In May 2007, Arun Ferreira (pictured below) was arrested in Nagpur, with police claiming he was a Naxalite. In September 2010, he was acquitted of all charges but re-arrested on fresh ones immediately. He was finally released in January this year. An alumunus of St Xavier’s College, Mumbai, Ferreira is writing a book on his experiences in prison. We bring you edited extracts with permission from Open magazine where they were first published
I’d been arrested at Nagpur railway station on a brutally hot summer afternoon.
I was waiting to meet some social activists when about 15 men grabbed me, bundled me into a car and drove away at high speed, kicking and punching me all the while. They took me to a room in a building my abductors later told me was the Nagpur Police Gymkhana.
They used my belt to tie my hands and I was blindfolded, so that the police officials involved in this operation could remain unidentified. From their conversations, it became evident that I had been detained by the anti-Naxalite cell of the Nagpur Police. The assaults never stopped.
Through the day, I was flogged with belts, kicked and slapped, as they attempted to soften me up for the interrogations that were to follow.
At midnight, 11 hours after I had been detained, I was taken to a police station and informed that I had been arrested under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, 2004, which is applied to people the State believes are terrorists. I spent that night in a damp, dark cell in the police station. My bedding was a foul-smelling black blanket, its colour barely concealing just how dirty it was.
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A hole in the ground served as a urinal and could be identified by paan stains around it, and its acrid stench. I was finally served a meal: dal, roti and a couple of abuses. Having to eat from a plastic bag with jaws sore from [the day’s] blows wasn’t easy.
But after the horrors of the day, these tribulations were relatively insignificant and allowed me a brief moment to pull myself together. I managed to ignore the putrid bedding and humid air and doze off.
Within a few hours, I was woken up for another round of interrogation. The officers appeared polite at first but quickly resorted to blows in an attempt to make me provide the answers they were looking for.
They wanted me to disclose the location of a cache of arms and explosives or information on my supposed links with Maoists. To make me more amenable to their demands, they stretched my body out completely, using an updated version of the medieval torture technique of [the wrack].
My arms were tied to a window grill high above, while two policemen stood on my stretched thighs to keep me pinned to the floor. This was calculated to cause maximum pain without leaving any external injuries. Despite their precautions, my ears started to bleed and my jaws began to swell up.
In the evening, I was made to squat on the floor with a black hood over my head as numerous officers posed behind me for press photographs. The next day, I would later learn, these images made the front pages of papers around the country. The press was told that I was the chief of communications and propaganda of an ultra-left wing of Naxalites.
I was then produced before a magistrate. As all law students know, this step has been introduced [to the legal process] to give detainees an opportunity to complain against custodial torture-something I could establish quite easily since my face was swollen, ears bleeding and soles so sore it was impossible to walk. But in court, I learnt from my lawyers
that the police had already accounted for those injuries in their concocted arrest story. According to their version, I was a dangerous terrorist and had fought hard with police to try to avoid arrest. They claimed that they had no option but to use force to subdue me. Strangely, none of my captors claimed to have been harmed during the scuffle.
That wasn’t the only surprise. In court, the police said that I’d been arrested in the company of three others — Dhanendra Bhurule, a local journalist; Naresh Bansod, the Gondia district president of an organisation called the Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmulan Samiti; and Ashok Reddy, a resident of Andhra Pradesh, people I had never met before.
The police claimed to have seized a pistol and live cartridges from us. They said we had been meeting to hatch a plan to blow up the monument at ekshabhoomi in Nagpur. If the police could convince people that Naxalites were planning to attack this hallowed shrine, this could convince Dalits not to [have any] truck with leftists.
But mere allegations couldn’t suffice. They needed to create evidence to support their claims. The police told the court that they needed us in custody for 12 days to interrogate us. While the journalist and I were kept at Nagpur’s Sitabuldi police station, the other two were taken to the Dhantoli police station.
Every morning, we would be transported to the Police Gymkhana for continuous rounds of interrogation that lasted late into the night. First, they attempted to force us to sign a confessional statement they had drafted.
When that failed, they got the court to agree to allow us to be subjected to the scientifically dubious practice of narco-analysis, lie detectors and brain mapping tests, which they hoped would bolster their allegations. So although legally I was no longer in their custody, the police could still interrogate me under the guise of conducting these forensic tests. Preparations were made to transport us to the State Forensic Science Lab in Mumbai.
Before that, we were formally admitted to Nagpur Central Prison. I stooped through the low narrow door into the complex that would be my home for 54 months. In keeping with procedure, first-time prisoners are presented before the gate-officer.
Tradition, and perhaps training, demands that even the most mild-mannered gate-officer be at his aggressive best while dealing with new entrants, who, in jail slang, are called ‘Naya Ahmads’. It is the gate officers’ job to give the newcomer a crash course in meekness and mindless subservience. A lathi at his side serves as a teaching aid.
The officer is also supposed to enquire whether the new prisoner has suffered injuries due to torture in police custody, and, if so, record his statement. In my case, I had a bleeding ear, swollen jaws and sore feet. But in reality, the officer threatens anyone trying to make a complaint.
By custom, all injuries are recorded as having existed before the prisoner was arrested. A strip search followed, standard protocol for new entrants to the prison. I was stripped to my underwear and ordered to squat in a line with the other new entrants awaiting my turn with the jadthi-amaldar (the man in charge of searches).
Our every belonging was scrutinised and thrown on the dirty road for us to humbly gather together again. Hazards like packets of biscuits and beedis were pocketed by the staff.
We were unfortunate to arrive in isolation, but if the prisoner’s wait at the gate coincides with the entry or exit of one of the senior jail officials, he is privileged to witness a ceremony of colonial vintage. Senior jailors and superintendents can’t be expected to bend low to enter through the door.
So the main gate is swung open to allow these sahibs to walk through, heads held high. When they are sighted at a distance, the gate guard issues a yelp of caution: “All hup!” All staff stand to attention and all lower life forms are swept into corners out of sight or forced to their haunches.
Most Naya Ahmads are then taken to the After Barrack, where they spend a night or two before being assigned to a fixed barrack. This waiting period allows the jail staff, convict-warders, inhouse extortionist gangs and other sharks to assess what they can extract from the latest catch. Middle and upper class entrants are easy targets.
They are softened up with dark stories of prison-life horrors and not-so-veiled threats. Young boys are targeted for free labour and as sex toys. Contacts are made and deals are struck to ensure better treatment when moved to the regular barracks.
Next is the mulaija or check-in-process. New prisoners are lectured on the value of prison discipline by a convict warder or jailor. Each new inmate has his identifying marks noted and is weighed, measured and examined by a doctor and psychologist, before being presented before a phalanx of prison divinities, led by the Superintendent.
A Body Ticket is presented to each prisoner, listing his prisoner number and offences registered against him. These offences form the basis of how he will be classified, and, to some extent, how he’ll be treated in jail.
Even though the law proclaims that an accused person is innocent until proved guilty, such niceties lack meaning behind prison walls. The allegations of the police are sufficient evidence for the jail authorities to punish even those awaiting trial. Alleged rapists and homosexuals are routinely targeted by officers and other prisoners at the encouragement of the staff.
Those implicated in murder cases are compelled to wear a convict prisoner's uniform and are consigned to special ‘murder barracks’. As a sign of their patriotism, many jail superintendents personally preside over the beatings of people accused of terrorism.
Before the mulaija, procedure requires the new entrant to be bathed. However, shortages of soap and water often prevent the diligent observance of these rules. Instead, most Naya Ahmads are rushed through the rough-and-ready hands of the nai kamaan (literally, the Barber Command), one of the work groups to which prisoners could be assigned later.
The Naya Ahmad’s next stop is the Badi Gol, the area in Nagpur Jail that houses the prisoners awaiting trial. Each is allotted a barrack. That, theoretically, is where I should have been headed too.
But in my case, the procedures were all jumbled up. Twelve days after I had been picked up by the police, I was hurriedly put into the anda barrack, given a prison uniform, and after a quick meal at 4 pm of besan and chewy rotis, [put on my way] to Mumbai by train.
E ven before [detainees] can be given narco-analysis, they are put through a series of medical tests, ostensibly to ascertain whether they are fit enough to undergo these forensic procedures. In reality, the tests determine the prisoner’s levels of resistance and help the authorities calculate how much of the drug, sodium pentothal, can be administered without causing the accused to collapse.
The tests were conducted in the operation theatre of J J Hospital, a government hospital in Mumbai that has backup facilities for surgery. That’s because sodium pentothal can cause the heart to slow down — fatally.
The drug was administered like a drip, at a controlled pace so that I should remain in a trance for [a long] time. The forensic psychologist started asking questions and the conversation was video recorded.
Although the police were not permitted to enter the laboratory, the forensic experts themselves used the drug with police efficiency, with total disregard for medical ethics or my health. The police had prepared a list of questions for the psychologist to ask: where I kept arms and ammunition, and whether I was associated with suspected organisations or people.
I remembered some of this later. It was a little like recollecting a dream after waking up. I didn’t remember all the details with complete accuracy, but I hadn’t forgotten the highlights.
In my first year in prison, in the isolated anda barrack, my co-accused and I were kept away from the other prisoners because the jail administration considered us far too dangerous to be [allowed to associate] with them.
To signal that we were different, all alleged Naxalite prisoners were forced to wear prison uniforms with green arm bands. In April 2008, all 13 of us went on an indefinite hunger strike. Among our demands: end our isolation, stop arresting social activists as Naxalites, and don’t force undertrials to wear uniforms.
In order to undermine us, we were dispersed into separate barracks. I was transferred to phasi yard-for prisoners [on death row].
Our strike lasted 27 days. None of our demands were fulfilled. Instead, the police officer who was conducting an inquiry into the matter advised the jail officials to scatter us across other jails. An additional criminal case was registered against us, of attempting to commit suicide — this was the ninth case I had to deal with.
In September 2011, the courts finally dismissed the last of the nine cases against me. Prison wisdom says that the first few months of jail life and the last ones are the most horrible. As freedom neared, the days grew longer and nights sleepless. Court production dates also got reduced. All reading and writing became extremely burdensome.
I started making plans for life beyond Lal Gate. On 27 September, I left prison. I could see my parents standing outside. As they watched, in the company of journalists and my lawyers, a posse of policemen in plain clothes bundled me away in an unmarked vehicle. The police charged me with two more Naxalite-related cases, and I was sent back to prison.
I was crushed at the thought of having to [suffer] the same cycle of torture, bail applications and endless waits for trial dates all over again. But this time, thankfully, it was quicker. A vociferous public outcry and the skills of my lawyers worked in my favour.
On 4 January 2012, I was released on bail in the last remaining case. After four years, eight months, I walked out of Lal Gate a free man.