Birds in the Prison Barracks: An Interview with Kabir Kala Manch's Sagar Gorkhe and Ramesh Gaichor

Sagar Gorkhe, Ramesh Gaichor, Rupali Jhadav and Deepak Dengle spoke to The Wire about the condition of Indian prisons, their experiences of imprisonment, and how this has impacted their political and artistic work.

Sagar Gorkhe and Ramesh Gaichor. Credit: Javed Iqbal

Sagar Gorkhe and Ramesh Gaichor. Credit: Javed Iqbal

Sagar Gorkhe and Ramesh Gaichor of the cultural troupe Kabir Kala Manch were granted bail by the Supreme Court on January 3 after spending the last 40 months in prison, singing to survive. “We used to sing a lot to ourselves after lockdown,” says Gaichor. Over the past few weeks they have slowly been re-adjusting to normal life.

Due to police repression and accusations of being linked to the CPI Maoists, the group, which formed as a response to the 2002 Gujarat pogrom, was forced to go underground six years ago. Their members courted arrest in 2013, going on with the conviction that they were innocent, and their desire to sing and perform openly again.

In a journalist friend’s house in Pimpri-Chinchwad, Ramesh and Sagar move with discomfort, Ramesh has developed a back pain problem and can’t sit down for too long. Along with Rupali Jhadav and Deepak Dengle, who had been arrested and tortured earlier, they all speak about their prison experiences as political prisoners, about books, about their arrest, their creative practices and prison reform.

All of them were the first generation of their own families to become politically active and be Ambedkarites. “We would like to be known as Bahujan as we are from all castes, from Adivasi, OBC, to Dalit and we had deliberately put a Dalit woman as a leader of our troupe,” said Jadhav.

This is part one of a two part series on Kabir Kala Manch.

Isn’t a political prisoner different from an ordinary prisoner? That their experience once they enter jail can be different from that of a criminal or an apolitical undertrial? And that a lot of recent prison writings recently have shown that political prisoners often speak up more about those less fortunate than them.

Ramesh: Basically in Maharashtra, there is no point of view of looking at a political prisoner. And all the prison administrators, the officers, the karamcharis, have no idea what is ‘political prisoner’. They only look at what case you have, what gang you are from, does he have money. If a man with money enters jail, everyone knows that, that’s the most important thing. A company-walla comes into prison everyone wants to know which company and how much property he has. There is no lena dena with what a political prisoner is.

We were first put in Arthur Road’s general circle. And that is a completely different experience.  If you want to experience what jail is like, you need to see Arthur Road’s general circle. For a barrack that is meant to handle 80 people, there are 250 people there. There are four bathrooms, with three whose doors are broken and only one working tap. From the bedding, to the water, to food, there are way too many problems. For space, you can only sleep in one position on one side. In the night the responsibility for space is the jawabdaar and one by one, he screams at people to move to one side, chipkake he’ll make everyone sleep.

Then we have one tap to take a bath. Sometimes there’s no water. If you go down to take a bath, there are some 15-20 people taking a bath and if you fill your mug you never know when you get another chance. You can take a bucket but there’s fighting there also. There’s fighting when there’s soap falling all over the place.

The first day we were put in the ‘after’.  In the beginning all the new prisoners are brought in front of the superintendent and there’s a bifurcation – you put him in that circle, him in that circle. And we didn’t know much about prison life. At the gate, there was a constable and he asked who are you and what case we were in, and we told him what case we are in. And he’s like, ‘Oh you’re in the naxal case? I just met one of your friends in the morning, Siddharth.’

That way we got lucky. In prison, there is no one there to help you. Only if you know someone, you will learn what the rules are, when to eat, how to stand. It’s quite an inhuman condition. And initially in the ‘after’, there wasn’t much of a crowd and we thought it would be alright, we were feeling alright. We explored a bit, we spoke to people, ‘what case are you in, who are you…’

Sagar:  The first question people always ask you, no matter what, is what case you’re in.

Ramesh: Our answer was that we’re in a Naxalite case, bas case mein hai. And most people don’t know what a Naxalite is. Some do. They think they are the ones who kill the police. That’s it. And people in the jail, are very irritated with the administration, with the police. People have a lot of anger against the police so anyone who is against the police, they tend to appreciate, aacha samajthe hai.

Sagar: The police only put them in prison no?

Deepak, who was one of the first arrested and tortured by the police, along with Sagar.Credit: Javed Iqbal

Deepak, who was one of the first arrested and tortured by the police, along with Sagar.Credit: Javed Iqbal

Rupali: And the underworld people say, that we kill aam log but these Naxals kill the police.

Ramesh: And once it was evening at six, the prison started to fill up. And you know how the dam breaks, or how ants rush out of the achar, it was that bad. We got worried, there was no place to sit anymore. Then we saw their faces. Someone with a beedi, koi cigarette, koi tambacoo, koi ganja. We could make out people with their faces. Someone is crying. And we were just looking at people, looking at faces, this one must be a bhai, this one seems innocent, this one looks dangerous.

Then they fed us, which was horrible, I could barely eat half a roti or any rice. The gobi had only the stem and water. There was no salt. After food, we saw people fighting over space, over cigarettes. And new people like us, we just observed.

There was one [man] from the 1993 blast case who came up to us. Once we told them we’re in the Naxal case, people’s reactions just change. He started talking about how bad the state is. How long he’s been in jail, how long his case is going on, how he was innocent. And in the middle of this, they are showing Shahrukh Khan’s film Pardes.

Sagar: They only show Doordarshan at Arthur Road’s general circle. Only Doordarshan.

Ramesh: So in jail, the so-called Naxal case, gives a different impression. The administration people go, they are the human rights people, they are educated, they know the law. The administration is afraid of us, they are afraid of conversations about human rights. And what happened to us, you know what happened (Ramesh, Sagar, Rupali and Jyoti had come overground with civil society help and had conducted a satyagraha/surrender in full media glare.) R.R. Patil was there, and people generally knew who we were and what happened thanks to the media.

In high security, you’re treated very differently. Like the staff looks at you like you’re in a big case.

How were you shifted from Taloja to Arthur Road?

Ramesh: Arthur Road was overcrowded. The capacity is 850, but there’s around 2,700. They couldn’t keep us in high security, its capacity is 36 but there were 90. So the superintendent kept us in the NDBS barrack (narcotics), where all the cocaine, ganja, brown sugar… ke aroppi teh, aur unka dhanda chalta tha. There are many roads for how drugs enter jail.

They kept us there, and we felt our intention was to use this time in jail to study, to create, to reading, writing. We were artists after all. But we weren’t settling at all. In a place for 80 people, it is totally crowded, there was constant chattering, the only period it was quiet was during namaaz. There was no space for your bed, for keeping your things, Sagar lost his slippers, I lost my underwear, we lost our soap.

Sagar: When we first entered the After and we were in the circle, there was no space. The jawaabdaaar sometimes used to sell a space for Rs 5,000. There was a rate for a space to sleep. A one time payment. And they used to see a person and decide the rate. It’s written in your jail manual that you’re meant to be given a bed sheet, a blanket, a pillow, but that’s all set aside and the new person is meant to just deal, kuttte ke zindagi guzara padega.

The jawaabdaar will get his money from the relatives of the undertrial. And the question is all the rights we’re meant to be given as per the law, you don’t get it.

In the beginning there was no space to sleep, not for the first night or the second. We told him too, and he says ‘don’t take tension‘. Even as we were sitting, someone would come and say this is my space. Around ten he just tells everyone to go to sleep, everyone caught their own space, and it all became very tight. So I asked him ‘where do I sleep bhai?’ He says, ‘bass ghus jaao kahi bhi’.

So what he did, he found these sleeping people, those they call the ‘Bangladeshi guskhor’, whose condition is very bad, the Bangladeshi immigrants, who they call the ghuspetti, who have come here to live their lives. And what this man did, ‘ek Bangladeshi ko yeh dabba diya side mein, aur dusre ko dabba diya woh side mein, aur bola, ab hi ghoos! Mein bola, jagah kaha hai?’ But that’s where we had to sleep.

Ramesh: I didn’t sleep for three days. I just sat up and looked at people.

Sagar: It was also summer. There are four fans and two don’t work. There was also a lot of filth, there was a lot of difficulties. But in our minds we knew we were activists, we need to endure.

Ramesh: When we are outside we actually say with bravado that we will go to jail, we will struggle but when you actually you go to jail, there’s an assault on your mind, there’s a war on your ideas and on your circumstances. In the beginning, to adjust it was difficult and we were a little stable because of the way our case was functioning, as how others were released, how the case was falling apart. But still, once we entered jail, there was a negativism that assaults you quickly. Once you enter this, you’re trapped. For look at this room and how it is suffocating us, and we want to leave this room but you can’t leave it, someone else will come and take you out. There’s nothing in your hand. You’re under someone’s authority and you need to deal with that control. And you can’t go outside of this. When we are outside, that’s not there, there’s freedom of choice, I can go there, I can’t eat in that hotel, I won’t be friends with this person, I won’t sleep here, I won’t eat this. This is not there.

And the kind of people who control you, they have no humility, they don’t look at you like you’re a human being. They look at you as a prisoner. That you’re not even an animal, they’re better with cats and dogs. There is no concern, nothing, in the beginning, you may know your own people but no one has any lena dena with you. We used to speak about jail, but once you go into jail, it felt more dangerous. And now we are here, and we have to fight, and we have to live here.

Ramesh, Sagar, Deepak and Rupali (right to left) at a friends place. Credit: Javed Iqbal

Ramesh, Sagar, Deepak and Rupali (right to left) at a friend’s house. Credit: Javed Iqbal

When you people first when into prison how did you relate to other prisoners?

Ramesh: It’s like this. If you have no pechan in prison, like for when we first went in the bhai log asked us, who are we, and they saw us, we looked educated, well-dressed and we didn’t look like criminals. We gave that impression. Then they find out about our cases. And there were others arrested before us so there was some reputation, and they realised we were the samajik karyakartas. And the big people in prison used to call us to talk to us. That you’re a samajik karyakarta and you people are good people, they look at you differently if you’re educated. That you know how to write and you can write aarjis, and there’s a constant demand to write aarjis.

How many people approached you to write aarjis?

Sagar: Too many.

Ramesh: We had a better experience in Taloja there. There was this fellow called Mangiya. He had no money and chuhe-makhari case mein aata hai, and he had to work with the bhai-log and uska shooter bann ke kaam karte the: to make food for them, to wash their clothes. So there are a lot of shooters there who work for the bhai logs. It’s called pateli, they make the tambacoo, and we met Mangiya. And his case was, he used to steal railway patrees and sell them for drink.

Before him, there was another fellow who did that work, who promised him his bail, and he got free himself and then abandoned Mangiya. Mangiya used to abuse him a lot.

When he found out we were educated, he asked for help. When I studied his case, I realised the actual punishment for his crime was for six months but he was in jail for nine months. So I planned to write an application for him to admit his guilt to finish the case. Other people around him said don’t do that but he agreed with me and finally the judge let him out as he had already served the duration of his punishment. As he was leaving he was thanking me openly, and then every one would come and ask us for help in their case!

I also have to ask, you must have made a lot of friendships in prison, how did you feel leaving them?

Sagar: It was awful.

Ramesh: When we first found out we got bail, with one eye we felt happy, with another we felt like crying. The reality then hit us. The person next to us is in for life. This one has been in jail for ten years and his case hasn’t moved. This was another dialectic, you were happy and miserable but you can’t express it. When one gets into bail, he’s happy but secretly he wonders when he will get bail. When we were let out, we felt miserable leaving, wondering when they will be released. In the three and a half years in Taloja, these were the people who heard our songs, with whom we debated it, with [whom we shared] our thoughts, our books, we had wonderful relations with them. Even with the staff, the officers and even the bhais, if you ask them about us they will say we were good people. Even the staff were happy we were free. Sure we had some fights with the administration, but in prisons we had a good environment, it had gotten better especially after we did a programme for January 26, where we performed.

Are there anti-left and anti-Dalit groups in jail?

Ramesh: The Malegaon blast accused were there no? Also the other terror accused, the Muslims, were very anti-left. They can be very good on humanitarian points but they are very anti-communist. They still talk about Russia and Afghanistan. And the atheism of the left. The underworld types have no lena dena with the isms.

Were there any tensions with the groups? Were there any arguments?

Ramesh: Once you enter the jail, you have only one big enemy and that is the jail administration.  For everyone. Whether you’re a hindutvawadi, or a communist, an Islamic force walle, everyone’s enemy is the jail administration. What we do outside might be different, but in jail our problems are the same and we will help one another. There is a mutual understanding, ‘yes our ideologies are different but we’re here together’.

What we did is if we can have a healthy discussion with someone, you can have it. If you sometimes find yourself in a situation where it’s unhealthy, and you get into a fight, then you just leave it, no need to fight. Just leave it.

So this reminds me, when you were in prison, Yakub Memon was executed. How was the situation inside prison then?

Ramesh: Politically, we knew what happened to him was wrong. We knew how he was trapped, and we could understand that, we have questioned the state, we have seen how the state functions as such an uppraadi, a gunegaar, with its hindutva. We had a very different way of seeing Yakub Memon, we had a lot of sympathy for him. And the rest of the people in the barracks, we used to talk to people, the constables, the other prisoners, charcha hoti thi. This underworld guy for instance, a non-Muslim, would say, he killed so many people, he deserved it, he deserved death. And we used to talk about that, with some we spoke peacefully and cleared matters, with some behess hoti thi.

And a lot of people had an attitude where it was clear. And we succeeded in that. We went further sometimes saying, that even if Yakub was completely guilty, what about all the people who spread the riots, who took lives post-Babri, who killed in Gujarat, give them the death sentence too.

Sagar Gorkhe outside the Home Ministry during their Satyagraha in June 2013. After they 'surrendered' the police asked them to come later. Credit: Javed Iqbal

Sagar Gorkhe outside the home ministry during their satyagraha in June 2013. After they ‘surrendered’ the police asked them to come later. Credit: Javed Iqbal

When you all did your satyagraha, all four of you were ready to go to jail but the state had decided to let Rupali [Jhadav] and Jyoti [Jagtap] go. How did all of you react to that? 

Sagar: When we were planning this, we were worried the ATS (anti-terrorism squad0 people would trouble them. Mentally we were prepared that anything could happen. There was a lot of tension. And once that decision happened, that remand ka tension chala gaya, we were relieved. If you see photos and videos of us going to jail, you can see us going laughing into remand, that we’re going to get beaten up there and it didn’t matter.

Ramesh: It felt like a lottery. I never thought they would leave any of us. We were all going to get arrested and we were all going to jail. And R.R. Patil said there was no need to let them into jail, so it was a lottery.

What about the attacks that used to happen on other members when they went out to perform and were confronted by rightwing forces or the state?

Rupali: Like in FTII (Film and Television Institute of India).

Sagar: We used to get these reports when we used to come to court. Jyoti and Rupali used to send us letters. There was this fight, the police tried to stop us in this people’s movement, there’s another case here. The attack by counter-forces, we were sure that it would happen.

Even in today’s condition, when you go to the andolan, you go for a morcha, you stand with the janta, they can still harass you and arrest you. It keeps happening.

Were you bothered that you couldn’t help? And you could do nothing?

Sagar: We had a lot of trouble with that.

Ramesh: We were upset we could not participate. When we heard about a programme where the police tried to shut down a programme but the people stood up against the police and let the programme continue. That gave us a lot of spirit.

And in jail, you need energy, not food, but for political strength and stability we needed the energy of ideas, and we got energy from that. That people are performing, they went for morchas, that the police confronted them, that the janta surrounded the police chowki, all of this inspired us. But then hell, it irritated us that we’re not in it! And we couldn’t participate!

But at least we could compose songs on it, to write about it, to send those things out. We could not participate, but our songs could participate. They would sometimes send questions to us and we would think about them. That’s how we coordinated and it helped us feel better.

But was that your strategy to keep them involved in the movement?

Rupali: We always worked in a team. Even if someone is not here in person, whatever happens has to happen in a team. Whether it was to write poems, or to make a design poster, would happen in a meeting. They were just not present.

In today’s age you must be fascinated with how technology and information moves. This question is actually concerned with how information moves inside prison. For instance, how did you hear about Rohith Vemula’s struggle?

Sagar: We first heard it in the newspapers. That also comes censored. If there was any news about prison, it would be censored.

Ramesh: There’s no television in high security, no Doordarshan, just newspapers and its censored. For the women’s prison there was even more censorship, they would cut everything about Naxalites, and even any other progressive thought, etc.

Sagar: We always get information late. We read about the suicide in the paper. But what happened behind it, why did it happen, what were the politics, there was a lot of doubt, we couldn’t understand it. There is no literature, no good articles coming out.

Are you allowed any pamphlets or any kind of radical literature?

Ramesh: Nothing is allowed.

Sagar: No.

Ramesh: We’re legally allowed them. But officers have different attitudes, so if they see Vidroha, Banddh, Pratorodh Pratikar, if they see anything like that, they don’t leave it. ‘Yeh idhar hi chalu karenge!’ They were basically briefed by the ATS that don’t put these people in with the general population, wherever they go they start organising, they start protests, otherwise they will start a sangathan here only! The superintendent would come to us and ask us, ‘you’re fine here no? you haven’t started any organisation, no?’

In their minds, they were a bit alert about us, about any (samajik karyakartas) human rights workers, and our pamphlets. So we had to develop techniques with how to take our notes, hide our books, and some people had no idea what we had we were even reading.

How are the libraries in prison?

Ramesh: They are there. With some 550 books. And out of 550 books, 350 are all Bhagwat Gita and all babas’ and religious texts. And the rest are all these timepass books you get at the railway stations. There were some 50 left when I went recently and they were these children’s books, and those devala-rakshas types.

So there isn’t even a single book by Babasaheb?

Ramesh: Not even one.

Sagar: In three and a half years we didn’t find one.

Not even a copy of the constitution?

Ramesh: Nope.

Rupali: This is why we had put an application in court for books.

Ramesh: We had a fight over books with the jail administration. That you can’t keep books in your room, that they’d confiscate our books at the gates. So in court they said they had over 500 books on social themes, they never showed the list. And our fight was that what we wanted to read, they didn’t have. So they said that if we want to read anything, they would clear it first. But they had a problem even with magazines like Vidhroha.

Then we had one man who is supposed to be the librarian and everyone calls him guruji. Till today I have never met a more hopeless human being. Whenever you call him, he never comes, neither on the first day, or the second or the third. And when he finally shows up, he just acts aloof. When you talk to him about applying to open university he gets excited a bit because his work also increases. But when you ask about books he starts complaining about how no one returns the books and people get released and they take the books with them, and how it’s all his fault and how he has to pay for them from his pocket. For a whole month we had to struggle with him.

Finally the superintendent gave in and told him to give us books. When the books arrived we were so disappointed – yeh bhangar kitabe, salla iss ke liye hamm ne struggle kiya? They were the same railway kind of books without any depth, meaning.

There wasn’t a single good book?

Ramesh: There were two. I didn’t mind Rabindranath Tagore’s stories. And that too those are not prison books, those were donated books. And most of what we read, we were donated or [were] given to us from outside.

What about the jail manual?

Ramesh: The entire jail manual is not available.

Sagar: But some bits of it you get, here and there. In the beginning when you ask, they say they have no idea where it is. Finally, after a year we got it, but a lot was cut out, even then there was a lot of useful things in that. And they knew it, if we got the jail manual, we’d know about the laws and if we did, then we’d fight for them.

In all these years, even without access to knowledge and books, how much more has your knowledge and experienced changed?

Sagar: We’ve learned a lot. We’ve never seen the state from such close proximity. You’ve never been in such control of the state. For four years, from morning, afternoon, to evening, you were always with it. Who else will experience the state so much? Otherwise what experience do you have with the state? We were always in their control. We go with how they function. Their operating system, how the administration functions, what their language is, what their struggling style is. Outside on the street, hata-pai ki bashaan thi, inside it wasn’t hata-pai ki bashaan. Here we learned how the language is of the law, thus we had to read the jail manual, and of RTI, and they’re very afraid of RTIs, and since we were activists, we put a lot of RTIs.

Ramesh: And Sagar put a lot of RTIs.

Sagar: I’ll give you the example of handcuffing, which used to bother us. When we used to go outside, the guard used to handcuff us. And there’s a Supreme Court judgement that you need to take permission from the trial court to put handcuffs. And we’re activists, we’re not criminals. So we struggled over that, I filed RTIs about that, got the copy of the judgement, stapled it, carried it with us, and every time they wanted to handcuff us, I showed it to them, and phir se struggle, yeh dekh yeh dekh, yeh point dekh!

Another was of custody in court, where it’s not judicial custody and not even police custody. It’s lock-up but what its laws are, we don’t know. The police who take us to court are responsible for us and  are basically afraid that someone would run away. So they lock us up. And there was some officer who came and got us locked into a room. But we wanted to talk to our advocates, our supporters, our families. So we had to fight about that. And we realised this lockup is actually very wrong. And under what law did they lock us up in that room for? So I RTI-ed them. The DG (director general) office responded [saying] that ‘we don’t have information about it and if you want information, contact the commissioner’s office’. The commissioner’s office said ‘we don’t have information, but if you want specific information, ask us those specifics’. Then I asked the sessions court itself and the court said ‘we don’t have that information’. I just wanted to know, if this was police custody, then ‘what permission did you have from court to lock us up in that room? And if it was judicial custody then why don’t you say so?’

Then there was the jail doctor, who used to take money from people, five hundred here, another five here. I developed a skin disease, which is very common in prison. And when I recovered, I realised it was happening a lot to a lot of people and this doctor was not really paying attention. So when I filed a RTI I realised he’s an Ayurvedic doctor. And he’s the CMO (chief medical officer) of the allopathic medicines. So I asked again what are the qualifications required for the CMO post, and it’s supposed to be MBBS, and our character wasn’t even B.Sc pass.

If you see our photos when we were being taken away, you'd see we were happy.' Says Sagar, responding to the situation that the government did not take Jyoti and Rupali into custody. Credit: Javed Iqbal

“If you see our photos when we were being taken away, you’d see we were happy,” says Sagar. Credit: Javed Iqbal

How were your interactions with policemen and other staff? To be specific how were your interactions with Dalit police personel?

Sagar: Yes!

Ramesh: That was a very nice experience. They would know at some point, ‘arre you’re a Jaibhimwalla…aapla manus tu, kutli case ahe?’ (You’re an Ambedkarite, you’re one of us, which is your case?) Then they’d find out you’re in this movement, that you do programmes on Ambedkar Jayanti, then we’d sing some Ambedkarite songs, we’d recite some poems. They used to find out, ‘arre you are good people, tujhe phasaya, aur hamare log ko bahut phasathe yeh log, and yeh uchi jaati log hai na, bade haramkhor hai’. They used to start telling us about their superiors, that this one is casteist, etc.  And in jail, all Dalit and jaibhimwallas would know other jaibhimwallas. Whenever they’d go on duty they will check up on their own people, charcha karegne.

Sagar: There’s basically a style of speaking in Jail. There’s a lot of Jai Hind in jail. But whenever our babalog used to greet us, it was a strong guttural ‘Jai Bhim!’ And the adhikhari dekhta rehta, yeh kya bol raha hai?

When you were in prison the Bhopal fake encounter had also taken place, how was the situation inside prison?

Ramesh: With us, any people who are politically on your level, people who were against injustice, they were with us. And since those who cut out the news in the newspapers are also prisoners, there’s a way to access it. When you know something big has been cut out, you generally go and inquire and you find out what was cut. There may be ten of us, and all ten of us have our ten sources, and by evening you find out what was cut out. And when something big was cut, you just had to know. And there was a lot of charcha in our yard about how fake and how wrong that encounter was.

Sagar: Politically, we could analyse it. But later when friends had to go on tarik, bhai abhi jaa rahe hai, shyam ko aate kya nahi, nahi pata! (they used to say ‘bye bye, whether we’re going to be back or not we don’t know.’) One day some friends went for tarik – they usually came back to jail around 3-4 pm normally but one day they were late, it was already 7-8pm. We were afraid, did they run away, or were they killed? Kabhi hassi-masaak mein chalta hai, phir bhi serious hota hai.

In the almost four years you were in prison, which would you count as your most successful agitation?

Ramesh: We had one agitation for food in Taloja. On Sunday, they made us a bhople ka sabzi, without any bhopla (bottle gourd). Now we were already politically active, we were not planning any of this, and the situation just arose that day. If there’s an attack on your self-respect, you will react. Now no one else wanted to say anything, and we were politically active so we just asked this two-star. He just responded saying the bhopla just gal-gaya (disintegrated). We asked, ‘you eat at home no, Bhopla kabhi gal jaata hai kya?’ And we asked for another sabzi. Then with all the arguments, ten people joined us, then forty-fifty people joined us, then suddenly no one wanted to eat. The situation became tense.

The two-star in-charge of the kitchen finally came before us, and instead of being apologetic he started abusing and asked ‘who is responsible for all of this’ and started threatening people: khana khayega kya maar khayaga. We finally came before him and told him his food is bad, ‘why are you abusing?’ And he started abusing us for making ‘unity’. We said this is just about food, just change the food. When he saw how bad the situation was, he calmed down and went back, promising it won’t happen again. We also went back to eat.

Eventually news travelled through the chain of command and this superior came to us. He came and grabbed my collar, and also started to accuse me, ‘tu bahut unity karta hai kya, tu leader bann gaya kya’. He had a BP problem, and he used to stutter, everyone laughs at him. ‘You want to hit me, hit me’, I said. He then separated all of us. He shut us all back in our barracks. And those who were in the floor under us, he went and beat up. He didn’t dare beat us, but he did push us around.

That was our first struggle. And after that they knew how we were trying to bring people together.

Just a few weeks earlier, two other members of their group Sachin Mali and Sheetal Sathe had done a similar satyagraha for their right to perform. There was an optimism in the group that would be short-lived. Credit: Javed Iqbal

Just a few weeks earlier, two other members of their group, Sachin Mali and Sheetal Sathe, had done a similar satyagraha for their right to perform. There was an optimism in the group that would be short-lived. Credit: Javed Iqbal

In everything you tell us, there is a deliberate ploy to keep those who are politically minded away from the general population in prison, because somewhere or the other there’s a tendency for political activity, to struggle for food, water, living conditions, etc. In today’s age, one feels that if a prisoner in this system gets any relief, it’s from the courts and the human rights campaigns, but is there any possibility for something within the jail itself, a kind of prisoner’s union, or a prisoner’s samiti? For instance to have proper access to one’s families, one’s wives or husbands, to make phone calls, to spend proper time, every one from the Sangh parivar to the left prisoners could agree to this?

Sagar and Deepak: Yes, they would.

Most people inside Indian jails are anyway undertrials, some who have spent decades in prison, they aren’t even convicts and they should technically be granted their rights. 

Ramesh: In today’s climate, it’s not possible. After living in prison for so long, I realised that outside whoever is active, whether it’s Amnesty International or any other human rights group, nothing affects what happens in prison.

A while ago, there was a convict from Kolhapur who was convicted and escaped from parole and since he was convicted for killing an IPS officer’s daughter, it made a big issue, from the Home Ministry onwards to courts, and a 90-day parole turned to a 45-day parole, and there were many more restrictions on the rules and regulations.

Undertrials for instance, need a lot of things. For instance, those who are convicted, they have access to phones, but undertrials who’re not even criminals don’t. They have no facilities.

Sagar: And inside there’s no chances at all to organise.

Ramesh: The minute there’s any attempt at any unity, there’s a clampdown, they will do anything. In fact, in prison you need to show you’re not doing any unity. If there are ten people here, and we can help one another out, and we work together, we stay together. But we should not show that we’re being politically active. And in the circle, there are many informants, the staff spy on us and they give information. If it happened though, it would give a lot of benefit.

Sagar: Even when it comes to running, and if we’re running together, someone would come and say, ‘don’t run together, they will say a training camp is taking place’.

The Satyagraha had taken place with the help of the Kabir Kala Defence Committee, which included Prakash Ambedkar, CPI's Prakash Reddy and filmmakers Anand Patwardhan and Simantini Dhuru. Credit: Javed Iqbal

The satyagraha had taken place with the help of the Kabir Kala Defence Committee, which included Prakash Ambedkar, CPI’s Prakash Reddy and filmmakers Anand Patwardhan and Simantini Dhuru. Credit: Javed Iqbal

But there are times there’s been unity on an extreme level, like in Nashik. And they just sent all the prisoners who participated to other prisons, to Amravati, to Kolhapur, to Nagpur, to Mumbai and some even to our prison. We asked them what they did, and they said they went on hunger strike. For phone facilities, for applications, for food, for paroles, for jobs, for every facility. And they were punished – over 180 people – [as the administration] transferred them all over the place. And haalat kar di. Unka jhadti liya. They took away their blankets; in winter, they had a civil blanket which wasn’t enough. They took away whatever they had. In such a condition, how can there be resistance, hunger strikes?

Ramesh: … They troubled them by withholding their letters, they wouldn’t send their letters, they wouldn’t give them court dates, they wouldn’t let people meet them. They would trouble them a lot. That struggle has to be for the end, for all these small things, it doesn’t happen so easily. For I had a fight over a letter with a very khadoos officer, a three-star senior jailor, who is very angry and generally hates prisoners. Whatever you ask him for, he turns around and does the opposite. Once he had a fight with me over a letter. He would read them, and he would highlight, ‘what is this’ and ‘what is that’ and ask all sorts of questions about them. So once we asked about a friend’s bypass surgery. So I wrote ‘how was his operation? How is his health?’ And this policeman asked, what is this operation you’re talking about, is this some ambush? He really harassed us. Once we wrote ‘KKM’, he asked ‘what is that?’

Sagar: Then the word ‘Hora’ (a kind of a play), and he’s like what is this Hora? Why have you written Hora so many times? One day what happened was one of the Hora’s became a ‘Hota’. And he came and asked me again and again, ‘what is this Hota?’ He didn’t let me read in what context it was so I said I don’t know what Hota is. And in the letter he shows, the question, Hota ka kya hua? (What happened to Hota?) I am like, first let me see it, aage-peeche kuch toh hoga. And he doesn’t show it properly, but I see, it’s written, ‘Hota ka kay zaala hota?’ Listen, this is not Hota this is Hora, and Hora is a form of a play!

Ramesh: Once he had a problem with names on letters. When I had to send a letter to my partner Jyoti, I used to send it to my father. So our officer read the letter and but then he comes and says, you wrote this to Jyoti but the address is to Murilidhar Gaichor, this will not work. So I wrote my father’s name and Jyoti’s and c/o. But he’s like you’re a Gaichor, but she’s Jagtap, this also does not work. I say ‘sir, there’s no law where a husband and wife need to have the same surname.’ And he says ‘this will not work either.’ His ego thoda down hua, and in the end that letter disappeared.

Irony does not escape the government. This was the calendar in the room where the Kabir Kala Manch and their Defence Committee had their meeting with the Home Ministry. Credit: Javed Iqbal

Irony does not escape the government. This was the calendar in the room where the Kabir Kala Manch and their Defence Committee had their meeting with the Home Ministry. Credit: Javed Iqbal

The other thing to ask is about creative output. For many people outside, they have external stimuli, access to information, they get to read books, but you were all deprived of these freedoms, you were isolated. What was your practice to help you create in such an environment?

Ramesh: In jail, our basic source of information was the newspapers. And when we went to court there was an activist Vivek Sundara who used to come to meet us just to give us magazines and editorials, and that gave us a lot. Stories which had depth, with analysis. We used to see things in the paper and write about them in a reaction, about inflation, elections, dance bars, and when the RSS and BJP took power, we wrote about it – like this, on different things we kept writing. We would sit and talk about what we wrote, and Sagar used to put music to it. I used to do as much as research and edit the lines, put this line here, that there.

Sagar: And then we had to put the music before the people. And so we would meet two-three prisoners, and tell them we have a new song. They would come and hear us.

Ramesh: One of the big problems of writing in prison is gaane ke dhoond rehti na, woh dhoond yaad nahi rehti.  There were many tensions because of that. Outside there are many sources. But inside nothing. Once the dhoond is gone, you don’t get it back. You may have a dhoond on one day, but three days later there is no dhoond anymore. Then someday the original dhoond is there, then someone mixes it up, and then it just gets mixed up and gone. Then during in court, we tried to change a song’s dhoond one day. We one day tried to record a song outside court on a mobile phone. It wasn’t so successful. The recording is happening, in front of the police. And they were like what is this?

The other thing is, once we went to jail, they knew we were political prisoners, but slowly they realised we were also singers. Once in Taloja, after eating we were all sitting, and all the dum maro dum walle sat down and started their songs, their bhajans, mefil bhett raha tha. Then slowly they realised we also started to sing, they would hear us, in the shower, or here and there. Then one day they asked us to come ahead and sing, and we said we don’t sing all this Bollywood music, we have songs from the movement-wale gaanna. They said ‘no problem, sing’, so I opened my book, and I asked this musician, to play a tune. It was a song about Arthur Road Jail, the first song in jail, a song we entered jail singing. And we sang it in Marathi, and it would become very popular. Arre salla aapna hi gaana gaye hai, kya bhaari gaana hai, they would respond. Like this some 10 songs went into the mefil.

Sagar: Till 3 am it went on like that.

Ramesh: They then knew we were political prisoners but acha bhaari gaana bhi gaate hai. And songs are effective no? Slowly we started to get a lot of good response. On Sunday if we were in different barracks the bhai-log used to call us but they used to sit us down and get us to sing andolan songs for 50-100 people, sometimes jail songs, sometimes Bollywood songs, sometimes andolan songs.

A quiet moment: Jyoti and Rupali a few moments after the ATS took Ramesh and Sagar away. Credit: Javed Iqbal

A quiet moment: Jyoti and Rupali a few moments after the ATS took Ramesh and Sagar away. Credit: Javed Iqbal

What about the songs from Sairat?

Ramesh: We only hadn’t heard those songs.

Sagar: There was a guard one day. He kept singing ‘badlun gelaya sara’. He was singing this one song for six months. Yeda tha woh! He was crazy! I was like ‘what is this song he keeps singing’. He really tortured us. Kya badlun ho rah hai? He was a nightshift guard, and one day I was awake, it was around 3am and he was singing this song. I was like, ‘kay la badlun gela badlun gela?’ Then he told us it’s from Sairat.

We read in the newspapers about the film too. That’s it’s about this subject, that it’s making this much money. That it’s doing so well. One day when we were going on tarik, we asked one of the guards to show us the songs in the van on his phone. And what songs wah! Then I understood ‘kay badlun gela’!