I last visited Arthur Road jail in 2009. Shantaram had stayed there once, a guest of the Mumbai police, but there weren’t any stickers proclaiming the news, the kind you see on autorickshaws nowadays, promoting B grade films. But Ajmal Kasab’s still there, that boyish maniacal killer, who even the pacifists among us want to see hanging from the end of a very short rope. So security was naturally tight, but it still wasn’t the fortress it has become today. And Swati Sathe was in charge. A formidable woman, she wasn’t in uniform that day. Dressed in a salwar kurta you still wouldn’t mess with her. Her detractors can forever hold their peace and their RTI forms, but I liked the woman. She came across as matter of fact, didn’t gloss over anything, and though she parried our queries like a seasoned campaigner, she was friendly. I guess when you’re not in attack mode there’s no reason for her to go there either.
The inner courtyard area just outside the kitchen was full of under-trials waiting for us… legal aid clinic, that’s what they were told it was. A few of them had no clue what it meant and most of them didn’t know that they had the right to a lawyer. A few looked dazed, wondering what they were doing there and a couple of them cried for home, which brings into focus the old debate, apropos the Miranda, which I think is necessary to implement in a country like India, with its large swathes of illiterate populace, who routinely get hauled up on frivolous and often trumped up charges, and they often just blab out their innocence or guilt, mostly guilt, anything to get away from that stinging arm of the truncheon wielding law. So we need the Miranda, and the netas can call it what they will… Godbole or Godse, or name it after Rajiv Gandhi for crying out loud. There’s nothing left in a name nowadays anyway.
We interviewed a few of the men, most of them there on petty charges, nothing glamorous, though they wouldn’t let us near Emile Jerome, housed in a separate barrack at the time, with Abu Salem and the newly incarcerated Saji Mohan… they have paid counsel, seemingly some of the best. So we got the so called riff-raff, some of them with that air of… ‘Yeah, so what, I’ve been here before and I know your kind’, the lumpen elements, who viewed us with suspicion and amusement. But most of them were first timers. “Watch-out and be careful”, Swati Sathe said, as we deposited our bags and her men let us in through the inner gate and to that unfortunate bunch, some young enough to be called boys. The charges against most of them weren’t even framed, though their little name tags carried the sections under which they were arrested, some appeared to be trumped up charges, or so it seemed from their account of the events, and they appeared to be a largely naïve lot, most of them, and not hardened enough to be putting it on. Among them a young boy from Pune, a student, who had defaulted on his rent. He spoke English, the only one from that lot, dressed in jeans and a T shirt, he wore slippers that were a couple of sizes too big. The police had hauled him off barefoot. He had fallen foul of his father, he told us, but was now desperate to get in touch with him, this errant child with his scraggly beard. Only this time his dad had had enough, and wouldn’t bail him out. So there he was, in Arthur Road… growing up, waiting out his appointment before the judge.
And then there was a young boy from West Bengal, working in an embroidery unit, picked up on chain snatching charges… the chain was found he says, in the woman’s purse, right before his eyes, but the police were suppressing the truth. Though that’s not always true, it is at times, with quotas to be filled and packed jails to stuff, more often than not the police round up helpless innocents because they haven’t a clue, and someone has to be caught after all. It’s about the numbers.
So now there’s a call from a certain segment of the population to jail bharo, and I wonder… Where? Arthur Road presents a far prettier picture than many of the jails in India. I dread to think what a jail in the M.P. heartland or one in Bihar looks like. In our overcrowded jails, where there are often 400-600 packed into those holding cells meant for a hundred. Where they are compelled to sleep sitting, or pushed tight against each other with no room to breathe, and where tuberculosis or HIV are what you get as parting gifts when you leave.
Enthusiasm is great and I’m all for it, well fed and on my Japanese therapeutic mattress. So how about a debate, or perhaps an argument, even a holler, a zillion signatures campaign, a morcha, a few candle-lit vigils where we’ll wear white or black and get our colours mixed up. And then file a couple of RTI applications and even a few frivolous PILs if we can round up the money for the fine. But jail! A cell filled to capacity with a hole in the ground for a potty. That’s a different deal entirely. It isn’t romantic, and you could get your hair ripped out of your scalp by someone who doesn’t like your nose or suddenly has an urge to do you in.
Jails in India are grossly overcrowded, and the jail manual needs to be updated, to present a more realistic picture. Seriously updated, not just moving around a few commas here and there. Besides, those jail manuals need to be out in the public domain, for all to have access to and not just for internal circulation. But then our bureaucrats love taking those trips to Utopia… so they dream on, envisioning jails with large yards like those in ‘Prison Break’, and so while the jail may actually have capacity for 500, they are stuffed with thousands, and jail wardens like Swati Sathe lift their hands up in desperation, “we have no choice, we just get the numbers thrown at us” she said, bemoaning the fact that they had no option and not enough space in which to house them.
Jail reforms almost seem oxymoronic, the two seemingly at cross purposes, but necessarily bed fellows. So there weren’t any worms in the flour for the rotis that day as we peered into it, and the rice looked decent enough, bubbling away in huge pot, with that Maharashtrian staple, usal, cooking in another, I tasted some of it. Not bad I thought… Ehhh… pass the salt shaker please. But then again I don’t eat it every day. Besides I wondered if that was the regular fare, or if what they got every day was a more watered down version with wormy rice slopped in measured quantity onto a thali…
“Please sir, can I have some more?”
Chalo… Chale… Jail Bharein!
(Come… Come on… Let’s fill our jails!)