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Writing My Epitaph : Of Prison Accounts And Articulations Against Injustice

By Sushmita

08 October, 2014

Book Review : Colours Of The Cage : A Prison Memoir, Arun Ferreira

The purpose of writing should not be to create ‘the other', but to personalise the experiences of people in a way that the reader feels the intensity of having gone through a similar experience and empathizes in a way that makes them realize that, that such a treatment(as one meted out to Arun) is plainly and blatantly unfair and a mockery of basic dignity of life . Quite marvellously Arun has succeeded in doing this.

Through this book, Arun Ferriera presents an insight into a domain not well explored in popular discourses, or Indian mainstream media, literature etc.

At the outset, if you do not know him , Arun comes across as a person one can not imagine to have gone through much troubles. His face seems clear of lines of worry, anger or frustration. His smile is infectious and when he smiles, you feel like you can share with him all your college secrets. When I met Arun I did not realise what his journey was about . But as all the stories of the repression in jail unfolded, Arun gave a hope against hope in this society forever getting disillusioned with the idea of a change. He was a living reality of “ You can tear the physical, but my spirit is untouched '

The book not just introduces Arun but also presents to the reader, a ‘Bombay' of the past conveniently politicised into Mumbai with soaring property rates . It is also worth noticing that with the changing geography, the same ‘Bombay' has undergone a political change of climate .

With each passing page one sometimes finds oneself looking up imagining the little hole in the anda ( the special arrangement of windowless cells in an oval fashion, within each such confinement are a maze of passages and corridoors and a few, carefully isolated cells ) and the thin ray of sunlight peeping through it , or smelling the stench of urine, or sitting alone in phasi yard .

As the book progresses, the amount of torture that Arun describes sometimes looks unreal in order for the human body to endure and still be living , but the unfortunate fact is that this is the truth of the many under trial and convicted prisoners languishing in different Indian jails today . Of these , the political prisoners are perceived as most dangerous by the State since they are 'contaminated' by thoughts and ideologies .

The fault does not lie with the police or jail staff , as what may be perceived a conclusion to the article, the fault lies in the state apparatus and in its audacity to bring upon such draconian acts on its citizens, and laws meant to break down the morale of the people, the fault lies in the apathy and indifference of the middle class, our unquestioning and complicit, non investigative, comofortable-in-sofa and still-cribbing-that-nothing-changes-in-the-country attitude . The fault lies in the history text books that valorise certain people and completely undermine some, thereby presenting a selective picture of the past, that makes the youth complicit and instils in them a strong sense of power hierarchy , where the struggle is to have more power, and not more love .

The 'tanashahi' of the system is such that easy exceptions are made when it comes to political prisoners and all rules are foregone . Apart from bringing out the prison inadequacies , Arun unflinchingly highlights the exorbitant use of power in torturing prisoners .

In the book, intricate details of this torture are highlighted, like walking barefoot in Nagpur's summer heat on a tar road making the pain faced by the prisoner humane and a daily reality of the lives of many who are imprisoned in these jails for years on false charges, only to be acquitted later , but having successfully ruined precious years of youth and vigour that could have been utilized towards radicalizing social change, because that is something the system can not afford .

Arun takes us through many facets of prison life and it is absolutely remarkable he does this without over emphasizing on the subjectivity or emotional aspect of the experience, like the paragraph on ‘the demons of prisoners' which tells us the kind of psychiatric help required but not available. He brings out the irony of various tools put in place to help in controlling crime but turning eventually to another tool of state repression . After the narco test and excessive dosage of the drug, Arun says that , “ After I woke , I remembered some of the questions I'd been asked. It was like recollecting a dream : I didn't remember all the details, but I hadn't forgotten the highlights “

It was only three years later in May 2012 , that a bench of Supreme court judges noted that the use of narco, polygraph tests and brain mapping were unconstitutional if done without the consent of the subject. Here, ‘consent of the subject' becomes a purely subjective matter, lying with the discretionary power of the authorities

Lucidly, he brings out the practices inside jail which are archaic and pre historic, how could all his be done to a person yet not convicted of any crime, who is awaiting trial?

It is immaculate as to how the endless descriptions of injustices both within and outside jail, never take the form of a rant, thanks to a tight and objective narrative of the events . Even descriptions of moments of supremely charged emotions ( like meeting wife and child while still under incarceration ) have been kept to a bare minimal in order never to digress from the objective and in order not to get lost in political and social jargons

Through his own accounts , Arun also highlights limitations of charity which compel many individuals to move beyond charity towards a real empowerment of the people, by consciousness building and supporting them and helping them move forward in their everyday struggles against the system .

During the book release , Arun pointed out as to how social activists taking up specific causes were implicated in fabricated cases . This is expected considering the fact that the repression of the state is on a rise . But what is more crucial to understand here is how these have become part of the ritual, and why there are no questions asked in case of such incidents. He demands, “ So what, if I am an activist and I want to look into the cases of alleged maoists or terrorists, or if I am a lawyer and I am fighting one such case ? How does it gives the system the privilege to implicate me too in such a case ? “

Further in the book, he elaborately explains how cases after cases are slapped on the political prisoners falsely implicated while they are still in custody

In one of the paragraphs, Arun notes that the treatment meted out to him was an exception considering his relatively privileged background . What he means by this, is that all the dynamics and structures of the society outside can be seen and experienced within the prison, in a starker form in the absence of any control or check mechanism. Starting from caste discrimination to the treatment meted out to eunuchs, the books reflects undeniable truths of the Indian society. Dalits and adivasis with lesser or zero social networks, from far off regions are slapped with many fabricated cases for the greed of getting rewards and recognition. In the absence of strong defence, they end up serving years in double digits within the prisons. Here too, they perform lowly and menial jobs and the torture inflicted upon them is starker and harsher . Many including writer Dilip D'Souza have talked about such treatment to nomadic and ex criminal tribes who are still stigmatised( branding entire communities as criminal was colonial practice) and in case of crimes are the first ones to be caught and imprisoned. Within hours of arrest they face severe torture sometimes leading even upto their deaths.

And in that context, ironically enough prisons were one place all socially disadvantaged groups and ethnic minorities got a good share of representation !!!

This labelling as naxalaites and a treatment as the person is guilty before being convicted is a good way to crush popular support or the mass appeal that the person may have acquired after years of working with the people .

And not just explicit torture and branding, but the precarious forms of living, the struggle to choose between a bath and toilet, lunch or breakfast, take a slow and definitive toll on the human mind. Depression sets in. These are small but certain ways of playing with the morale of the prisoners. Even in cases , where the person is found guilty, such treatment is not intended to bring a change in the heart of the guilty but rather to make them live a life immersed in despair. In case of political prisoners, such incarceration for long periods is meant to break the morale of the person engaged in activism. It is now no surprise that progressive voices are increasingly being silenced from all the spaces of ‘virtue' including university spaces ( meant to be free spaces, at least in theory )

Throughout the book, Arun elaborates that how almost all the prison practices are colonial and archaic and even though the frame work of human rights was born after much of the struggles of people, the colonial practices of the British era continue. This situation worsens when it comes to ingenuous methods of torture. A recent mainstream movie, Haider tries to capture some of these forms of torture prevalent in all the Indian prisons ( even though the movie is on Kashmir ), but even this movie has suffered a cut of as many as 41 scenes by the Censor board. It is said that all these were torture related scenes . This brings us to another important aspect of the entire issue, and that is the attitude of the mainstream media . So far, the response to the book has been welcoming, several mainstream newspapers have reported about the book and its launch. The book has also been a trend in social media for the past few days . At the same time , it is also intriguing to note how the ‘same' media has minimalistic or zero coverage of the struggles waged by people , how it is difficult to get any coverage when hundreds of prisoners are striking against archaic prison practices, how the media does not practice ethics while reporting about social activists, dalits, adivasis and brands them as terrorists and anti nationals after their arrest, without a judgment having been delivered on them yet . This media sees with contempt people booked under draconian acts and laws like UAPA and AFSPA. The point is not to suggest that what should be the media's response in such cases, but rather to start questioning this ‘selective' or ‘zero' coverage of important issues.

A related point is that how the State sees as threat, any attempts that are made towards educating the masses or conscience building, here Arun narrates a funny incident related to the constitution whereby the mere size of it intimidated the prison staff and at first they refused to hand it over to him. In that sense, accessing education or books can also be acts of resistance meant to defy established norms, by the State and society .

Arun's penmanship is not in getting the reader trapped in emotional torments but rather in factually and subjectively describing the inside situation . Years spent in jail have given him deep insight into the workings of the Indian prisons as well as the dynamics of power relations and human mind's subjectivity to those relations. That, the book is a true of testimony of.

When I see Arun at the book launch, I see him greeting everyone with a smile, but the situation inside is grim. All forms of popular resistance and struggles are being crushed. People are increasingly being shoved behind bars, for participating in political activism, and charged with extreme labels like terrorists, Maoists, anti nationals etc. This is a dangerous trend and needs to be strongly resisted from all quarters, as Arun also notes in the book about the Supreme Court's observation while granting bail to Binayak Sen, another political prisoner. The Supreme Court observed that, “ If Mahatma Gandhi's autobiography is found in somebody's place, is he a Gandhian ? No case of sedition is made out on the basis of materials in possession unless you show that he was actively helping or harbouring Maoists “ It is only unfortunate that the same was not recorded as written word, which would have made things simpler for the common masses . That said, the situation is more desperate when it comes to a Muslim . This too, has been captured in profound conversations within the book, one such was the conversation with 60 year old Salaam, incarcerated for 17 years and a warder when Arun was in imprisonment,

“ The Wikileaks exposure of the US diplomatic cables has exposed America”

“For Islamic nations, their dadagiri was always visible”,Salaam says

“ And now the US has pounced n Assange”

“Who toh hai”

“Many have also come in support”

“This wouldn't be possible if Assange was a Mussalman..He would have been easily labelled a terrorist, denied support, isolated and ultimately physically eliminated”

While still being in the prison Arun completed his post graduation degree and that is the story of hope this book is about. Not only this , Arun suggested important prison reform measures through his thesis, which he includes in the book as, “ The recognition of political prisoners ; treatment of all prisoners in accordance with internationally recognized principles, standards and conventions; arrested combatants of armed resistance movements to be recognized, declared as prisoners of war and be treated in accordance with the Geneva Convention; withdrawal of the colonial-era Indian Prisons Act; repeal of special and extraordinary aws such as the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, National Security Act, Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, and also of sedition statutes of the Indian Penal Code; an end to the proscription of political organizations; end to all ‘ fase encounters' and ‘disappearances' by state forces; unconditional release of all political prisoners and the abolition of death penalty .”

The draconian acts like UAPA, TADA, POTA etc. have provisions like secret trials, trial in absence, and are pro prosecution and anti-accused. The last amendment of UAPA made a provision where the remand period was increased from 90 days to 180 days. The most dangerous aspects of these acts is that these can determine an association and the Police is entitled to that kind of authority. So, an innocent group of students sitting and having tea on a tapri can also be termed as 'an association' and falsely accused without any concrete evidence. These acts also make provisions wherein if civil society groups or other groups raise funds for any cause in India or outside then they could be suspected ( and not actually ) to be used for terror activities and hence the individual or organisation can be targeted.

The relationship between crime and punishment/torture is fragile, yet widely misunderstood . Research studies have proved that harsher forms of  punishment do not have an actual co relation with reduction in crime rates. This is the result of the Western discourses on crime popularised in the early nineteenth century. These discourses attributed crime to the human psyche alone, giving it a more pathological form. While sociologists like Durkheim, through their vast researches argued that crime is an unavoidable part of the society since a collective conscience can not be present in its entirety. So there will always be dissenters and people who are defying social norms at all times. The point is to distinguish between the crimes which are actually pathological in nature, and the ones which are a resultant of the social fabric itself. The most evident illustration of this is the crime against women, caused by the patriarchal mind set of feudal societies where women are perceived as no more than objects. Such a distinction should be succeeded by an appropriate treatment of the under trial or the convict.

Illustration : Arun Ferriera

While Arun's is one story of hope, it must be borne in mind that there are many under trials who significantly spend their time just going through the judicial process. While some of them are known to us, like Soni Sori, Sheetal Sathe, GN Saibaba, thousands others are unnamed, more so because of their marginalized background . Not only are they imprisoned, but also they go through extreme forms of torture. The objectivity with which it is stated that stones were pelted in Soni Sori's private parts is discomforting. When stones are pelted into someone's private parts , it is an excruciating amount of pain. When chillies are shoved down Linga's anal passage, it is a permanent damage that has been caused to his body. Ultimately the fight is about how much pain can the body endure . Political will is decided by the limits of the body to suffer .This takes us away from all kinds of rational and logical debates to a domain, no one wants to address or talk about.

It will not be any surprise if, due to the nature of its revealing content, soon this book will be banned too. But banning a book or a piece of literature is an indication that there is a truth, different from the ‘truth' that has so far been made to believe, through means of ‘mainstream media' and popular discourse, a truth that largely and hugely discomforts the ruling classes, the oppressors, which in turn are ruled by the corporates .

This book is a bold beginning and a new hope. Even though writings on the specific experiences of women, dalits, adivasis,Muslims and other marginalised groups are still due , this is a good start. A start, not meant to just weave stories, but also to educate and agitate.

References :

Ferriera, Arun, 2014, Colors of the Cage : A Prison Memoir, Aleph publication

D'Souza Dilip, 2001, Branded by Law : Looking at India's Denotified Tribes, Penguin, New Delhi

Verma, Sushmita, 2014, Women from the Wadar Community: A Study of NT/DNT struggles in Mumbai city, TISS

Tolen, Rachel, 1991, Colonizing and Transforming the Criminal Tribesman : The Salvation Army

in British India, American Ethnologist, Vol.18 No. 1, pp. 106-125

Kumar Mukul,2004, Relationship of Caste and Crime in Colonial India: A Discourse Analysis,

Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 39, No. 10 , pp. 1078-1087


About the author :

Sushmita is an MSW graduate from TISS. She works and writes independently on social issues and hopes to be an agent of social change through creative and innovative methods .





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