Published: November 25, 2014 - 14:54

Two new books reveal searing first person accounts of time spent in two notorious jails in India

Mahtab Alam Bengaluru 

Noted documentary filmmaker Anand Patwardhan, in his classic documentary on the plight of political dissidents and prisoners during Emergency, Prisoners of Conscience (1978), says, “If the walls of the jails could speak, they would speak of terror, but they would speak also of courage.” Unfortunately, walls cannot speak and hence, often, we don’t know what happens inside the walls of jails. And this is possible because there is hardly any means of information except the official ones. Media, often, if not always, portray a rosy picture of jails, unless there is serious case leading to custodial death, which also goes mostly underreported, if not always unreported. Senior journalist and the author of My Days in Prison (2005), Iftikhar Gilani describes it vividly, “I was beaten up many times while inside the prison. For 41 days, I worked as a labourer… (but) recently some of my journalist friends visited Tihar Jail and wrote reports about the life inside the prison but it’s entirely a different experience through the eyes of a prisoner.”

The real purpose of prison, we are told, is to transform criminals (read convicts) into honest and law-abiding citizens by inculcating in them a distaste for crime and criminality. But in reality, this is far from the actual practice as those who have spent time in jails, whether as an undertrial or convict, have altogether different stories to tell. “We watch and read many things about prison life, but nothing prepares you for the ways in which inmates and cops run them,” says Chetan Mahajan, author of The Bad Boys of Bokaro Jail. “It was worse than what I had heard or ever imagined. I would be surprised if a young man were to go to prison for some reason and not return a seasoned criminal,” says Ajay TG. Filmmaker and human rights activist Ajay had to spend nearly one- and-a-half years in jail; he is still facing false charges under draconian laws like the Sedition Act and Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act (CSPSA, 2006).

Two books under review explain the above observations and claims vigorously. Based on first-hand experiences, while Mahajan’s The Bad Boys of Bokaro Jail is essentially a prisoner’s diary, Arun Ferreira’s Colours of the Cage is in the form of a memoir. Mahajan, until recently, was the CEO of HCL Learning Ltd. In December 2012, he was booked under sections of the Indian Penal Code pertaining to economic offences, which he never committed. Hence, his case was quashed later. He was lodged at Bokaro Chas Mandal Karawas, the Bokaro Jail in Jharkhand, hoping to be released the next day but, given the apathy of our criminal justice system, ended up spending one month there. Ferreira is a political activist who has worked with different people’s movements across Maharashtra, including anti-displacement struggles, Dalit and Adivasi movements. In May 2007, he was arrested for allegedly being a Naxalite and was incarcerated in Nagpur Central Prison for nearly five years. He has been subsequently acquitted in all the 13 cases that were filed against him. 

These books are detailed, empathetic and comprehensive accounts of what happens in jails not only in extraordinary circumstances but on a day-to-day basis. It’s more of storytelling than anything. And both the writers have consciously presented their respective work in a very simple and straightforward manner without making it filmi. This is not to say the books are not interesting and you need to make an effort to read. Mahajan’s work is indeed a page-turner.  It details his life, and the lives of his co-inmates in the jail in Bokaro, a small city in Jharkhand. Ferreira’s work is more intense and taxing, as it contains gory details of his custodial torture and of his comrades. It is spine-chilling and

“Both my legs would be forced wide apart and a cop would stand on my thighs so that I couldn’t bend them. Sometimes my interrogators would pinch me or pull my hair or pierce the skin under my nails with pins,” writes Ferreira. “I was afraid they’d kill me… I feared that the police would murder me and pretend that I’d been killed in an encounter. I’d read about many situations in which the police claimed to have had no option but to open fire when suspects they were attempting to arrest had resisted. I knew that the National Human Rights Commission had noted thirty-one cases of fake encounter killings in Maharashtra alone in the previous five years. The physical torture, though painful, was relatively tame compared to this prospect.” But, despite all this, he didn’t seek any form of sympathy because, as he writes in a letter to his wife, “For someone like me, coming from a privileged family, the treatment I was forced to go through is an ‘exception’, but for the poor this is the ‘rule’.” In a recent interview, he said, “I don’t want to make my prison experience sentimental — I want to be the rallying point to fight for the cause.”

Mahajan also considers himself privileged in the sense that he was freed in one month. “Today I wonder, if it wasn’t for the support I had, whether my fate would be different,” he said in July this year while addressing the Under Trial Prisoners’ release campaign launching event organised by Amnesty International India in Bangaluru. Ever since his release, Mahajan is actively involved with prison rights campaigns and is currently the face of Amnesty India’s campaign for the release of under trials, ‘Take Injustice Personally’.

Mahajan says the time in jail changes your life; it’s about realisation, it’s about learning many lessons you can hardly learn outside jail, especially when you belong to a privileged class. “As I start to think about what could be the cosmic meaning of my experience, I realise that there isn’t any. The lessons for me are simple, and very, very human,” he writes in the epilogue exactly one year after his arrest and 11 months after his release, after revisiting the jail where he had to spend a month for no crime. “The first is that the world is full of people who may have made grievous mistakes in their lives, but that does not necessarily make them evil. They are still humans, and in many cases very decent human beings,” he adds, noting, “I am not saying they should not be punished for their misdeeds. But they should not all be branded—like they were, at least in my own mind, before my time in jail.”

This is a very important point made by the author. Because most of us, consciously or unconsciously, are guilty of the prejudice outlined above. A principle like “Innocent until proved guilty beyond reasonable doubt” has no practical meaning and we go on to brand people just because they are accused of some crime without sparing a thought. Moreover, even if someone has really committed a crime then what we are often interested in is revenge not justice, without realising that, as someone rightly said, ‘revenge is like biting a dog because the dog bit you’. The fallout of this thinking is there is hardly any real process left of reform and correction both on behalf of the state as well as society. What is most striking and saddening is that not much has changed over a period of time, and nothing changes across geographical location of prisons.

Fyodor Dostoevsky famously said, “The degree of civilisation in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” Anyone interested in knowing how civilised we are must read these two books to begin with.  

The reviewer is  a human rights activist


Two new books reveal searing first person accounts of time spent in two notorious jails in India
Mahtab Alam Bengaluru 



This story is from print issue of HardNews