Manjula Shetye Assault: A Reality Check on Custodial Killings 

Byculla inmate Manjula Shetye’s prison death dredges up the rot within India’s overworked, sinister prison system.

5 min read
Hindi Female

On 23 June, inmate Manjula Shetye was allegedly murdered by jail officials at Mumbai’s Byculla Jail. Her crime? On that particular day, as warden of her barracks, she found her ration stock short of two eggs and five slices of bread and had taken the matter to the authorities.

Seven hours and many screams later, Shetye was declared dead on arrival at JJ Hospital, with 16 contusions on her body caused by a blunt object.

Had it not been for the controversial murder accused Indrani Mukherjea’s presence as a fellow inmate and now eyewitness to Shetye’s death, the news probably wouldn’t have even reached us.


Letting the Law Take Its Own Course

Following is a descriptive timeline of the case (and Indrani Mukherjea’s case within the case) until now, with significant details:

23 June: Majula Shetye is brutally assaulted by officials in Byculla Jail. She is taken to the JJ Hospital by the jail officials several hours after the incident, where she is declared dead on arrival.

24 June: A prison riot breaks out. More than 200 inmates, including Indrani Mukherjea, incite mutiny in protest of Shetye’s death. Jail officials claim the inmates burnt CCTV equipment in a bonfire. Mumbai Police files two FIRs – one against six officials for the murder of Shetye and another against the inmates for rioting. An eyewitness testifies to Shetye being raped with a lathi. Police do not arrest the six persons booked, as they would in a layman’s case according to Section 40 of the Criminal Procedure Code.
Byculla inmate Manjula Shetye’s prison death dredges up the rot within India’s overworked, sinister prison system.

26 June: The Mumbai Police finally receives Shetye’s autopsy reports three days after her death, against protocol, which demands a time-sensitive postmortem analysis in suspicious deaths like Shetye’s.

Byculla inmate Manjula Shetye’s prison death dredges up the rot within India’s overworked, sinister prison system.

27 June: Mumbai Police Crime Branch takes over the probe. A parallel probe is initiated by Inspector General (Prisons) Swati Sathe. The CCTV cameras that were “burnt in the riots” when obtained by the Crime Branch revealed a video of jail officials dragging Shetye’s unconscious body across a hallway to a blind spot.

30 June: Maharashtra’s State Commission of Women decides to set up a three-member Special Investigation Team (SIT) after Sathe gives them a detailed report.

1 July: One week after an FIR being filed against them, six jail officials – jailor Manisha Pokharkar, jail guards Bindu Naikode, Waseema Shaikh, Sheetal Shegaokar, Surekha Gudve and Aarti Shingane were arrested just as they were meeting lawyers to discuss anticipatory bails. Police also seize the dupatta with which Shetye's body was dragged around and the blunt object used to hit her. Five accused confess Pokharkar ordered them to assault Shetye though she "didn't mean to kill her".

Byculla inmate Manjula Shetye’s prison death dredges up the rot within India’s overworked, sinister prison system.

Crafting the Victim’s Personality

A Bhandup resident, Manjula Shetye was in jail for pouring kerosene over her sister-in-law and pushing her onto a lit stove with the help of her mother on a winter morning in January 1996. This, after a tiff over a mixer grinder in the kitchen. She was handed a sentence of life imprisonment and was arrested in 2004.

A Case Study in Prison Reform...

They say prison changes you, and that’s never meant in a good way. But, when news of her death first broke out, all reports emerging painted a reformed picture of Manjula. Records showed that she was transferred from Pune’s Yerwada Jail, where she spent 13 years. She had requested for a transfer to Kalyan jail to be closer to her family, but when the need of a warden came up in Byculla Jail, she was transferred there on account of her good behaviour.

She was unhappy with her transfer and had taken the issue up with Pokharkar before, which didn’t go well. That was strike one.

Sources in Byculla Jail say Shetye quickly became popular with the inmates on account of her sweet and helpful nature. She was kind to everybody and helped them with food, medicines and their children. She taught yoga and knitting to a few fellow inmates. She was even going to be released in eight months on account of her good behaviour. Inmates told police, Pokharkar was ticked off by her growing popularity soon after she was transferred here one-and-a-half years ago. Strike two.

On 23 June, when Shetye was serving breakfast to her barracks, she counted a a few eggs and slices of bread missing. Peeved about the inmates being shortchanged, she went to Pokharkar’s room to complain. That was strike three.

Two minutes later, inmates said all they could hear was her screams till she came limping out, only to be disrobed, beaten up and abandoned in her cell. Only when she fell unconscious five hours later, was she taken to the hospital – dead.

Byculla inmate Manjula Shetye’s prison death dredges up the rot within India’s overworked, sinister prison system.
Inmate Manjula Shetye was murdered in Byculla Jail in Mumbai on 23 June 2017. 
(Photo: The Quint)

...Or a Troubled Inmate?

As days passed, inquiries were ordered by state and national human rights and women’s rights watchdogs. When investigations finally began on 27 June, the narrative about Manjula Shetye began changing,

Suddenly, Shetye was a ‘bossy warden’ who had gotten into several fights with other inmates and demanded money from them.

New information was provided by police of Shetye’s ‘mulakat’ duty wherein she had to assure that all inmates got sufficient time with visitors. They say inmates used to complain regularly about Shetye only allowing short meetings. A senior police source said that on 23 June, an inmate had made the same complaint to Pokharkar. It was only then she decided to reprimand Shetye, which went “out of control”.

All this new information, however, has not been confirmed by any inmates and only simply relayed by police (accused) to police (investigators).

A look at Shetye’s unpublicised life reveals a rotten contradiction: On one hand, the gory truth of custodial torture and efforts made to hide them in Indian prisons becomes clearer, while on the other, a hopeful case study of positive reform in a murderer, brought about by the same criminal justice system.

Byculla inmate Manjula Shetye’s prison death dredges up the rot within India’s overworked, sinister prison system.

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