Recollections and reflections

Reminiscences, Rafi Ahmad Kidwai

I first came in contact with Subhas Bose in 1923 at Delhi when the Congress was divided into two groups over the question of what was known as 'Council Entry.'...Subhas Babu, as the favourite lieutenant of Deshabandhu, was playing a prominent part in the controversy. more>>



Translated from the original Bengali JEEBON ADHYAYAN, by Dhira Dhar. Reproduced with permission of Jay Bhattacharjee (son of Kalyani Bhattacharjee)

Midnapore Jail

We had heard from Liladi the story of a young girl's tortured life. She was marked as a lunatic when she was brought to prison. After living with her for some time Liladi found no sign of lunacy in her.She appeared to be absolutely normal. Gradually Liladi found out from her that her husband wanted to marry another girl , and so he was trying with the help of doctors ,to condemn her as insane. She constantly shed tears at her sad fate. She would have preferred death to such a life.

In jail there appeared to be no scope for any improvement in the lives of the prisoners. Punishment came readily but there was no attempt at equipping them for a better life. In the polluted atmosphere of prison, the convicts lost all trace of humanity and innocence, so when they left they were devoid of any goodness whatsoever. The jail has absolutely no programme for educating the convicts, neither through classes ,nor by good association.

Most of the convicts were illiterate. The British Government had done nothing to educate the masses throughout its vast empire. So in vain one would hope for education in jail. But adult education could have been introduced very easily in jail, if the government had not been so afraid to hear the voices of the people.. The political prisoners were always ready to help in teaching. There was never any dearth of educated prisoners in jail If the government had the slightest desire of improving the lot of the convicts they would have tried to introduce plans for study instead of hitching them to the grinding wheel, or to the back-breaking task of breaking stones.

The lives of the common convicts could be changed , if side by side with general education they were given training in different technical crafts. The jail could be transformed from a place of horror to a centre of solace and inspiration for these wayward criminals. As it is the convicts have no future. On release they have no better place to go , so they revert to the evil cycle of crime and consequent punishment. Otherwise they would have to starve to death. Death is painful, so without any hope for a better future , they gamble with the present. These poor illiterate convicts could be trained during their stay in prison in different crafts like spinning, weaving, leatherwork, sewing and knitting, which would help the women too. Men convicts can be taught different crafts like that of fittersss, electricians, carpenters etc. and given a diploma which would enable them to get jobs in the future.

The money earned by prisoners while working in jail, could be saved for the future. On their release implements could be purchased for them, with the help of which they could earn a honest living and not go back to a life of crime. The teachers should be men of high principles , who are motivated by truly liberal ideas. Thus the jail could be transformed into an ideal place of education, where the convicts are motivated to become truly free and independent with all their evil urges erased from their nature. On release they will be honoured as free citizens with their proper place in society.

Not only prisoners , but also the staff who run the prison machinery, lose their human goodness as they stayed in this environment. I remember many such cases. Sree Pradyot Kumar was arrested for the death of the magistrate of Medinipur. At the special tribunal one judge was of the opinion that as there were no proven charges against him, he should not be condemned to death by hanging. But the two other judges held different opinion, so the verdict of punishment by hanging prevailed. The young man was counting his last days in prison. One day a jail officer asked him if he had any complaints. In reply he had asked for better quality rice, for there were too many sand particles in the food that was given to him. To this the officer had retorted, "Thousands of prisoners are eating this rice. Who are you , a prince or what? That you can't eat this food?" Pradyot Kumar did not utter another word.

I remember another incident in Medinipur jail. One evening a number of women convicts came to us in tears with the complaint that the authorities had suddenly stopped giving the daily cup of milk that was allotted for the children. The doctor had given orders that the children would no longer get their share of milk. Whan we asked the doctor why he had given such an order , he rudely replied, "Do they drink milk at home? It will become a bad habit for them." We wondered how this doctor ,who was also a father had turned so heartlessss. Was it the polluted jail environment ? He was ill-paid , and maybe he expected a promotion by saving money in jail accounts. The jail workers also deserve better working conditions.

Bina had once written a letter to our father from jail, "Condition in our jail is just as it was before. Within these stone walls one can find only dreary hardness , and man's heartless cruelty towards man. I wonder who created this indestructible , imperishable edifice of inhumanity -- we have to give him credit for it."

Truly jails are unchangeable fixtures. One day we learned that Kalpana and Shanti were on hungerstrike in another ward. Shanti and Suniti were arrested for the same offence , but Shanti was kept in second class while Suniti was given third class treatment. Most probably the authorities hoped that Suniti in the depressing condition of class three cells would break down and confess.

Suniti was removed from the company of Bina and Shanti and taken to another jail. For her offence her father had to lose his job. Her two elder brothers were in jail as political prisoners. Her young brother died of tuberculosis brought on by poverty and starvation. Shanti learned all this while in her jail cell. From "An Exile's Memoirs " we find "We are helpless. We have to encounter hunger , starvation, danger and death on the path of our arduous journey."

They made many appeals to allow Suniti to stay with Bina and others. When all efforts failed they again turned to hunger strike. We , too, joined their hunger strike. The superintendent tried to dissuade me , reminding me of my ill-health. He also threatened me with forced feeding. Two days later they ordered me to take all my belongings and go to the jail gate. I thought they were taking me away from Liladi to another jail. Or maybe the superintendent was afraid that in my condition of health , forced feeding might bring about my death , so he was trying to get rid of me.

At the jail gate I found my elder brother and sister-in-law waiting for me with smiles on their faces. On the way I learned from them that the government had asked father to take me to some place outside Bengal. I could have gone to Lahore where my sister lived with her family. There I would have recuperated quickly under her loving care. But the Punjab Government refused to give permission. Same was the case with Bombay. Further they told father that he would have to take me to a village , where I would be externed. It was difficult to find proper living quarters in the village , and after much searching they had found a place in Gidni , in a remote corner of Medinipur. My parents were already waiting for me in that village.

I left jail after having spent a number of years within its walls, with memories both bitter and sweet. As far as experience goes , I do not consider my years in jail as being wasted. In the context of life's gains and losses , the contribution of these years has not been insignificant.

Jail life is not a long stretch of depression only. It is a painful ,but meaningful chapter , a great opportunity to study human nature. I read somewhere , "Incarceration brings misery no doubt, but one can rise above it and seek opportunities of mental enrichment from the adverse circumstances " Being cast away from the commotion of everyday life. one does get time for character -building and development.

The humiliation and physical suffering in jail took its toll. We cannot deny the pain that suffused our minds when we found budding youth withering away in the suffocating prison atmosphere. We found consolation in the thought that in other lands thousands of martyrs had laid down their lives at the altar of freedom. History bore evidence to their sacrifice. Why should we moan?

In the words of the poet we find, "Life ends only in the eye , \ It crosses the abyss of darkness, Into eternal light."

In the midst of our pain we had much satisfaction in the thought , "We are being nurtured in the arms of hard reality. " We also believed that all our losses would be compensated one day in glorious success. If our suffering took us one step forward on the path of freedom , if it reduced the misery of mankind in the smallest measure, we would consider our effort well rewarded.

Father had written in a letter to us , "In the face of the direst hardness , do not bow your head in defeat." I do not know about life's struggles , but on our release I hope the prison says,

"Prisoner, you are unconquered,
With all my hardness , I could not defeat you ,
You are truly a winner."