Nuanced approach

The decision of a Kolkata court to accord political prisoner status to nine suspected Maoist prisoners has kicked up a storm.

Political prisoner status entitles a person to a separate cell, home-cooked food, access to books of their choice and greater freedom with regard to meeting their family and friends. Critics of the Kolkata court decision say that giving the nine Maoists political prisoner status amounts to rewarding them.

Providing them with privileges when they were arrested in an illegal arms manufacture case will send out the wrong signal, they argue. As the home ministry has pointed out -- it is considering challenging the decision in court -- it will encourage others to demand the same privileges. The decision it is feared will throw open the flood gates to an array of insurgents with a variety of grievances and subscribing to all kinds of ideologies to demand this tag.

A calm consideration of the court decision indicates a nuanced approach to treatment of insurgents. It advocates different handling of members of the political and military wings of armed groups. While some will argue that only a thin line separates the two, it is important that the Indian state not treat political activists the way it does those who are engaged in acts of violence and terror. By holding out different treatment to them, the state will be able to win over more insurgents to the path of political struggle from armed warfare. In cases where the organisation has been listed as ‘terrorist’ it often becomes difficult for the government to engage in talks with the group.

A broad-brush treatment of all members of such organisations as terrorists eventually makes the pursuit of talks difficult, even embarrassing for the government. Peacebuilders have been calling for greater appreciation of the problem. The selective according of political prisoner status to jailed insurgents is a step in that direction. It will facilitate the pursuit of talks as it provides the government with political elements to interact with. Of course, political prisoner status must be accorded carefully, after due consideration of the activities of the concerned prisoner.

Several of the privileges’ that critics of the Kolkata court decision are objecting to are in fact rights of all prisoners, which sadly the Indian state has denied them thanks to the shabby condition of our jails. So giving them separate cells and access to better food is hardly a privilege conferred by the state. It is a right.

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