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Gandhi's India?

Or is it Munnabhai's India?

The victims of Operation Leech:

With the help of the Calcutta intelligentsia and human-rights activists, can Burmese victimised by an Indian armed operation in the Andamans find justice?

by | Soe Myint

On 11 February 1998 in New Delhi, the Ministry of Defence announced in a press conference that on 8 February, a joint operation of the three wings of the Indian armed forces had successfully intercepted “an international gang of armed smugglers” and seized arms and weapons worth of USD 1 million in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. The operation had been code-named “Operation Leech-111”. The security forces claimed to have arrested 73 foreign nationals. Six “gun-runners” were said to have been killed in the encounter.

The media soon brought to light glaring gaps in the government’s story. The newspaper Andamans Today exposed the fact that those arrested and killed in the operation belonged to the National United Party of Arakan (NUPA) and the Karen National Union (KNU), ethnic nationalities’ organisations from Burma that have been fighting against the military regime for decades for self-determination and human rights. It was discovered that they had come to India after an agreement with Indian intelligence operatives that they would be allowed a base at Landfall Island in the Andaman and Nicobar atoll in exchange for their cooperation with intelligence gathering along the Burmese coast. One particular Indian military intelligence officer, a certain Lieutenant Colonel Grewal, was found to have betrayed the trust of the Burmese freedom fighters at the behest of the military junta and to have killed six of their leaders in cold blood.

The freedom fighters were kept under illegal detention at Campbell Camp on Nicobar Island in horrific conditions for several months and then transferred to the prison at Port Blair. The Indian Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) failed to file a charge sheet for a full six and half years. Its representatives told the lower court that they could not file one because the Ministry of Defence was not co-operating with them.

India’s Guantanamo Bay

Not many know that this little hellhole festers just outside Port Blair, where cardinal violation of human rights is routine.

Abhimanyu George Jain

A hundred rupees by auto from Port Blair takes you to Prothragarh, a small place that houses the Prothragarh Jail and open prison. The open prison is a temporary holding place for foreign nationals caught in Indian territorial waters without sufficient reason to explain their presence. Nobody is quite certain who these people are. Most of them are Cambodian, Burmese or Bangladeshi nationals who might be fishermen blown out into the open sea, smugglers, poachers or even human traffickers. Once caught, they are tried, sentenced and sent to jail. After they have served their prison terms, they are interred in the open prison until they can be deported back to their native countries.

Shockingly, however, some of the inmates are kept in the open prison for years after they have served their prison terms. There are a few who have been in the open prison since 1998, which effectively means that there are people in Prothragarh who have not been released even eight years after serving their sentences. There are at least two inmates in the open prison who are yet to be charged with a crime. They have been detained without charges being brought against them for several months, let alone being presented before a magistrate within 24 hours, which is mandatory under the Indian laws.

Worse still are the conditions within the prison. The prison has a capacity to hold 110 inmates. It holds more than 300! Prisoners are housed in tin sheds that become cruelly effective boiler houses under the hot Andaman sun. Short of space, several inmates are forced to sleep out in the open, under sheets tied between adjoining sheds. The toilets overflow with faeces and waste, and clean drinking water is a mythically rare concept.

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