Bijaya Chanda, 2010 Asia JusticeMakers Fellow, India

IBJ’s 2010 Asia JusticeMaker Bijaya Chanda spent her childhood days in and around Calcutta, India, moving throughout the region to follow her father’s career. As a student she began to follow the case of Archana Guha, the head of a girl’s school who was detained by police for political reasons in 1974. Archana was rendered nearly paralyzed due to police torture while in custody, and was released on medical grounds three years laer. She subsequently filed a lawsuit against the police who had tortured her. While studying the case and attending hearings, Bijaya met prominent human rights defenders and criminal defense attorneys. She began to better understand the plight of the accused in marginalized communities of Calcutta.

These relationships catapulted her into the field of criminal justice, to which she has dedicated her life for the last 15 years. The bulk of her time has been spent with MASUM, a human rights NGO advocating within West Bengal. She provides legal assistance and defense counsel to prisoners in correctional homes throughout the region. She regularly witnesses detainees being denied legal protections and early access to a lawyer, enduring physical and emotional torture.

Under the Indian Constitution every detainee has the right to be informed of the grounds of their arrest, to consult and be represented by a legal practitioner of their choice, and to be brought before the nearest magistrate within 24 hours of arrest. Despite the formal recognition of these constitutional rights, many police officers and prison officials remain ignorant of their existence. This has resulted in a disproportionate number of citizens being denied access to legal representation. Furthermore, many detainees remain unaware of their legal rights. This alarming situation is compounded by the high level of adult illiteracy in India (61%), making it difficult to deliver broad education on legal rights.

Project: Bijaya used her $5,000 JusticeMakers Grant to address this widespread lack of rights awareness, running a project focused on the education of pre-trial detainees (known in India as under-trial prisoners, or UTPs) and their families in the Indian state of West Bengal on their rights under Indian law and the constitution.

Working in five of West Bengal’s 27 Subsidiary Correctional Homes (sub-jails), which predominantly house prisoners who are still awaiting trial, Bijaya’s initial goal at the start of the project was to train approximately 2,700 pre-trial detainees about their legal rights.

Results: With 2 volunteers, both of whom had previously spent a considerable length of time in pre-trial detention and therefore brought important insight to the project, Bijaya successfully conducted 40 UTP rights training sessions in the five sub-jails, in which a total of 3,179 UTPs participated. She observed that prior to the training “less than 1% of these Under Trial Prisoners ever heard of anything called ‘Constitution’… and they did not know at all that there are also some ‘Rights’ for them enumerated in the Constitution of India and in the Law of the Land.”

In addition to direct support from individual volunteers, to spread the impact of her project, Bijaya also partnered with APORIA (Kolkata), an NGO, who assisted Bijaya in developing Rights Awareness materials to distribute at live trainings. Together, they created posters for illiterate prisoners, developed modules with input from prisoners, and translated the modules into Hindi to make them more broadly accessible. Approximately 4,000 copies of the modules and their translations were distributed at rights awareness training sessions for UTPs and communities.

While the UTP training project reached 3,179 people with direct training, Bijaya estimates that the number of people who learned about their rights indirectly, through those who had received training – and received rights awareness materials – in sub-jails and then been released on bail was “at least 5 times that number, if not more.” On some occasions, people called her and “sought legal advice against violation of their rights” after going through the training modules of prisoners who had been released.

Bijaya reports that she initially met with  resistance from the Controllers and other staffs at the sub-jails, who were unfamiliar with her work and her mission. Yet these same officials eventually became enthusiastic and supportive, and were willing to offer Bijaya all the support she needed to continue her work. Some even requested copies of her training materials, which she and her volunteers gladly provided

With the help of a volunteer law student, Bijaya and her team also ran 11 Community Outreach rights training sessions, to reach communities outside prison with information about their legal rights. These were conducted in collaboration with a reputable local NGO called ‘Right Track,’ and a trade union of agricultural labourers called ‘Paschimbanga Khet Majoor Samiti.’ These training sessions were attended by almost 700 people from villages and slums in 3 districts in West Bengal, who had never attended such a training programme and were “very enthusiastic about it.” The programmes were such a success that there was “popular demand” to continue the project and expand it to other villages. Moreover, the participants themselves proposed a future initiative whereby two people would be selected from each village (in total 60 people from 30 villages), and would attend a central intense training from the JusticeMakers team, and in turn return to their villages to provide rights training to their communities.

In addition to the rights awareness training sessions both inside and outside detention facilities, Bijaya hosted two Publicity Programmes to raise awareness of her work. These were attended by intellectuals and academics who showed interest in her JusticeMakers project. Unfortunately, these could not be conducted on a large scale towards the latter half of the project due to the “changed political situation of the State.”

The final component of Bijaya’s project was the direct provision of legal representation to pre-trial detainees in West Bengal. Recruiting 19 lawyers, and 3 law clerks, she provided legal aid to UTPs whenever required. The law clerks assisted with bail bonds and other clerical work, and with the help of her team of lawyers Bijaya successfully managed to have 7 UTPS successfully released on bail, and provided legal representation in court to 2 UTPs. The JusticeMakers grant also covered the bail of 8 UTPs. These people had previously had no access to lawyers, financial resources to cover their bail or recourse to information about their legal rights.

Among them was Mr. Sridam Bairagi, who had been incarcerated along with his four-year-old son, Sourav. Because there was no family available to help, Bijaya used some of her JusticeMakers grant to provide educational materials for Sourav and defray the expenses associated with Mr. Bairagi’s bail filings. With this, and the additional help of an advocate, Sridam and Sourav Bairagi walked free on 21 March 2011. The expenses of furnishing bail bonds of these five helpless UTPs were covered by the JusticeMakers Fund. A physically challenged UTP at Serampore Sub-Correctional Home is being provided by a Volunteer Lawyer of her team.

Bijaya was also instrumental in helping to transfer a juvenile offender out of Tamluk Sub-jail and into a juvenile facility. Mr. Prabir Samanta, age 17, had been arrested with his father on drug-related offenses. Under India’s Juvenile Justice Act, a child under the age of 18 can neither be held in a sub-jail, nor tried in an ordinary criminal court. When Prabir was charged, there was no lawyer speaking for him, and although he had a birth certificate, nobody was able to present it in court on his behalf to prove his juvenile status. Bijaya brought this problem to the attention of the Controller of Tamluk Sub-jail, who contacted the investigating officer of the case and organized for Prabir to be transferred to a juvenile home in late February 2011.

The impact of Bijaya’s innovative project would be even greater with more manpower, which requires financial support, and there are still many more pre-trial detainees in West Bengal’s sub-jails who need help.