Had Ajmal Kasab - the lone Pakistani terrorist who was hanged for the 26/11 attacks on November 21 - been in Kolkata, he would have perhaps qualified to get the privileges of a 'Political Prisoner' - a status which freedom fighters like Mahatama Gandhi had when they were lodged in British Jails.
The West Bengal Correctional Service Act -1992, which is operational in the state for over a decade now, says that all those charged with offences such as 'waging war against the state,' 'collecting weapons with the intention of waging war against the state,' 'aiding escape of, rescuing or harbouring' prisoners who are suspected of waging war against the state - offences which terrorists are charged with - qualify to be treated as 'Political Prisoners'.
It also says that anyone who has committed an offence, including murder during a political or democratic movement, with an exclusive political objective - free from personal greed or motive - as a 'Political Prisoner' and, this is fresh bone of contention between New Delhi and Kolkata.
In fact seven suspected Maoist, including CPI Maoist spokesperson Gour Chakraborty and Venkateshwar Reddy also known as Telugu Dipak, a close associate of Kishenji, are among some of the prisoners who were granted the status by Kolkata High Court in October this year.
The Centre has written to West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee led government that it should immediately consider amending the law or challenge the order of the High Court. As a 'Political Prisoner' undertrials and convicts enjoy relatively more freedom in the jail, also they are provided with a chair, and a table, mattress, blankets, mosquito nets, mirrors, combs, tooth brush, tooth-paste, toilet soap 'of standard size and good quality', coconut oil and utensils of 'good quality' for cooking, services of a barber every alternate day, writing material and a newspaper.
"What we have objections is not the facilities that are extended but the very idea of treating suspected Maoist undertrials as a cut above the rest. It sends a very wrong message," a senior official told NDTV.
The Ministry of Home Affairs in its letter to Kolkata has pointed that granting political prisoner status to the Maoist would "provide grist to the CPI (Maoist) propaganda machine." Also, it has said that CPI (Maoist) and all its front organisations are already banned under the umbrella anti-terror law The Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act- 2008 and granting suspected Maoist undertrials has serious 'pan-India' security implications.
Sources told NDTV that the Home Ministry has also separately written to the Union Law Ministry warning it about the implications. "Since welfare of prisoners and the issues relating to administration of prisons are state subjects, there is very little that the Centre can do except request the state to change the laws or take corrective action," a senior official told NDTV. The ministry is also apprehensive that, since the order has been issued by the High Court, it would have implications across India.
According to senior officials the West Bengal Government had verbally intimated the Union Home Ministry that it would soon take corrective measures after being told that its laws were not in consonance with central laws. However, in practice, it has failed to do so. Letters written by the Centre to West Bengal government have gone unanswered and unacknowledged. While there was no official reaction from the state government, sources indicated that delay in taking corrective action is partly because the state law minister was changed recently with and also because human rights activists are keen that law not be changed.