Sunetra Choudhury‘s Behind Bars: Prison Tales of India’s Most Famous highlights how different jail experiences can be depending on who you are and what you can pay.
When I met Santosh Yadav, a journalist from Bastar, for an early morning breakfast in Delhi a few weeks ago, he looked happy. There was a sense of relief and freedom in his eyes. Yadav had been recently released on bail after 17 months of imprisonment. He was arrested by the Chhattisgarh police in September 2015 from his village Darbha in Bastar. At the time of his arrest, Yadav used to report for two Hindi local dailies, the Navbharat and Chhattisgarh. He was accused of being a Maoist supporter and charged under various sections of the Indian Penal Code and other laws pertaining to crimes ranging from rioting, criminal conspiracy, murder, criminal intimidation and with being a part of the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist), among the other alleged offences. He was granted bail by the Supreme Court on February 26 this year, after his earlier bail petitions were rejected by the lower courts.
As soon as he started narrating his jail experiences, he assumed a different persona altogether. There was a sense of intense gloom and despair in his eyes. “What I saw and went through in jail was beyond my imagination,” he said, adding that “I used to think aisa angrezon ke samay hi hota hoga (things like this could have only happened during colonial rule).” Yadav said he was severely tortured and even kept in solitary confinement during his incarceration, apart from routine beatings by the other inmates on the instructions of the jail officials. Listening to Yadav was like re-reading journalist Iftikhar Gilani’s jail memoir, My Days in Prison. Gilani had been jailed in June 2002 on the charges of possessing ‘classified documents’ and booked under the draconian Official Secrets Act. The only evidence presented was a report he had downloaded from the internet. Eventually, he was discharged. In his memoir, Gilani writes, “I was beaten up many times while inside the prison. For 41 days, I worked as a labourer…”
Not everyone goes through the trials and tribulations that Yadav and Gilani underwent. Jail can be quite a ‘haven’ for some, depending primarily on one’s socio-economic background and political influence, irrespective of how grave the charges or the crimes committed. In fact, it’s possible that the graver the nature of the alleged crime, the better the facilities you can avail. All, of course, through illegal means. Unfortunately, in jails, illegality is the norm.
Sunetra Choudhury’s book Behind Bars: Prison Tales of India’s Most Famous tells us how all of this is possible. In so doing, she gives us a glimpse of the underground and parallel economy of jails across the country. Based on extensive secondary research and detailed interviews with people who have spent time in jail as well as those who have worked in or on jails, Choudhury presents a series of stories which are nothing short of eye-opening – dare I say, even eye-popping – in their revelations.
Choudhury profiles the incarceration of 13 people who are either in jail or were at one point of time. While the book mostly concentrates on describing famous people in prison, it does cover others as well. Among the former are politicians Amar Singh, A. Raja and Pappu Yadav, the arms dealer Abhishek Verma’s wife, Anca Verma, CEO Peter Mukherjea and Maoist ideologue Kobad Ghandy. Businessman Subrata Roy of Sahara also finds a brief mention in the introduction.
Narrating her meeting with Roy, Choudhury writes:
“After walking through a long corridor inside the Chandragupta suite [at the Maurya Sheraton, New Delhi] that had been used by heads of state, and after passing a room that only had his shoes, I was ushered into a sitting room with Roy. He was very polite and spoke to me in Bangla, appreciating my work as I’m sure his secretary may have briefed him. Someone brought in some mishit doi and sandesh. As soon as I took out my notebook he said, ‘Listen, don’t include me in this book of yours. I’m not a criminal.’ I told him that not everyone featured in my book would be a criminal. Many would be those wrongly accused of crimes which led them to unfairly spend long years in custody. ‘But I am different. There isn’t even an FIR against me,’ he clarified.”
Roy was given VIP treatment during his jail term. In fact, as the author informs us, he paid a whopping Rs 1.23 crore for the facilities that he received in Tihar. He lived like a king even in jail.
Unbelievable and ridiculous as it may sound, the sad reality is, in the words of Anca Verma, “If you steal 1,000 rupees, the hawaldar will beat the shit out of you and lock you up in in a dungeon with no bulb or ventilation. If you steal 55,000 crore rupees then you get to stay in a 40-foot cell which has four split units, internet, fax, mobile phones and a staff of ten to clean your shoes and cook you food.” This singular quote from the book speaks volumes about the privileges and deprivation faced by people in jails, given their money power and political connections. It also tells us about the rotten nature of our criminal justice system. However, as the author notes, “special treatment in jail is, of course, not a new phenomenon.” She draws our attention towards the case of the infamous Charles Sobhraj. However, what is striking is how, over a period of time, a new normal of ‘super’ special treatment for a certain type of jail inmate has been drawn into our discourse.
Among the most tragic and lesser-known stories is the one of Rehmana. Hers is a clear case of guilt by association. Now out of jail, she is the wife of Pakistani national, Arif who is currently on death row for being an operative of Lashkar-e-Tayyiba convicted in the Red Fort attack case. Though there are several unanswered questions about Arif being an operative of the LeT and his involvement in the attack, Rehmana and her entire family suffer for the crime. “Don’t write their names,” Rehmana requested the author when she met her for an interview.
“Rehmana’s aware that she’s already created considerable problems for everyone associated with her. One of her sisters, a government school teacher in Bhopal, is afraid that Rehmana has spoilt her daughter’s chances of getting a good match. Her brother, a year younger than Rehmana, is still mentally disturbed by all that had happened. Rehmana may have married Arif but they were all hauled to the police station for one night in December. And that night’s nightmare is still too scary for them to emerge from.”
The story of the transgender bar dancer Khushi Sheikh as well as that of the school teacher and a once terror accused Wahid Sheikh are nothing short of horrifying. In both these cases, the perpetrators are those who are entrusted by law to protect the lives and liberties of the people – the police. Referring to Wahid’s case, the author confesses that “Even after two decades of reporting, his account gave me sleepless nights. I realised how in daily journalism we err in relying too much on what authorities say, in not questioning the prosecution agency.”
“Wahid stands acquitted after a decade in jail yet there is no compensation for the time he has lost, for the wounds that he bore from prison. Wahid has given real names of his tormentors, not just to me, but to courts and judges. All of them are decorated police officers—A. N. Roy, K. P. Raghuvanshi, Vijay Salaskar. You can’t dismiss his words because he (Wahid was not convicted) and the others who have been convicted can show you a Mumbai High Court judgement which upholds how they were beaten in jail, their rights violated and then denied medical treatment.”
Though the author regrets not having been able to include the stories of politician M.K. Kanimozhi, IPS officer R. K. Sharma and actress Monica Bedi, one feels that she could have tried including some of the most important stories of those who are either still lodged in jail or have spent years in the prisons of central Indian states like Chhattisgarh, Odisha and Jharkhand. Stories of people like Soni Sori, Linga Kodopi and Jiten Marandi would have enriched the book. Nevertheless, it is a well-researched book and should be read widely and translated into Indian languages.
Mahtab Alam is an activist-turned-journalist and writer. He writes on issues related to politics, law, literature and human rights, and tweets @MahtabNama