October 4, 2022

The case of Sunil Batra when a prisoner’s letter was converted to habeas corpus petition

Sunil Batra case is counted among those cases which changed the conditions of Indian prisoners in prisons. These judgments which were mostly delivered by justice Krishna Iyer, ensured the application of fundamental rights given by Indian Constitution for prisoners and emphasized their dignity as a human.

The beginning of epistolary type of writ petition in India

Sunil Batra case was instituted in epistolary fashion i.e. a letter was sent by a prisoner Sunil Batra to the supreme court and court converted that letter into writ petition. Admitting the letter as writ petition the court said that-

“Forms were forsaken since freedom was at stake and the letter was posted on the Bench to be metamorphosed into a habeas proceeding and was judicially navigated with electric creativity”.

The court further said-

“Here, the individual is a prisoner whose anus was allegedly pierced with a warder’s baton and the institution is the Tihar Prison, right in the capital of the country and under the nose of the Home Ministry.

His case is at once a symptom, a symbol and signpost vis a vis human rights in prison situations. When prison trauma prevails, prison justice must invigilate and hence we broaden our ‘habeas’ jurisdiction. Jurisprudence cannot slumber when the very campuses of punitive justice witness torture.”

The content of the letter posted by Batra

In the letter, Batra complained about the brutal assault by a Head Warder on another prisoner, Prem Chand.  

Batra, a convict under death sentence lodged in the Tihar Central Jail, came to know of a crime of torture practised upon another prisoner, Prem Chand, allegedly by a jail warder, Maggar Singh, as a means to extract money from the victim through his visiting relations.

Batra braved the consequences of Jail indignation and brought the incident to the ken of the Court, resulting in these proceedings which, though not strictly traditional, were clearly in the nature of habeas corpus writs and therefore, within the wider sweep of Art. 32.

Court appointed amicus to visit Tihar

The court issued notice to the State and the concerned officials, appointed Dr. Y. S. Chitale and Shri Mukul Mudgal as amicus, authorised them to visit the prison, meet the prisoner and see relevant documents and interview necessary witnesses so as to enable them to inform themselves about the surrounding circumstances and the cruel scenario of events.

Finding of the amicus

Prem Chand, the prisoner, sustained serious anal injury on or about August 26, 1979, because a rod was driven into that sore aperture to inflict inhuman torture. The contemporaneous entry in the Jail Hospital register reads:

“One prisoner Prem Chand s/o Pyara Lal has developed tear of anus due to forced insertion of stick by someone. He requires surgical repair and his bleeding has not stopped. He is to go to Irwin Hospital casualty immediately.”

The court noted that primary incriminating factor by offering incredible alternatives like rupture of the anus by a fall or self-infliction or due to piles and sillier stories, only show how the subtle torture of the officials could extract falsehoods from the victim and even medical officers, exculpatory of the, official criminal whoever he be.

The prisoner, Prem Chand, was kept in a ‘punishment cell’ which, according to counsel for the Administration, was not as bad as a solitary cell, although Dr. Chitale said that this was similar to the type of insulated confinement condemned as unconstitutional be this Court.

Direction of the court in particular of Prem Chand

Therefore, the court issued the writ to the Lt. Governor and the Superintendent of the Central Jail

  • that the prisoner, Prem Chand, shall not be subjected to physical manhandling by any jail official,
  • that the shameful and painful torture to which he has been subjected-a blot on Government’s claim to protect human rights-shall be ended and the wound on his person given proper medical care and treatment.

Reference

Sunil Batra vs Delhi Administration 1980 AIR 1579, 1980 SCR (2) 557