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It is his smile that stays with you long after the interview is over. It is a smile filled with optimism and hope and a powerful belief that things can change for the better. There is no bitterness, no anger. It is certainly not what you expect from someone who spent nearly five years in the anda barrack of Nagpur Central Jail. Accused and imprisoned for crimes he did not commit.
Published in 2014, Arun Ferreira’s Colours of the Cage is an unflinching look at the Indian justice system. Right from outdated and draconian laws, to the people tasked with enforcing them, the book details the practical, the unpleasant side, the very real. The pages where he writes about his torture, for instance, are disturbingly honest. In fact, Ferreira notes that the torture was comparatively less in his case. Others were not as lucky.
We are sitting in one of the parks that dot Thane, talking about this and that. He has a stocky, compact build, does Ferreira, and moves his hands animatedly when trying to drive home a point. As the evening walkers build in number, Ferreira talks about his early days as a student activist.
Ferreira followed in the footsteps of a number of the city’s catholics who had chosen to support trade unions and human rights organisations. And then the first wave of Hindu-Muslim riots of 1992-93 happened.
“The city changed with the riots. Everything suddenly became so communal. A lot of friends became more Muslim, or more Hindu. I was working in the slums and I found that ghettoization happened in a big way. Things changed. It certainly changed me.”
In the second, less-documented yet more organized wave of riots in January 1993, Ferreira focused on rehabilitation and collecting relief material.
That was just one example. Soon, Ferreira joined the Vidyarthi Pragati Sanghatana (VPS), a revolutionary student organisation in Maharashtra. It was an organisation that focused on bringing equality and democracy within the educational system.
There were days when he questioned the choices he hade made.
“Those days are just part of activism. (laughs) There are days when you think you should march ahead and there are days when you feel so tired. That happens with everyone’s life. You come to crisis in life where you feel that it is tough to go ahead. It is part of the struggle of life.”
Gradually, he moved from organising grass roots movements to organize those groups who worked with people movements. Inevitably, such movements would draw the State’s ire.
Was he ever scared?
“About what? See, the fear is always there. [As an activist] it was there, when I was in jail it was there, and now also it is there. But I don’t think fear should result in keeping quiet and being passive.”
Ferreira, for one, certainly did not keep quiet. In the late 1990’s, Ferreira worked with slum dwellers whose houses were being demolished to make way for luxury towers. As globalization began, “showing its ugly face”, Ferreira worked for tribal rights and the rights of the oppressed in Maharashtra.
He was working in the some of the least developed parts of the country, such as Vidarbha in Mahrashtra, with organisations that were branded as Maoist. It was a precarious existence, says Ferreira, one where he saw a number of activists labeled as Naxalities and arrested.
And then, they came for him.
In the summer of 2007, Ferriera was arrested at the Nagpur railway station, and detained by the Anti-Naxal cell of the Nagpur police. Eleven hours after being arrested (and tortured) he was taken to a police station. There he was told that he had been arrested under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. The next day, the police informed the media that Ferreira was the “Chief of Communications & Propaganda” of the Maoist party.
In the days and weeks that followed, a number of false cases would be lodged against Ferreira; he would be forced to undergo narco-analysis and custodial torture. He would be imprisoned in the anda barrack, cut off from the people he loved. If he wanted to, Colours could have become an angry, scathing autobiography of the injustices he faced.
And yet, in many ways, the book is not really about Ferreira, nor about his personal experiences. And that was a conscious decision he took.
“As an activist you tend to talk about other people’s injustices rather than your own. It was also a conscious decision to actually see the bigger picture. Sometimes what happens is there is too much focus on [the individual] rather than the system that oppresses.”
And it is when discussing the “system”, when he writes about the bigger picture, does the book really shine. Especially when examining the nuanced way in which power (and its abuse) flows. So you have judges who may not want to grant bail to an alleged terrorist, prison doctors who look the other way, an entire science (narco-analysis) based on suspect facts. To top it all, Ferreira has this matter-of-fact way of writing.
On prison life, he writes,
“Even though the law states that an accused person is innocent until proven guilty, such niceties lack meaning behind prison walls.”
On having false cases lodged against him.
“The cops who kept me inside, they would tell me frankly – you will get out but you wont get bail. And they told me this barely 10-15 days into my imprisonment.”
On rights that are guaranteed by the Constitution of India.
“The right to silence, for one, is guaranteed in the Indian Constitution under Article 20(3). However, every time I – perhaps naively – sought refuge in this fundamental right, it would only entail more torture.”
The book is peppered with such illustrations, and they find repeated mention in the interview as well. The questions he raises are definitely macro in nature, more to do with institutional flaws rather than with individual cases.
For instance, the entire concept of rehabilitation in prison, the idea of helping those inside eventually assimilate with society.
“How can you rehabilitate someone within such a hierarchical system like the jail? The jail is so oppressive. It crushes you far more than society. And someone who has been crushed by society, who has done something wrong and then comes into jail – here he is [in an] even much more terrible situation!”
This is not helped by antiquated laws, such as the outdated Prison Manual, and the tremendous amount of discretion that rests with prison officials.
“For example, [Section 53 of the Prison Manual] allows whipping with “a light rattan, not less than half an inch in diameter” – there are some rules that make no sense, they have to be thrown out!
There are some [rules] like only one letter per month. The officer and the prisoner knows that the rules are not be followed. Once, the officer actually told me, “You are supposed to only write one letter per month. If you ask for too much, I will cut that off as well.””
It is interesting that he mentions the rule about letters; Colours is largely based around the letters Ferreira wrote and received throughout his time in prison. And it is the letters that provide an insight into what Arun Ferreira, Haualdi (Undertrial) No. 3479 must have gone through.
So what does he feel now when he reads the letters?
“Pain. If you have to summarize it, I would say I feel pain. I did not mention a lot of what was in the letters, it was too personal. I wouldn’t want some of the things my family said to me to come out in a book. So when I read the letters now, it is painful.”
It is one of the few instances where he breaks his guard and allows the interview to become about the individual rather than the system. When he was first arrested, his son was told that his father had gone away for work. No one thought that he would be away for so long.
“Over the years, I think [my son] stopped believing that [I was abroad]. Now he sometimes feels that he should have been told the truth. But at that time, how he saw a person in jail was very different – a person in jail is a criminal.
I try to deal with it by saying that even Bhagat Singh went to jail, Nelson Mandela went to jail. I talk about such things, [try and] make him realize that not everyone who goes to jail is a bad person.”
There is some darkness in the eyes when he talks about his son, but the smile comes back soon enough. The conversation moves onto the laws such as TADA and UAPA, and why there is an urgent need to remove such legislation. His fundamental argument is that such laws criminalize ideologies, not actions.
“The problem with the UAPA is that anybody who is connected to a ‘thought’ can be arrested. It is guilt by association, guilt by ideology. It is very arbitrary.
In Pune, Kabir Kala Manch was called a front organisation but your understanding of a front organisation is so ambiguous – and that too in a penal statute. If Greenpeace raises uncomfortable questions, you start criminalizing them?”
The anger is there, it most certainly is there.
He has a slight stammer, one that becomes pronounced around the alphabet “h” and when he is especially keen on making a point. Such as when we he is talking about the direction our society seems to be heading in, a society where profit and individual success trumps all.
“H-h-how can you expect the society to change? Virtues like helping others, like making sure we will all go ahead together – this society will not cultivate such virtues. There is no space for these virtues in this society. But I think I am talking too much no?” (laughs)
And just like that, the broad smile is back and the eyes twinkle with laughter. We part ways soon thereafter, and some of the words are forgotten soon enough. The smile though, stays.