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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 32, New Delhi, July 25, 2020

June 25 1975/July 25 2020: Reflections on a Prison in Delhi | Uma Chakravarti

Friday 24 July 2020, by Uma Chakravarti

These days news reports of arbitrary arrests, jails and jail conditions are a reminder of the sudden and dramatic imposition of the Emergency in 1975, when there was no recourse to legal remedy of any kind — no vakil, no daleel and no appeal — which became shorthand for the suspension of civil rights. Those who went to jail just stayed there until the end of the Emergency, when Indira Gandhi was swept out of power in the general elections of 1977. Despite substantial differences between then and now, the similarities are also striking. There had been widespread unrest in the years before the imposition of the Emergency. Students then, as now, were often on the roads for various reasons, especially in Gujarat, Bihar and Delhi. Women too had led the hugely successful anti-price rise movement, and thousands were on the streets in the years and months before June 1975 when the dramatic unseating of Mrs G triggered off panic in the establishment, leading to the declaration of the Emergency. A detailed recounting of those 19 months I will leave for another moment. Here, I want to recall the focus on jails in the months and years following the 1977 elections, a natural consequence of the new way state power was understood and sought to be checked by students, teachers, media persons, lawyers, judges and the intelligentsia. In Bengal the Bandi Mukti Morcha prepared lists of people in jail and campaigned for their release, making it an election issue first, and then ensuring that the newly elected state government released the prisoners without delay.

The civil and democratic rights movement in post-independent India was born in the aftermath of the Emergency. One of the issues taken up in Delhi was conditions in Tihar Jail. A jail reforms committee was set up by the PUCL & DR,(People’s Union for Civil Liberties and Democratic Rights) and that is when I first stepped into a jail. It is the only time in my memory of Delhi when a jail reforms committee emanating from civil society was given official recognition and allowed to visit the jail to further the work of the committee. The team comprised Sudesh Vaid, Arun Shourie (then with the Indian Express), Gobindo Mukhoty (senior Supreme Court lawyer), and I.

Then, as now, it wasn’t easy to get into jail, so we worked through our links with the highest echelons of power. We worked through Leila Fernandes, George Fernandes’s wife, whom we had access to through common contacts. After some delays the permission came through, and so the team landed up in Tihar jail, the date of which I cannot remember, but it was some time in 1978-79. The Delhi jail, in my child’s memory, was located in what is now the Bahdur Shah Zafar Marg, and I recall seeing it as my family went past it seated in a tonga (the only working means of transport in Delhi in 1948-49), on our way to Minerva theatre to see S.S. Vasan’s Chandralekha. Tihar on the other hand was a way off from Sudesh and me, located as we were in north Delhi, so we co-ordinated with Arun Shourie, who gave us a ride in his car. We went to the Express office and drove for what appeared to be many miles to reach the gates of Tihar, firmly barred to the outside world with huge gates, and Mukhoty saheb met us there. We may have got permission through the highest quarters, but the jail is a jail, is a jail! Orchestration of what we could, or rather should, see was complete and comprehensive: we were taken to the jail superintendent’s office and given the jail ‘schpeel’: what a challenge it was to administer a bunch of lawbreakers and criminals, etc, etc, etc. High tea accompanied this account as we settled down to polite conversation on both sides, while we sussed out the possibilities of a "real" jail visit into the barred premises behind another iron gate. As the conversation proceeded, a very impressive looking Sikh gentleman, an epitome of gentleness and dignity served us the tea. When he left us we were told that he was serving a sentence for a murder, perhaps of his wife. That was lesson number one: "criminals" look and are like everyone else, like you and me – that includes their feelings too.

Finally, the polite conversation ended and we were let in through another set of gates. Years later, Srilata Swaminathan described her time in jail during the Emergency as being periodically marked by the clanging of gates — the opening and shutting — as each jail was barred from other spaces by a set of gates. She told us it was a sound that still haunted her. However, the significance of the association between the clanging of gates and confinement did not occur to me then. All I was aware of was that Tihar Jail had been the site of many famous arrestees of the Emergency, such as George Fernandes and C.G.K. Reddy (charged in what was known as the Baroda Conspiracy Case), many young student activists (such as Vijay Pratap, Sudhir Goel and Jasbir Singh; Sudhir and Jasbir had been badly tortured in police custody), socialists who were Lohiavadis, and a number of women political prisoners, including the two maharanis, the rajmata of Gwalior and the maharani of Jaipur – the latter wrote her memoirs, A Princess Remembers, some time later, which has a segment on her jail time. Since we were itching to go into the actual jail — the cells and barracks — we were finally allowed entry. Tihar had a special segment for women prisoners, which was a jail within the jail – corresponding to Minakhi Sen’s description of the women’s jail in her book, Jailer Bhitar Jail. While the two men went off into the compound leading to the main barracks and cells, Sudesh and I were led to the women’s prison.

I remember it as a fairly large barrack of sorts, which at that time housed about 30 women convicted for various crimes, including petty crimes. My recall is that there were a few murder convicts, but I do not recall anyone there in a 498A (dowry murders and cruelty clauses) type of case, obviously because dowry related crimes were not a specific category at that time. (The women’s jails across the country are swarming with such cases now.) As the women looked at us curiously — hardly anyone got into the jail, and the women’s jail at that — the women who were eager to engage us in a conversation then took over from the official guides allotted to us. They pointed out various spaces to us: the cells, the loos and the bathing area; where they could walk at specified times, which was carefully separated from where and when the men were let out. And then, as women do, we got into a free-wheeling conversation. The women were quite engaging, and so we got to know who was there for what offence. As part of this chatter, a young woman, just out of girlhood was pushed forward towards us and introduced as someone imprisoned for pickpocketing. Her friends then boasted that she was so deft at picking pockets that the unsuspecting victim would be totally unaware of what hit him or her. We, as urban genteel middle class women, teachers at that, scoffed at this claim, and so the young woman offered to give us a demonstration. Of course we wanted to see this for ourselves, so the young woman proceeded to pick our pockets. As the demonstration was given, and even as we knew she was going to pick one of our pockets, we felt not a thing till she triumphantly brandished what she had lifted. We exclaimed half in horror while she looked quite satisfied at this demonstration of her skills — and we all laughed good humouredly!

This was a set up and carefully steered visit, so we got no stories of torture, mis-management, corruption and violence. We said goodbye to the women and they called out to ask us if we would come again, and we said we would try, which of course did not happen as the Janata government itself fell before a second jail visit could be made. As we joined Mukhoty saheb in the general part of the prison, he was talking to a very young boy, an adolescent at that, and he was patting his back and saying, "I would have done precisely that, main bhi aisa hi karta", which astounded the young undertrial for sure. Mukhoty saheb was known to be a very emotional man, so the statement was completely in character though it was ‘irresponsible’ by everyone else’s standards.
As we were leaving we finally got a taste of the power dynamics in jail. While being escorted towards the exit gates, we had to go past an anteroom of sorts where what we saw was quite a sight (for my naïve and law abiding eyes). It was the notorious criminal Charles Sobhraj, famed for his career of cheating, stealing and killing. I’m not sure that he was there as a convict or an undertrial, but whatever he was, he was lording over the place. (If you go online for Tihar jail you will find many accounts of Charles Sobhraj, including accounts of his exploits, some given even by jailors! He seems to be the most ’famous’ of the inmates of Tihar, and that tells us something about ourselves.) He had been given this private space where he and his then partner, who was probably also in the jail, were seated quite cosily in something of a clinch. For the jail staff still accompanying us this was not anything unusual, so we all just pretended not to see. Sobhraj’s money power needed no apology, it was there for all to see.

It was difficult to pretend not to have absorbed at what we saw next. On our way out of the main gates we had to go past the mulakat hall, and it was mulakat time. There were crowds of inmates on one side and literally hundreds of ‘visitors’, (family members) on the other. In those days there was only a single grilled barricade, unlike the two parallel barriers that we now see in some jails. This single ‘wall’ had one-inch-square grills of strong but thin wires, which also had larger open squares — I’m, not sure for what. But the sight was unforgettable. Desperate women, children and old men trying to speak to each other across the barricade, which one could hardly hear as everyone was desperately shouting over the din in order to be heard. Some leaned on their toes, others crouched, so that there were at least three layers of men and women across the barricade. Fingers reached out through the wired wall, clutching at each other on the other side to feel the touch of the other person: a child’s finger kissed, a gesture made, a small display of human emotion that the ‘criminals’ and their loved ones were denied. Forever afterwards that is what the prison is to me — a space drained of humanity that the yoga classes Kiran Bedi introduced cannot rewrite.

And so, now, as Covid rages, I think of all the people we know who are in jail in various cases — such as Bhima Koregaon, anti-CAA protests, or the Delhi riots cases of today – whose loved ones cannot visit them. While the rest of us are ’locked in’ with our families, the state has locked these prisoners away from their families, with no visits, not even phone calls in many cases. There is anxiety and anguish all around. In the less than two minutes call allowed to the 81 year old Varavara Rao his daughter has reported with extreme anguish that all she could glean from the call was that he was in a state of acute medical distress but a vengeful state is beyond the reach of decency so all bail pleas are just rejected without even a pretence of consideration. And now he has the Covid. If Varavara Rao were to die in jail it would be tantamount to serving a death sentence upon him without even a trial.

We have not just locked up people; indeed, we have locked out humanity. This is what I will remember the time of the Covid for.

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