In college at St Xavier’s, Mumbai, in the early 1990s, Arun Ferreira was the “khooni cartoonist”, the young man with an unusual way of aiding the annual blood donation drive. Whoever donated blood received a keepsake in the form of their caricature, which Ferreira made on the spot. Over time, as Ferreira turned to full-time activism, sketching took a backseat.
His son was two when Ferreira was imprisoned in 2007. As a political undertrial, his time at the Nagpur jail (four years, eight months) was largely one of solitary confinement; books and letters were his reprieve. He took up cartooning, a skill he had forgotten since he left college.
But soon, in the sweltering heat of Vidarbha, he found himself sketching scenes from prison life. In a monochrome sketch, a hawaldar welcomes a new convict with a kick. In another, the loneliness of an inmate is apparent in his body language. Ferreira knew the images could become an eye into the world of the castaways. The 30-odd sketches he drew were the beginning of Ferreira’s book Colours of the Cage (Aleph). “One can see what goes on in a police station, but jails are hidden away from the world,” says Ferreira, 41.
His book is a picture of Indian jails that run on rules set before Independence. “A day in the prison begins with sunrise and ends with sunset, where tea is served at 7 am and dinner at 4.30pm, a rule drafted at a time when there was no electricity,” he says. He recounts how prisoners who groan in their sleep are often beaten up; how those convicted of rape get the worst of it, being made to crawl in the afternoon sun by other convicts; and money can get you anything inside, drugs, mobile phones or sexual favours.
His own story — the abduction-like arrest under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) on charges of sedition, the torture in police custody, the false charges which were eventually thrown out by the court in January this year — reveals, he says, the state’s growing intolerance of political activists. At a coffee shop in Mumbai, Ferreira is composed as he talks about his arrest on charges of being an alleged Naxalite in 2007. Other striking cases of the government accusing activists of sedition or arresting them under the UAPA would soon follow — Dr Binayak Sen in Chhattisgarh (May 2007) and Vernon Gonsalves (2007) and members of the Pune-based cultural group Kabir Kala Manch (2011), among others. “Those subscribing to the Naxal ideology are being booked for sedition, even if they aren’t violent. They are being projected as anti-national merely by association,” says Ferreira, citing the example of GN Saibaba, the Delhi professor, who was recently arrested on suspicion of being a Maoist.
His own arrest was foretold, says Ferreira. The organisation he was working for, Deshbhakti Yuva Manch, had come to be perceived as a “Maoist front” by the state. The book narrates the torture he underwent in police custody — calculated to cause maximum pain without leaving visible injuries. He, however, calls himself “lucky” to have escaped the fate of his co-accused Dhanendra Burule, who had petrol injected into his rectum.
His arrest made headlines because of who he was — a middle-class Bandra boy, accused of being a Naxalite who fired on a police team. But his Leftist sympathies had grown earlier, thanks to the influence of his uncle, a priest and founder member of the church’s student body. The turning point, says Ferreira, was when he pitched in to help the canteen workers at his college, St Xavier’s, to demand better wages and form a union.
Ferreira remembers that time not just for the riots that flared in his city but also for the decline of the Soviet Bloc (1991), and the gradual “death of Marxist beliefs” in India. “After the 1993 riots, I was closely interacting with and aiding riot victims in Goregaon and Jogeshwari,” he says. He remembers picking up discarded treatises on Marxist ideology from the footpaths of Mumbai for a mere Rs 10. At home, however, his parents were largely unaware of their son’s activism. “There’s a saying: Every mother wants a Bhagat Singh, but she’d rather have him in the neighbour’s house,” he says with a laugh. After Ferreira’s arrest, it would take several months for his parents to believe their son was innocent. “At the time of arrest, the media portrayed me as a ‘dreaded Naxal’ and I wasn’t allowed a have a proper mulakaat with them the first few months,” he says.
By then, Ferreira was adjusting to prison life as an undertrial. The half-cooked food was the least of his problems. That could always be supplemented by a dish of squirrels and bandicoots that they hunted. Worse was the treatment of political prisoners — the number of these in Nagpur Jail swelled from about 60 to 130 in the years Ferreira spent there — which ensured he remained in solitary cells throughout. He writes: “More than the brutal, claustrophobic architecture of the Anda [Barracks], it’s the absence of human contact that chokes you. You spend 15 hours or more alone in your cell. A few weeks can cause a breakdown. The horrors of Anda are well known to prisoners, and they would rather face the severest of beatings than be banished to this yard.”
In September 2011, Ferreira was finally granted bail, but what followed was doubly traumatic. In a replay of his 2007 arrest, he was abducted and taken to a police station in Gadchiroli district. The arrest was made for two cases of Naxalite attacks in 2007 and the court allowed police custody even as Ferreira complained of abduction. The re-arrest turned the tide. This time, the media coverage was more sympathetic. Protests took place and a petition was filed for his release. On January 4, 2012, Ferreira stepped out of prison and made it home. He recounts the events of that day in his last chapter, which begins with the sketch of a man breaking free, the word azaadi inscribed in the background. In truth, it would be another two years, until his acquittal in the last of his cases this January, before Ferreira could truly “feel free”.
Despite being witness to the abuse of the criminal justice system, Ferreira says his visits to the court were “a mix of frustration and hope”. “It’s what upholds you throughout; the far-from-perfect justice system becomes your saviour,” says Ferreira. “A prisoner spends the first three months in the hope that his case won’t stand and the chargesheet won’t be filed. When the chargesheet is filed, he lives in hope of bail. When the trial begins, he hopes the witnesses won’t stand. Sometimes, when he is convicted, he hopes the appeal in a higher court will help. The entire process takes 10, sometimes, 14 years. If you lose hope, you will either go mad or become a living corpse,” says the author-activist who now spends a large part of his time aiding political prisoners.