On January 22, 1991, in Kurla, Mumbai, Laxman Gole slashed at the face and stomach of a goon who had harassed and assaulted a woman. During the months-long incarceration in Mumbai’s Arthur Road Jail that followed, he became friendly with criminal gangs, and kept up the friendships even after he was released on bail. Between 1992 and 2005, Gole had 19 offences registered against him, including attempt to murder, extortion, criminal intimidation, physical assault. He spent seven out of the following 13 years behind bars. Today, Gole is a social worker in Karjat, near Mumbai, and gives lectures on Gandhian thought in prisons across Maharashtra. “Bapu teaches us to accept responsibility for our mistakes. Uske liye bhitar se dridh hona padhta hain (You have to be strong from within),” he says.
In the November 1947 issue of Harijan, Gandhi wrote, “All criminals should be treated as patients and the jails should be hospitals admitting this class of patients for treatment and cure. No one commits crime for the fun of it. It is a sign of a diseased mind.”
Gole’s life changed in 2006, when, while awaiting his sentence in Nashik Central Jail, he came across a sticker of the Bombay Sarvodaya Mandal on the back of a pamphlet in the jail’s library. He wrote to them asking for a copy of The Story of My Experiments with Truth (1927). He says, “Since I started following Gandhiji’s thoughts, many people have ridiculed me for taking up the ‘philosophy of the weak’, as they call it, but I know that only the strongest can walk this path.” Gole pleaded guilty to the charges he was facing, and, in an application to the judge, promised to walk the path of ahimsa. The day he was released in 2007, he went to the Tardeo office of the Bombay Sarvodaya Mandal, where he worked for the next six years.
The Father of the Nation has influenced the correctional policy of several states, including Maharashtra. It reflects in the many initiatives undertaken by the authorities, including Maharashtra Prison Industry, a registered brand with a range of products manufactured in the state’s prisons. Another Gandhian initiative began in 2001 when Pune-based Sahyog Trust, an organisation working with human rights, legal aid and distributive justice, began conducting the Gandhi Peace Examination in Maharashtra’s jails. It started with the Yerawada Central Jail in Pune, where Gandhi was imprisoned many times, mainly in the early 1920s and ’40s. “A terror accused, who’d appeared for the exam in 2010, told me that after reading about Gandhi, he realised that he was a good human being who had lost his way,” says Gandhian Tulsidas Somaiya.
While it was discontinued in Yerawada Central jail in Pune in 2012 due to security concerns, the annual exam is still conducted in Nagpur Central, Yavatmal and Akola jails, along with Thane and Taloja jails in Mumbai. Last year, gangster-turned-politician Arun Gawli, who is in the seventh year of his life sentence, topped the examination in Nagpur prison by scoring 74 out of 80 marks.
Deputy inspector-general (prisons) Yogesh Desai, who has been superintendent of both Yerawada and Nagpur Central jails, says, “For many inmates, understanding ahimsa and grasping that it is a sign of strength and not weakness, can be life-changing.” Gole says, “Prison is not a happy place. But there, we can lay the foundation for a better life upon release. Bapu’s example can be the guiding light.”
This article appeared in the print edition with the headline ‘Strait is the gate’
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines