Indian Prime Minister Calls for International Treaty on Prison Space

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi has called on world leaders to consider an ‘International Treaty on Sharing Prison Space for Sustainable Development’. In a special address telecast worldwide today, he said that given the rapid increase in incidents of dissent across the world, countries like India were facing a severe shortage of jails. While, he said, India as a ‘mother of democracy’ was fully committed to civil rights and freedoms, this could not be at the cost of development. In particular, he stressed, the activities of corporations that were bringing the world so many goods and services, and employing more and more robots who would otherwise be unemployed, were being hampered by misled activists and trouble-makers. He also remarked that due to the absolutely necessary changes countries like India had to bring into labour and environmental laws, for ‘ease of doing business’ that the global economy required, many previously legitimate forms of worker and citizens’ protest were now illegal. Indeed, he said, his government was discussing with several other world leaders how dissent itself, of any kind, can be criminalized, since it hampers corporate profit-making that is so essential to economic growth. All this necessitated much more prison space than was available in developing nations like India, he concluded. 

While the above appeal by the PM was made orally in an address telecast across the world this morning, he has reportedly also written to some key heads of state. While the contents of these letters are not fully disclosed, sources close to the PMO, on condition of anonymity, said that two recipients are US President Joe Biden and Turkish premier Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Reportedly they have been asked if space is available in the high-security Guantanamo Bay prison (USA), and the İmralı island (Turkey), respectively. The latter is where Kurdish activist and ideologue Abdulla Öcalan has been imprisoned by the Turkish state for nearly 25 years; apparently the Indian government is very impressed with this long record of keeping a high-profile prisoner, and would like to see if one particular Opposition party leader can be sent there. The same sources said that South Africa’s Robben Island prison, where the late Nelson Mandela was held for nearly two decades, was earlier also on the radar of the Indian government. But it discarded the idea due to the current South African ruling party’s inability to maintain discipline in its own ranks and on the nation’s streets (not, it seems, because of the prison’s controversial history of holding Mandela). 

The same sources also said that a highly controversial ‘development’ proposal for a port-airport-township-shipping facility on Great Nicobar, includes a hidden component of converting the Cellular Jail at Port Blair into a high-security facility. Once ready, this will be another favoured destination for political prisoners. Reportedly the Committee to Saffronwash History, a relatively little-known but powerful entity within the RSS, has been commissioned to erase any erroneous records that this prison was used by the British to incarcerate India’s freedom fighters, since using a facility with such a connection may be considered distasteful. This includes changing odious and erroneous references to this prison as ‘Kālā Pānī’ (black water), to ‘Kala Pānī’ (crafty water). It is also believed that the Cellular Jail may be a stop-over for the most high-profile political dissenters, before they are sent to one of the other more secure prisons in the world, which may be one of the reasons for the proposed airport at Great Nicobar.

The Indian government is also said to be preparing a note to petition the United Nations to include the expansion of prison space and capacity as a crucial indicator in the UN Sustainable Development Goals framework. In particular, Goal 11 about making settlements more ‘inclusive’ and ‘safe’ would be met, as dissenters would not be excluded from prisons, and the outside society would be safe from them. Also Goal 8, to ensure economic growth, and Goal 9 about industrialization and infrastructure, would be easier to meet once blockages by dissenters are removed. The PM also stressed, though, that Goal 5, on gender equality, would be ensured in the ratio of people who are imprisoned.  

The issue is also likely to come up at the G20 Summit, which India will chair as its current President. Care has reportedly been taken to keep dissenters out of the C20 process that involves civil society groups in bringing people’s voices to the G20 forums, lest this process dissent – sorry, descend – into chaos. 

All sources in government who gave access to the above information have repeatedly requested anonymity, worried about getting onto the list of people for whom expanded prison spaces are being requested. 

In a rare interview given to this reporter, the Prime Minister was asked why he chose to make this appeal on April 1. He quipped: “it is because it is April full day” … referring to the state of prisons in India! 

Reported by Ashish Kothari, Prison Trust of India (PTI) 

1 April 2023

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