Let the jailed put their thoughts into written words

Masterpieces can emerge from prison cells, if only the prisoners can write freely and fearlessly about their daily existence

 Let the jailed put their thoughts into written words

Humra Quraishi

We, sitting semiimprisoned in these Coronavirus-ridden times, can now grasp what people go through in jails and prisons across the country: much more than sheer restlessness and helplessness. Nah, we can’t hear their cries nor those shrieks. But perhaps, those imprisoned years could become somewhat bearable for prisoners if they are actually encouraged to write novels, diaries, etc. Let them unleash pent up emotions and feelings and thoughts on paper…let them somehow survive like thinking human beings. After all, jails and prisons are not meant to destroy and demolish a supposed wrong-doer but to reform him/her. Also, a large number of them are under-trials and not convicted prisoners.

Masterpieces can emerge from prison cells, if only the prisoners can write freely and fearlessly about their daily existence. In this day and age, facts about the inmates’ daily grind should be out in the public domain. Why not! We, as citizens of the country, ought to know what’s happening to our fellow citizens. Why should the jailed lot sit damned for life!

In these trying and traumatic times, diary writing ought to become a survival tool, more so for the imprisoned lot. Where are prison diaries of the day? Why don’t prisoners write diaries and get them published, so that we know what’s taking place behind those high walls? Are prisoners of the day discouraged from offloading their everyday experiences or inner most thoughts and emotions? Are these ‘caged’ men and women reduced to such levels of hopelessness that they don’t yield the pen or else try to key in, that is, if computers and laptops are even available in the prisons in these synthetically sick ‘developed’ times we are living in? Also, is there that basic freedom for the imprisoned to write fearlessly, freely and confidently on their imprisoned state?

I have no hesitation in stating that, perhaps, our prisoners were better treated in past decades…I’m stating this in the backdrop of a book published a couple of years back titled ‘Prison Days’ by Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, with a foreword by her daughter, Nayantara Sahgal. This prison diary was written by her in the early 1940s. And as one reads through what comes out is the ground reality of that historic phase when hundreds of the political Who’s Who were imprisoned. And these included Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and members of his family.

To quote Nayantara Sahgal from the foreword, “My mother, Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, wrote this prison diary during her third and last imprisonment under British rule. It begins on 12 August 1942, six days before her forty-second birthday. World WarII was on. Allahabad, like the rest of the country, was under military rule. Arrest and imprisonment took place without trial. Several lorries filled with armed policemen arrived that night at Anand Bhawan at 2 a.m. to arrest one lone, unarmed woman, who, along with her husband, Ranjit Sitaram Pandit, and her brother Jawaharlal Nehru, had committed her life to the non-violent fight to free India from British rule, under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi…My father was already a prisoner in Naini Central jail in Allahabad, where she was taken, and he would later be transferred to a jail in Bareilly, where he would fall mortally ill, and finally be released only to die. My uncle was imprisoned ‘somewhere in India’. It was not made public until much later that he and other leaders of the Indian National Congress were held in the Ahmednagar Fort. My older sister, Chandralekha, aged 18, and my cousin, Indira Gandhi, aged 25, were arrested later and taken to Naini Jail.”

In this book, there is no mention of physical tortures inflicted on Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit but then as she writes in the preface, “This little diary does not attempt to record all the events which took place during my last term of imprisonment... the treatment given to me and to those shared the barrack with me was, according to the prison standards, very lenient - the reader must not imagine that others were equally well treated. When the truth about that unhappy period is made known many grim stories will come to light, but that time is still far away.”

Today, only a handful of those who have managed to come out of the jailed and imprisoned confines, have managed to write about their tough and traumatic jailed years…Released and freed, they sat down to write…In these recent years, the books I have read of former prisoners are — Anjum Zamarud Habib’s ‘Prisoner No. 100’, Mohammad Aamir Khan’s ‘Framed As A Terrorist’, Abdul Wahid Shaikh’s Begunah Qaidi, Mufti Abdul Qayyum Ahmad Husain Mansuri’s ‘I Am A Mufti & I Am Not A Terrorist -11 Years Behind the Bars’ and Iftikhar Gilani’s ‘My Days in Prison’.

Also, we cannot overlook nor bypass two well-written significant books, as they do directly or indirectly focus on the plight of the targeted - Nandita Haksar’s ‘Framing Geelani, Hanging Afzal - Patriotism In The Time of Terror’ and Syed Bismillah Geelani’s ‘Pain of being a Kashmiri Muslim- Manufacturing Terrorism: Kashmiri Encounters with Media and the Law.

I do hope we give a second chance to all those sitting languishing in the jails and prisons of the country. And there cannot be a better option than to let them write as freely as they want to…let them offload everything and anything and not keep bruises tucked close to the heart.

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