Oftener than not I have been told that there are two sets of rules in this world: one for the rich and another for the poor. And nowhere is this more obvious than during ‘Mulakaat’ or the ‘Hour of Meeting’. The well-to-do have their palms stamped purple by the sentry at the gate and step right in. The others, the lesser-fortunate-ones, squat under a tree with their rags and bags, awaiting their turn to see one of their family locked inside.What was I doing there? Well! During the Movement for the separate state of Uttarakhand, I had gone to Dehradun Jail to check up on some of our fellow ‘statehood rebels’. This is where the late Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, was incarcerated from 1932 to 1933. Later he wrote: “For fourteen-and-a-half months, I lived in my little cell or room in the Dehradun Jail, and I began to feel as if I was a part of it”.
M Chandrakumar too brings to the reader a searing account of his arrest for a crime he did not commit, and the weeks he spent in lock-up. The work won the Best Document of Human Rights Award. In his latest offering, The Prison Diary of an Ordinary Man, he begins with his refusal to admit to the crime, as the police wanted. He and his friends are shifted from lock-up to jail, awaiting the next court hearing. The book captures their experiences: the politics, the violence, the struggle to retain a sense of dignity, the camaraderie and unexpected support from fellow inmates.
The experiences of ordinary people in jail—the non-political, the non-celebrity—are rarely, if ever, documented. Chandrakumar’s honest, eye-opening and engrossing record of his spending five months in the lock-up and jail, and his experiences with the justice system, is a must-read. Sample this: “When we finally arrived at court after five months, the judge turned to us: ‘Why do you suffer this way? If you had confessed, your prison term would have ended by now.’”
So, they confessed and were released after being told that they had actually served a week in excess of the duration of imprisonment.
Sadly, the have-nots—the world over—end up being locked up for crimes they did not commit. In Franz Kafka’s The Trial and Mahmoud Saeed’s Saddam City, arrests are made without any reason: Perhaps some policeman needs a promotion or an unsolved pending case had reached a dead end and needs to be wrapped up. Such suffering can only be inflicted on those who cannot afford the luxury of what we euphemistically call ‘the legal process’. Read on to listen to the voice of the voiceless.