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Mumbai: Surendra Gadling, a human rights lawyer from Nagpur, has always considered courtrooms his stage. Between serious arguments, he would casually break into songs of cultural and political resistance. He would be commonly found invoking political theories and remembering shahirs from the Dalit community amid serious legal arguments. His court appearances usually attracted an eager audience from among his peers and junior lawyers.
So, when 51-year-old Gadling, one of the first persons to be arrested in 2018 for his alleged involvement in the Elgar Parishad case, was released on temporary bail for a week in August, he dressed up in his usual black lawyers’ suit and headed straight to Nagpur sessions court. Here, his friends and colleagues were eagerly waiting to hear about his “teen saal, do mahine and ek saptah (three years, two months and a week)” spent in three different prisons of Maharashtra.
“I have done some human rights lawyering when I was out (before arrest). But after spending time in three different prisons, I am convinced I wasn’t prepared for this. Prison needs a lot more work,” he began. In the next 11 minutes, he recited a song written by a cultural activist of Kabir Kala Manch and his co-accused Ramesh Gaichor.
The song debunks the common perception that “prisoners live aish ki zindagi (a comfortable life),” he explained. The song recorded in August was made available to The Wire by his colleagues with Gadling’s consent.
From the cramped space to one “all-purpose” soap per month, the song narrates the everyday life of those incarcerated. “Every prisoner gets just a bucket of water per day. He is supposed to use that one bucket for his daily ablutions and drinking. That water is also meant to clean toilets. Water scarcity commonly triggers fights inside the jail,” he explains, between the song.
Prisoners, he says, come up with ingenious ways to cope with the harshness of incarceration. “Dinner is served by 4 pm and by the time it is time to eat, the food is stone cold. Things are much worse on Sundays; dinner is served by noon,” he shares. And the time of serving food is the least of their problems. The watery dal and the two hard chapatis are inedible, he says. “So as the lights go off, some courageous among us, manage to get a handi (pot) and add tomatoes and masalas and make the food palatable,” he shares, before confessing that this “illegal act” if brought to the notice of the jail administration, it can land him and his co-prisoners in trouble.
Unlike in most states, prisoners in Maharashtra, are eligible for non-vegetarian food occasionally. Gadling, between the song, says that during the pandemic, most prisons in the state stopped serving any kind of meat. “So, we had to make do with pigeons that we managed to hunt in the jail,” he laughingly sings.
The song also touches upon the difficulties faced by prisoners in getting any kind of medical attention. “From the simple cold to the complicated COVID-19, the doctor asks for a court order to treat you,” he says. This part of the song is a sordid reminder of the condition of Jesuit priest Stan Swamy before he died in July this year.
Before becoming a lawyer, Gadling worked as an apprentice in the railways. From a very young age, he actively participated in different socio-cultural movements across Nagpur. Along with his friends – Sambhaji Bhagat an activist, a people’s poet and balladeer and Vilas Ghogre, also a prominent poet and activist from Mumbai who died by suicide to protest against the 1997 Ramabai killings – Gadling had started an organisation called ‘Awhan Natya Manch’. This group would organise cultural evenings in the bastis of Nagpur and engage in conversations around rights and oppressions.
Over the years, Gadling has become a formidable force and a point person for cases of illegal killings, police excesses, fakes cases, and atrocities against Dalits and Adivasis in the region. He is one of the few legal experts in Maharashtra, dealing in special laws like UAPA, the Forest Rights Act, Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. He was, until his arrest, handling the case of G.N. Saibaba, a wheelchair-bound Delhi University professor jailed for alleged Naxal links. He handled most of these cases pro bono.
Here is a video link to the song he sang in the Nagpur sessions court premise in August: