A new rule restricting the number of books a prisoner can possess, at the high-security Viyyur Central Jail in Kerala’s Thrissur, has peeved inmates, including those pursuing education and research activities.
In a fresh order, the security officer of the correctional institution has said a prisoner cannot keep more than five books in his possession as “a book is a thing of security threat”.
Experts have denounced the decision stating that considering books as things that poses challenge to security and asking inmates to restrict the number of books in their possession violate the settled principles of law governing the rights of prisoners.
TK Rajeevan, an undertrial in Viyyur central jail, was arrested for alleged links with the banned CPI (Maoist) party. He was charged under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) and relevant sections of IPC for allegedly participating in a series of camps organised by CPI (Maoist) and its armed wing people’s Liberation Guerrilla Army (PLGA) in the Irulai forest of Nilambur in 2016.
Rajeevan, who has been in jail since his arrest on November 20, 2020, is currently engaged in academic research and needs to read as many books and periodicals relevant to his subject of research as possible, his lawyer Thushar Nirmal Sarathy has said. Rajeevan, in his complaint to the trial court, has alleged that even though a friend of his delivered 26 books including eight issues of Economic and Political Weekly on November 27, 2021 at the prison, the same were not passed on to him by authorities.
“According to the Kerala Jail and Correctional Services Act and subsequent rules, prisoners are entitled to have books from outside. The freedom to keep books and to read is a right entitled to prisoners since the time of the colonial rule which was upheld by the Constitution later,” reads Rajeevan’s complaint.
“A prisoner is not entitled to have all the fundamental rights enshrined in the Constitution, but the right to think, read and study is the same for a prisoner as that for an independent citizen,” it says.
During the pendency of the petition, the Security Officer at the Viyyur prison issued an order on January 6, 2022, further restricting the number of books that a prisoner can keep at a time.
“They did this even before his grievance was addressed. According to the order, prisoners cannot keep more than five books at a time. All the prisoners are instructed to surrender the books beyond this limit to the welfare officer. This is against all existing legal principles, even that established by the Supreme Court of India,” Sarathy said.
S Santhosh, the Deputy Inspector General of Prisons, justified the order of the security officer and said “a pile of books can be security threat” as “anything can be concealed in books.”
However, the judicial interpretation of the purpose of a book in jail is different. Nothing except knowledge can be concealed and delivered through books, according to a judgment by the Bombay High Court in 1963.
The freedom to read and keep an unrestricted number of books in jail is a legal right fought and won by late CPI leader AB Bardhan and former defence minister George Fernandes in 1963. Both Fernandes and Bardhan were in the central prison in Nagpur under various charges between 1962-1963. Both of them moved separate petitions of the same nature with a common request to the Bombay High Court demanding the right to keep unrestricted number of books in jail. The superintendent of jail had imposed an order on Bardhan, restricting the maximum number of books that he could keep at a time, at 12. In Fernandes’ case, an order was imposed, restricting the number of books in his possession to six. The court dismissed the arguments raised by the jail authorities and allowed the petitions, granting the petitioners the right to keep as many books as they wanted.
The court observed that a prisoner shall not be deprived of the liberty of thinking. “Of all the restraints on liberty of a civilised citizen, that on opportunity to knowledge, learning and pursuit of happiness is the most irksome and least to be justified. Improvement of mind, thought and knowledge is the eternal process and could not be reasonably thwarted but for exceptional and just circumstances. Power of detention cannot be equated to a power of regimentation of personal life, thoughts and habits,” the court ruled.
In the judgment, a division bench of the Bombay High Court comprising Justice Abhayankar and Justice VG Wagle cautioned that “books of undoubted erudition and universal praise have been written in prison cells.”
“It is an irony that the Left government in which Bardhan’s party is the second-largest ally is forgetting the principles set by their own leaders,” Sarathy said.