Kangana’s Lock Upp: When Struggles of the Marginalised Become ‘Entertainment’

Every third inmate in India is either Dalit or Adivasi. Why should their mistreatment qualify as 'entertainment'?

5 min read
Kangana’s Lock Upp: When Struggles of the Marginalised Become ‘Entertainment’

Eight months on, the institutional death of 84-year-old tribal rights activist Stan Swamy has shrunk the already disputable integrity of India’s loitering justice system, if not of its ignorant state.

Swamy was one of the 16 accused in the Elgar Parishad Bhima Koregaon case in October 2020, involving a group of lawyers, activists, academics and poets who were arrested for allegedly inciting violence in Bhima Koregaon, and for alleged Maoist connections.

Swamy’s passing was sudden, yet not unexpected.

Records show that since his arrest, the issue of Swamy’s old age, ailments and degrading health came up innumerable times before both the special NIA court and the High Court. A day after his arrest, his legal team submitted that he could not even sign the vakalatnama as his hands trembled from Parkinson’s disease. Eventually, his thumb impression had to be taken.

As his health deteriorated in jail, his letters remained the glaring account of the injustices against his co-prisoners, whose health conditions worsened through the COVID-19 pandemic. Swamy’s only request before his passing was to be at home, in Jharkhand. However, in his long wait for medical bail in negligent jails and before indifferent courts, he was compelled to die far away from his own.


The Show Reeks of BJP's Authoritarian Ways

Undeniably, the situation is far worse for the marginalised Dalit and Muslim political prisoners, most of whom have spent trial-less years in prison and underwent grave sexual violence and police brutality in custody.

On its head, glorifying the marginalised groups’ struggles and capitalising on the miserable fate of India’s prisoners should have been the last thing to do.

Three weeks ago, Kangana Ranaut announced that she would host ‘Lock Upp’, a reality show where 16 controversial contestants would get locked up in jail for 72 days.

In the trailer, the Bollywood celebrity can be seen in a shimmery golden suit, heavily ornamented with gold jewellery and seated on an authoritarian red chair, as if to glamourise the setting of a prison. As the contestants walk into jail cells, Kangana narrates the game to be her Atyachaari Khel, or a ‘torturous game’, where only she can decide the fate of her prisoners.

One can hardly debate if the skit is different from the authoritarianism of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in recent times. Since 2014, aggressive nationalism, propagated by extremists and backed by susceptible media houses, has grown at large. Such is the supremacist ideology that has caused catastrophic damage to India’s civil liberties, giving the BJP a licence to invoke laws like the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), filling Indian jails with trial-less political prisoners and holding chilling effects on free speech.

According to a study, 96% of all sedition cases filed against 405 Indians for criticising politicians and governments over the last decade were registered after 2014, with 149 accused of making “critical” and/or “derogatory” remarks against Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the self-proclaimed father of his ‘New India’.

Similarly, 144 were filed for such remarks against his close companion Yogi Adityanath, the rabid monk who leads the state of Uttar Pradesh.

However, out of the 326 cases filed under sedition in the past seven years, only six have been convicted, a comical lapse in figures that speaks volumes of the true intents of the government’s use of the law: to intimidate the marginalised into silence.

Idealising a Dreadful Experience

According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), every third inmate in India is either Dalit or Adivasi. When the number of Dalit and Adivasi prisoners is collated, it forms around a third of all Indian jails, while the population of these communities in India is 25 per cent.

A month after her arrest, Dalit Labour Rights Activist Nodeep Kaur alleged severe police brutality in custody. Kaur was arrested on 12 January after a labour union protest turned violent at the Singhu border in Delhi. In her bail petition, she stated that she was dragged by her hair, repeatedly slapped, verbally abused and beaten on her private parts by male police personnel. A medical report submitted to the Punjab and Haryana High Court on Friday noted that doctors who examined Nodeep at the Sonepat Civil Hospital 13 days after her arrest found large bruises on various parts of her body.

President of Mazdoor Adhikaar Sangathan and Dalit Activist Shiv Kumar face even more aggravated forms of police brutality. His medical report showed he had “multiple fractures in his hands and legs, and injuries caused by a blunt object or weapon”, which Kumar alleges were inflicted by the Sonipat Police personnel. He also had ripped toenails, various bruises, and a psychiatric evaluation was suggestive of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) like symptoms.

As for Sagar Gorkhe, Jyoti Jagtap and Ramesh Gaichor, who are members of Kabir Kala Manch, a Pune-based cultural group of singers, poets, and artists largely consisting of Dalit youth, have been behind bars for four years now without trial.

The Kangana Ranaut starrer in its trailer idealises the dreadful state of Indian prisons. It makes a joke out of the mistreatment of its contestants-turned-‘prisoners’ through purposefully denying them basic facilities.


Reduced to 'Pop Culture'

Why should the mistreatment of those incarcerated qualify as any form of entertainment?

Most Indian prisons loaded with inmates are extremely unsanitary and lack basic healthcare facilities. According to Al Jazeera, the Taloja prison has over 3,500 prisoners against the recommended capacity of 2,124. Hany Babu, a Delhi University Professor currently lodged in Taloja jail, had even been deprived of access to clean water to wash his eyes in prison, while Gautam Navlakha had been denied his spectacles. Other prisoners have also alleged inhuman treatment and denial of medical attention.

The unnecessary glamorisation of the horrors of prison – custodial violence, police brutality, sexual molestation, neglect of basic care, psychological abuse, and more, is something that only the right-wing media can pull off.

Umar Khalid, in his letter from Tihar Jail, wrote: “I have not spent a day or night locked up in my cell without extreme anxiety – it feels as if the jail cell is shrinking as suffocation and claustrophobia creep in and take over one’s mind and body.” Umar Khalid is an activist and former Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) student who was arrested by the Delhi Police on 13 September 2020 under the UAPA and has been lodged in jail since.

Likewise, Kashmiri journalist Aasif Sultan has been in jail for more than 1,200 days now, while Siddique Kappan for nearly sixteen months.

At a time when Hindutva curbs on marginalised communities’ rights are at their peak, the Kangana Ranaut-hosted and Ekta Kapoor-produced show is the right-wing’s pop-culture response that seeks to capitalise on India’s dark future for dissent.

It is the officiating of an insensitive joke that punches down on the already oppressed; it shamelessly chooses to thrive off it. Lock Upp isn’t just a reality television show – it’s a representation of the larger realities of the Modi regime.

The show is the perfect metaphor for the right-wing’s mind-numbingly bland script of denial and romanticisation that capitalises on marginalised people’s struggles and turns their woes into an amusing game for the privileged to munch their popcorn over.

This, as of late, is something that the show and the BJP seem to have in common.

(The author is a law student based in Pune. Her work focuses on the intersection of gender and caste in health, education, and public policy spheres.)

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