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Letters from jail: Elgaar Parishad detainees pen thoughts and experiences

The letters, which The Indian Express has access to, reveal a slice of their lives behind bars. Some talk about when they can possibly see the gallows, some are abstract ruminations on life and freedom, while some dwell on the circumstances of their arrest and merits of the case.

Written by Seema Chishti | New Delhi | Updated: December 20, 2019 11:06:54 am
Letters from jail: Elgaar Parishad detainees pen thoughts and experiences Activists Arun Ferreira, Vernon Gonsalves and Sudha Bhardwaj.

Seven of the nine incarcerated activists, academics and lawyers in the Bhima-Koregaon-Elgaar Parishad case have written letters from the prison to their close family members. The letters, which The Indian Express has access to, reveal a slice of their lives behind bars. Some talk about when they can see the gallows, some are abstract ruminations on life and freedom, while some dwell on the circumstances of their arrest and merits of the case.

Writing in Hindi, academic, activist and lawyer Sudha Bhardwaj draws parallels of the case being equivalent to the time in 1929 when the British tried to establish the “Meerut conspiracy case”.

She says: “On August 28, 2018, a search of my house was conducted, but two months of house arrest, and nine months in Yerawada Jail’s separate ward, there is only one so-called childish and non-credible “evidence” exists.”

She adds, “If there are some evidence and material, then we can plan how to battle it, but a fake electronic file? How does one fight that?”

She speaks of asking for the “data from various devices picked up and which the police claims to have collected, which is my right at the time of it being collected and even appended to the chargesheet, and which the court ordered nine plus one copies to be made, which can be made in a day, but was not. It seems a trial will not be required, as just waiting for the data will exhaust the time that the punishment sets aside.”

Sudha has thanked all those who think of her and fight for her. She also speaks of her relationship with nature that she sees. “The sun rising after a long night, or showers after the unbearable heat. All this fills me with hope for betterment and progress in human life. The process will be tortuous and slow, but it will happen.” She quotes a well-known line; “It’s an evening of sadness, but it’s just an evening.”

Telugu poet and activist Varavara Rao writes that he was “the last person to come to Yerawada jail” of the nine in this case. He speaks of his time spent very close to the gallows, where the “tip of the gallows was always visible from”.

Elgaar Parishad detainees tell their relatives of their thoughts and experiences This painting is by Arun Ferreira and they appear in his book – Colours of the Cage.

Describing fellow occupants, he speaks of how “our discussion shifted to Harry Potter. Some of us have not read any of the books. She suggested that it is not meant only for children and younger generations but we have to read them to understand the younger generation. She was in such a hilarious mood and while talking to us she crafted a paper bird with a small tail and wings. If you pull the tail, the bird will move its wings and ‘fly into sky’, into Azadi. She gave it to me. We played with it for some time, but alas, we don’t have tails to be pulled so that we can fly into the sky without wings. All the time, whatever we are doing, reading, talking, sleeping, in the subconscious, dreams, or awake, we yearn for freedom. Every living thing, more so the conscious human being, cherishes in heart of hearts the deep desire for freedom.”

On the death penalty, Rao writes; “As a writer and rights activist, I am convinced against capital punishment with abundant faith in reform in human being, particularly the oppressed youth, I find here all my prison mates very humane in their relations with others. For me, my short ten months incarceration relatively becomes nothing as I see them, who cannot go out of our block for years together and living cheerfully, whatever and however they spend the solitary nights. That gives me great strength imagining the hope they live for and yearning for life while noose hangs around their necks, a ray of the hope at the end of the dark tunnel. This is my daily oxygen, besides the literature and books.”

Elgaar Parishad detainees tell their relatives of their thoughts and experiences Painting is by Arun Ferreira, who is also in jail in the case.  The painting appears in his book — Colours of the Cage.

An academic and prominent women’s and Dalit activist, Shoma Sen speaks of what she sees in jail. “Sitting where I am, I can see how little has changed as we approach the 72nd Independence Day. Women, mostly from unprivileged, lower caste backgrounds, barely literate, married off at 14 or 15 years of age, form the bulk of those who are languishing in jail. They are living examples of how patriarchy functions in society and in the judiciary. These are issues and kind of people we were fighting for- will serving life sentences for killing daughters-in-law and mothers-in-law or a violent husband, solve the problem, vis a vis our attempts to change the very fabric and weave of our socio-economic structure that you and we have been trying to do? Let us strive to overcome this culture of silence and fear,” she writes.

Activist Vernon Gonsalves has described the nightmares that haunt him when he sleeps in a letter that he has titled, ‘Restless’. When he wakes up, he says; “Finally, I must get up – to the silent steadfastness of the chipped granite walls around me. They are not closing in. There are also those familiar bars with their unwavering shadow patterns. It feels good to know I’m not being broken down, not being flattened out. Nowadays, it’s despair that’s dominating. The scenery is beautiful, but enveloped in a gloom of terror and sadness. War echoes in the distance. Someone is being bombed. A child cries, and the lovely lake turns a ghastly red. I awake with a chill and a shiver. My beloved bars calm me, bring warmth. I’m behind bars. In their embrace, what have I to fear?

I don’t even need to remind myself how fortunate I am. Isn’t it nice to be sheltered when a hundred horrors abound? I even have a cast-iron alibi for not being out on the streets fighting fascism. Yet, I’m restless.”

Mahesh Raut, an activist with work amongst tribals, has written a poem in Hindi, which is about the “free displaced” he sees himself as. The slogan of ‘Jal, Jangal Jameen’ (Water, forest and the land) has an echo in it.

He speaks of the “burning and falling of localities, where the workers are displaced and those who opposed that were beaten, some buried and were declared victims of an “encounter” that I had termed “false”.

Rona Wilson, a research scholar who has worked on the condition of political prisoners, has written a letter on August 12, 2019, which is about the ‘GDP of fear’ that comments on the Jammu and Kashmir situation, after the reading down of Article 370 in sharp terms, Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) holds a mirror to the rest of the subcontinent. The deafening silence to the level of dehumanization, mistreatment, brutalization and debasement of like of the people of J&K is a direct measure of our own dehumanisation. The deep securitization of our minds, the dark fears in the far recesses of our minds, benumbed in the self-imposed ‘security’ of our gated selves.”

The jailing of Shahidul Islam, the artist-photograoher from Bangladesh, is invoked by Wilson. “To paraphrase him – it is important to take a step back and see the penal system with a broader lens. Basic needs, the delivery of which development is traditionally measured by, are not in jail conditions. Yet, incarceration is considered as extreme form of punishment. Why then, while outside, should we accept the dictum that freedom can be set aside in the interest of development? Why should the complete erosion of our freedoms be accepted as a necessary evil in the pursuit of a higher GDP?” Wilson adds; “Why should we accept the illusion of freedom while accepting that we will not have a voice, and be deprived of our constitutional rights? Why should fear by normalized and subservience seem as a virtue? What will it take to break the chains that shackle our minds?”

Human rights activist Sudhir Dhawale has written a letter detailing his views on why it has been necessary to enforce sedition and “create a category of urban naxals”.

He writes: “As investigation into Gauri Lankesh’s Murder progressed by the efforts of Karnataka police, pressure was starting to mount on the Maharashtra government and it’s police to arrest masterminds of the killers of Dabholkar-Pansare. People began to point out that the Hindutva camp is behind these killings. That’s why recently discussions started growing about Hindutva terrorism. Beginning from Bhide-Ekbote, we have reached Andure-Kalaskar-Tawade. All these happenings pushed the Hindutva camp onto a backfoot. This is the background for the fictitious enemy call of ‘Urban Naxal’.”

Linking it to the government being on the back foot about the killers of rationalists, he writes; “As the discussion on Hindutva terrorism began growing, Hindutva rulers felt the need to create an equal fictitious enemy to counter the narrative. Islamic terrorism, Maoism, Dalit uproar – all of this had become old. And words like ‘Seditious, Anti-national, Tukde tukde gang’ too were no longer effective enough to be used. The dreams of ‘Achhe Din’ had also become a disastrous reality that created fear for Modi himself. With the strong anticipation of insecurities arising out of the crisis that could emerge before 2019 elections, the scarecrow of ‘Urban naxal’ was created.” Dhawale quotes Sahir Ludhianvi and Rabindranath Tagore on the free spirit of humans and rues the making of a ‘police state’ saying; “New provisions in the UAPA law that allow declaring an individual as a terrorist, can crush down any dissent against this rule. When such action is taken against someone, nobody can tell how long that person will spend in prison. Before this also, there are sad stories in people’s memories of blatant misuse of TADA, POTA, MCOCA, NSA, Public Security Act, AFSPA…”

Speaking harshly of the predecessor of the present regime, Dhawale writes: “After the attack on Mumbai, when the then Congress government proposed similar laws in the name of preventing terrorism, Gujarat’s then Chief minister and present-day Prime minister strongly opposed it at that time. Now an even stronger law is being made under his own rule. These provisions of giving unlimited strength to the centre of power, have contributed to the drastic conversion of the Indian state into a ‘police state’.”

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