A prisoner’s trials

Print edition : December 12, 2014

Arun Ferreira in Mumbai after his acquittal. Photo: Vivek Bendre

Illustrations by Arun Ferreira portraying the life in jail.

Illustrations by Arun Ferreira portraying the life in jail.

An illustration depicting police brutality.

The book gives a graphic description of the miserable lives of prisoners and the blatant violation of human rights by the law enforcers.

IN January this year, the social activist Arun Ferriera was finally acquitted in all the 11 cases registered against him under various sections of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. Ferriera was first arrested at the Nagpur station in May 2007 by the Maharashtra State’s anti-naxalite squad. He spent four years and eight months in the Nagpur Central Jail, where he was subjected to endless hours of torture by the police and the jail authorities. He was accused of anti-national and naxalite activities in the eastern belt of Maharashtra. When he was released in September 2011 and as he reached the jail’s infamous Lal Gate a free man, he was kidnapped and re-arrested on an old case of naxalite violence. In January 2012, he was released on bail in his last remaining case.

In spite of protests and petitions to secure his freedom, Ferreira continued to languish in prison. The media, which had initially reported the absurdity of his arrest, almost turned against him by labelling him the “Bandra naxal”, after the area he hails from in Mumbai. Ferreira, who had his education in well-known schools and colleges in the city, was part of the activist fraternity and is respected for the work he did in the backward areas of the Vidarbha region, otherwise known as the naxalite belt. His arrest was, therefore, shocking for various reasons, the most obvious one being that he was not the stereotypical “naxal”.

It was lack of substantial evidence in all the 11 cases that finally secured his release in 2014. Ferriera told Frontline a week after his release: “My case is really nothing special. The real issue is the way political prisoners are handled and the blatant violations of the human rights of all prisoners.”

During his incarceration, Ferriera kept detailed accounts of his daily routine, his activities, the cases registered against him, and his experiences in prison life. With a little persuasion from close friends, he allowed his writings and cartoons to be published, “for the larger good”. For a person who has served jail term for no crime, his biggest fear is that he could be arrested for anything, even for writing a book.

Colours of the cage is written in simple, conversational style. The graphic description as well as the positive undertone of the narrative is remarkable given the unjust, cruel and bleak circumstances under which the memoirs were recorded. At the launch of the book in September, Ferriera said his aim was to expose the miserable state of affairs in Indian prisons, the human rights violations and the treatment of political prisoners. The book, however, is much more than that. Ferriera effectively leads the reader into the world of Indian prisons, revealing the corruption, the authoritarian practices, the police excesses and the complete disregard for a person’s fundamental rights in them.

Most part of the book is written as a first-person account of the years Ferriera spent as a hauladi (undertrial). This is interspersed with his letters, presumably to his wife as they are not addressed to anyone in particular. The letters give personal details of his days in the jail. Oddly, they are not as emotional as the reader would expect them to be. That seems to be a trait of Ferreira. He rises above his personal trauma to talk about the larger rot in a terribly unfair system.

His first letter reads: “I suggest you don’t make too many trips to visit me. That would be a waste of time and money…. Some cells were emptied out i.e., the inmates transferred to other places, so as to ensure that only we are kept in this section. This enclosure is infamously called the anda.”

Ferriera was housed in the “anda”, or egg-shaped, cell, the most torturous confinement meant for dreaded prisoners. He speaks at length about the anda and the interrogation and torture he was subjected to. He says: “The anda barracks are a cluster of windowless cells nestled against a high oval perimeter wall, a maximum-security zone within the high security confines of the Nagpur Central Jail. The anda is impossible to break out of. Rather, it’s designed to make inmates crack…. While most prisoner spend only a few weeks in the anda or its cousin the phansi [hanging] yard—home to prisoners sentenced to death—these were the sections in which I would spend the entire four years and eight months of my stay in the Nagpur jail.”

In the initial chapters, Ferreira sets the scene of the jail. He describes the initiation process of a new recruit, the cell allotments, and the hierarchy among prisoners, and jail wardens and policemen. He even describes the mafiosi activities, which the authorities ignored. The unhygienic conditions and the tasteless food served to prisoners are described in great detail.

Prison and police torture stories have been told by many a prisoner, yet they never fail to shock. Ferreira is fairly descriptive about his experience but dulls the edges of the story by removing emotion, perhaps with the thought of making it more readable. An instance of torture goes like this: “My arms were tied to a window grill high above the ground while two policemen stood on my outstretched thighs to keep me pinned to the floor. This was calculated to cause maximum pain without leaving visible injuries. Despite these precautions, my ears started to bleed and my jaws began to swell.”

Another example of torture he gives is: “This time though, I was fortunate to get away relatively lightly. But my co-accused were not so lucky. The police… injected petrol into the rectums of two of them… the vapours of gasoline burned the intestine linings, which resulted in agonizing days of anal bleeding, blood clots and belching.”

Narco analysis was a popular form of extracting information at the time Ferreira was in jail. He recounts his encounter with S. Malini of the Forensics Laboratory in Bangalore. Calling her methods more barbaric than those used in the tests in Mumbai, he says: “During narco analysis, she slapped and abused me, pinched my ears with pliers and administered electric shocks to my co-accused to keep us from slipping into unconsciousness.”

Ferriera describes the numerous human rights violations in the jail and talks about the ills of the penal system. He gives a first-hand account of custodial deaths and the perfectly orchestrated procedure followed by the authorities to cover up such deaths and escape responsibility for them. Injecting a saline drip into the body of a person beaten to death in order to ensure that it reaches the hospital supposedly “alive” is an example.

Another pastime of jail authorities, he says, is jhadati or surprise searches. Anyone found with drugs or other banned goods is subjected to physical violence. “With his dirty boots, the jail staff stomped all over the cell and the bistar [bed] I had carefully cleaned. The feeling of powerlessness and disquiet while watching my meagre belonging being overturned and flung to the ground is not easily described,” he writes.

Colours of the cage is a chronological account of Ferreira’s tribulations. The tales are horrifying and what is worse is the number of false cases foisted on him every time he was acquitted by a lower court. By the end of 2011, Ferreira had 11 cases against him, all relating to naxalite activity. He was even implicated in an incident which took place while he was in jail.

Explaining why he was targeted, Ferreira says that in 2007 people were being arrested for naxalite activities as a number of naxalite organisations were in operation. He was in Nagpur at the time. Even Dalits who were distributing literature and mobilising people against the Khairlanji massacre were taken into custody and branded naxalites. (Four Dalits were killed in Khairlanji village in 2006 by members of a dominant caste.) “I think they [the police] had to show some numbers and we were easy targets,” he told Frontline at the time.

In April 2008, Ferreira and a handful of other political prisoners began a hunger strike. “Our demands were: investigate the recent re-arrests, end our isolation and stop labelling and arresting social activists as naxalites.” The demands were ignored. Through Ferreira’s account of the hunger strike, the reader is able to understand the injustice meted out to political prisoners.

The book is sprinkled with interesting anecdotes about the odd characters Ferreira met in prison, from Yakub Memon, accused of the 1992-93 Mumbai blasts, to those accused in the Khairlanji massacre. He knows he is in the company of hardened criminals yet treats them as fellow inmates. Then there is Salim and Rizwan Sheikh, the so-called dreaded terrorists, who are actually two religious Muslim youth. He also narrates his interaction with Allan Waters, convicted for paedophilia. Walters works in the jail hospital and treats wounds that even nurses and doctors are reluctant to touch.

The numerous stories on the miserable conditions of prisoners can rattle the reader. Ferriera speaks of their sadness with empathy and compassion. The story of Kithulal, 65, is particularly tragic. Kithulal was serving a life sentence, yet every year on January 26 or August 15 he would hope to be pardoned. His pain at not being granted remission of sentence is heart wrenching.

Sridhar Srinivasan and Vernon Gonsalves are two fellow activists who make several appearances in the book. Similarly, the cases of Dhanendra Bhurule and Naresh Bansod are written in detail. All of them face similar trials.

Spending endless hours in isolation is obviously a strain on his psyche and Ferreira lists out the names of the books he had access to and perhaps the ones his family sent him. His appetite for books and an interest in human rights encouraged him to do a diploma course in the subject while in prison with “the state of human rights in Maharashtra prisons” as his thesis topic. It is a creditable achievement that inspite of the poor conditions in the jail he cleared the examination.

The book has plenty of references to mulakats, or meetings, with family behind several layers of mesh and grill. Ferreira captures the sadness of these moments, particularly at not seeing his son.

In 2011, Ferreira was told that he had been acquitted. He writes, “Extreme joy is impossible to express to one’s wife over the telephone, especially a cop’s phone….”

But when Ferreira stepped out of Lal Gate on September 27, 2011, he was kidnapped and re-arrested on another charge of naxalite violence. He writes about the possibility of re-arrest being very real as there is a trend of almost every political prisoner being re-arrested. “I was crushed at the thought of having to run through the same cycle of torture, bail applications and waiting endlessly for trial dates.” To his wife, he writes, “The tiger ultimately bared its fangs, I guess!! Or rather the true face of Indian democracy…”

While the book is rich in detail about prison life and prisoners, it does not speak about the actual legal battle, which would have been interesting and informative and would have given the book more depth and substance. Nonetheless, Colours of the Cage is remarkable for its ability to portray a penal system that badly needs change.

A public campaign decrying Ferriera’s re-arrest and a legal battle helped him walk out of Lal Gate for a second time, on January 3, 2012, this time without the danger of re-arrest. Two years later, on January 29, 2014, he was acquitted in all the 11 cases filed against him.

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