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By M.R. Narayan Swamy
Title: Colours of the Cage: A Prison Memoir; Author: Arun Ferreira; Publisher: Aleph (Rupa Publications); Pages: 164; Price: Rs.295

Human rights activist Arun Ferreira was waiting to meet some fellow activists at the Nagpur railway station when around 15 people pounced on him and whisked him away in a car. It was the afternoon of May 8, 2007, marking the beginning of a long and painful stay in police and judicial custody for four years and eight months. This is a chilling - and moving -- account of what the young man faced and what life in Indian prison is all about.

Dubbed a Maoist, Ferreira underwent torture at the hands of policemen determined to extract a confession from him. He was kicked and slapped, and hit with belts. When he didn't bend, the torture became more brutal. The torture techniques varied in intensity. He was beaten in a way that no physical mark would remain. But not always so; at times his ears bled and his jaws swelled. He was kept awake for 36 hours at a stretch. His refusal to break down only made the interrogators angrier - and more brutal.

Some fellow prisoners suffered far worse. One police officer specialized in injecting 20 ml of petrol into the rectum. This would burn the intestine linings, leading to agonizing days of anal bleeding, blood clots and continuous belching. Ferreira, who was spared this treatment, is angry that no police officer was ever hauled up for such inhuman torture.

After 23 days and nights in a police lock-up, Ferreira was shifted to the Nagpur Central Jail where prisoners realize that corruption and insensitivity by officialdom is a way of life. While even middle-level jail employees pilfered prison supplies to feed their families, the prisoners - many of them too poor to even afford a lawyer to get bail - were fed inedible bits of vegetables, including pieces of "rope suppliers used to tie the vegetables".

Ferreira says the need to force the prisoner to abase himself is built into the jail administration's DNA. The author found it difficult to get hold of law books though prisoners have the right to do correspondence courses. Jail officials gave sanctions and permissions - for a price. Jailors were whimsical. The prison doctor was a farce. Poor medication led to occasional deaths; when that happened, there would be a cover-up. A single cupboard was grandiosely dubbed the "library". The Maharashtra government's near total ban on non-vegetarian food in prisons forced inmates to hunt squirrels, birds and bandicoots which would be cooked stealthily. Even locusts and other insects were collected, sun dried, roasted and relished.

Of course this didn't mean that items of luxury were not available inside the four walls of the prison. "Prisoners with charas, ganja, mobile phones and other items that were actually contraband had nothing to fear. The 'bhais' would be warned about raids in advance by the staff." The staff had good reasons to do so; it was they who smuggled these items into the jail.

Ferreira is hugely sensitive to the rights of prisoners. He speaks in detail about overcrowding, the lack of water and hygiene, rampant corruption, beatings, and the denial of even basic rights to the poor. "While a broken yard wall would be repaired overnight, it would take three to four months to fix a damaged water pump." Guards and even jailors admitted how much bribes they had to pay to get a posting of their choice.

Eventually, the courts declared Ferreira innocent after the state failed to prove the charges in the cases slapped against him. The charges, he says, were trumped up. But that did not prevent the police from re-arresting him when he was released - and jailing him for another, albeit brief, period. Ferreira, naturally, is not an admirer of India's democratic and judicial system; the state, he says, has discredited itself in the long run.

This is one of the finest books on the Indian prison and judicial system - after "My Years in an Indian Prison" by Mary Taylor, a young lady from Britain who was arrested in the early 1970s - also for suspected Maoist links. Every Indian must read this book - even if you disagree with the author's politics.

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