Book-Colours of The Cage: A Prison Memoir, Publisher: Aleph (2014); Price: Rs 295 (Paperback)
From 28 May to 14 June 2007, I was slapped with five more cases relating to Naxalite violence in Gondia, a district about 150 kilometres from Nagpur. Gondia and especially Gadchiroli, the other district lying at the extreme end of Maharashtra, are areas of intense Maoist activity. In almost all of Gadchiroli and parts of Gondia, armed Naxal squads have fought the police and paramilitary forces with support from the local tribals and peasants. This is in keeping with the Maoist strategy to establish revolutionary centres in rural areas in the hope of eventually growing to seize power throughout the country. It is no coincidence that these districts are also among the poorest areas in Maharashtra. In 2011, Gadchiroli had the lowest ranking on the state’s Human Development Index.
The five new cases allowed the police to get me back into their custody for another twenty-three days, till 19 June. I was shifted to Amgaon, a police station in the interiors of Gondia, where I was subjected to more sleep deprivation, harassment and interrogation. This time though, I was fortunate to get away relatively lightly. But my co-accused were not so lucky. The police, under the direct supervision of the sub-divisional police officer, a man named Korate, injected petrol into the rectums of two of them. A couple of staff lifted their legs while an inspector infiltrated the 20 ml of petrol into their bodies. The vapours of gasoline burned the intestine linings, which resulted in agonizing days of anal bleeding, blood clots and continuous belching. I wonder how Korate knew that exactly 20 ml of petrol would cause such enormous pain yet not kill. Such knowledge could only have been acquired by some sort of training. Ashok Reddy did manage to complain to the court about this. However the state-appointed doctor, obviously a friend of Korate’s, diagnosed Ashok’s condition as piles and exonerated the officer and his accomplices.
I was, for reasons best known to them, protected from such treatment. The police would come by to interrogate me every couple of days—whenever they got a list of questions from a superior. When I didn’t reply to their first question, they never got further down the list, and that’s where the torture would start.
‘Arre, Bajirao ko bulao,’ the inspector would call.
A narrow belt attached to a wooden handle would be brought in by a constable—an implement that policemen across Maharashtra fondly call ‘Bajirao’. It takes its name from Peshwa Baji Rao, a lieutenant of Shahu Maharaj, a ruler who is credited with greatly expanding the Maratha Empire. Maharashtra’s police personnel, largely dominated by the Maratha caste, find this instrument similarly trustworthy. The Bajirao belt was deployed carefully, only on the palms or soles of the feet. When whipped, the cluster of nerves at the heel pad causes enormous pain but displays no external injuries, so I wouldn’t have any proof if I tried to complain to a magistrate. However, doctors know that such foot whipping can cause permanent nerve damage. It reduces the elasticity of the heel pad causing agonizing aches, especially on cold nights, for years afterwards. Such torture, though not so visible to the naked eye, leads to irreversible harm to the body.
Once in a while, often due to the inexperience or over enthusiasm of the torturer, this permanent damage extends to death. No wonder Maharashtra still retains its privileged position of having the highest number of custodial deaths in India. It recorded 22 in 2011, way ahead of Gujarat, which came next with 7 deaths. Invariably, the government’s National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) attributes these deaths to natural causes or to suicide. People like Korate and his seniors are never held responsible.
Muslims are represented in prison in greater proportion than in the outside world. In Maharashtra, they account for 36 per cent of the prison population, whereas in society their share is 10.6 per cent. Muslim festivals in prison are important events. During the Ramzan fast, entire barracks are emptied out to accommodate Muslims. Food is served in these barracks at timings suitable for their roza, and prison authorities sell fruit and dates during this month. For those in cellular confinement like the anda barrack, such community gatherings are not allowed. However the cries of the azaan and the sharing of iftaar delicacies lend a festive air to even the anda.
In my section of the phasi yard, Asghar was the only Muslim inmate. He was allegedly a co-conspirator of Javed (who was in the anda) in setting off blasts on the Mumbai rail tracks. Before he was arrested, Asghar Kadar Shaikh, a resident of Mumbai, had worked part-time as an auto-rickshaw driver and the rest of the time as a florist. In jail, he worked as gardener in the compound surrounding the phasi yard. He was also entrusted with the job of keeping the gallows clean, oiled and functioning. Despite the grim task he was expected to do, he was extremely friendly and witty. He always had a unique take on the world around him, and made for good conversation in the yard.
‘Prisons will improve only if election rules are changed,’ Asghar would often philosophize.
‘Once prisoners are allowed to vote, politicians will then pay heed to our needs.’
‘You mean, inmates can’t vote? But isn’t that a fundamental right?’
‘Not for us. Hum voting kar nahin sakte lekin chunav ladh sakte,’ he answered. (We couldn’t vote but we could stand for elections.) He explained how Section 62(5) of the Representation of the People Act, 1951 disqualifies any imprisoned person, whether awaiting trial or convicted, from voting. However, Section 8 and Section 11A of the same act allowed undertrials and convicted persons under certain offences with sentences less than two years to contest elections.
‘Dekho,’ he went on, ‘in slums or villages, the needs of the poor are only fulfilled during general elections. We need to become a vote bank. Politicians would then value our voice and improve prison conditions.’
‘But such change will be superficial and short-termed, much like charity.’
‘Sahi hai,’ he’d continue, ‘but it will still be an improvement.’
Debates and discussions with Asghar would continue for days. He often articulated his preference for a death sentence to being imprisoned for his whole natural life. An instant death would immediately end the suffering of his family. It would, he held, allow them to start life afresh.
By June 2008, the number of us in the yard branded as terrorists started increasing. We got three more Muslim boys, Sajid Ansari, Muzzamil Sheikh and Majid Shafi, who had been arrested in 2006 and were accused of planting bombs in a Mumbai train that year. They had been thrashed by the prison authorities in Mumbai and arrived with multiple fractures and bruises. Sajid and Majid were young fathers who had only enjoyed a few months of parenthood before they were arrested. Muzzamil was still unmarried. The three were deeply religious and adherents of Ahl al-Hadeeth, believers in the strict interpretation of the Koran. Sajid and Muzzamil were residents of Mumbai and had earlier been members of SIMI. We had intense discussions on politics and Islam. They despised the Indian state’s treatment of Muslims and would never fail to express their views passionately. I had hoped to learn Urdu from Sajid, who was an excellent calligrapher and now regret having failed. Majid, on the other hand, was a romantic. He’d often speak about his family, his baby girl and the football he missed in Kolkata. From our discussions it became evident that Sajid, Muzzamil and most of their numberkaari were arrested merely because of their previous allegiance to SIMI. Majid, on the other hand, was implicated in the concocted police story because he lived close to the Bangladesh border. All of them faced the Herculean task of defending themselves from being convicted of a crime that had left 209 dead and over 700 injured. The well-oiled gallows haunted them daily.
You can order the book online here.