,200, resulting in close to a 184% occupancy rate.

The condition is even worse in the barrack meant for women prisoners. In Jail Number 6, where women are lodged, Kashmiri women have been struggling summer after summer. Last month, Ahmed, a young Kashmiri man, took to social media to share the conditions of Kashmiri women inside Tihar prisons. His mother, Asiya Andrabi, a separatist leader, has been lodged in Tihar since 2018. His social media posts, Ahmed says, were a desperate attempt to “share with the world what the Indian state has been doing to Kashmiris facing incarceration for their politics.” His mother, who is in her 60s and suffers from multiple ailments including acute respiratory problems, found it “impossible to go on” in jail this summer, he says.

During their periodic video call in late June, Andrabi had wrapped her head with a wet towel. “The heat had given her a fever and the towel was all she had to cool herself down a bit,” he said. The sight shattered Ahmed. Like Andrabi, there are at least six to seven more Kashmiri women who are in the same situation in Tihar prisons amidst the excruciating heatwave.

“They said their skin was literally burning. My mother has been in prison for long, but I haven’t seen her so helpless before,” Ahmed told The Wire.

Every summer, as the temperature soars, Andrabi and other Kashmiri women appeal to the prison authorities and courts for facilities like air coolers, better ventilation, access to cooler water, and softer, airy clothing. Ahmed says their applications have been rejected each time. Ahmed also sent emails to the prison authorities and appealed on the National Prisons Information Portal, which allows space for grievances. “Earlier, the website would at least send out an automated acknowledgment. You don’t even get those automated emails anymore,” Ahmed said.

Over 1,000 kilometres from their homeland, Kashmiri prisoners do not get regular visitors. Weekly video calls are all they have to stay connected to their families. “But in June, when my brother called my mother, for the first time, she said she would not be making any calls for a while,” Ahmed said. The reason was that the distance between the phone booth and her barrack was too much for her to travel in the heat, Andrabi told her son. “She constantly feared she would suffer a heatstroke,” Ahmed added.

Several prisoners, including Andrabi, had requested that phone calls be allowed in the early hours when the heat is still bearable. But the jail authorities did not budge.

In Delhi, where close to 20,000 people are confined in prison spaces meant to accommodate just about 10,000, those with proper legal representation and wherewithal to influence prison authorities can access special provisions in jail. For instance, when alleged conman Sukesh Chandrasekhar petitioned the Delhi court for a cooler on medical grounds, the court granted him permission. This, despite multiple petitions, was not allowed to the Kashmiri men and women in jail.

The Wire tried contacting the Tihar prisons’ public relations officer multiple times but to no avail.

To ensure that prisoners’ rights are not violated, a few mechanisms are supposed to be in place, such as periodic visits by the superintendent of prisons, judges, and prison visitors. This basic system could help prisoners raise their concerns. Andrabi says none of these avenues are made available to Kashmiri prisoners.

Kashmiri prisoners lodged outside the Valley also run a risk to their lives. Musab, son of another Kashmiri prisoner Nahida Nasreen, said that his mother has been kept in solitary confinement ever since her arrest in 2018. But suddenly one day, she was moved to a common barrack. While solitary confinement can be oppressive and have an adverse impact on prisoners’ mental health, in extreme heat, it proves to be a better option, Musab said.

The barrack where Nasreen is currently lodged, he says, is “dimly lit with little or no ventilation.”
“The only source of cooling in the barrack is a solitary fan placed so high that it convects hot air from the ceiling. The hot air blowing from the fan is nauseating and has resulted in persistent headaches,” he told The Wire. His mother, Musab shares, has complained of headaches, fever, heat rash, and itchy blisters all over her body.

The women prisoners have had to pour water on their beddings to manage the heat – a move which while providing momentary relief, also led to other complications like skin infections. Musab shared that the ruthlessness shown in dealing with the Kashmiri prisoners felt as “if the authorities want them dead.”

“The pain she is in is excruciating, and it has taken a toll on her overall health due to the prison’s inadequate healthcare services. She is being refused a proper bed and medical mattress and is forced to sleep on the bare floor,” Musab told The Wire.

At the end of June, Delhi finally received the much-awaited rains, bringing the temperature down considerably. This, Ahmed says, is only a temporary relief. “The cases against my mother and most other Kashmiri prisoners are nowhere close to completion. This means they will spend many more summers in prison. And with every passing year, the heat is only going to get worse,” he said. Musab said that his family is in the process of moving court seeking judicial intervention into the issue.