Arun Ferreira, a civil rights activist, spent four and a half years inside Maharashtra’s prisons because the police believed that he was a Maoist. He speaks of life inside prisons, of hierarchies behind bars and the ubiquity of torture in police custody.
Thirty-eight-year-old Arun Ferreira hails from a middle-class Catholic family in Bandra, Mumbai. He became a political activist in his college days, active in Naxalite-affected eastern Maharashtra and during the Khairlanji killings. On May 8, 2007, he was arrested as he got off the train at Nagpur railway station from Mumbai.The police charged him under Sections 10, 13, 18 and 20 of the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act.
In a few months, eight more cases were slapped against him, including two of murder, an attack on a police station, and an explosion in Gondia. He was acquitted of all charges by the High Court in September 2011, but re-arrested outside Nagpur Central Jail just days later in front of his family, on September 27. He was charged for two more cases in Gadchiroli, again acquitted of one, and now out on bail for the other.
Ferreira has filed a case against the state on his re-arrest. There’s a touch of irony about it, as this was a subject on which he did his post-graduate master’s thesis while in jail, speaking to other prisoners who had suffered the same practice, which he describes as standard operating procedure for keeping political activists in jail.
Ferreira graduated from St Xavier’s College, married his college sweetheart, and worked in the Navjawan Bharat Sabha, an organisation active during the 1980s textile strike. That was his initial foray into political activity. He was active in the bastis throughout the 1990s against demolition drives and for the regularisation of slums, supported by his family and his wife. He worked predominantly with youth, educating them on their rights, and eventually began to network with different people’s movements across Maharashtra, including anti-displacement struggles, Dalit and adivasi movements.
Now, a free man, he recounts his life in prison, from an activist for justice after the Khairlanji Dalit massacre, to time spent in the same jail barracks as those on death row for Khairlanji. He fought for the abolition of capital punishment; he went on a hunger strike for 27 days for basic rights in prison, and petitioned the High Court about his torture in police custody. The petition was thrown out.
He talks about his treatment and his debates with police officials, and his day-to-day routine as a prisoner in one of the most political prisons in Maharashtra state: Nagpur Central Jail.
You accused the police of torturing you during incarceration. Can we talk about the nature of your arrest and the circumstances of your first encounter with torture?
The first when I was picked up at Nagpur station. The first bout of torture is from the lower level cops who’re not bothered about information, they just want to hit you, so for the next two-three days you’d be totally submissive. The first part is always just to make you submissive for the time someone will come to ask you questions.
So the first time, they just hit you, kick you… no questions asked, on your stomach, your hands, and you are humiliated. You’re made to remove your clothes, my belt was used to tie my hands, and my legs were tied, and from the car that brought us, I was lifted up to the first floor.
This was in the police station?
No, in the police gymkhana at Nagpur.
Were you alone?
No. I knew there were other people. We were kept in separate rooms. I knew there was someone next to me as I could hear him. He was a journalist, Dhanendra Bhurile who at that time was with Lokmat, but basically a freelancer. He was also made accused in my case. And for the first four hours, they beat you senselessly, for the next stage, when they’d want to fabricate evidence, bring things out and hold things against you. It becomes systematic torture with an objective to bring something out.
Who first arrived to interrogate you?
I don’t know. They come without badges. You only know they are someone’s superiors when others salute them. In my experience, the local police themselves aren’t involved in these ‘Naxal’ cases. They just take us to court and back to the lock-up. But there were people from the anti-Naxal Cell, from the ATS and also the IB.
What kind of questions did they ask? Did you try to co-operate or engage with them?
When there were things I could tell them, I would, but when they asked me things I didn’t know, I wouldn’t talk.
What is your link with Naxalite organisations? I had no idea about them. And that was when they started to torture you.
How long did that session last?
That went on for around one and a half months.
The whole time in the police gymkhana?
No. First, they got 10 days police custody. Then they got court permission for narco-analysis and they brought two of us to Mumbai. And what they wanted they couldn’t get from narco-analysis or from brain-mapping, as we simply spoke the truth. So when that didn’t work out for them, they filed more cases against us from Gondia so they could get longer police custody for us. So they got 12 days police custody, and it went on, there were a series of sessions of police custody as we kept having cases foisted on us. Then again they got permission for narco-analysis, without our consent but also without informing us, and this time they took us to Bengaluru.
What happened with me was that when I was arrested there were people who spoke up about what happened and the police were very sensitive about doing anything to me, so I was beaten, slapped and my body was kept stretched. But I was in a separate lock-up in Gondia when my co-accused were brutally tortured. They were stripped and petrol was poured into the rectum.
It was planned for them. They were in police custody for 10 days and the cops made full use of it. They got doctors to check up on them every second day and ensure there’s no untoward injuries so the basic effects of torture don’t seem visible when the person reappears in court.
How long was the longest torture session?
In Nagpur, they kept us standing for two days. You just couldn’t sleep. There was one team going out and another coming in, and when no one was there the guards would keep you standing.
Were you tortured in 2011 upon re-arrest?
Not in custody. But there was something I tried to explain to the judge. Like this is the day I’m supposed to be released, I had so many hopes of going home, of meeting friends and family and that is the day you come and pick me up from the gate? Till the gate, till you’re released, you’re making plans to go home, you have hope. Like a student whose exams are over, you’re making plans for your summer vacation. And you go home and your mother tells you that vacation is cancelled and you have another exam.
You did a thesis on false cases and re-arrest, especially of political prisoners and those accused as Maoists? Didn’t you think that this would happen to you too?
I thought, but there was always a ray of hope (laughs). In jail, there are so many political prisoners who fear re-arrest. To fight it, they are sending RTIs to the local police saying tell us in how many cases we’re wanted, give us the list, and we’ll surrender in them. Because incarceration for one case in two years is the same as it is for ten cases in two years.
Any forms of mental torture besides sleep deprivation?
They deprive you of sleep. That is the most common thing. And the other thing is, they try to play with the person—they try to find their weaknesses.
I came from the middle-class and they thought they could play with my middle-class pride. They kept pointing out the sorry state I was in—clothes torn, everything in a mess, and they’d threaten, ‘I’ll take you like this on the streets of Bandra and people will laugh at you’. Of course that really didn’t affect me.
But with so many others there were all those threats of raping your wife and harassing your family. Like we would all eventually come to know about the treatment of Muslims by the ATS after the train blasts, and the boys from Malegaon, who’d harass sisters, wives and fathers in front of them. It is a common practice. But this is the kind of torture no one thinks is torture. It is torture but in the new prevention of torture bill, there is no mention of this form of torture.
Were you ever subjected to that form of torture?
Not directly, but when my brother and my family would come to Nagpur they were threatened against doing it.
So there’s beating, stretching and sleep deprivation….
And there’s the Bhajirao. One of the most common instruments of torture in Maharashtra’s jails is the material of a conveyor belt tied to a stick. People are whipped with it and slashed with it.
You’d have a cop call out, ‘Arre Bhajirao ko bulao,’ and they’d bring that. And I’ve seen this in Nagpur, in Chandrapur and in Gondia, although I haven’t been to a police station here (Mumbai) so I haven’t seen it here. And since that movie Singham it’s been called Singham Bhajirao.
Then there would be the pouring of petrol which I have personally seen. With sleep deprivation, standing for long periods, there’s standing with your hands held high for long periods. If you don’t, someone will beat you. Stretching is where you put your back against the wall, sitting on the ground, both your legs stretched till they touch the wall. A cop stands on your legs so you can’t bend them, and your hands are tied and pulled up, and that really puts pressure on your torso.
Hitting on the soles of your feet is very common. They beat you with batons or with the Bhajirao. And to ensure there are no marks, they make you jog.
What did you feel when this was happening to you? Were you outraged? Were you dejected? What did you think to make yourself bear what was happening to you?
Well, there was anger building up. And then also, you feel, the people who had come to torture, that their seniors had sent them to torture you, and you sense that they’re not motivated and very soon their frustration builds and they start torturing you even more, to get on with it.
At that time you realise that instead of me breaking down, it’s my torturer who’s breaking down, he’s not about to fulfill the wishes of his superiors so he’s getting frustrated and he’s releasing his anger by hitting me. And in a sense you realise you’re the person who is winning. He’s trying his level best, but actually, earlier he’d start off with ‘Tell me this, tell me that,’ and later on he’s the one breaking down. At that point there’s anger at him, but there’s also sadness for that guy…
So you sympathise with your torturer?
(Laughs) Sympathise I wouldn’t say, he was torturing me, but I could understand the emotions he was going through.
Did you talk to the police during these periods?
No. I was someone they hated because I used to completely keep quiet. Mentally I was just going, ‘to hell with you, I’m going to keep quiet, I’m not co-operating.’ And after that, they would break down and just go out.
Break down as in?
As in, there’s no point in it anymore.
And what were the questions they asked? Just your links with Naxalite parties?
Yeah, basically they wanted my links with the Naxal party I was in touch with, why I was in touch with it, etc.
Did they ask about your links in civil society?
Yes of course. Since I wasn’t in Vidarbha and they didn’t know much about the people I worked with in Bombay, they didn’t push me so much. But the person next to me, the freelance journalist Bhurile, he was kept in the same hall as me, and they asked him about the entire workings of the journalist fraternity there, like who are the journalists in Lokmat, who in Deshonnati, who in Sakal, what are their numbers, where do they stay? Generally, people would speak about those things, as none of these people are doing anything remotely illegal.
Were you asked any questions like that?
The Gondia police usually came to interrogate me when they got a letter from a superior somewhere. When I didn’t answer their first question, they never got further down that list, and that’s where the torture started again. And when I told them about civil society in Bombay they just recorded it without going into it any further.
Did the superior officers ever come to interrogate you?
A few came.
What did they ask you?
They asked some weird questions. Like since I have some close friends in finance in Bombay, they asked me whether I am the person who is helping the Maoists put money in the stock exchange (laughs)… things like that. Such questions you don’t feel like saying anything about, but just laughing it out.
(Laughs) No. You can’t afford to laugh or there’d be another bout of torture and it’s better to keep quiet. But I felt there were two kinds of superiors. One’s the kind who knows what to ask, the other who just wants to know what is happening.
Did you ever feel that there were policemen who had doubts that you might not be a high value Maoist but just a political activist?
See, I think the people who tortured me they came with a conviction and an anger that I was a Maoist and I was a terrorist. And there is a section of policemen who’re very motivated, they feel very strongly that these people who fight for their rights, should just be killed or persecuted.
Were there any threats of execution like that?
Yes there were. But I knew some part of the law, and that after being produced in court it would be much tougher for them.
Now you had petitioned the court regarding your torture, but the case was thrown out of court? How did you react to that?
My petition, along with Ashok Reddy’s petition, who was my co-accused, was put before the Nagpur bench of the Bombay High Court. At that time, in terms of torture, compared to my petition, Ashok Reddy’s was much stronger, as they had poured gasoline in his rectum. The judge asked for an enquiry but they came out saying he had piles, which he didn’t. He had it years ago. But they made it seem like he had a history of piles, and it was still piles now.
Without any other physical evidence, it becomes a question of assertion. And unless the judge has an interest in taking up the matter, it doesn’t happen.
We were shocked but that’s how these things happen. And people were telling us to take it to the Supreme Court. But we all had so many cases in the lower court we felt, that we might as well concentrate on bail.
So what really happened to you during narco-analysis?
There were three tests conducted on us. First, let me clarify that in any of these scientific tests they require our consent. We denied it. But in court they showed papers saying we gave our consent. In court, too, we denied signing the papers. But the law at that time didn’t need our consent. Now the Supreme Court has overruled that and finds that such violates our rights.
One of the tests is narco-analysis, the other is brain-mapping, and then there is the polygraph test.
During narco-analysis, the use of sodium pentothal sends you into a state of semi-consciousness and that is when they ask certain questions. You’re supposed to be less resistant to telling lies. But a strong person can tell lies then, too, as when you’re drunk you can still lie as much as you want.
In narco, a session can last two to three hours. It’s recorded on video and audio, while you’re asked questions. Brain-mapping is where they put 32 electrodes on your head. Here in Kalina Forensic Lab there’s a cap you wear and they give you some visual-audio inputs. And the logic behind the test is that they show you slides of some crime scene or the other, and if you were part of it in some way, it shows recognition in your brain.
When we were brought to Kalina, at that time, video slides were shown to us, and in Bangalore they had given us audio.
What were the results of the test?
In the Kalina tests, they didn’t get what they wanted. I don’t know if you know this, but in the Nagpur press, they reported that because I was a resident of Bandra, I am in touch with the Home Minister and I did some ‘setting’ with the forensic department and I got a favourable result (laughs). The cops thus took permission to get another test which happened in Bangalore.
The narco tests in Bengaluru were a big farce. You may have heard of Dr Malini, who was at that time assistant director of the Forensic Science Laboratory at Bengaluru. You may remember that there was this craze for narco-analysis in 2005-2006-2007. All the accused in terror cases would end up in Bengaluru. She did the narco for even the Malegaon 2006 accused, the Mecca Masjid accused, etc. And it eventually came out that all of them were the wrong guys.
We later came to know after RTI applications that she actually forged her documents to get her post. (Dr Malini was dismissed from service by the Karnataka government in 2009 for irregularities in service and forgery of documents to secure the job.)
And what were the results of that test?
Oh! That was the case that came out in the news, where I had apparently said something like the Maoists are funded by Bal Thackeray (laughs).
I remember the questions she asked. She had asked me which student organisations I had worked with as an activist. So I said I was with VPS. And she asked which other organisations I had worked with. I said I worked with many, NSUI, BVS and ABVP.
She knew about NSUI and she knew ABVP but she didn’t know BVS She thought it was another Naxal front; I said it was led by Bal Thackeray.
Imagine this, they asked me my wife’s name. And when I spoke the truth, the test said I was lying.
After police custody you were taken to Nagpur Central Jail. Were you treated differently by the jail authorities or other prisoners?
The first time we were taken to jail, we were taken to the ‘anda’ barrack. Which you may know about, it was made in the 1980s as a ‘high security barrack’ during the time the Khalistan movement was in its peak in Punjab.
And the first one in Maharashtra was made in Akola, as you know Akola has a large population of Sikhs. There’s one even in Arthur Road Jail.
It was earlier used strictly for Sikh militants. See, within all Central jails, there are separate barracks for high security prisoners. For the first year, we were taken there.
You could call it a form of solitary confinement but they wouldn’t say it was solitary, as it is illegal. We were kept in separate cells. From six in the night to six in the morning we were locked up. For almost one year, we could only meet our co-accused and go for court dates.
Were you ever in general population?
No. I think we were deemed very dangerous. Actually it’s part of British policy. I don’t know if you’ve read about this, that the British thought political prisoners should be kept away from other prisoners. They called it the ‘septic tank’ policy. The gases and fumes of the septic tank shouldn’t be allowed to ‘contaminate’ the rest of the population.
Earlier they’d send political prisoners to the Andaman & Nicobar islands or Rangoon, but when there were too many political prisoners, they started to make newer jails. Like Hazaribagh jail, the first one for political prisoners. Now, they just separate us within the same jail.
So you were isolated the whole time?
For the first year we were there. Then, around April 2008, 13 of us, all political prisoners accused as Maoists (some SIMI accused, too, had supported us), went on a 27-day hunger strike. Most of our demands were against senseless arrests and witch-hunting in Bombay, or Nagpur and elsewhere.
If you recollect, the State came out with a stupid list where people like Baba Amte and Medha Patkar were called Naxalites or Naxalite sympathisers. One of our demands was that these people should not be so branded Naxalites; ‘badnaam karne ka tarika nahi hona chahiye’, and other such accused should not be jailed.
Other demands included provision against re-arrest, as others at that time had also been released and re-arrested in another case. There were other demands like under-trial prisoners should not have to wear uniforms, as this is the rule in Maharashtra jails. And there was this question of phones should be allowed in jail.
Did all of you stay on hunger strike for 27 days?
Yes. There were 13 of us who went on hunger strike. When it comes to hunger strikes, when you’re a smaller group, it’s easier to sustain. These are tactics that anyone who has been on a hunger strike would tell you.
What was your condition during the strike?
I lost ten kilograms. Your body goes into a state of sleep. You can’t do anything, can’t read, can’t move. But someone like me who comes from the middle-class, we have a lot of body fat (laughs). So we can sustain for a bit, but other guys had it really tough, especially the tribals. Two had to be admitted, and one guy had a problem with acidity.
At that time the prison had a weird policy on prisoners who were ill. Since there had been an earlier attempt to escape from the prison hospital, there was this policy that if a Naxalite prisoner had to be admitted to hospital only one would be permitted at a time. So only one person got treatment and the other was sent back to barracks.
What happened to the hunger strike?
The strike got good support from the press, it was taken up in the Legislative Council and RR Patil was asked about it, and he asked the very anti-Naxal chief who put us all in jail what was actually happening and to enquire about our demands.
And what did he do? He put down the list of all the cases slapped against us, and then his last suggestion was that we should all be put in separate jails [laughs].
None of our demands were met and we were all just shifted into various barracks, as shifting us into other prisons would be tougher. So I was shifted to the Phasi yard, for death row inmates. At that time the ’93 blast accused were there and a few more from Bombay. For one full year I was in phasi yard.
And when that filled up, as there were more prisoners, I was shifted out to the gunah khana, a punishment cell for those who break discipline in jail. For us, we were kept permanently in the punishment cell.
So when did you do your thesis on political prisoners, re-arresting,and false cases?
I started my discourse when I was in the phasi yard itself. When I had to do fieldwork, when I could meet people, I thought about a thesis on issues that I could talk about, like jail life.
How could you meet other prisoners?
We could meet in the day time mostly as some of the barracks are open.
Even when you were in the Anda barracks, taking septic policy into account, you could still meet other prisoners?
Yes. The problem with the jails is that, even when there is such a strict policy, it just can’t be enforced because the conditions don’t allow them. For instance, the rule is that we should not meet people, but for various reasons, people had to come into our yard—ours was one with a decent water supply and people from all the other barracks would have to come. And there would be a line and that’s how I always met people.
And of course, when the Prison IG (Inspector General) comes on a round, we’re all locked up and it is shown that we don’t meet people.
And that’s how you did your thesis, including many Adivasis?
When I started in 2010 there were only 10 accused in Naxalite cases. Then in October 2010 there were 32 when they shifted prisoners from Chandrapur jail. In the past year it’s gone up to 125. That is the face of Operation Green Hunt that I have seen.
In fact, in my last bout of police custody I was asked by one of the cops what I thought about Chidambaram and Operation Green Hunt. I told him, the reality I was exposed to is whatever I have read, and I haven’t seen any reality besides what is happening in the jails—and that the number of ‘Naxal’ under-trials went from 10 to 32 to 125 in the past two years and nearly 90 per cent are Adivasis.
Did you know this officer?
No. I didn’t. He was one of those who had just come to talk some politics. I suppose, because these are the kinds of debates you won’t really get in a police department.
What else did he talk to you about? And how long?
The conversation lasted around an hour or one and a half hours. It mostly was about politics, and social movements, and how Maharashtra is still better than other states. I told him that if you compare Maharashtra to Chhattisgarh, you can say that, but you can’t just look like that and think there’s no room for improvement in Maharashtra. Then he spoke about how much development there was in Gadchiroli and how Naxalites there don’t allow development, and debates like that would continue.
What other kind of debates?
Well the basic debate that the police have, during interrogation or discussion, is why do Naxalites kill cops, why don’t you kill politicians?
They say that?
Yes. That is one of the most common things. You can ask any of those accused as Naxalites. When cops go into discussion, and not interrogation, they say, ‘why are you killing cops? Cops are not the ones oppressing you, the people oppressing you are the politicians.’ And when I ask, ‘so you want Naxalites to kill politicians?’ they go: ‘No! no! no! No! we never said that.’ (Laughs).
Another debate is that they themselves want progress but politicians don’t allow it.
And that takes us to development and how Naxalism is obstructing it. I would say “you’re talking about Gadchiroli, but what about Melghat and Thana-mokhada where there are no Naxalites?
Where is the development? And when you talk about development in Gadchiroli, yes, you can say a lot about the roads in Gadchiroli, which are maintained like no other place in Maharashtra, but forget Maharashtra,
I haven’t seen state highways and national highways anywhere like Gadchiroli, but besides the roads, where is the development?
So would you say there is a certain openness and respect for political prisoners?
When it comes down to it, when it comes to people’s movements, a lot of the lower level police know these aren’t normal criminals and there is some respect for that. The know these are people who have views and are fighting for their rights. They have a problem, they are on the other side of the fence, and when they realise it, that their people get killed, they ask, why us?
What about the higher levels of the police force?
They are a little more politically biased. They see things only from the perspective of the ruling class. And they are IPS, IAS, so their entire way of thinking, to an extent, is anti-poor. They think that these are all uncivilised population, and we need to bring them to the right way of living.
Was there ever any antagonism from other prisoners? Were they violently opposed to you simply because they thought you were all Naxalites?
No, I don’t think so. General prisoners mostly had a lot of respect for the political under-trials, at least in Nagpur jail, I’m not talking of others. Like there were 125 of us by 2011, and in our barracks everybody knew that there were no tension really, like there’d be no fights over ganja, or over charas.
If you have the money, yes. But you see when it comes to relations with other prisoners, in these barracks, I’ll give you an example.
Last year in March, at six o’ clock, that’s the time of ‘bandhi’, when barracks are supposed to be closed and that’s the time when we’re all supposed go inside to sit down in pairs in a line. Now generally most people just hang about.
At that time there was a separate barrack for all the Naxal under-trials and politicals and on that day there was a new guard who just came around and started swinging his lathi, which made a lot of people angry. They just grabbed his lathi and pushed him away.
They went up to the jailer to ask, what is this? What is going on? All the other guards had come. And the general feeling in the rest of the jail was that, “The guard should not have done that to that barrack.” For that is the barrack that is the most disciplined.
If you tell them to sit in a line, they do it. People here are mature, and if you have to do “ginti”(count) you can do it, and we’d do it. That day there was a lot of tension in the jail. Everyone said, “that barrack has gotten angry”.
The very same day people from the barrack went to the jailer who said you can write a complaint and I’ll send it ahead. But everyone felt he was just a lower level chap and we shouldn’t screw up his record. So we asked the guard to come to the barracks and apologise in the morning and he did it. But there have been times that the authorities, to get their point across, have used other prisoners to get at political prisoners, not with those accused as Naxalites, but with the SIMI activists.
With Muslims, it’s easier because there’s always some communal angle. Like during namaaz, they’d put the radio on when there are some good songs. So at that time there is some fight.
Are there any other kinds of conflict in prison? Is there any form of sexual violence?
I wouldn’t call it sexual violence. However the conditions of prison compel so-called ‘consensual’ homosexuality. Many of the senior inmates would engage the services of younger ones (‘shooters’ in prison lingo) and in turn these younger lads would be provided essential benefits that only an experienced hand can provide, like decent bedding space, sufficient water supply or pilfered food items. In the process these young lads gain experience in the rules of the game and in turn engage their own ‘shooters’ within a few years.
Speaking of antagonism between prisoners, you were interned with the Khairlanji killers in the phasi yard, the very people against whom you were campaigning against when you were politically active?
The Khairlanji convicts were with me. And while fighting for the rights of other prisoners we did not discriminate against them. In 2010, during the birth anniversary of Jatin Das, a companion of Bhagat Singh, we generally in jail celebrated this day, 13th of September, as the day of political prisoners. Jatin Das died in a prison hunger strike. So in Maharashtra jails, too, we celebrate it. And that year, all the prisoners in the phasi yard on the 13th of September, we asked for abolition of the death sentence.
Some people thought this was very odd, that people like us, who at one time campaigned against the atrocity in Khairlanji, should stand up for their rights. But I don’t think there’s a contradiction. It’s about rights you fight for, and even if you’re a convict, you have rights, whether you have done something wrong or not, is another matter. If you’re a murderer, or a criminal, you still have rights.
Did you ever talk to them about what happened in Khairlanji?
The problem about being in death row is that you don’t talk about the crime. In other yards people talk about the crime, about what happened, about how to make applications and all that. But in phasi yard, you don’t talk about the crime. You may know people for years but no one talks about it.
The Khairlanji convicts won’t talk about the crime, but you know their views about caste. They won’t say caste is bad, but say Dalits are misusing the name of caste, and give that kind of angle. The problem with such casteist or communal crimes is that people do these things in a frenzy. In most cases it’s not really thought out. It’s more mob violence that happens in riots.
What happened in Khairlanji can’t be seen without seeing that the entire Bhandara district is very casteist. If you want to debate such things, emotions do come out. In jail, especially in the phasi yard, emotions are high and at times and it’s best to retreat.
That’s when you realise how different it is for those under sentence of death. People with life sentences start coming to terms with reality, but in death row, they’re always on pins and needles: “What will happen to me? What will happen to me? Will I live or die?” And that situation is really horrible.
Is there any form of casteism evident in prison life?
In Maharashtra prisons no non-veg food is served in the prison ration. The only way one can satisfy one’s cravings is by buying an occasionally expensive meal through the prison canteen. However for the poor inmates this is impossibility. Many in the ‘danda kamaan’ work team, convicts who clean toilets and gutters, usually Dalits or Adivasis, satisfy this need by hunting and cooking bandicoots or pigeons.
But there’s one thing about jails, they are a reflection of social contradictions. Like the Sachar Commission says, that the biggest concentration of Muslims you’d find in jail, and the same is true with regard to Dalits and Adivasis.
So to an extent the right wing caste politics and communalism you won’t find in jail as the weaker sections are more powerful.
You’d have Dalit and Muslim dons in jails at least in Nagpur, like the Adivasi people… well they won’t be dons, but they have some collective power. But the fact that they are within prison is a reflection of what is happening in society.
Hence if one wants to fulfill that age-old dream of razing prisons to the ground, we can’t change society just by reforming prisons. The reform of prisons is ultimately linked with society.
There is this talk of reforming the prisoner, but how can you reform a prisoner when he has to go back to the same society? You may try to teach a poor person some trade, like how to repair an automobile or bakery course, but ultimately he has to get a job out there.
Is there anyone you know who found it hard to re-adjust and got back into jail?
Many. In fact, there is a small section of habitual criminals who have gone out and come back. I’ll give you an example of a guy called ‘Mandir’ whose actual name is Manish. If you know Nagpur, he used to stay on the streets of Birdi. For three months he used to be out, and after three months he would be back. We would read in the newspapers that some shop was looted, three shirts and a packet of cigarettes stolen, and we knew he’d be coming back. We knew he was not stealing shirts because he wanted one, but because he wanted to come back to jail. What choice did he have outside? He had a better life in jail.
You’ve been out of jail for over a month now, are you having difficulty re-adjusting to everyday life?
It’s been four and a half years since my experience with torture. For the first two years my legs used to ache for quite a long time. And in winter, the soles of my feet used to ache. Now, it’s all right, but if torture had any effect, it has increased my resolve to fight against injustice.
At one time, when I was a free man, a custodial death used to just pass my eyes. But now when it comes in the paper, you know the facts and you can read between the lines. They always say something like a person got hurt slipping in the bathroom, or while trying escape, and you know what happened because you’ve gone through it.
Were there any incidents of custodial death in Nagpur Central Jail that you knew of?
There was one in 2010, during the local elections in December. There’s always a roundup of local chapter cases. There was a man called Chankapure who was put in jail. He was a drunkard and the ACP put him in under his summary powers. He was kicked and all that, and dead the next day. In the entire jail, there was a hunger strike of some 2,500 people.
The prison administration went wild, and sent officers to subdue people in each barrack. The jailers went to each barracks to get people to call it off. There were some weaker elements, and by evening every barrack but ours called the strike off. Eventually there was an enquiry by the State Human Rights Commission, but you know how they are. A few days ago, there was a report that custodial deaths are the highest in Maharashtra. So what are your plans now?
I plan to continue my work as a civil rights activist, to continue my role in the legal and political battle for the release of other political prisoners. And since I am also a cartoonist, I will continue to use my cartoons as a method to highlight the life of the oppressed in India. Immediately, I am in the process of publishing a book of a compilation of cartoons that I did in prison about life out there.