'Newspapers of the day were provided to us; the only link we had with the world outside.'

Notes from cell no 22A UoH student narrates his experiences in jail
Blog UoH Tuesday, April 12, 2016 - 18:38

Munsif Vengattil, one of the arrested UoH students, narrates his one week’s experience at the Cherlapally Central Prison.

“Aap lok ka case kya hai?” (what are you people in for?). Every other prisoner wanted to know.

Why did I get here in the first place?

It was on the March 22, 2016, that 27 of us, including two faculty members and a filmmaker, were taken into custody from University of Hyderabad; following a lathicharge over the students who protested against the return of the Vice Chancellor, Prof. Appa Rao Podile. On March 24, we were remanded to judicial custody. At 1 am, we stepped inside the first gate of South India’s largest jail - Cherlapally Central Prison. It took almost one hour to get done with the security check, which even included a strip search. We were asked to deposit all our belongings, excluding books and pens, to our relief. At 2 am, we apprehensively got through the second gate marking the entry of this enormous prison compound. Though lit by the beautiful bright full moon, the allure of the space appeared scary. A police officer ushered us into the high security zone meant for political prisoners.

The Political Prisoners

As we set foot in the Manasasarovar Block, uncertain of what was in store for us, my eyes were stuck at the sight of an old man reciting Quran. Leaning back and forth while reading, he was evidently calm. Moving forward, we entered cell number 22A which was allotted for us. The tiled floor of the cell was visibly clean with a washroom in one corner and blankets in the other. The ‘dinner’ seemed awaiting someone, cold rice and tomato curry. The jailor came in and explained us the dictates. The routine roll call at 6 am woke us up the next day, described later by a fellow inmate as the “check measure to see whether we were alive.” One was allowed to sleep again; and I did. I woke wanting to know the time. Watches and clocks have no entry here, and even if they were, would it have mattered?

Newspapers of the day were provided to us; the only link we had with the world outside. Everyone was eager to know the news from university. It was exasperating to learn that every basic amenity including food and electricity was cut down there. Since everyone couldn't gather around the paper at the same time, one of us volunteered to read it aloud. This was something to be continued in the following days too; one of the many jail rituals we formed during our stay.

Time went by. A few kids, probably around fifteen, came in to clean our cell. We got to know that they were arrested for petty crimes like pickpocketing; and were arranged to clean and sweep the cells of us, the ‘political prisoners.’ We objected to this arrangement and decided that we would clean it ourselves. It was almost evening when we got to know that the bail hearing was postponed to Monday. Everyone was mentally preparing themselves to be the citizens of prison. The major anxiety hauled over was that no one was able to reach out their families. Muhammed Ashique, 19, the youngest among us, appeared seemingly worried about his sister who was going to appear for a public exam next day.

A carrom board was provided exclusively for our cell, which was occupied by someone or the other throughout the day. The bottom up buckets turned out to be entertaining drums, which always complemented the songs we sang together.  Meanwhile, ‘Jaago Jaago’  was composed - the prisoners’ theme song. The nights witnessed fiery debates; ranging from the idea of nationalism to caste discrimination. Since many of us sort of represented a wide range of political organizations, the discussions brought in multifaceted views.  Prof. K Y Ratnam enlightened us with his lectures on Dalit movements that he has followed for a long time now. Moreover, this disconnected latitude provided enough time for us to read and write at will.

The Divide

On Friday, some of us sought permission from a jail official to perform Friday prayers with Muslim prisoners in the nearby cell. He replied, “You don’t know these people. They are terrorists.” Apparently these ‘terrorists’ were the ones who gave us spare clothes after ours were torn by the police during lathi charge. One day, I talked to Bahadur Ali Khan, 56, who was accused with seven other fellow Muslim prisoners for an attempt to murder Akbaruddin Owaisi. “It has been four years since we came here as undertrial prisoners.” He introduced me to the eldest among them, Yunus Khan, 73, a farmer by profession who has never had any political affiliations. But the eldest prisoner in the Manasasarovar block was Sher Ali, 82, accused of smuggling Rs. 30,000 to Pakistan and has been there for last three years. Though the cases against him were dropped last year, he has no relatives to process the legalities and get him out. NCRB’s (National Crime Records Bureau) latest reports suggest, 21% of the undertrials in the prisons of India belong to the Muslim community, although they amount upto only 14% of the overall population.

On a fine Monday afternoon, the bail news ‘walketh upon the wings of wind’. ‘Johaar Rohit Vemula’, the slogans reverberated inside the cell walls. Few policemen turned up bemused. While waiting for the paperwork to be completed, we were given a round to see the whole prison compound. A vegetable farm, dairy farm and mango orchard were spread across acres of land. “The produce from these are sent to other prisons in the city as well,” a policeman told me.

On Tuesday, March 29, we walked out with the little belongings we had, the other prisoners seemed to be staring at us. Will I ever recover from those haunting eyes?

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