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Home > 2021 > Khadija’s Jail Time: A Prison Account from 1949 | Uma Chakravarti

Mainstream, VOL LIX No 27, New Delhi, June 19, 2021

Khadija’s Jail Time: A Prison Account from 1949 | Uma Chakravarti

Friday 18 June 2021, by Uma Chakravarti

(Extracted from her unpublished and unfinished memoir by Uma Chakravarti)

Khadija Ansari Gupta was born in 1932 in Firanghi Mahal, Lucknow which trained ulema and was famous in the Islamic world for its rationalist syllabi which was adopted in institutions as far as Egypt. Her father was a liberal, perhaps even radical student of Maulana Abdul Bari, who was known for his erudition. In the 1920’s Bari sahib became a supporter of the Khilafat movement and drew the famous Ali brothers into the national movement led by Gandhiji. Leading Congress figures such as Sarojini Naidu were frequent visitors to the Firanghi Mahal and on my visit to the mohalla in March 2014 while making the film Ek Inquilab Aur Aaya I was casually shown places where Gandhiji stayed the night including where a goat was tethered so that Gandhiji could get his goats milk on call! Many people from Firanghi Mahal had gone to jail during the national movement including members of Khadija’s family; Khadija’s father too went to jail during that time.

Firanghi Mahal had many strands of political opinions including some who were drawn to communism. Khadija’s elder brother became a communist during his student days and went to jail for his activities. Rashid Jahan and Hajra Begum, senior activists of the Communist Party were frequent visitors at Firanghi Mahal. A younger student activist whose "entire family" was communist, Bano Niazi, was an important influence on young Khadija’s life as she too was drawn into the movement as a 16-year-old school-going student. According to Khadija, Bano gave her Kalpana Dutt’s memoir on the Chittagong armoury raid to read which had been translated into Urdu and that became the turning point in her life. As a student activist she wore men’s clothes and joined others in sticking posters at night on the walls of Lucknow. She also hawked copies of the New Age in Hazratganj Chowk wearing a gharara. On one occasion a conservative member of Firanghi Mahal saw her selling the party paper and sent an anonymous man to buy out all the copies in her hand, a proposal that Khadija turned down sharply saying "nahi! Ek ek kar ke bechne se message badhta hai." She wasn’t going to get off the street until her mission was complete!

Khadija was arrested in 1949 a day before the Communist Party had announced an All-India Worker’s strike for the 19th of February. Other women were arrested too but they were bailed out a couple of months later. Khadija was held under the Preventive Detention Act and stayed in jail for 11 months because she was regarded as particularly dangerous, suspected of being a courier for some of the leaders who were underground. Khadija herself believed that her extended family conspired to keep her in jail as that would take her off the streets as that was particularly embarrassing to them. She told me later that it wasn’t a "bad" experience for her as the "asli jail" was the cloistered existence young women were expected to conform to at that time in the Firanghi Mahal. She had been one of the first girls to go to school from there. Ultimately Khadija went on to do a Ph. D in Sociology from Delhi University. She did fieldwork in a small town in UP pioneering a new trend in women doing fieldwork and wrote an essay on the subject. She taught sociology in Miranda House, Delhi University for many years producing many generations of young women who became sociologists in their own right. She retired from Miranda House in the early 1990s and went to live first in Goa, and then in Bangalore. Khadija is the protagonist of my film Ek Inquilab Aur Aaya, which is available for viewing on Youtube

Covid ended her spirited existence on May 8, 2021. She never gave up on life and on relationships. I last met her in December 2019 a few months before the Covid lockdown began. And Covid made sure that we were to never meet again as I never travelled to Bangalore after that.

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The most enjoyable periods of my life were the 10 months of jail confinement in the juvenile section of Central jail in Lucknow (as I was still underage for the regular jail as I was not yet a major). And the next was about two years I spent to build my nest with A (Aniruddha Gupta, Khadija’s husband) and Guddu (her son) in Jhaluk Bari Teaching Staff quarter of Guwahati University in Assam after my marriage to A...

My Arrest, Imprisonment, and Life Inside Jail

 I do not remember the exact date on which I was arrested but I do recall the exact time and the place from where I was picked up by the police. It was between 4-5 o’clock in the evening; I was briskly proceeding towards Latoush Road to attend the meeting of grass root workers to allot the work to each one of us for the preparation of the ‘D-Day-’rail ka paheya jam karenge’. The call was given by the Communist Party for All India Railway Strike on February 19, 1949, but the meeting was cancelled due to advance information about the Government’s plan to arrest key persons from the meeting. But I had no information about it. As I was a few yards away from the office building I heard the screeching of a vehicle behind me. I looked back in panic and saw a uniformed person standing in front of me. He said: “you are Miss Khadija Ansari?”, and before I could utter a word, I heard him say “you are under arrest”. He opened the back door of the van and politely ushered me in. Two or three policemen joined me inside the van. The person who talked to me was perhaps the Officer as he went to sit at the front seat. I was stunned and dumfounded. It was a simple black out for me. I did not ask any question and sat quietly —The van started and by the time it stopped it was nearing dusk. I was asked to get down and saw a very plump good-looking lady (later I came to know she was Mrs. Kaul, the woman in charge of female juvenile section of the Central Jail in Lucknow) accompanied by two uniformed middle-aged women. The elder of the two came forward to help me in getting down. She held one of my hands and gently led me to an iron gate which was locked: two gun-toting men were standing there. The plump lady whispered to them, and the gate was opened. I was led to a spacious office room and made to sit. After about an hour or so an officious looking man, in khaki uniform, came in and sat across the table. The woman gave him bundle of papers. After reading them he looked inquisitively at me. He said something to the lady in hushed voice got up from the chair and left the room.

It was almost dark outside. I was led by the two uniformed ladies, holding my two hands on either side, to a big open courtyard. I faintly remember the place and images around the place-it was a big squarish courtyard surrounded by very thick and high boundary walls. There were four or five longish rooms with iron bars. I was ushered into one smaller and barred room and the gate was closed behind me. There was no one beside me. For a second, I shivered as there was no light inside the barrack excepting a dim flicker from the lantern held by one of the two ladies outside the locked barred door. There were four concrete bed shaped platforms. The lady with lantern outside asked me to sit down. Perhaps she took pity on my teenaged-bewildered face and moved nearer to the place where I was standing inside the room.

After an hour or so the second lady holding a tray with food and a book came inside and asked me to eat. I was totally dazed and looked at her enquiringly. I don’t remember the contents of the food, but I do recollect the size of the book—it appeared to me to be a fat one. The book was in English, and I had only a working knowledge of the language. As I turned the page in the dim light of lantern held by the lady, I could read only the name of the book and the author—Discovery Of India by Jawaharlal Nehru, as these were written in bold letters. While nibbling food at the insistence of the lady I kept on turning the pages; I could vaguely remember to have read somewhere the excerpts in an Urdu booklet named ‘Baap Ke Khat Beti Ke Naam / Letters from a Father to a Daughter written by Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru inside the prison. Since the book was in English, I could not comprehend much about the contents of the book. After partaking a bit of food perhaps I dozed off.

In the morning I was woken by the noise of a clicking iron door; perhaps it was late according to the rules of the jail as outside the barrack there were lots of noises of clicking vessels and calling out the (names) ---as if someone was taking the attendance in a classroom—with the slight change of calling numbers (of individual inmates) instead of names! Now, reflecting back, it seems that inmates of the prisons had no identity excepting that of having a qaidi / prisoner number, one....two ...three. This was during 1949, about six decades back! I have no idea about the present.

During those days, the rules and regulation and the maintenance of the political prisoners had not much changed from colonial times. Instead of cemented platform with scanty beddings meant for normal convicts and under trials, political prisoners from well-off or elite backgrounds were given a single iron cot with reasonably suitable beddings, and every morning a measured (prescribed in the jail manual) ration was given to individual inmate for cooking her meal in an allotted place in the barrack. Another inmate would come to clean the Indian style toilets which had no flush system. The barrack and the outer compound were cleaned by female inmates allotted for this purpose. There were two sets of wardresses who would always be with me for watch purposes—locking and unlocking barrack entrance etc. During the summer months, the bed would be brought outside the barrack and tied with an iron chain to huge thick trees planted in the compound. In the evenings I was allowed to walk around in the compound. I was allowed to play badminton and volley-ball games (the balls/shuttlecocks, two rackets and net was allotted to me as a political inmate by the Jail authorities). Since, no other inmate was with me at that time Mrs. Kaul would come to give me company. Perhaps my young age and bewildered look attracted her pity. In the morning around 10-11after completing her work in other compounds she would come to my compound with a Gita in her hand and loudly read out the scriptures which I did not comprehend one bit. In the evening she would visit me around 6 pm and make me play one or two rounds of volleyball or badminton.

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The Jail Staff

Looking back to the eleven months in jail under the Preventive Detention Act appear to be just unbelievable. While recollecting the details I go back to my lost dream land. I had noted each day’s activities in a note book provided by jail authorities—there were a number of blue colour lined exercise copies/books. I still remember the title I scribbled in Urdu on the cover Mera Roznamcha / My Diary/ My Daily Activities. Alas! Those notes were lost when our house was attacked during Assami—Bengali riots in Guwahati University campus in Jhalukbari in 1960. Yet, I kept reflecting on those happy moments, the events, and the persons I interacted during my eleven months stay in jail. I vividly remember the name and faces of those who interacted with me and made a lasting impression on my mind.

Amongst those the first one was Mrs. Kaul, the caretaker of the women juvenile section of the Central Jail, Lucknow. She was the one who took me out of the police van along with two khaki clad female workers/the wardresses to keep watch and look after me in my compound. I am now forgetting their names, but I still remember their faces and appearances. The elder of the two was short, stocky and had a wrinkled but benign face. The other one was tall with a round face. Both used to be clad in Khaki lehnga, kurta and dupatta/scarf style covering on head and shoulders.

First let me describe Mrs Kaul. She was short—roly-poly—but rosy in her complexion. Later on, I came to know about the sad story of her life. She was Kashmiri by origin. She was the daughter of a local well known skin specialist, Dr. Parshad. She was married to an army officer of her own caste and perhaps deserted by the husband for another woman. She was middle aged and was an employee of the jail. She had a small girl child about 3-4-years old whom she had adopted. The child was allowed to accompany her mother into the jail when there was a problem with the domestic help; so, at times she would accompany her mother into my compound.

Though Mrs, Kaul looked stern and officious outwardly, at heart she was very kind and affectionate as I found out later while interacting with her. From her I came to know a lot about the jail, its rules and regulations and the actual system of its operation. She also informed me about inmates of this juvenile section of the jail, especially the detailed background of the girls allotted to my barrack for daily chores. She was the one to chalk out the daily timetable for the individual girls and supervised the operations. In the evening she would invariably come and insist on my taking a walk or playing one or two rounds of badminton/volleyball with her. However, at times she looked very sad. She knew Ramayana and Mahabharata stories by heart and used to sing them loudly to me. At times she would drop in to see if the food was properly cooked for me by the girls.
Reflecting back, I now feel, that the days I spent in jail were the most enjoyable moments I ever had before I was married and left Firanghi Mahal.

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Mera Roznamcha

The following is part of the information I had recorded in my Mera Roznamcha which got destroyed in Jhalukbari during the riots in Assam in July 1960.

1) Balia the 17-year-old girl from Bihar village who was convicted for drowning a boy child of her age—the only son of a local rich zamindar of the same village while playing with him. At the time she was convicted and brought to jail she was less than 10 years of age; she came into the jail with a doll in her hand. In1947 while celebrating Independence Day all over India, most of the convicts in the various jails were freed on some sort of assurances from local gentry. But not Balia; she was not given remission as the zamindar of her village refused to give any such assurance.

2) Bitola, a girl from eastern Uttar Pradesh convicted for killing her husband with a gandasa (a sharp agricultural implement). Hers was a child marriage, and her husband was also of her age. During a child-like quarrel, she killed her husband in anger and was convicted for murder. She was stocky in built she might have killed in all innocence.

3) Majeedan was from western Uttar Pradesh. She had a 2-3 years-old child with her in her own barrack. She was accused of poisoning one of her own friend’s child out of jealousy. She was around 23-24years old and it seemed to me that she had a hard face.

4) Rampiyari was from Bareilly district of Uttar Pradesh. She was in her late 30’s. She was an under trial from an urban area, a mother-in-law from a gold smith’s family. She was being tried for poisoning her three daughters-in-law by mixing Dhatura (a deadly plant) in their food for greed of dowry. Her son and husband were also being tried and were behind bars.

While Majeeden and Bitola were allotted to me to cook and clean the place, Balia was a sort of an errand worker attached to Mrs. Kaul. It seemed Mrs. Kaul was fond of her and she too was attached to her. Apart from these, there were two watch and ward women officially called wardresses. As mentioned earlier, some where I had made detailed notes of each day’s activity in my Mera Roznamcha which got lost in the Guwahati riots. Now only the vague images flutter on (in my mind) from time to time.

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Memories of Resistance

The following are some of the important events associated with my life in jail. These continue to amuse me even at this fag end of my life.

I vividly remember the day when Hajra Apa and Dr Rashid Jahan were brought to the barracks led by a male official, perhaps by Mr Khan, the jailer. Both were our mentors when we were actively involved in the primary school teachers strike. I had seen and talked to Hajra Apa at the Communist Party office. She was the wife of Dr. Ahmad a very senior member of Communist Party of India. We had no opportunity to see him as he was under ground and Hajra apa was living in the party office along with other senior members of local unit of district Communist Part which was under the leadership of B.T. Ranadive. She was in charge of local unit of All India Women’s Conference. She used to come to our house in Firanghi Mahal and would meet the young and middle-aged women of our family and try to expose them to the world OUTSIDE THE BOUNDARY of Firanghi Mahal.

Rashida apa was an eminent doctor in Lucknow. She was an important member of the All India Progressive Writers Association, a front organisation of the Communist Part, as were All India Women’s Conference and the Indian Progressive Theatre Association—IPTA.

I was a bit taken back to see them there! Today it looks so naïve to write a personal/private note about myself, without much relevance to the present account. Yet, it is important to find out the possible biases in this account—to help those who might be interested in sing this account /or part of it for the research purposes.

Another important event in my jail life was the hunger strike for twelve days. The hunger strike call was given by the Communist Party and was meant for jail inmates against the arrest of an important labour leader Moulana Yusuf of Kanpur. It was the month of March 1949. The trade union wing of Communist Party had given the call for all an Indian Railway strike. While the big wigs of the Party had gone underground, the Party sympathisers, and grass root activists like me were being picked up one by one. This was the time when Dr Rashid Jahan and Hajra Apa (Hajra Begum) were rounded up and sent to Central Jail where I was lodged. I have no idea how the message reached us inside the jail. The three of us gave notices to the jail authorities (as per jail rules) that we would start our hunger strike from a given day. I was totally oblivious about the meaning and the processes involved in hunger strike except what I was tutored by my two mentors and what I observed on my own during the period of strike. Cooked food was put in front of us, as we were supposed to eat at regular timings. After some time, it was taken out at the usual time. The second or third day of the strike a few male jail officers started coming and talking to my mentors. After 4 or 5 days of strike I observed one doctor and a nurse along with Mrs. Kaul followed by a male jail officer started visiting us. We were medically checked every morning perhaps as a matter of routine.

On the 5th or the 6th day, a few more officers came in the barrack and had a long conversation with my mentors and left after whispering something to them. Early next morning I was taken to another cell and was asked to lie down on a cot. The doctor examined me and told me very gently that as I was not well, and that I urgently needed to take food. He tried his best to convince me about the urgency and he said: “if you refuse, I have no option but to force the food through the nasal tube”.

Amongst the couple of jail staff, I could spot the ADM, Bose Mullick, who had ordered the lathi charge on us in front of Hazratganj Police Chowki (who was then mimicking our slogan chanting, and at whom I had hurled my chappal which hit his face). Perhaps he had never forgiven me for that insult! In the jail, he shouted at the staff and asked them to hold me back on the bed, but somehow, I was able to disentangle my left foot from their tight grip and gave Bose Mullick a hard kick. Perhaps he would never forget this second insult —and at an appropriate time he tried his best to convince A’s elder sister to keep her brother away from this ‘extremely dangerous girl’! At the time of our marriage, he happened to be the Registrar of Marriages and he made a barb at me saying "she is whispering (the vows) now; then she was shouting slogans at me!"

Being the youngest amongst the political prisoners, I was not being taken too seriously. Perhaps the prison authorities were a bit indulgent to me?

Looking back, I feel, perhaps, I was treated like a teenager who had in an absent-minded fashion strayed to the serious milieu of left politics. Alas, it was not true! I had the firm roots in national politics through my own observation during that period of 1943-47—the active participation of my family in national politics, courtesy Gandhiji and other important members of the Congress party.

I must add some amusing event related to my hunger strike.

After five to six days of the hunger strike, Rashida Apa and Hajra Apa were released on the order passed by the Lucknow bench of the High Court against their detention argued by their lawyer Mr Dhawan; he may have been a party sympathizer, and he later became the governor of West Bengal.

My case, perhaps, was also argued by Mr. Dhawan but was lost on the prosecutor’s plea who argued that I could not be released as I had been “engaged in subversive activities being a courier of the Communist Party of India.” I did not have any clue at that time about anything beyond the romantic enthusiasm of being on my own to achieve the position of my icon —Kalpanaji, Kalpana Joshi, nee Dutt) whom I had not met. I had only seen her photograph on the cover of a small booklet—Chatgaon- ke- Inqilabi (an Urdu translation) presented to me by my life-long mentor—Bano Niyazi (presently Dr Bano Gupta, an eminent lady doctor located in Delhi) on my first visit to her house in Kanpur. In fact, she was the one who made the greatest impact in shaping my life and she became a mother figure, though she was too young to take that position at that time. She must have been four to five years older than me. As I have already mentioned somewhere in this write up, I had not only been a precocious, but also difficult and restless child in the family. It was only after my mother’s death that my father realised that fact and tried to help me out of my loneliness. Bano, without her knowing it, provided me tremendous emotional support to stand on my own. She was also the one who initiated me into politics. Even now at my ripe age I continue to be emotionally dependent on her —she remains to be a mother figure in my inner (psyche)? She may have remained perhaps totally unaware of that then, and perhaps even now!

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Postscript

When Khadija was finally released 11 months after her imprisonment, she took a tonga to return home. A police constable was asked to tail her and so he rode behind the tonga. When Khadija asked him why he was tailing her he said that he had been deputed to do so. He followed her upto the boundary of Firanghi Mahal and then rode off.

The party in Lucknow had scattered. Khadija went on with her education and seems to have drifted away from political activities as she does not mention them in her memoir which ends abruptly with the description of her jail time.

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