Book Review | Life in Indian Jails as an Undertrial Prisoner

“The colonial era is long since over, but colonial attitudes continue in the form of racism. But in this postcolonial age, we will no longer tolerate this false sense of superiority. We will stand as self-respecting citizens, proud of our Indian origin. Your Honour, we have been wrongly framed.”

These were the words of a young Kobad Ghandy in a London court in 1972. The police had arrested him for delivering a speech against racism in a working-class locality of London. Shortly thereafter, he was sentenced to three months of rigorous imprisonment. Four decades later, he would spend around ten years in various Indian jails while being tried for his links with the Maoists.

After being released in 2019, Ghandy penned Fractured Freedom which is described as a prison memoir. The vivid narration of his distressful interaction with the criminal justice system raises several pertinent questions. Though the memoir predominantly revolves around his lengthy incarceration, it also explains why he was attracted towards communism and what ails communism today.

Association with radical politics

Ghandy had a privileged upbringing which involved attending the Doon School and St Xavier’s College. He says he was devoid of social consciousness and knowledge of the social environment beyond his immediate circles. It was his encounters with racism while studying in London and the Marxist critique of capitalism and colonialism that directed him towards the ‘revolutionary cause’. Being imprisoned in London for speaking out against racism further impelled him to stop training to become a Chartered Accountant and return to India.

After returning to Mumbai in 1972, he took up social work at the Mayanagar slum by organizing the occupants to demand better facilities and rights. Eventually, he associated himself with the Progressive Youth Movement which was a faction of the Naxalites. In 1982, Ghandy and his wife shifted to Nagpur where they involved themselves in trade union movements, Dalit movements, helping tribal women, and other social work for the next 20 years. Ghandy is evasive about the details of his association with the Maosists during this period. This is perhaps due to the pending cases against him in various courts. However, he denies the charges of lending support to violent Maoist activities and claims that the police foisted cases on him by recording fake confessions.

Also read: For Maoists, Kobad Ghandy’s ‘Mafia’ Reference in Book Was the Last Straw

A significant feature of his political and social activities is his attempt to integrate the ‘caste question’ with the ‘class question’. He is critical of Marxists for focusing only on the class question and refusing to engage with the nuances of the caste system. He attributes this to deep-rooted caste sentiments in many of the Marxists and a mechanical understanding of Marxist theories without paying attention to the social conditions in India.

Ghandy does not mince words while criticising the dogmatism of the communist parties. He points out that new ideas are perceived as dangerous and people who propagate such ideas in the Marxist circles are labelled and isolated. Furthermore, this dogmatism has led to communists being wary of members of civil society who passionately fight for justice without endorsing communism.

Life in Indian jails

Between 2009 and 2019, Ghandy was incarcerated in six jails across India. Though he was acquitted in many cases, he remained in jail as an under-trial prisoner and to serve his sentence for impersonation. During his stay in Tihar, he spent a lot of time with Afzal Guru discussing Kashmir, Islam and Sufism until Guru was hanged in 2013.

Reading his description of life in Tihar and the oppressive jail rules makes one wonder if human rights part company with the prisoners at the prison gates. The feudal rules and vast powers conferred on the jail staff are designed to crush prisoners through humiliation and pain. Though under-trial prisoners are presumed to be innocent as they have not been convicted, the harsh conditions in Indian jails inflict suffering even before their guilt is determined.

Ghandy recollects the terror unleashed in Tihar by ‘Bladebaaz’, a group of bellicose inmates who would attack or threaten to attack other inmates with blades at the behest of the jail staff. Apparently, this was a technique of disciplining recalcitrant inmates and those who failed to blindly obey the jail staff’s diktats. The slightest of violations invited serious repercussions. For instance, when Ghandy was late for court due to his ill health, the jail staff roughed him up and the Superintendent prohibited him from meeting visitors for three months.

The abysmal medical facilities and the cumbersome process to access decent medical help exacerbate the prisoners’ suffering. Often, Ghandy had to approach the courts and bribe the medical officers of the jail to get his ailments treated. He points out that the jail hospitals in Jharkhand were severely short-staffed and the hygiene at the Hazaribagh Jail was so bad that even the jail hospital was infested with insects and mosquitoes.

Rot in the system

The compassionate Justice Krishna Iyer had once observed “Punishments in civilised societies, must not degrade human dignity or wound flesh and spirit.. The roots of our Constitution lie deep in the finer spiritual sources of social justice, beyond the melting pot of feudal crudities and sublimated sadism”. Jails are supposed to function as institutions of reformation as opposed to centres of torture, indignity, and corruption. Ghandy’s description of life in Indian jails exposes the rot in the criminal justice system which cries for attention.

Though Ghandy stresses on the need for a radical change fashioned on the lines of communism, he does not offer elaborate inputs on the economic model. The book ends rather cryptically by cautioning us of an impending apocalypse which may be averted if the seeds of goodness embedded in human beings bloom into flowers.

Rahul Machaiah holds an LLM in Law and Development from Azim Premji University.

Featured image credit: Amazon/Editing: LiveWire