Guest Post by NITHEESH NARAYANAN
This account of a young student’s experience of a week in Tihar Jail as a political prisoner gives us the opportunity to reflect afresh on ‘appropriate’ punishment, in the context of the recently revived debates on the death penalty. In those debates, incarceration is assumed to be the more humane punishment, but Nitheesh’s account reopens even older debates on the prison itself as a mode of disciplining society (Foucault), Angela Davis’s stirring question – Are Prisons Obsolete? – in which she argues that the current prison system perpetuates the same power relations of race, class and gender that society is based upon, and widespread critiques of the prison industrial complex in the USA, where private corporations run prisons for profit, using prisoners as practically free labour. (It is alarming therefore, to see an argument for privatizing prisons in India being put forward as a measure to “reform” prisons!)
Here then, offering us a view of prison as a microcosmic reflection of every oppressive power structure outside it, is Nitheesh Narayanan:
Tihar Jail, Central Jail no. 4, Ward no.1, and seven days spent in Barracks 1, 2 and 3. Around thirty of us, including SFI’s National President Com. V Sivadasan and some comrades from JNU decided on a protest demonstration at Kerala House, New Delhi, in solidarity with the series of protests in Kerala against the Chief Minister involved in the Solar Panel scam and to mark our indignation at any form of corruption. There were no policemen at the gate as the protest was unexpected. We entered the compound and sat in the portico of the main building. We burned Kerala Chief Minister Oommen Chandi’s effigy, raising slogans all the while. It was when Com. Sivadasan was addressing the protestors that about a hundred policemen entered the compound and started unleashing violence on us and arrested us. Nine of us were booked under severe offences.
We spent that night in a shabby lockup room full of filth and spit, lying on a newspaper sheet. One of the inmates in that lock-up room was an accused in a crime involving a core and a half rupees and a murder. We were shocked when he told us that in order to weaken the charges against him, he had poured almost fifteen lakhs into the pockets of corrupted officials.
The inspector who had earlier responded positively regarding granting bail to us, stated before the court that we should not be given bail as we were dangerous criminals who attacked the police and destroyed public property. We were remanded for 14 days. Then to Tihar jail.
Along with Comrade Sivadasan, SFI All India joint secretary, Satarup Ghosh, Andra Pradesh State Secretary Lakshmaiah, State President Noor Muhammed, Central Committee members Comrades Mood Shoban, Upender, Ramu and JNU SFI leader and research scholar in Centre for Law and Governance Comrade Rahul N, I was taken to the nation’s most infamous jail.
Tihar was not different from our expectations. Ridiculing us by calling us ‘Madrasis’, the very first question we were asked was about our caste and religion. The officers asked Sivadasan’s religion. He replied ‘None’. The answer remained the same when he was asked his caste. The question was repeated again and again with raised voices. “How can you be an Indian if you don’t have a caste and religion?” one officer shouted at him. “I don’t have a caste and religion. I am a communist” he replied politely.
We were sent to Ward no.1 in the Fourth Central Jail. There were 8 barracks with around 80 people in each one. We spent our first night in the first barrack. They used to shuffle the inmates from barrack to barrack regularly in order to prevent prisoners organising among themselves. Even the prisons are afraid of the power of the united. A spark was enough to burn down the wilderness of Tihar. Everyone there had that spark within them. The shuffling made no difference. Shuffling was a mere statement of the authorities that prisoners are not beyond their control.
Wardmen used to wake us up early in the morning by 5.30. A cup of tea would be served. The common prisoners did not get plates and glasses. Some of them used to have tea in thrown-away water bottles. The tea session is followed by an assembly. We were made to sit in rows on the muddy ground. Some senior prisoners would be the overseers. There starts the recruitment for daily work. Mess work, cleaning the barracks, wards, bathrooms and toilet (that too with only sticks and stones), washing blankets and utensils of “privileged” prisoners, plucking grass and gardening were the major works. We were treated as if we were slaves. The breakfast would be served after the work at 11— two rotis and some tasteless curry. Then till 3, we would be locked up in the barracks. We tried to forget our hunger by sleeping. The work would be continued in the evening as well. The next food would be served at 8 in the night. Again, only two rotis would be given.
A ritual religiously followed in the morning and in the evening is a prayer meeting at a small Sri Rama Temple inside the jail. Prisoners had to bow down in front of it even during their month of fasting. Irrespective of religion and belief, everybody had to chant “Vande mataram’. This is how this country teaches you nationalism and discipline.
Once, ignoring the orders of the overseers, Comrade Rahul and I stood up and walked out of the assembly. A prisoner who was controlling the assembly, came running to me and started beating me up. I had no other option than to raise my voice. I shouted at him. As the scene was turning violent, other comrades also came and joined us. We could read from the eyes of those who gathered around us that the anger which we had shown was theirs as well. And finally the authorities had to be silent, at least temporarily in front of nine people who raised their voices. That night we were granted bail. Otherwise what could have happened to us is still a question. But we are sure that another struggle would have started there—for the right to have food and water in hygienic conditions.
There are separate in-charges in each barracks. Another group of people who used to abuse all new prisoners wore badges saying ‘Sahayaks’. Later we realized that they are not persons with any official authority but our fellow prisoners. We were shocked to hear that the in-charge of Barrack No.1 was Akshay Thakur, who is an accused of December 16 Delhi gang rape case! He was one of the prisoners who tried to physically assault us on the very next day. Many prisoners told us that Ram Singh, who was also an accused in December 16 Delhi gang rape case and was found hanging dead inside Tihar jail—was murdered. We also suspected as much, because Tihar was built in such a way that there was no chance of anyone being able to commit suicide.
Each barrack was separated into two parts. One part was devoted to a few persons who are close to jail authorities. They pay to get the luxuries they need. These ‘VIP’s get good quality mattresses, pillows, blankets and whatever else they want. There was no one to control or command them. They are not shuffled to other barracks like the others. They get as much food as they want, and on time. They have access to television. The funny part is that most of them were accused of corruption. There is a ‘Smart card’ system in which one can deposit a sum of 6000 rupees per month, using which prisoners can purchase whatever they want. Life of the rich is fine here. It was like legitimizing the crime itself.
All the six accused of Railway Scam – in connection with which Union Minister for Railways Pawan Kumar Bansal had to resign – were among those ‘VIP’s. Tamil actor ‘Power star’ Srinivasan, who was sentenced to imprisonment in a fraud case, had the same luxury here.
But we were not given access to the jail library. They didn’t even give us the medicines which Comrade Rahul used to have daily.
Supreme Court says that the accused have the right to bail, as jail is exclusively for the convicted. But it was the other way around in Tihar jail. There were many people who are under judicial custody for months and months. Some have to wait until the final verdict finding them not guilty, to see the sunlight outside the jail.
Someone had scribbled on the wall, ‘Hate the crime, not the criminals’.
In Tihar Jail, Rahul was as fiery as he has been in JNU. He was very friendly with all the inmates as he knows Hindi, Tamil, Malayalam and English very well. He was really a relief to prisoners from southern part of India since they could not interact with anyone as they don’t know Hindi. Many of them haven’t even heard of the communist party. Com. Sivadasan shared his Kerala jail experiences with them. We talked a lot about struggles and politics. Comrades from Andhra Pradesh made the jail days really memorable with Telugu revolutionary songs and their wonderful sense of humour.
The hammer and sickle, which they scrawled on the wall, will triumph over many rains.
It was all inhuman there. It was all part of the hegemony built on caste, religion, class, masculinity and capital over the centuries. We realize that the beginning of any progressive politics has to be from the struggle against such hegemony. That was the biggest lesson which Tihar jail taught me.
Nitheesh Narayanan is a student of M.A International Relations, JNU.