The ‘Free’ Lives Of India’s Incarcerated Women
In this world, your name is not the first thing someone wants to know about you when they are getting to know you. “In prison they ask, ‘What’s the case?’,” writes Bellapu Anuradha, a women’s rights activist who was arrested in 2009 under the harsh anti-terror Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act and faced charges such as murder, kidnapping, stealing weapons, raiding a police station. Her answer was one all inmates understood: “Maoist”. They also referred to her as 17CL a section of the Criminal Law Amendment Act that is commonly used to book political prisoners.
Anuradha’s recently released book Prison Notes of A Woman Activist is a collection of stories from the four years she spent in Jharkhand’s Hazaribagh Central Jail. She was acquitted in all cases except one where she got a six-month conviction. The evidence produced in court? A book on the discrimination suffered by girls and a political economy textbook, both confiscated from her room in Patna when she was arrested. Read her story in her own words.
In recent times I’ve become obsessed with prison diaries and stories from prison. Most of them are written by men because our jails are full of male convicts.
India has only 31 jails specifically for women that house 18% of our 20,000 or so female inmates. The remaining are imprisoned within the country’s 1,300+ jails in a “prison inside a prison” like Hazaribagh.
As those arrested in the Bhima Koregaon case complete 3 years in prison, the only silver lining in the incarceration of our students, academics, lawyers, and activists in recent years is the books that will hopefully come out of their time spent in jail. A case in point is Turkey where the government jailed thousands of dissenters and now “everyone seems to have a favourite writer who served time”.
Anuradha is definitely my new favourite writer who served time. Her story is book-worthy (in one of the cases she was acquitted in, a superintendent of police falsely testified that he saw her firing an AK-47 and leading a platoon, she tells me over the phone) but in Prison Notes she chooses to hand the mic to less privileged inmates.
She is the empathetic sutradhaar who gently navigates the harrowing stories of imprisoned women.
Like curly-haired Durga who couldn't take the relentless abuse of her upper-caste neighbour and, one day, hit her with a wooden pestle. She told the judge she hadn't intended to kill her and that he should give her whatever punishment he saw fit. He gave her life. The High Court ordered her release after a decade. Or the Adivasi woman who had prepared gruel, and blocked the entrance to her hut with a bamboo partition before going into the forest. A goat wandered in for the food, its horns got stuck in the vessel and it died. Since she didn't have the money to compensate the goat’s owner, the woman was arrested and thrown into prison for three months. Or Shakun, who was married off to a much older man when she was a child. He was an alcoholic who beat her and, one day, when it all became too much, she jumped into the well with her two infant daughters. She survived but her children died. Anuradha helped acquit her.
The 70 or so inmates of Anuradha’s noisy ward (the only one with a television) in a British-era building are comforted by her calm manner and her ability to help them petition jail authorities or write letters to their families, and they share their deepest secrets easily like only women can.
Women tell her the only difference between home and jail is that their children live in the former. Sunita, a rich woman whose joint family was accused of being complicit in the suicide of her sister-in-law (the family was acquitted but Sunita ended up in jail), says that when her husband ignored her request to get her some nighties in jail, she procured them anyway and started wearing them day and night. “In my in laws’ house there is nothing worse than a woman singing,” she tells Anuradha. After Sunita got bail, she insisted her husband move out of his parents’ home.
The author says her time in prison taught her that not just Sunita, but most jailed women “live in freedom”. When we speak over the phone, she shares the extreme example of a woman from an impoverished family who landed up in jail after her daughter-in-law filed a case of harassment. When time came for her bail application, she didn't want to sign the papers and told Anuradha, “I don't want to go, I’m happy here.”
Anuradha found that Hazaribagh was the same jail Mary Tyler—a British woman wrongfully arrested for being a Naxalite in 1970— had stayed in four decades ago. And thus began the younger woman’s quest to reread Tyler’s book My Years in an Indian Prison. She finally managed to get her hands on a Hindi copy of the book more than two years after she began trying—and found that some things hadn't changed at all. “Chickpeas were given for breakfast even at that time,” she writes.
The book is packed with such details. All inmates cry on their first day in jail; jail duties are assigned to inmates based on their caste; and unlike in the case of men, women must list their marital status when they sign their names—Kumari for an unmarried woman, Devi for a married woman and Mosamath for a widow.
Why do people feel the need to know these things about women?” the author wonders.
Anuradha wrote these stories after she was released. They were serialised in a newspaper, then published in Telugu as Edi Neram? (What Is Crime?).
“I think that is the crux, the essence of the stories, more than anything else,” says N Venugopal, poet and literary critic, who has translated one of the stories in the book. “She herself went to jail not for any crime, only for her work in transformatory politics. Once inside, she found a hundred other ‘crimes’ for which women were incarcerated for months and years. Thus more than telling their pathetic stories, she wanted bring out the injustice in our criminal justice system which defines non-crimes as crimes while the real crimes are never touched.”
Meanwhile Anuradha’s legal battles restarted recently. In November 2019, she was one of several activists arrested and charged with “conspiracy to topple the government” and spent eight months in a Hyderabad jail. She is part of the ‘All India Forum Against Hindutva Fascist Offensive’ that planned to hold a press meet to discuss the Ayodhya judgement on the day of the arrests. Now she’s out on bail and, hopefully, writing more stories.
Priya Ramani is a Bengaluru-based journalist and is on the editorial board of Article-14.com.
The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of BloombergQuint or its editorial team.