Travesty of Justice in the Seema Azad and the Vishwa Vijay case: A critique of the Allahabad Court Judgement

To ask for papers proving guilt in black and white, is useless for there need be no such papers. The guilty have proof of their innocence. The innocent often have no proof.

- Bertolt Brecht


On the 8th of June 2012 Additional District Judge, Sunil Kumar Singh, Presiding officer of the District and Session Court, Allahabad, pronounced life imprisonment to 36 year old Seema Azad, writer and editor of Dastak (a monthly magazine) and the Organising Secretary of the People's Union for Civil Liberties, Uttar Pradesh branch, under waging war against the Government of India and for offences related to being a member and supporter of a terrorist organisation. Her husband Vishwa Vijay too was similarly sentenced. The Judgement came exactly after the two had spent twenty seven months (two years and three months) in Naini Jail.

This Judgement has once again exposed how the Indian Security Establishment, the Police and the Intelligence are working in tandem with a section of the Judiciary and that any arrest made in the name of Maoism and Terrorism can be justified by invoking the draconian laws like the UAPA and the colonial era security provisions of the Indian Penal Code. Through this judgement there is also an attempt to send a warning to all activists of their fate if they are going to be questioning Government policy or hold alternative views.

Thus it becomes very important to examine the case, critique the judgement and build a campaign against this injustice demanding the release of Seema Azad and Vishwa Vijay. It is also important that we do so at this juncture when disappearances, false cases and illegal detentions have become rampant in the name of fighting Maoism and Terrorism. An undeclared emergency persists with life and liberty of the people of India being the biggest casualty. There is an effort to silence Human Rights activists and all voices of dissent. We need to fight it back NOW!!

About Seema Azad
 Seema now almost 37 years was born on 5th August 1975, soon after the emergency was imposed. She initially studied in Gorakhpur and later in Allahabad after her family moved following her father's transfer to the city. She completed her B.A. and a master’s degree in psychology from Allahabad University. Till 1995, her interests were mainly confined to scientific quests in understanding the mysteries of the universe. But very soon she connected these inquiries with societal movements through books such as J.D. Bernal’s book, Science in History. She also tried to understand the obstacles slowing down the speed of the society she lived in through other books such as Julius Fuchik’s Notes from the Gallows. In 1995-96, she became active in student and gender politics. Seema remained active on the women’s liberation front till 2001. The bonds forged with the revolutionary students movement continued till 2004.

Seema made her own choice in marriage and married Vishwa Vijay and left home. She got rid of the caste identity reflected in her name and replaced her surname, Srivastava, with ‘Azad’. A new Seema was born: Seema Azad. She put together some money and bought a motorbike. She went amongst people to write about their lives, their struggles, their dreams. Her constant effort was to ensure publication of ordinary people’s struggles in newspapers. Till 2006 she wrote regularly for Sahara. Many other newspapers in Allahabad also prominently featured her reports. Seema also became a part of movements associated with human rights and those that were taking place against the exploitation and oppression of peasants and workers.

After 2006 she decided bring out a magazine which she decided would privilege people’s movements and sociopolitical thoughts. The magazine, Dastak, became a part of the movement. Through the magazine, she did a thorough investigation of the Ganga Expressway plan which threatened to displace thousands of farmers. In order that the threats posed by the Expressway plan be known to more and more people, she published the findings of her survey in the form of a booklet and distributed copies. Dastak also published a long report on the arbitrary arrests and excesses by the STF upon Muslim youth in Azamgarh. Seema Azad became more and more active in the human rights movement. One issue of 2009 also focussed on whether Obama was really talking of the change that poor people living in the third world countries wanted to see.

Seema's inspiration in life was also her father, Mr. MP Srivastava who retired as Assistant Labour Commissioner from the Government of UP. He was well known for making efforts at ensuring justice for workers. After his retirement he also published several books on Labour Laws and its Praxis the State and the Country.

She also joined the PUCL branch in Uttar Pradesh in 2009 where she was entrusted with the responsibility of the Organising Secretary. 

At the time of Seema’s arrest, there was a generation of youth in Uttar Pradesh vocal in raising human rights issues, the profiling of Muslims, Corrupt politics, a plundering economy, growing social insecurity, violence-inciting politics, the manipulations resorted to for winning the votes of Dalits and Minorities and then oppressing the same people: all these were creating anger and discontent amongst people. Such a reaction was seen as a threat by both the centre and the state. One name expressing this protest was that of Seema Azad’s.

The Arrest of Seema and Vishwa Vijay

Like every year this time too Seema was at the International Book Fair in Delhi. She left Delhi on the 5th February evening and took Rewa Express back to Delhi. It was after their train had crossed Kanpur in the morning of the 6th, that she felt that something was amiss when strange tall men all with a police look, got into her coach. Very soon she knew that they were from Andhra Pradesh as she realised they were speaking Telegu. When she got off at Allahabad she was surrounded by more men, but she continued to move towards the Civil Lines exit, where her husband Vishwa Vijay was waiting for her. When Vishwa Vijay was getting his moped off the parking, they were arrested. The time was 11.30 am. 

However the FIR number 33/ 2010 (Criminal Case number 37/ 2010) dated 6th February, 2012  was lodged at the Khuldabad police station, Allahabad, shows the timing of arrest as 9.30pm from the other exit of the Railway Station which is the Khushrubag. The section under which they were booked were sections 18, 20, 21, 23 (2) of the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, 1967, amended 2004 and 2008 and IPC sections 120 (b), 121, 121(A) of the IPC.

The family of the Seema only learnt about it the next day through the new channels, following which they rushed to the police station and had to find their way through a maze of cameramen and photographers to even get a glimpse of her.

The local magistrate didnot grant the police the remand of Seema and Vishwa Vijay and on the 7th of February and they were sent to Naini Jail in Allahabad soon after. 
The Police Story against Seema Azad and Vishwa Vijay

Interestingly the charge sheet made out by the police does not go beyond the FIR. The only movement in the story of the FIR come from what the police tries to show  from  what they obtained in the house search, a procedure that was carried out through an illegal remand 5 months after her arrest.  Thus we have combined both and are presenting a summary of it.

The story on the basis of which charges were made out by the prosecution against Seema Azad and her husband is as follows:

  1. Information that Seema Azad and her husband Vishwa Vijay were CPI (Maoist) activists was made available to them by a  CPI Maoist party by a person arrested in Gorakhpur on 06.02.2010, some hours before the couple were arrested. Which is how they came under surveillance and were tracked them down.

  1. That Seema Azad and her husband were at the railway station at 9.30 pm on the 6th of February in order to board a train to Kanpur for a CPI( Maoist) meeting of Bihar, Jharkhand and UP representatives, where some important leaders who were wanted were also reaching.

  1. .Their sling bags (jholas) contained some literature ostensibly published by the CPI Maoist party. ( Interestingly the FIR claims that the policemen as per the rules carried out a search of each other and only after being satisfied that nobody had anything that could be planted that they searched the two. There was a woman constable who searched Seema)

  1. Interestingly according to the FIR they both stated to the police (supposedly while standing at the railway station) that they were activists of the CPI Maoist party and that they wanted to establish Maoist rule by overthrowing the state and that it could only be achieved through an armed resistance.

  1. Since they were unable to show the papers of the moped their two wheeler had to be seized and that they were also charged under the Motor Vehicles Act.

  1. Prior to their arrest in Gorakhpur and subsequent to their arrest, the  people who were arrested in Kanpur and in Delhi who were all CPI (Maoists) or sympathisers of the CPI (Maoist) party were found with published literature, of which some was the same as that found in the possession of Seema Azad.

  1. That the disclosure statements made to the police of the other arrested persons referred above states that Seema Azad and her husband were activists of the Maoist party. (please note that no confessional statements were made out in front of the magistrates of anybody. The entire case moves on statements made to the police).

  1. That recoveries were made from her house included copies of the magazine Dastak, a report on the Ganga Expressway project, and ‘secret’ document of the CPI Maoist party and a cell phone. That Seema Azad and Vishwa Vijay was taken on police remand over five months after her arrest.

  1. That the call details obtained concerning the cell phone of Seema Azad show that she travelled widely to "secret" places.

  1. That the ‘secret’ document owned up to killing of security personnel by the CPI
            Maoist Party and waging a war against the Government of India.

On these details hangs the story that claims that Seema Azad and her husband are activists of the CPI Maoist party and that they are also conspirators and participants in the waging of war against the government.  Hence Seema and her husband were charged under S. 120B, 121, 121A of the IPC and S. 13, 18, 20, 21, 23(2), 38, 39, 40 of the UAPA.

Seema’s Version

Seema’s story is a far cry from the police version. She deboarded the Rewa express at the Allahabad railway station at 11:30 a.m. on 06.02.2010 and her husband had come on their two wheeler moped to receive her at the railway station. Outside the station, they were approached by the police, her belongings, money, Dastak magazine, cell phone, camera were forcibly taken away and taken to Khuldabad P.S. at Allahabad. Her backpack laden with books purchased from the Book Fair at Delhi was also taken away. There the police prepared a false seizure list that included documents and literature that was not in her possession along with clothes and money that were with her. The books that she had bought from the Delhi Book Fair were never returned to her or made part of the seizure memo.

As stated earlier the Judicial Magistrate Court and later the Sessions Judge refused police remand for Seema Azad and her husband. The prosecution applied to the Allahabad High Court which directed it to apply afresh at the lower court. This order was stayed by the court upon the application by Seema Azad and the stay was vacated by the High Court after dismissing her petition on 7 July, 2012. This was done exparte, so the lawyers of Seema filed a recall application in the High Court, while the hearing on this was still awaited the prosecution on the 19 July, 2012 moved the lower court and obtained an order that she be sent on police remand for 2 days from 20 July till 22 July, 2012.

According to Seema, her lawyers and her family members, the police took Seema Azad and her husband from the Jail in the evening of the 20th of July, 2012, just before sundown. She was brought to her house near Durga Puja Park at 8 pm. Without the presence of any public witnesses, her lawyers or her family members the police brought them for a house search. When they started breaking the lock of the house, Seema urged that her parents be contacted. But they paid no heed and the lock was broken. It was only after the house was opened and Seema refused to cooperate if her father would not be called, they called him. Mr Srivastava came rushing with a neighbour. The police then went around the house and collected only three items, copies of Dastak magazine, a booklet on the Ganga expressway project and her articles published in Sahara Samay, on the basis of the disclosures made by Seema and Vijay. .

Seema’s father was then asked by the police to purchase a lock so that the house could be locked as they wanted to hand over their possession to the father. When he returned with the lock, he was asked to sign on a sheet of paper on which was mentioned that he was being handed the key to the house. He signed it. Seema's father went home and Seema and Vishwa Vijay were taken to the police station as they were to undergo a medical test the next day, before sending her back to the Jail.

In the police station the police that had taken her for the search asked Seema to sign on the same paper which she refused to do since the paper at the top was mentioned annexed papers. She insisted that she be shown all the papers only then she would sign it. She was never shown the continuation sheets so the search papers were never signed by Seema and Vishwa Vijay. It is clear that the so called recoveries could never be used legally.

In the Trial Court

In the Trial court, the STF police presented 16 witnesses, of which 14 were policemen and only two non-police witnesses. Who were officials of the Government. One was an engineer of the BSNL and another a bureaucrat of the UP Government. None of the witnesses had evidence to offer against Seema or her husband except re-stating the police story provided in the FIR. Neither did they have any eye-witness account to allege involvement in any specific crime. Nor any confessional statement.

The police witnesses merely stated that they had been informed through disclosure statements made by others arrested in different places, both before and after the arrest of Seema Azad, that Seema Azad and her husband were Maoist activists. Disclosure statements are statements to the police extracted in police custody. Such statements have no sanctity as evidence in a court of law. Moreso, when the prosecution did not consider it fit to get the persons making such “disclosures” to present their evidence during the trial. Thus there was no valid claim presented in court that could pass the test of a trial in court.

What the court inferred

The District and Sessions Court at Allahabad pronounced its judgment on 8.6.2012 convicting Seema Azad and her husband under the Unlwful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967 amended 2004, 2008 (UAPA) for involvement in unlawful activities (Sec. 13), for conspiracy to commit a terrorist act (Sec. 18), for being a member of a terrorist gang or organisation (Sec. 20), offence relating to membership of a terrorist organisation (Sec. 38), for giving support to a terrorist organisation (Sec. 39), and under the IPC for criminal conspiracy (S.120B), waging war against the government of India (S. 121) and conspiracy to wage war against the government of India (S.121A). They were acquiited by the court against sec 13, sec 21 and 23 (2) and sec 40 of the UAPA.

To reach this conclusion the arguments presented by the court are as follows:

  1. That it is stated in the FIR that Seema Azad and her husband were questioned by the police at the time and from the place mentioned in the FIR and that upon their confession to the police they were arrested and the FIR prepared. Hence, though the law states that the confession before the police is not valid as evidence, the contents of the same being part of the FIR make it valid evidence. This is then used to conclude that Seema and her husband were arrested on the way to the railway station when they were leaving Allahabad for a meeting of the CPI Maoist party.

  1. Seema has categorically stated that she was returning to Allahabad and her husband was there to receive her and that the police took her into custody many hours prior to the formal arrest. Her brother has also stated before the court that he purchased her railway ticket and a copy of the same was produced. This evidence was rejected since it merely proved that Seema arrived in Allahabad in the afternoon, while the police states the time of arrest during the night. And the court held that what the police officers state before the court has to be assumed to be true. And since Seema was in the custody of the police from the afternoon, she cannot humanly provide any proof of the lies. Interestingly the phone calls details were of the 6th of February, 2012 were never presented to the court which would have proved her location.

  1. Contrary to the law of the land, the court has held that the disclosures made by Seema Azad and Vishwa Vijay to the police are valid in court. This is done through an ingenious deception. It is argued that if recoveries are made on the basis of previously recorded disclosure statements, then the statements themselves become valid evidence. Thus, since the police claims that it recovered the mobile phone and a Maoist document from her house when Seema was taken into police remand, the disclosure statement magically transforms itself into a judicial confession.

  1. Seema Azad has stated that her mobile phone was taken away from her at the time of her arrest which was never shown on the seizure list and that the Maoist document of 26 pages was planted on her during the search on her house. The desperation of the police to obtain her police remand even after the permissible 90 days in jail can be seen in the judgment itself. The District, Sessions and High court had all previously refused police remand for her. The importance of the police remand and the subsequent search of her house and recoveries becomes visible through this judgment as a ploy to convert inadmissible police confession into valid legal evidence.

  1. That the lack of any public witnesses at the time of arrest and seizure does not make the seizures at the time of arrest less believable, even though the arrest and search of belongings was done in a public place by the police itself. This is justified in the judgment by the argument that it should be assumed that the official work done by the police is done in a proper manner. That there are serious allegations by Seema regarding the time of arrest were brushed aside.

  1. The highlighted contents of the Maoist document purportedly seized from Seema’s house, then, forms the basis for an understanding the actions of the Maoists as well as the association of the accused with the CPI Maoist party and the involvement of the accused as conspirators and perpetrators of the actions referred to in the Maoist document. This inference is drawn in the Judgment without the mention of a single incident of violence in which either of the accused was either a conspirator or a participant.
This seizure it may be recalled also was done without public witnesses and that the accused refused to sign seizure list since they were only presented the last page to sign on. This apart, the judgment argues that the Supreme Court judgment that mere possession of a document does not prove complicity, is not applicable since the contents of the document are so objectionable. A perfect example of a paradoxical argument.

  1. The documents seized from Seema and her husband at the time of the arrest were sealed and kept in the store at the police station. However, the police, without any permission from the court, broke the seal ostensibly, without taking permission from the magistrate to examine the contents, and sealed it again. This blatant disrespect of procedure that should have in normal circumstances made the police subject of the wrath of the court and raised serious questions on the authenticity of the contents, was held in this judgment to be no violation of procedure at all.

  1. Finally the judgment states that a clinching piece of evidence showing connection with other members of the Maoist party is a letter written by Seema to Kanchan a.k.a. Anu who was in judicial custody at Delhi, accused with Maoist affiliation. That Anu stated that she had previously stayed at the Seema’s house is seen as a damning piece of evidence. Incidentally, Anu has been released on bail by the court at Delhi.


How did the reach court reach this conclusion? It can only be explained by the fact that the court refused to assume the innocence of the accused. For, if it were to do that, it is apparent that the entire evidence brought forth is wholly consistent with the inference of innocence.

What makes the judicial mind lose its way, is the labyrinthine world of UAPA, and the section of crimes against the Government which are a part of the IPC. These provisions on our statute book define crimes that are trumpeted to be the most heinous and at the same time the most ill-defined.

Since these are mainly crimes to do with intention, rather than the action, disbelieving the police story by itself is regarded as the lack of concern for the nation. And then the UAPA messes about with the established procedures in a manner that innocence and guilt become relative categories, easily capable of being turned around on the current disposition of a judge or of a government.

In sum, the Judgment pronounced by the sessions court at Allahabad in the case of Seema Azad and Vishwa Vijay is a perfect example of how a large number of half-truths, inadmissible evidence, procedural violations and an obnoxious piece of legislation can convert a free citizen into a threat to national security.

(This note has been prepared jointly by the PUCL and the PUDR)


सितारों के बिना एक दुनिया : सीमा आज़ाद

(इलाहाबाद के नैनी सेंट्रल जेल में कैद होने के बावजूद सीमा आज़ाद ने एक पत्रकार का बुनियादी धर्म नहीं छोड़ा। यहां के बंदियों के बच्‍चे उन्‍हें सीमा दीदी कहते हैं। आइए, पढ़ते हैं सलाखों में कैद बचपन की मार्मिक कहानी, सीमा की ज़ुबानी) 

सीमा आज़ाद  

याद करें बचपन की। वे कौन सी यादें हैं जो हमें अभी भी रोमांचित करती हैं- गर्मी की उमस भरी रात में छत पर लेटना और अपनी ज़मीनी दुनिया भूल कर चांद-सितारों की दुनिया की सैर करना। सच, ये तारों भरा आकाश हम सब को आश्‍चर्य से भर देता था। जब गर्मी के बाद बरसात के आगमन की पूर्व सूचना देने वाले बादल के टुकड़े इस काले-काले आसमान में चक्‍कर लगाते हों तो यह और भी रहस्‍यमय हो जाता था। इन बादलों में हम न जाने कितनी आकृतियां देखा करते थे। आसमान में कभी-कभी इंद्रधनुष दिख जाता था तो हमारे लिए बहुत बड़ा कौतूहल हो जाता।

सीमा आज़ाद 
पर क्‍या आप कल्‍पना कर सकते हैं कि एक ऐसी दुनिया है जहां के बच्‍चे रात के आसमान व चांद-तारों की चमक से अनजान हैं। इंद्रधनुष ही नहीं चांद का दर्शन भी उनके लिए एक आश्‍चर्यजनक घटना है। जी हां, ऐसी भी एक दुनिया है। यह दुनिया है जेल की। यहां बच्‍चे शाम ढलते अपनी माताओं के साथ बैरक के अंदर बंद कर दिए जाते हैं। फिर सुबह सूरज निकलने के बाद ही इन्‍हें बैरक से बाहर निकाला जाता है। मेरा ध्‍यान इस बात की ओर तब गया जब एक दिन सुबह बैरक खुलने पर जेल में ही पैदा हुई ढाई साल की 'खुशी' बहुत तेज़ी से दौड़ते हुए मेरे पास आई। उसके छोटे से चेहरे की आंखें आश्‍चर्य से फैली हुई थीं। होठ गोल हो गए थे और उसके नन्‍हे हाथ जिस ओर इशारा कर रहे थे वहां पश्चिम के आसमान में गोल सा चांद डूब रहा था। उसने तो न कभी सूरज देखा था न चांद। इसलिए उसके लिए ये बेहद आश्‍चर्यजनक चीज़ थी। मैंने उसे बताया कि वह चंदा मामा हैं। फिर वह हमेशा आकाश की ओर हाथ उठा कर पूछती है 'छीमा मामा'? सामान्‍य तौर पर जो बात वह रोज़ के अनुभव से जान सकती थी वह मेरे लिए समझाना असंभव था।

ये जेल के बच्‍चे हैं। इनकी माताएं किसी न किसी आरोप में जेल काट रही हैं। इनकी दुनिया इतनी सिमटी है जिसकी कल्‍पना बाहर की दुनिया के लोग तो नहीं ही कर सकते। जेल के अधिकारी भी नहीं करते। इसी कारण उन्‍हें इसका अहसास नहीं होता कि वे इन बच्‍चों का कितना महत्‍वपूर्ण समय छीन रहे हैं। थोड़ा बहुत समझने वाला कोई भी व्‍यक्ति यह समझ सकता है कि बच्‍चों को स्‍वस्‍थ तरीके से विकसित होने के लिए उसका उसके आसपास की दुनिया से संपर्क कितना ज़रूरी है। यह संपर्क उस बच्‍चे के स्‍कूल जाने से भी कई गुना ज्‍यादा ज़रूरी है। बाहरी दुनिया से संपर्क कितना ज़रूरी है। क्‍योंकि यही अनुभव संसार, उससे उपजी कल्‍पनाएं किसी बच्‍चे के दिमाग के विकास के लिए बेहद ज़रूरी है। पर जेल में बच्‍चों से इस अनुभव संसार को छीन कर उनके साथ जुर्म किया जा रहा है। मैं आपको कुछ उदाहरण देती हूं जिससे आपको भी इसका अहसास होगा।

जेल में रहने वाला किशन जो 6 साल का होने पर मां के साथ जेल आया था, वह चिन्‍टू (जो जन्‍म से ही जेल में है) से बता रहा था कि माता-पिता भगवान से बड़े होते हैं। चिन्‍टू ने पूछा कि माता-पिता क्‍या होते हैं? किशन ने बताया- 'मम्‍मी और पापा'। चिन्‍टू ने थोड़ा शर्माते हुए पूछा- 'पापा क्‍या होते हैं?' किशन ने उसे डांटते हुए कहा- 'धत् साले, पापा नहीं जानते?' चिन्‍टू चुप हो गया। यह सुन कर उसके बड़े भाई पिन्‍टू (उम्र 8 वर्ष) ने कहा, 'हमें पता है कि पापा क्‍या होता है। जो लोग मर्दाने में रहते हैं यानी मर्द लोग। न सीमा दीदी?' आप कल्‍पना कर सकते हैं कि मुझे यह समझाने में कितनी मुश्किल आई होगी कि पापा क्‍या होते हैं।

जेल में रहने के कारण ये बच्‍चे बिल्‍ली-चूहा के अलावा किसी जानवर के बारे में नहीं जानते। कभी-कभी ये बच्‍चे अदालत जाने के लिए या मुलाकात के लिए जाने के लिए बाहर निकलते हैं तो रास्‍ते में दिखने वाले कुत्‍ता, गाय, भैंस, घोड़ा हर जानवर को आश्‍चर्य से देखते हैं और सबको बिल्‍ली ही बताते हैं।

हम बचपन से अपनी मां को खाना बनाते हुए देखते आए हैं। उन्‍हें सब्‍ज़ी काटते देखना बहुत सामान्‍य सी बात है। बल्कि जब हम थोड़ा बड़े हुए तो मां की तरह खाना बनाने का खेल भी खेला करते थे। पर महिला जेल में चूंकि खाना पुरुष बैरक से बन कर आता है इसलिए बच्‍चे इस स्‍वाभाविक घरेलू काम के बारे में कुछ भी नहीं जानते। थोड़ा बड़े बच्‍चे यहां गिरफ्तारी, अदालत और रिहाई का खेल खेलते हैं। जो बच्‍चा जज बनता है वह सभी को रिहाई दे देता है। इस खेल में सिपाही या पुलिस का चित्रण बहुत खराब होता है और कोई बच्‍चा सिपाही नहीं बनना चाहता।  

इससे भी ज्‍यादा बुरा यह है कि ये बच्‍चे सब्जि़यों को नहीं पहचान सकते। जेल में सब्‍ज़ी में आलू की सब्‍ज़ी, मूली का साग, चौलाई और शलजम की सब्‍ज़ी ही बन कर आती है। इसलिए ये बच्‍चे इनके अलावा किसी दूसरी सब्‍ज़ी का स्‍वाद नहीं जानते। न ही किसी साबुत सब्‍ज़ी को पहचानते हैं। इन बच्‍चों ने चूंकि काम के नाम पर अपनी माताओं को केवल झाड़ू लगाते ही देखा है, इसलिए ये बच्‍चे नीम की टहनी बटोर कर उसका झाड़ू बना कर झाड़ू लगाने का खेल खेलते हैं।

नैनी सेंट्रल जेल में दो तरह के बच्‍चे हैं। एक वे जो जन्‍म से ही अंदर हैं या जब से उन्‍होंने होश संभाला है वे अंदर हैं। दूसरी तरह के बच्‍चे वो हैं जो बाहर की दुनिया से वाकिफ़ हैं। इन दोनों तरह के बच्‍चों के बीच होने वाली बातचीत कभी-कभी बहुत रोचक होती है। जैसे पिन्‍टू एक दिन अपने छोटे भाई को छोले-भटूरे के बारे में बता रहा था। उसने उसे लखनऊ की आदर्श जेल में कभी खाया था। वास्‍तव में, चिन्‍टू-पिन्‍टू की मां पहले लखनऊ की आदर्श जेल में थीं। यहां बच्‍चों को पढ़ने के लिए बाहर स्‍कूल भेजा जाता था। पिन्‍टू भी स्‍कूल जाता था इसलिए उसका अनुभव संसार थोड़ा ज्‍यादा बड़ा है। पिन्‍टू, चिन्‍टू को बता रहा था कि भटूरा बड़ा गोल और मुलायम होता है जो खाने में बहुत अच्‍छा होता है। उसने बताया कि उसने वहां पराठा भी खाया है। चिन्‍टू उसकी ओर ऐसे देख रहा था जैसे उसका भाई कितनी बड़ी बात बता रहा हो।

अभी एक महीना हुआ जब चिन्‍टू-पिन्‍टू के बाबा उन दोनों को अपने साथ लिवा ले गए। मैं कई दिन तक मानसिक रूप से उनके साथ खास तौर पर चिन्‍टू के साथ रही। क्‍योंकि जन्‍म के बाद सात साल का होने के बाद उसने बाहर की दुनिया में कदम रखा था। उसे तो अदालत के बहाने भी बाहर आने-जाने का मौका नहीं मिलता था। मैं कल्‍पना करती रही कि कैसे चिन्‍टू पहली बार अपने बाबा की उंगली पकड़े ट्रेन में बैठा होगा। पहली बार उसने सड़क पर भागती-दौड़ती मोटरगाड़ी देखी होगी। खेत-खलिहान देखा होगा। घर पर हर तरह के व्‍यंजन आश्‍चर्य के साथ खा रहा होगा और रात में छत पर लेट कर तारों भरा आसमान देख रहा होगा। जन्‍म के पूरे सात साल बाद!

नैनी सेंट्रल जेल में ऐसे बच्‍चों की कुल संख्‍या 15 से 25 के बीच है। यह संख्‍या घटती-बढ़ती रहती है। इन बच्‍चों से इनका बचपन, इनका अनुभव संसार छीन लिया गया है क्‍योंकि इनकी मां ने कोई जुर्म किया है या झूठे आरोप में फंसी हैं। सरकार भले ही सबको अनिवार्य शिक्षा का दावा करती हो पर इन बच्‍चों के लिए कोई शिक्षा व्‍यवस्‍था नहीं है। तिहाड़ जेल के बारे में मैंने पढ़ा है कि वहां बच्‍चों के क्रेच हैं। लखनऊ की आदर्श जेल के बारे में मैंने पिन्‍टू से सुना कि वहां बच्‍चे स्‍कूल जाते हैं। पर नैनी सेंट्रल जेल के बारे में ऐसी कोई व्‍यवस्‍था नहीं है। इन बच्‍चों की दुनिया इतनी छोटी है कि ये जिस तरफ भी देखते हैं एक ऊंची सी दीवार सामने दिखती है। ऊपर जो छोटा सा आसमान है उसे भी बड़े-बड़े पेड़ों ने ढंक लिया है। ऐसा लगता है कि जैसे ये बच्‍चे भी हमारे साथ एक बड़े से कुएं में कैद हैं। रात में ये कुआं और भी संकरा हो जाता है। बच्‍चों की कल्‍पना को उड़ान देने वाले, उनमें रंग भरने वाले उद्दीपक इस दुनिया से नदारद हैं। फिर ये बच्‍चे ही हैं जो हर हाल में खेलते हैं, खिलखिलाते हैं और हमें भी हंसने के लिए मजबूर करते हैं।

सीमा आज़ाद
राजनीतिक बंदी
नैनी सेंट्रल जेल
मई 2012  


It's the absence of human contact that chokes you!

Dispatches from Nagpur Jail
Arun Ferreira

After spending about five years in jail, Mumbai-based activist Arun Ferreira was released on bail in January this year. In May 2007, he was arrested in Nagpur on charges of being a Naxalite. The police claimed that he along with a senior Naxal leader, Ashok Satya Reddy alias Murali, was planning to blow up the historical Deekshabhoomi complex (where Babasaheb Ambedkar embraced Buddhism in 1956). In September 2010, he was acquitted of all charges by a Nagpur court, but was re-arrested by plainclothes policemen and charged with an alleged crime that occurred when Ferreira was locked up in jail. An alumnus of Mumbai’s St Xavier’s College, 39-year-old Ferreira kept a prison diary during his incarceration in Nagpur Central Jail. We reproduce here a  shortened version of his experiences and some of the sketches he drew in prison.

The anda barracks are a cluster of windowless cells within the high-security confines of Nagpur Central Jail. To get to most cells from the anda entrance, you have to pass through five heavy iron gates, [and] a maze of narrow corridors and pathways. There are several distinct compounds within the anda, each with a few cells, each cell carefully isolated from the other. There’s little light in the cells and you can’t see any trees. You can’t even see the sky. From the top of the central watch tower, the yard resembles an enormous, airtight concrete egg. But there’s a vital difference. It’s impossible to break it open. Rather, it’s designed to make inmates crack.

The anda is where the most unruly prisoners are confined, as punishment for violating disciplinary rules. The other parts of Nagpur jail aren’t quite so severe. Most prisoners are housed in barracks, with fans and a TV. In the barracks, the day-time hours can be quite relaxed, even comfortable. But in the anda, the only ventilation is provided by the gate of your cell, and even that doesn’t afford much comfort because it opens into a covered corridor, not an open yard.

But more than the brutal, claustrophobic aesthetic of the anda, it’s the absence of human contact that chokes you. If you’re in the anda, you spend 15 hours or more alone in your cell. The only people you see are the guards and occasionally the other inmates in your section. A few weeks in the anda can cause a breakdown. The horrors of the anda are well-known to prisoners in Nagpur jail, and they would rather face the severest of beatings than be banished to the anda.

While most prisoners spend only a few weeks in the anda or in its cousin, the phasi yard, home to prisoners sentenced to death, these sections were where I spent four years, eight months. This was because I was not an ordinary prisoner. I was, as the police claimed, a ‘dreaded Naxalite’, ‘Maoist leader’, descriptions that appeared in newspapers the morning after I was arrested on 8 May 2007.

I’d been arrested at Nagpur railway station on a brutally hot summer afternoon. I was waiting to meet some social activists when about 15 men grabbed me, bundled me into a car and drove away at high speed, kicking and punching me all the while. They took me to a room in a building my abductors later told me was the Nagpur Police Gymkhana. They used my belt to tie my hands and I was blindfolded, so that the police officials involved in this operation could remain unidentified. From their conversations, it became evident that I had been detained by the anti-Naxalite cell of the Nagpur Police. The assaults never stopped. Through the day, I was flogged with belts, kicked and slapped, as they attempted to soften me up for the interrogations that were to follow.

I had my first brush with social activism as a student at Mumbai’s St Xavier’s College in the early 1990s. I’d organised camps to villages and welfare projects for the underprivileged. The religious riots of 1992-93 really shook me up. Thousands of Muslims were displaced in their own city, and we helped run relief camps. The callousness of the state, which allowed the Shiv Sena to conduct its pogrom unimpeded, could not have been on better display. I soon joined the Vidyarthi Pragati Sanghatan, a student organisation that aimed to build a democratic, egalitarian society. We organised many campaigns in rural areas to help the dispossessed assert their rights. In Nashik, tribals were organising themselves against atrocities of the Forest Department. In Dabhol, villagers were resisting the Enron power project. In Umergaon, Gujarat, fisherfolk were protesting their imminent displacement by a gigantic port. Looking at these struggles up close made me aware that [offering] relief to the poor wasn’t as important as helping them question the skewed relations of power and justice and organise themselves to claim their rights.

However, post 9/11, there was a change in the way peoples’ movements came to be perceived. The so-called War Against Terror made security the prime motive of State policy. In India, special laws were promulgated to squash inconvenient truths. Organisations were banned, opinions were criminalised and social movements were branded ‘terrorist’. Those of us who worked to organise tribals or the oppressed in rural areas were termed ‘Maoists’.

In 2010, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh declared that Maoists were “India’s greatest internal security threat”. Some were ‘encountered’ or ‘disappeared’, while others were arrested. In places like Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand or Vidarbha in Maharashtra, all non-partisan political activity was branded as ‘Maoism’ and dealt with accordingly. In the months before my detention, many Dalit activists in Nagpur had been arrested on charges of radicalising the Amberkarite movement by infusing it with the politics of Naxalism. All this meant that I wasn’t entirely unprepared to be arrested myself.

Despite having contemplated this hypothetical situation, I wasn’t quite prepared to become a target of [State] excesses myself—to be arrested, tortured, implicated in false cases with fabricated evidence, and locked away in prison for several years.

At midnight, 11 hours after I had been detained, I was taken to a police station and informed that I had been arrested under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, 2004, which is applied to people the State believes are terrorists. I spent that night in a damp, dark cell in the police station. My bedding was a foul-smelling black blanket, its colour barely concealing just how dirty it was. A hole in the ground served as a urinal and could be identified by paan stains around it, and its acrid stench. I was finally served a meal: dal, roti and a couple of abuses. Having to eat from a plastic bag with jaws sore from [the day’s] blows wasn’t easy. But after the horrors of the day, these tribulations were relatively insignificant and allowed me a brief moment to pull myself together. I managed to ignore the putrid bedding and humid air and doze off.

Within a few hours, I was woken up for another round of interrogation. The officers appeared polite at first but quickly resorted to blows in an attempt to make me provide the answers they were looking for. They wanted me to disclose the location of a cache of arms and explosives or information on my supposed links with Maoists. To make me more amenable to their demands, they stretched my body out completely, using an updated version of the medieval torture technique of [the wrack]. My arms were tied to a window grill high above, while two policemen stood on my stretched thighs to keep me pinned to the floor. This was calculated to cause maximum pain without leaving any external injuries. Despite their precautions, my ears started to bleed and my jaws began to swell up.

In the evening, I was made to squat on the floor with a black hood over my head as numerous officers posed behind me for press photographs. The next day, I would later learn, these images made the front pages of papers around the country. The press was told that I was the chief of communications and propaganda of an ultra-left wing of Naxalites.

I was then produced before a magistrate. As all law students know, this step has been introduced [to the legal process] to give detainees an opportunity to complain against custodial torture—something I could establish quite easily since my face was swollen, ears bleeding and soles so sore it was impossible to walk. But in court, I learnt from my lawyers that the police had already accounted for those injuries in their concocted arrest story. According to their version, I was a dangerous terrorist and had fought hard with police to try to avoid arrest. They claimed that they had no option but to use force to subdue me. Strangely, none of my captors claimed to have been harmed during the scuffle.

That wasn’t the only surprise. In court, the police said that I’d been arrested in the company of three others—Dhanendra Bhurule, a local journalist; Naresh Bansod, the Gondia district president of an organisation called the Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmulan Samiti; and Ashok Reddy, a resident of Andhra Pradesh, people I had never met before. The police claimed to have seized a pistol and live cartridges from us. They said we had been meeting to hatch a plan to blow up the monument at Deekshabhoomi in Nagpur. If the police could convince people that Naxalites were planning to attack this hallowed shrine, this could convince Dalits not to [have any] truck with leftists.

But mere allegations couldn’t suffice. They needed to create evidence to support their claims. The police told the court that they needed us in custody for 12 days to interrogate us. While the journalist and I were kept at Nagpur’s Sitabuldi police station, the other two were taken to the Dhantoli police station. Every morning, we would be transported to the Police Gymkhana for continuous rounds of interrogation that lasted late into the night. First, they attempted to force us to sign a confessional statement they had drafted. When that failed, they got the court to agree to allow us to be subjected to the scientifically dubious practice of narco-analysis, lie detectors and brain mapping tests, which they hoped would bolster their allegations. So although legally I was no longer in their custody, the police could still interrogate me under the guise of conducting these forensic tests. Preparations were made to transport us to the State Forensic Science Lab in Mumbai.

Before that, we were formally admitted to Nagpur Central Prison. I stooped through the low narrow door into the complex that would be my home for 54 months. In keeping with procedure, first-time prisoners are presented before the gate-officer. Tradition, and perhaps training, demands that even the most mild-mannered gate-officer be at his aggressive best while dealing with new entrants, who, in jail slang, are called ‘Naya Ahmads’. It is the gate officers’ job to give the newcomer a crash course in meekness and mindless subservience. A lathi at his side serves as a teaching aid.

The officer is also supposed to enquire whether the new prisoner has suffered injuries due to torture in police custody, and, if so, record his statement. In my case, I had a bleeding ear, swollen jaws and sore feet. But in reality, the officer threatens anyone trying to make a complaint. By custom, all injuries are recorded as having existed before the prisoner was arrested. A strip search followed, standard protocol for new entrants to the prison. I was stripped to my underwear and ordered to squat in a line with the other new entrants awaiting my turn with the jadthi-amaldar (the man in charge of searches). Our every belonging was scrutinised and thrown on the dirty road for us to humbly gather together again. Hazards like packets of biscuits and beedis were pocketed by the staff.

We were unfortunate to arrive in isolation, but if the prisoner’s wait at the gate coincides with the entry or exit of one of the senior jail officials, he is privileged to witness a ceremony of colonial vintage. Senior jailors and superintendents can’t be expected to bend low to enter through the door. So the main gate is swung open to allow these sahibs to walk through, heads held high. When they are sighted at a distance, the gate guard issues a yelp of caution: “All hup!” All staff stand to attention and all lower life forms are swept into corners out of sight or forced to their haunches.

Most Naya Ahmads are then taken to the After Barrack, where they spend a night or two before being assigned to a fixed barrack. This waiting period allows the jail staff, convict-warders, inhouse extortionist gangs and other sharks to assess what they can extract from the latest catch. Middle and upper class entrants are easy targets. They are softened up with dark stories of prison-life horrors and not-so-veiled threats. Young boys are targeted for free labour and as sex toys. Contacts are made and deals are struck to ensure better treatment when moved to the regular barracks.

Next is the mulaija or check-in-process. New prisoners are lectured on the value of prison discipline by a convict warder or jailor. Each new inmate has his identifying marks noted and is weighed, measured and examined by a doctor and psychologist, before being presented before a phalanx of prison divinities, led by the Superintendent. A Body Ticket is presented to each prisoner, listing his prisoner number and offences registered against him. These offences form the basis of how he will be classified, and, to some extent, how he’ll be treated in jail.

Even though the law proclaims that an accused person is innocent until proved guilty, such niceties lack meaning behind prison walls. The allegations of the police are sufficient evidence for the jail authorities to punish even those awaiting trial. Alleged rapists and homosexuals are routinely targeted by officers and other prisoners at the encouragement of the staff. Those implicated in murder cases are compelled to wear a convict prisoner’s uniform and are consigned to special ‘murder barracks’. As a sign of their patriotism, many jail superintendents personally preside over the beatings of people accused of terrorism.

Before the mulaija, procedure requires the new entrant to be bathed. However, shortages of soap and water often prevent the diligent observance of these rules. Instead, most Naya Ahmads are rushed through the rough-and-ready hands of the nai kamaan (literally, the Barber Command), one of the work groups to which prisoners could be assigned later. The Naya Ahmad’s next stop is the Badi Gol, the area in Nagpur Jail that houses the prisoners awaiting trial. Each is allotted a barrack. That, theoretically, is where I should have been headed too. But in my case, the procedures were all jumbled up. Twelve days after I had been picked up by the police, I was hurriedly put into the anda barrack, given a prison uniform, and after a quick meal at 4 pm of besan and chewy rotis, [put on my way] to Mumbai by train.

Even before [detainees] can be given narco-analysis, they are put through a series of medical tests, ostensibly to ascertain whether they are fit enough to undergo these forensic procedures. In reality, the tests determine the prisoner’s levels of resistance and help the authorities calculate how much of the drug, sodium pentothal, can be administered without causing the accused to collapse.  The tests were conducted in the operation theatre of JJ Hospital, a government hospital in Mumbai that has backup facilities for surgery. That’s because sodium pentothal can cause the heart to slow down—fatally.

 The drug was administered like a drip, at a controlled pace so that I should remain in a trance for [a long] time. The forensic psychologist started asking questions and the conversation was video recorded. Although the police were not permitted to enter the laboratory, the forensic experts themselves used the drug with police efficiency, with total disregard for medical ethics or my health. The police had prepared a list of questions for the psychologist to ask: where I kept arms and ammunition, and whether I was associated with suspected organisations or people. I remembered some of this later. It was a little like recollecting a dream after waking up. I didn’t remember all the details with complete accuracy, but I hadn’t forgotten the highlights.

On my return, after a week, I was implicated in another five cases involving Naxalite violence. The police were granted another 20 days of custody. This meant that I was back in the hands of the police at a police station in Gondia district. This entailed more sleep deprivation, more harassment and more interrogation. I was fortunate to have got away relatively lightly. The police injected petrol into the rectums of two of my co-accused, which resulted in days of anal bleeding. For me, it was more stretching, flogging with a strip of conveyor belt, which the Maharashtra police affectionately call “Bajirao”, and more jaw slamming.

By this time, the results of the Mumbai narco-analysis tests had come in. They failed to provide any grist for the police case, so the authorities got a court to surreptitiously order another round of tests at the forensic lab in Bangalore. Here, the tests were conducted by the notorious S Malini, who was later dismissed from duty when it was discovered that she’d submitted false papers when applying for the job. Malini was well regarded by police forces across India because she always managed to get them the results they wanted. She had apparently solved the Malegaon blasts case of 2006, the Mecca Masjid blasts case, and also the Sister Abhaya case. Years later, all these were proved to have been falsely investigated. During narco-analysis, she slapped and abused me, pinched my ears with pliers, and even administered electric shocks to me and my co-accused to keep us from turning unconscious.

But this didn’t do the job either. So the police implicated me in two more cases and interrogated me for two more weeks. That’s how the first year of life after my arrest proceeded. The police would implicate me in new cases, obtain custody to interrogate me, inflict terrible forms of torture on me, fail to extract a confession, return me to jail, only to implicate me in yet another case. It was only when the police finally filed chargesheets in these cases that I had a new routine, one that involved making weekly or sometimes daily trips to court to wait for these cases to be heard. I now had the luxury of contemplating the rhythms of prison life.

Morning brings a mad rush to the tanki or haus, as the bathing tank is known. Four hundred prospective bathers laying claim to a 60 by 3 foot trough means a hurried bath even at the best of times. In summer, when the water being pumped out of the well is likely to run dry, the pace is bound to be frantic. Jail lore tells of the guy who’s not fast enough and has to rinse off the soap by catching the drops dripping off his neighbour’s body. The ones who don’t learn to brush teeth, take a bath and rinse out their underwear in 10 minutes flat are destined to scrape the bottom of the haus.

Negotiating the morning crowds at the tanki and long lines at the toilets requires not only speed but some presence of mind. This is particularly important in the yards and barracks with a large number of undertrials who have to prepare to attend court. In less than two hours, between the opening of barracks at 6.45 am and the court call at 8.30 am, they have to not only complete ablutions and a bath, but also catch their queues to collect and then have tea at 7 am, breakfast at 7.30 am and lunch between 8 am and 8.30 am.

It wasn’t easy for my body to adjust to the absurdity of having lunch just a half hour after breakfast. The early lunches, like so much else in prison, are the result of sheer callousness. Undertrials often spend the hours between 8.30 am and 6.30 pm on their way to court, in court, and being driven back, but the jail authorities have not seen it fit to provide them a packed lunch that can be had in the afternoon. High Court orders directing that this should be done are observed in the breach. But since the Jail Manual, which governs all activities in prison, has laid down just what a prisoner must consume, the authorities fulfil their obligations by distributing lunch to undertrials at 8 am. But when you are one among many hundreds running after scarce resources, you normally end up giving up something—either your toilet or bath, breakfast or lunch.

The food distribution is done by the energetic taapa kamaan, one of the many prisoner teams that play a vital role in keeping the jail functioning. The taapa kamaan are busy from the time the barracks are opened at around 6.45 am until they are locked around 5 pm, running around with large food containers—the taapaas from which they take their name. Two thousand stomachs demanding their timely due can be a tense proposition, and the taapa workers are a harried lot. They have to ensure that each Manual-prescribed item reaches each barrack in sufficient quantities to supply the stipulated amount to every prisoner present at the morning count.

Within this unit, the post of taapa commander can be quite a lucrative assignment. The commander is normally a convict warder, a long-serving prisoner who is given the duty of an overseer of other labouring prisoners. He is paid Rs 35 per day, but can earn a healthy side income by trading the resources under his command. By manipulating distribution, he can generate a surplus to be placed on the open market. The bhais who pay him off get more and better food. But the taapa commander’s privileges pale in comparison with the deals that jail officials strike with contractors who supply the kitchen raw materials. Many jail employees are able to take enough home to feed their families on prison supplies. These leaks result in the depletion of food that prisoners are served. In order to ensure that portions meet the weight stipulations of the Jail Manual, even the most inedible portions of vegetables make their way into prisoners’ thaalis—this can even include the rope that suppliers use to tie vegetables together.

As a result, we often attempted to improvise. One way out was to re-cook the food by spicing it up with pickles and chilli-garlic powder purchased from the prison canteen. This process is called handi, after the cooking pots fashioned out of aluminium plates. We would fabricate a fireplace from bricks or by chiselling and reshaping other aluminium vessels. Strips of newspaper and sun-dried chapaatis were used for fuel, but sometimes bits of plastic, dry twigs, old clothes, pilfered prison bedding and even copies of legal documents found their way into the fire.

‘Handi’ is also the term for the group of prisoners who take their meals together. They pool the provisions they buy from the canteen and forage from elsewhere. In the barracks, all members of a handi group sleep in one place. For people like me in the cells, however, [joining] a handi group wasn’t possible—we were locked alone in our cells so couldn’t have dinner together. Still, we ensured that the food cooked in one cell was passed on to others. This was managed through a strategy called the gaadi. The dishes would be placed on a piece of cloth that was dragged along the ground by using a string thrown from one cell to the next, rather like a sleigh made of fabric.

The Maharashtra government’s near-total ban on non-vegetarian food also challenges the skill and ingenuity of the prisoner. Trapping and hunting of squirrels, birds, bandicoots and other types of small game is a serious occupation. Even locusts and other insects that occasionally swarm the prison were collected to be sun-dried roasted and relished. Cloth traps sometimes managed to snare a bird. Others were brought down with make-do catapults. Traps in drainpipes and other passages sometimes yielded bandicoots. But the more popular method for both squirrels and rats was hunting by hand-and-stick. If one was sighted, a cry would go up and hunters would gather to corner the prey.

A well-fed bandicoot—which tastes a lot like pork—was a sizeable feast for a meat-starved group. It was quickly depilated, dismembered and cooked in a corner away from the prying eyes of jail staff and their informants. The spot behind the latrines was considered safe. This was be done under the watch of the latrine-cleaning danda kamaan, who were omnivorous and enthusiastic participants in both the chase and feast. As the band sat around for the treat, the conversation would drift back to better times. A person would talk of wild boars, another would remember rabbits. The high walls and iron bars seemed to recede. Things weren’t as bad as they seemed.

Each barrack has its bhai to whom all lesser mortals claim or aspire to closeness. Those who succeed can hope for some alleviation in discomforts in the form of a cleaner or full set of bisthar (bedding). Though the Jail Manual says that the bisthar given should include a dhurry, a bed-sheet, two cotton-wool blankets in winter and pillow with pillow-case, the Naya Ahmad should consider himself lucky if he manages to get a single, tattered, filthy blanket or dhurry.

Even the deepest sleepers sometimes have to surrender to other sounds of the prison night. With each inmate living through his own private nightmare, moans, groans and sobs from adjoining sleepers are frequent. The awakened neighbour usually slaps the offender into silence. But not all troubled souls are so easily subdued. There are those who pierce the night with shrieks and are given much rougher strong arm [treatment] before they are quietened. The screamer who actually needs psychiatric help gets not even sympathy. As the whole barrack is roused, the more vicious types join the watchmen in beating and kicking him. Many believe this to be the only possible therapy to exorcise the devil who has taken possession of him. In a while, he is silenced and relative calm descends once more. But sleep is elusive, as [the quietened] prisoner strains silently to hide from his own demons. As seconds and minutes drag out, there is no clock to tell the time. Another hour is forfeited, never to be returned.

In this closed world, my only window to the outside was provided by books and magazines. However, Maharashtra prisons do not have any funds to buy printed material, not even official government publications. The prison library is completely dependent on donations from individuals or voluntary organisations. The selections are completely arbitrary, consisting mainly of religious books. At first, most of the magazines I tried to subscribe to by post never reached my cell. The jailor would decide what books were fit for us. We were once denied a James Bond novel because of its cover was deemed obscene. Every now and then, they’d block a magazine to us because it contained the word ‘Maoist’ or ‘revolution’. Even the Indian Constitution was withheld for being too bulky.

When we could get our hands on them, crime novels were always a hit. Lee Child and John Grisham novels would substitute for the absence of action or court room drama we longed for. I also read the Scandinavian novels of Stieg Larsson and Henning Mankell.

The other concession grudgingly allowed by the jail administration is the mulaakaat (meeting) with family and friends. This is permitted once a month to convicted prisoners and once a week to undertrials. The families who manage to save enough money to make the long journey from their village to the jail are expected to first register their names in the morning at the mulaakaat booth near the jail gate. They must hang around for three or four hours, braving sun or rain, as the jail administration supposedly checks whether they are security worthy of a mulaakaat and have not yet exhausted their quota. After an exhausting wait, the visitors—most often women and children—are then led in batches to a room with heavily meshed windows, each with a prisoner waiting on the other side. On the other side, the prisoners have been warned that they should not exceed the time sanctioned for their mulaakaat. Undertrials get 20 minutes; convicts, 30 minutes. There is always a certain desperation on both sides of the mesh, as prisoners and their families make sure that nothing to be conveyed is missed in the short time at hand.

My first visitors were my parents and brother. Although my wife wanted to visit me, we decided that she should not do so because of police threats to arrest her too. At the first mulaakaat, my parents could only see me as a silhouette behind the wire mesh. They had only by voice to recognise me by. The wire mesh ensured that no reassuring hugs could be exchanged. As my detention stretched on, my family only managed to meet me every two months. We’d plan to meet when I was being produced in court, though the guards escorting me would occasionally refuse to grant us this luxury. Through my years in jail, my baby son never got to see me. He did not know that I was in prison. If he had come, he’d have to see a silhouette with fettered hands for a father. We felt that this would be too much for a two-year-old to understand.

My family would try to fill me in about happenings at home, and I would entertain them with anecdotes about prison life. But as the number of cases in which I was being charged kept increasing, developments in each trial became more confusing, and discussing them with my aged parents became difficult. Ultimately, the mulaakaats narrowed to my giving them a list of things I required and their promising to bring them to the next meeting and write regularly.

As I realised in Nagpur Jail, the majority of inmates didn’t fit any recognisable definition of a ‘criminal’. They had landed in jail either because they had been falsely implicated by the police or because of an attack they’d committed in a fit of anger, often during a family feud. They had been convicted due to poor legal advice at their trials.

After the initial shock conviction, they had to steer stoically into a routine amenable to living out the long years in jail—which in the case of life sentences in Maharashtra average 17-18 years.

A large number find some solace in a rigid schedule of prayer and fasting, puja, namaaz and roza. Prison nurtures spirituality. It has the merit of at least temporarily inducing the type of peace obtained by casting your lot with the supernatural. The sanctimony of ritual has the sanctity of administrative approval. It benefits the prisoner to show up at, or even organise, religious ceremonies sanctioned by the jail management.

This game of hide-and-seek between illusion and fact, between hope and despair, is the constant of almost any prisoner’s existence. The trick to be mastered is to ensure that fact is not permitted to pierce illusion and despair not allowed to overcome hope. Once prisoners realise this, it isn’t really that difficult to keep their balance.

As an undertrial, you tell yourself that the trial’s going well, all witnesses [against you] have failed, and you are bound to be acquitted. If you have been convicted, you pin your hopes on the higher courts. And in this, the endemic delays of the Indian judicial system are a real blessing. Hope remains alive till the Supreme Court, by which time you have reached what you feel should be the end of your sentence. It is then the remissions and pardons that you look forward to.

You enter that puzzled yet hope-filled period of waiting for the finalisation of your likhaan, the colloquial term for the review file prepared by the Jail Judicial Department for every long-sentence convict. This document is sent to the state government for reviewing prisoners’ sentences and to obtain an order of premature release. This file reports the prisoner’s conduct in jail and contains calculations of the set-offs he is eligible for. It also contains recommendations of the jail, police and administrative authorities. Since government rules for a premature release are so complicated, it is rare for any prisoner to be able to estimate what likhaan he will finally get.

It takes years for Mantralaya to decide. It is only then that you have some idea of when you can expect to be finally released. This starts your ulti ginti, the countdown, as you tick off the days remaining for you to go home.

Throughout all this, as you battle to maintain your balance, the abiding symbol of hope and despair is the Lal Gate, the red exit gate. It reappears in rhetoric, in small talk, in jokes and of course in your dreams. It is the barrier that holds you in and the opening that will lead you out. The secret is to ignore the barricade and only see the door. That helps maintain some semblance of normal life.

But for some, the long years of prison life are without the slightest contact or communication with the outside world. Poverty prevents them from even finding the money for the surety the State demands for sending a prisoner on furlough or parole.

Besides, many families can’t afford the expense of travelling to jail for the monthly mulaakaat. Illiteracy or a breakdown of family relations could mean that there won’t even be a letter. As the lonely years stretch on, the line separating these prisoners from insanity steadily blurs.

Sixty-three-year-old Kithulal was one such person. He would cheat time to present some semblance of normal life. He would manage to convince himself that he’d almost done his time and that the benevolent government would soon announce a special remission that would see him released. The three or four months before each Republic and Independence Day were periods of carefully cultivated hope; anyone who cared to listen would be told that the Government will announce an extraordinary reprieve and he would walk out of the Lal Gate on the great day.

As the day would come and go, despair would render this most talkative of inmates unusually silent.

He’d then resort to other devices. He would get absorbed in a flurry of apparently irrational activity, as if sweat expended in sufficient quantities would wash away the pain. The normal opiate of fasts and other rituals would take on larger dimensions.

In a short time, he’d be pinning his hopes on his next release date.

In keeping with the law, I applied for bail in August 2007. However, I came to realise that speedy trials in the Indian judicial process are a luxury. It takes three-five years on average for a trial to be completed. For nearly a year-and-a-half, I would travel almost daily in a police van accompanied by armed police personnel for almost seven hours from Nagpur to Gondia or Chandrapur.

On reaching the court, I would find that I had been brought late or that the judge was on vacation. Often, my trips and those of my lawyers would go wasted because the prosecution witness had not turned up.

One particular case dragged on for over three years and was finally completed with my acquittal after the examination of only one witness. My captors were using the due process of law to penalise me. My only hope was to patiently complete each case and be finally released.

In my first year in prison, in the isolated anda barrack, my co-accused and I were kept away from the other prisoners because the jail administration considered us far too dangerous to be [allowed to associate] with them.

To signal that we were different, all alleged Naxalite prisoners were forced to wear prison uniforms with green arm bands. In April 2008, all 13 of us went on an indefinite hunger strike. Among our demands: end our isolation, stop arresting social activists as Naxalites, and don’t force undertrials to wear uniforms.

In order to undermine us, we were dispersed into separate barracks. I was transferred to phasi yard—for prisoners [on death row].

Our strike lasted 27 days. None of our demands were fulfilled. Instead, the police officer who was conducting an inquiry into the matter advised the jail officials to scatter us across other jails. An additional criminal case was registered against us, of attempting to commit suicide—this was the ninth case I had to deal with.

In September 2011, the courts finally dismissed the last of the nine cases against me. Prison wisdom says that the first few months of jail life and the last ones are the most horrible. As freedom neared, the days grew longer and nights sleepless. Court production dates also got reduced. All reading and writing became extremely burdensome. I started making plans for life beyond Lal Gate.

On 27 September, I left prison. I could see my parents standing outside. As they watched, in the company of journalists and my lawyers, a posse of policemen in plain clothes bundled me away in an unmarked vehicle. The police charged me with two more Naxalite-related cases, and I was sent back to prison.

I was crushed at the thought of having to [suffer] the same cycle of torture, bail applications and endless waits for trial dates all over again. But this time, thankfully, it was quicker. A vociferous public outcry and the skills of my lawyers worked in my favour.

On 4 January 2012, I was released on bail in the last remaining case. After four years, eight months, I walked out of Lal Gate a free man.

(Courtesy: OPEN magazine)

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