Today, September 13, is Political Prisoners Day.
In a short prose preface to a long poem cycle tiled The Requiem, the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova wrote about standing in the queue to visit a relative (was it her son ?) who was kept as a prisoner in a Leningrad prison doing the worst days of Stalin’s grip over the former Soviet Union.
The fragment runs as follows :
Instead of a Preface
In the terrible years of the Yezhov terror I spent seventeen months waiting in line outside the prison in Leningrad. One day somebody in the crowd identified me. Standing behind me was a woman, with lips blue from the cold, who had, of course, never heard me called by name before. Now she started out of the torpor common to us all and asked me in a whisper (everyone whispered there):
“Can you describe this?”
And I said: “I can.”
Then something like a smile passed fleetingly over what had once been her face.
When a society begins to resemble a prison more than it does a playground, when things are no longer said as freely as they used to be, when the clenched teeth of panic and anxiety begin to make their grinding presence felt in every conversation – then – it becomes even more important to safeguard and cultivate a few patches of freely willed conversation, between those who are actually in prison, and those who are not yet confined.
So that those who are ‘inside’ may know that they are being waited for. And so that those who are still ‘outside’, with friends or family ‘inside’, may know that their waiting, through the ‘torpor common to us all’, is not in vain.
For the past two years (seven months more than Akhmatova’s 17), prisoner number 626710 in jail number two, in the Tihar Prison Complex in West Delhi, has waited patiently to be able to walk out of prison. And I, and several others, have waited for him to do so. I feel that our shared patience needs to find its own way into the record of our time. So that posterity may look back on the queues outside the prisons in our cities and be grateful. This is an attempt to make that happen.
Barring a few occasions during a sparse routine of trips from Tihar to the Karkardooma Session Court at the other end of Delhi, and occasionally, to Patiala House court, prisoner number 626710 hasn’t really had his day under an open sky, breathing the foul but free air of our city. The desire to cross the high walls of the prison, of this city within the city, and step on to the streets of the capital remains a hope, and a dream, that wakes the prisoner from time to time with startling vividness from the depths of sleep. When he thinks he is free, he knows he must be dreaming.
Sometimes, a drag on a cigarette borrowed from a generous prison guard breaks the monotony of Dr. Umar Khalid’s journey, (yes, that’s him, prisoner 626710). Sometimes it is a random snatch of conversation with a fellow inmate. Every time, there is a little bit more of the whirlwind of Delhi to be purloined in glimpses stolen by hungry eyes through the small grilled windows of the dark prison bus. But he has not yet walked free. On the rare occasions when the news comes of some other inmate, either in Tihar or elsewhere in the vast prison system of this country, getting bail, he rejoices, and then hopes for his turn.
Endless bail hearings in a sessions court which ended with a dismissal of the bail plea, and the hearings of the appeal against that dismissal in the high court, which are currently underway, have so far denied Umar Khalid (and many others) that liberty.
[See ‘The Echo of Hearsay’ a three-part analysis published in Caravan (digital) of the arguments presented by the public prosecutor in the bail hearings conducted at the Karkardooma Sessions Court earlier this year, here, here and here.]
It has been 24 months, or 730 days, or, if you prefer, 17,520 hours, or 10,512,000 minutes, since Umar went into prison, after a day-long interrogation at the Delhi Police Special Cell Station at Lodhi Road on the September 13, 2020. September 13, 1929 also happens to be the day when the freedom fighter Jatindra Nath Das, Bhagat Singh’s comrade in the Hindustan Socialist Republican Army, died at the age of 25 in Lahore Central Jail, after he went on a prolonged hunger strike in protest against the conditions in which political prisoners were being kept. The September 13 is observed as ‘Political Prisoners’ Day’ in India.
A week before Umar Khalid was arrested (talk about coincidences) on ‘Political Prisoners’ Day’ in 2020, he had come to see me. We had had a long conversation about the changing contours of the future.
Now, it is I, and other friends, who go to see him, as often as we can. He waits. Marking time with our conversations, measuring encounters with his smile. We still talk about the future.
The last time I met Umar in prison, 11 days ago, on September 2, he smiled, patiently, shyly, like he always does, and spoke of getting used to the elongated rhythm of carceral time; to seconds, minutes and hours stretching and sprawling to fill two whole years of non-time. And I am getting used to the rhythm of my visits. Once a month, for the past three months, usually on a Friday morning, I have a rendezvous with Umar Khalid, in the ‘mulaqat’ or ‘meeting’ facility of Tihar Central Prison, Jail Number Two.
It’s not like in the movies. We don’t sit across a table in a hall full of prisoners and their families, everybody speaking loudly. Instead, the space I go into is a modest ‘L’ shaped labyrinth lit by tube lights, sectioned off into cubicles, with large grilled windows that act both as bridges and as barriers. The voices, are soft. No one screams. Through the grilles, like every other pair of prisoner and visitor, we are two standing blurs to each other, connected by two push button telephones. Your phone rings when your friend ‘inside’ picks up the receiver, and then you pick yours up, and facing each other you say, ‘Hello’. It is like time traveling back to what used to be the long distance phone call (STD) booths of yesteryear, except that your interlocutor is inches away, and the long distance between you and him or her is the distance between liberty and its denial.
The path, from where I live, in Central Delhi, to that telephone in the Tihar prison complex crosses the South West ridge forest and the ring road, veers left off the road to the airport after Dhaula Kuan, cuts through the military cantonment, rises on to a flyover bracketed by two gigantic and listless tricolour flags on the way to Janakpuri, and then inclines briefly downwards as it speeds along the jail’s moralising, slogan painted wall past a petrol pump and a neglected crafts bazaar, (West Delhi’s ‘Dilli Haat’); as if the regime were signalling that the process of going in or coming out of the prison (even as a casual visitor) would have to take you on a trip through it’s might, its pomp, its circumstance, and its banal indifference.
And then, once you reach the gate of Jail Number 4, you walk up a short ramp to the window of the Public Relations Officer in a low outlying building, stand in queue and wait to make your ‘booking’ for a visit. With you, are other visitors. Mothers, fathers, sisters, wives, girlfriends and friends. If you’re lucky, they, and you, get a date for the next day. Once, a friend, who is smarter at these things than I am, was able to get through to the notoriously hard-to-connect-to phone line and reserve a ‘visit booking’ slot for me. But on two other occasions, visiting Umar has been broken into two trips to Tihar, once on a Thursday morning to take an appointment, and then again the next day, on Friday, for the actual meeting.
I am writing this to give readers a sense of what it takes to visit a friend who happens to be a prisoner. You need to set aside time, make plans, and follow procedure. In writing this I am conscious that in days to come, as the regime that rules us spirals deeper into the vortex of paranoia and insanity that it is creating, we may see more friends disappear behind prison walls. Having a friend, or a relative, in prison, simply because they have stood up and said something ordinary in defence of freedom or justice may become even more commonplace than it is today.
We had all better prepare ourselves for that, and for living up to the responsibilities that inevitably fall on the shoulders of those who are not yet confined. So if you find that you have a friend in prison, make sure to talk to their lawyer. They will prepare a list of approved visitors (and no, they need not only be immediate family) that will be cross checked and verified. You will have to provide identification details (Aadhaar card or driving licence will do fine) that mention your permanent address, state your father’s name, and then you will be put on a roster of approved visitors. When you go to visit, you should carry that ID with you (originals, not photocopies), so that you can be verified.
Visits can also be booked on the National Prisons Information Portal, here.
Telephonic bookings for ‘mulaqat’ at Tihar Central Prison can be made by calling the following numbers: 1800110810 (toll-free), +91-11-28526971 and +91-11-28520202. It may be worth noting that this does’t always work, and the most reliable method of ‘booking’ a slot for a visit remains the act of actually going to Tihar, queuing up at the PRO window, and physically obtaining a handwritten ‘chit’ with a date, number, and then turning up again, on the given date, before 11 am, for the actual meeting.
Each prisoner has a quota of visits per month, video calls, and phone calls (from the prison communication system), which must be divided up between the people on the prisoners approved list of visitors. It is best to have one person (from amongst the prisoners friends or family) who takes charge, and allots time to the different friends. In Umar’s case, the person who rations out and administers our visiting dates with cheer and humour, is his partner. She keeps a watch on who gets to visit how often, and make sure that Umar gets to see each of us by turn. She is like a curator, distributing encounters with a friendly efficiency that lets us all, and Umar, get our share of time with each other.
I strongly recommend that you set up a ‘network of friends’ if you have a prisoner friend, and that you give someone within this network such a responsibility. That way, everyone in the network gets a stake in maintaining contact with their prisoner friend. It brings a breath of fresh air into the prisoner’s life, prevents the atrophying of time that inevitably accompanies the monotony of prison life, and helps everyone concerned feel that they have a stake in the life of their incarcerated friend and comrade.
The frequency of contact varies, sometimes it is more relaxed, and you get to meet, or talk more often. And then sometimes, without prior notice, it gets strict, and visits are rationed. The months that stretched through the intense period of the COVID-19 pandemic were hard. Meetings were few and far between. The strain of the double quarantine of prison life took its toll.
Right now, things are a little more relaxed, though the prison regime might get tight again, and time suddenly more precious and rare. Each time, you get 35 minutes to talk. Sometimes, the prison staff who supervise these encounters are lenient, and let you talk for a little more time. Sometimes they are strict. And you are left with words unspoken that dangle in the air behind you as you walk back towards the gate of the prison and back into the city.
When I go, I am struck each time by the ‘specialness’ of these occasions. My companions, my fellow ‘friends on the outside’ waiting to meet their ‘friend who is inside’, are always well dressed, even though most of them are poor, or working class. (The majority of inmates in prison are poor, or working class, they are, after all, ‘prisoners of war’ in a class war.) The visitors make an effort to make themselves presentable, women wear make up, men wear their best clothes. Everyone smiles, though inevitably, when the time comes to actually meet, and part, there are often tears. There is a kind of camaraderie between us, ‘the people who are outside’. In the queue to get our entry slips, we ask after the health of each other’s ‘insiders’, discuss the details and fine print of injustice, and wish each other, and our respective ‘insiders’ well.
This takes place in a very clean lobby area fitted out with polished benches, under the watchful eyes of a portrait, each, of Dr Ambedkar and of Bhagat Singh. A youthful, not yet jowly, stylishly necktied Ambedkar looks to the left, in profile, at Bhagat Singh, in a bright yellow turban, mysteriously smiling and looking out at the middle distance. Each time i have been under these portraits above the booking window, I have thought about the fact that Umar Khalid’s last organisational affiliation as a JNU student was with BASO, the Bhagat Singh-Ambedkar Student Organisation, which he and some of his comrades founded. So, the ‘B’ and ‘A’ of BASO are present in jail, above the ‘ticket window’ where we get our slips to go in, listening to the banter in the queue, witnesses to the enormous injustices of a carceral and judicious system that imprisons those, like Umar, who call for peace under laws against ‘terrorism’.
There is a gentleness, and a humanity, that I was initially surprised by, and this extends to the Tamil Nadu Police personnel who man all the checkposts, who pat us down and check our clothing for contraband. Language with the men and women of the Tamil Nadu police remain a barrier, but not an insurmountable one. Unlike Delhi Police (‘with you, for you, always’) I have found the Tamil Nadu Police personnel invariably polite and well behaved. I don’t know whether they are as civil at home in Tamil Nadu, but here, in Delhi, they don’t misbehave.
Having a friend in prison is a lot like having someone dear to you in hospital. The fate of the inmate depends a lot on how alive you keep the link between them and the world outside the institution’s walls. Maintaining that link is vital for the health, morale and well-being of your inmate friend. Every one in a prisoner’s immediate family and friends circle is a lifeline. The prisoner depends on you for human contact with the world at large, the very thing that the cruelty of the regime’s apparatus of incarceration intends to sever.
You have to be the world for them, for some time.
You can bring clothes (preferably soft, sensible, comfortable track pants and t-shirts, and slippers), you top up their allowance (each prisoner has an account, which you can contribute to, and this is done at a window close to the facility where you visitor registration slip is made out) so that they have money to stock up on that vital currency of prison life – tea bags, sugar and powdered milk sachets – with which to make hot, sweet tea (there is one induction heater for every sixty or so prisoners), and you can bring them medicines (accompanied by a prescription from a doctor), spectacles, news, gossip, conversation, and even the holding of a moment or two of shared silence.
Ordinary visitors can’t pass books and magazines along, that can only be done by the inmate’s lawyers. All of us, as Umar’s friends have made sure to set up a steady supply of books and reading material, which are passed on to his lawyers, who hand them over to Umar. He tells me that he has read more than 120 books (once he sent me a handwritten list of titles that he has plowed through ) across the last two years. This works out to the reading of an average of about five books a month. Despite every effort to dampen his curiosity and his questioning spirit, Umar Khalid, by sheer dint of will, (and with a little help from friends) has made sure that prison is his university and his library, his playground, his cultivated garden and the wild forest in which he sojourns, foraging provisions for the nourishment of his adventurous mind.
Umar takes a book with him each time he goes to court. It helps, he says, to pass the time on the long bus ride. I saw him at Karkardooma court one day, together with his co-accused in the case made out in FIR 59/2020. He had in his hands a copy of ‘Gandhi’s Assassin: The Making Of Nathuram Godse And His Idea Of India’ by Dhirendra K. Jha. The press didn’t seem to notice what he was reading, but I did.
Also present at the court that day were – a taciturn Sharjeel Imam, a pensive Tahir Husain, a warm, friendly Khalid Saifi. There were Ishrat Jahan (in an advocate’s robe) Devangana Kalita and Natasha Narwal (all three of them out on bail) and an effervescent Gulfisha Fatima. I was there, with a friend of Umar, and with other friends and relatives of the other prisoners. Those moments in the crowded lobby of the Karkardooma courtroom had the air of a serendipitous picnic, or an accidental reunion, with everyone smiling, laughing, weeping, sometimes with someone railing against the policemen who did not let any of us get too near our captive friends. There were hesitant moments of recognition, hands held up in waves, words half said and half heard in the din, and in the middle of it all stood Umar, escorted by several policemen, smiling at everyone. Time rushed past as the prisoners were taken in, produced before a judge, and just as suddenly as they had been brought in, taken away.
Umar Khalid being produced in Karkardooma Court today.
— Free Umar Khalid (@FreeUmarKhalid1) July 26, 2022
Just like that time in court, each time I have met him, even in prison, even in the privileged interval of the ‘mulaqat’, time has flown, and our conversations have remained, interrupted, suspended, always ‘waiting to be resumed’. Each visit brings with it its own anticipations, and leaves in its wake the memory of things I wish I had remembered to say, I order the thoughts I want to share in the long walk from the main gate to Jail Number Two, and on the way back, count the things that were left unsaid.
That long walk, on a right angled road that passes alongside jail number four (which has a mural of the red fort decorating its ramparts) and then turns abruptly right between two high walls crowned with circular barbed wire, is interrupted by watchtowers with armed sentries, casually looking down at everyone who walks below.
The sensation of being watched, no matter where you are, never leaves you.
Sometimes there is a distant voice on a public address system, barking orders. Sometimes, there is a song, randomly playing on the loudspeaker. One day I heard Muhammad Rafi’s mock-plaintive voice sing ‘Aaj Mausam Bada Beimaan Hai’ from the soundtrack of the 1973 film Loafer, starring Dharmendra and Mumtaz.
The song’s lyrics, which turn ‘betrayal’ into a condition of the weather, didn’t seem inappropriate on that humid afternoon. It is not at all incorrect to say that we are currently living through a climate of the betrayal of what has been promised in the constitution. That is exactly why Umar Khalid, and several others, are in prison today.
Umar told me that on August 15 this year, the voice on the public address system announced the names of prisoners who had received ‘amnesties’ and who would be freed. He told me that he had listened, right until the end of the announcement, trying to catch every name that was so casually spoken. His name was not amongst them.
Once I reach the low building with an open door that is my destination, the ‘mulaqat’ section of Jail Number Two, I hand over my ‘visit slip’, with my photo, with Umar’s photo, and with both our particulars to a lady who sits at a desk, processing every ‘visitor’. All ‘guests’ are asked to sit in a partially covered sitting area, across this desk, until we are called, by the name of our ‘prisoner’. In this waiting area, we eavesdrop on the conversations of jail housekeeping staff, which invariably amount to nothing very substantial other than complaints about ‘duty hours’ and other instances of bureaucratic pettiness. Time stands still here, until you are called.
When my turn comes, I walk in, put my thumb impression on a sheet of paper, and turn into the corridor where I know that the ‘mulaqat’ will take place. Umar comes to the assigned window with a notebook and a ball pen in hand. The notebook has a a picture of Swami Vivekananda on the cover. It is a standard-issue prison notebook. He brings questions he has written down, to ask me, about what is happening outside in the world. He makes notes from our conversation, so that he doesn’t forget what we talk about. Even in prison, Umar remains the diligent, curious student. We talk about stuff he is reading – novels, history, politics, religion, philosophy, and also about sport and cinema.
We laugh about the hilarious and bizarre theories proposed in court by the public prosecutor in his case, to keep him in prison. He shares his concerns about his fellow prisoners. He reminisces about his days in JNU as if they were far away in the past, though it has only been a few years since he graduated. We talk about the long vacuum of the COVID-19 pandemic and how it has affected all our lives. Sometimes he remembers things that we had spoken about years ago. His mind is razor sharp, and alert, his words compassionate, his goofy sense of humour, intact.
On more than one occasion, we have talked about the remarkable sense of restraint shown by the Muslim communities of north India despite the obvious provocations thrown their way by the most vicious of Hindutva fascists. He tells me that he wishes that the restraint by the Muslim communities, and the decision to stay calm in the face of provocation, despite the stray acts and statements of a few hotheads, were even more thoroughgoing than it already is. He constantly talks about the need for peace, for achieving the social and political maturity necessary to ensure that people do not fall into traps set by provocateurs and the agents of a predatory state.
I cannot help but think that it is this highly evolved and mature wish that peace, as a mode of resistance, should prevail, accompanied by an assertion of dignity and a sense of justice, that has been central in the accusations against him.
That it is Umar’s appeals for peace and non-violence that have been twisted by the perversity of the prosecution’s arguments that it it is this appeal for peace which is actually a ‘coded’ call for violence. When I tell him this, he laughs and tells me, “just because they lie about what we have been saying doesn’t mean that we should stop saying what needs to be said”. Who the ‘they’ are is left unsaid. But we both know whom Umar is pointing to. It is to the politicians of the ruling dispensation, the anchors in television studios, the captains of the battalions of the troll armies of the extreme right.
He tells me about how, even in prison, the lies and rumours circulated in the media about him, find their way into whispers and insinuations. He tells me about encounters with his fellow-prisoners, who first reproduce the prejudice that he is an ‘aatankwadi’, a ‘terrorist’, but then, sometimes, later, curiosity gets the better of them, and they begin listening, talking, asking, and then, sometimes, they awkwardly withdraw the labels that they have thrown casually at him.
He speaks to me of the friends he has made. The elderly gentleman in a neighbouring cell, the one Umar calls ‘uncle’, accused of white collar crime. They bond over the morning newspaper, tea, and discussions about Bhagat Singh, whom Umar says ‘uncle’ admires. Sometimes, ‘uncle’ borrows books from Umar’s burgeoning prison-cell library. They talk about what they read. ‘Uncle’, Umar tells me, is an attentive and alert reader.
Then there are others – friendly wrestlers, clumsy thieves, pious frauds, men who have murdered, or who have been accused of murder that they deny having committed. Some gangsters brag to him about their ‘misdeeds’, and Umar tells me he knows that they are exaggerating, to salt their anti-hero careers, as if it would be unfair to deprive him, in their accounts, of their Bollywood-style bravado. Many prison-aristocrats, men with reputations that precede, or follow after them, claim that the all pervading ‘system’, which they themselves were once part of, has got to them. Everyone, even those who proclaim their crimes, is convinced of their innocence. When they ask Umar what he is in for, he tells me that he tells them that he is in for opposing a criminal state machine. He does not deny that he is what the charges against him say he is, a young man who resists this state of affairs. But his unflinching recognition and acknowledgment of these charges also proves that they are the lie, and that in his patience, his forbearance there is a truth that is evident, as much inside as it is outside Tihar jail.
Sometimes, we talk about the stuff that gets into the papers. The last time I went to see him, he spent a lot of time talking about the news of Kavita Krishnan being asked to leave the CPI-ML-Liberation, which he said he had read in that morning’ edition of The Hindu newspaper. He was utterly shocked at this development, because as he told me, he has always had the greatest regard and respect for her as an intelligent and forthright activist on the left, even though he had never been a member of her erstwhile party, or any of its mass organisations. Umar kept asking me – “How is it possible that a political party in this day and age, in the 21st century, can be so sentimentally attached to the horror of Stalinism that it should be willing to sacrifice one of its most intelligent and articulate leaders, just to defend what is so obviously moribund?” These, more or less, were his exact words to me that day.
He said that the sensation of this news registering in his consciousness still felt unreal to him, especially because, he said, the preceding night, he had had a vivid dream in which he was having an animated conversation with Kavita Krishnan. In this dream conversation, he said, he and Kavita had been discussing the possible futures of a revived and renewed left alternative in India. Umar told me that the dream was so vivid that he felt for moment that he was finally free, and was actually having conversations that made sense with people he valued and respected, like Kavita Krishnan. He could not believe what he was feeling, and so woke up to find that he was still in his cell. And then came the shock of the news in the morning’s paper.
This gave us room to pause. Hesitantly, with patience, we explored, across the grilles, through the handsets on our telephone receivers, what that revival of an impulse for freedom in a new left for the twenty first century in India, and the world, can look and feel like. I said to him, “Umar, that is one of the many reasons why I wish you were ‘outside’, so that this task, which so many of us feel is so urgent, can benefit from your presence, from your participation.”
I want Umar to be free, because there is so much that needs to be done for us all to have a worthwhile future.
When my time was up, when the prison staff came and told us that we had talked for long enough, Umar and I put our receivers down, and waved at each other. I knew I would be back, sooner or later. I knew he would have other visitors. The conversations, interrupted, would continue.
If you have a friend in prison because they refused to acquiesce to the bitter denial of freedom and dignity in the country that is currently underway, please go and see them. Make it a a part of your routine. Don’t put if off till some other time. This time that is passing will never return. They need you, now. You need them. Don’t let them feel that they are uncared for, forgotten.
They are the keepers of all our consciences.
This article was first published on The Wire.