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Prison Diary: Uncertainty Keeps Political Prisoners Hanging Between Hope And Hopelessness

You remain hopeful some judge will see through the absurdity of the charges. You also caution yourself about the perils of nurturing such hopes, writes Umar Khalid after spending 15 months in Tihar jail as an undertrial.

Prison Diary: Uncertainty Keeps Political Prisoners Hanging Between Hope And Hopelessness Photo: Naman Saraiya, Illustration: Saahil

On a cold February morning earlier this year, I was taken out from jail in a police van for my first peshi (presentation) in court, since my arrest in September last year. Inside the van, the cops were having an animated conversation about the farmers’ protests. But after four months of captivity, the sight outside was more alluring for me. I could see people going to their offices and children to their schools. There were people in cars, buses and on roads. Some were immersed in their phones, while others were talking to each other. There was no one watching over them. They were free to go wherever, talk to whomever.

It was a fascinating sight—the sight of free people. I was reminded of the past when I too, like the people I was staring at, had been free. The words of Iqbal came to me:

“Aata hai yaad mujhko guzra hua zamana
Wo baghon ki baharein, wo sab ka chehchahana
Azaadiyan kahan wo ab apne ghosle ki
Apni khushi se aana apni khushi se jana”

I had eagerly waited for this day. Till then, owing to Covid guidelines, all our court proceedings had been held virtually from within the jail itself. Shut out from the outside world in the same physical space for several months, I was feeling trapped. I desperately needed some change.  

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I think the journey to the court lasted an hour-and-a-half. In court, the proceedings barely lasted 30 minutes. Once the ‘tarikh’ (date) was over, I was put back in the van for our return journey to jail. All through the journey to court and back, I kept staring outside in amazement, as if I were a tourist being taken on a bus ride of a city that was foreign to me.  

Photographs: Chinki Sinha

By 2pm, I had been brought back to Tihar and locked up in my cell soon after. The ‘excursion’ to the court seemed to have gotten over like those childhood picnics—in no time. Now it was back to the same suffocating and monotonous life within the high walls of Tihar.

***

When I entered Tihar back in September 2020, the first thing that struck me was an eerie stillness. Anybody who has ever been inside the complex will tell you about this eerie stillness. It seemed as if we had entered a ghost town, surrounded by high walls on all sides. As the police car that was shifting me from police station to jail kept moving inside, the sounds of the outside world slowly started to recede and were overtaken by silence.  

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We had entered the Tihar complex, but were yet to reach the jail where I was to be lodged. Tihar is a huge structure, the biggest prison in South Asia divided into nine different jails. The car kept driving on a totally isolated road before we reached Central Jail No. 2. It was here that the cops were to hand me over to the prison authorities.  

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But first, some formalities had to be completed. I stood in a line behind others who were also entering the jail that day, waiting for my turn at a window. Behind it, sat a clerk filling up details.  

“Naam? Baap ka naam? Kis case mein aaye ho?”

After telling him my name and my father's name, to his last question, I replied “UAPA”. He had never heard it before, so he thought I had not understood his question.  

“Nahin kaun si dhara lagi hai?”

“UAPA”

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“Kya? Dhang se batao?” he was now visibly impatient.  

Now the constable of Delhi Police, who had come to deposit me to jail, replied from behind, “Dange ke case mein Sir, Delhi danga.”

The clerk entered it in his register, while looking irritated with me for not having replied properly earlier. It had been 11 days since my arrest, but till this moment, no one had referred to me directly like that. After all these years of speaking out against a politics that thrives on riots, hate and division, I was now entering jail with a slip in my hand that said ‘Delhi danga’ next to the section for charges. It seemed like someone had punched me really hard in the guts.  

But this was no time for sentimentalities, as more immediate fears—formed on the basis of what I had heard about jails—ran through my mind. Where would the jail authorities keep me? I had heard about the dreaded “blade-baaz” in jail, those who cut and slash you with blades if you don’t give in to their demands. Would they catch hold of me and make their demands—which could range from monetary to sexual? Would I be mistreated in jail due to how the media had portrayed me before my arrest?

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Thankfully, nothing like that happened. Instead, jail authorities took special measures to ensure no harm came to me. In the jail premises, I was “highlight matter”—people whose cases were reported in the media. Any harm to such prisoners would also make it to the media, and reflect poorly on the prison administration.  

I was lodged in a separate cell, away from other prisoners, and two jail wardens were assigned to me for my security. I realised that the very thing that had led to my arrest—a televised witch-hunt—now ensured me a protective cover inside jail.  

But this created new problems for me as I was to realise in the subsequent days. Unlike other prisoners, I was not let out of my cell into the small verandah outside. In the name of security, they would just keep me lodged inside my cell. Many hours of requests would just give me 10-15 minutes of air in the open in the entire day. This confinement which continued for three weeks was quite unnerving. In my next court appearance, I raised it in court. The judge summoned the jail superintendent to court and instructed against keeping me caged like that. This gave me three hours every day—two in the morning and one in the evening. It was still far less than the rest, but after three harrowing weeks, it still seemed to be a big relief. A few months later, I negotiated one more hour from the authorities, and then some months later, some more.

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***

Over the past 15 months, this is what life has been about—daily negotiation for the most basic of things, be it books, warm clothes or just some air in the open. And it has also been wondering about what to do with time which seems to be in abundance. In his prison memoir, Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o writes that contrary to what people think outside, life in jail is not about endless confrontations, it is instead a daily monotony, you wake up, you eat, you defecate, you sleep. Day after day after day. To that, I could add reading, and that pretty much sums up my days and nights over the last 15 months.  

And then one does not know for how long this will last. It is often said that jails are for convicts and not undertrials. But here, I have spent over 15 months in pre-trial detention. Even now, I can’t see our trial commencing anytime soon.  

In his memoir, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o also talks about this peculiar predicament that political prisoners face—not knowing how long you have to wait till you are free again. In one sense, this makes our situation even worse than that of convicts. They know the length of their situation, and even if it is long, they can prepare themselves mentally for it. On the other hand, we just don’t know we could be free in a month’s time or in a year or it may even take 10 years.  

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This uncertainty which keeps us hanging in a state of animated suspension between hope and hopelessness, is especially difficult to cope with. You always remain hopeful that some judge will see through the absurdity of the charges, and set you free. At the same time, you keep cautioning yourself about the perils of nurturing such hopes. The higher your hopes, the higher would be the distance from which you would come crashing down.  

***

The functioning and structure of jails, with frequent transfers of inmates and extended periods of isolation, also prevents the building of any meaningful ties with others. Due to this, jail is also an inexplicably lonely and impersonal experience. Even though you are living amid hundreds of other prisoners, you still feel lonely because you are separated from your loved ones. But certain experiences leave me lonelier even amidst prisoners—I am talking about the internalised prejudice and bigotry against Muslims. Jail has brought me face to face with bigotry and prejudice against Muslims like never before. If till now, I was trying to understand the process through which people are brainwashed, here I met the end products of that process.

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A person left me bewildered by asking in front of several people out of nowhere—“you see all of us kafirs na?” After the recent India-Pakistan cricket match in the T20 World Cup, another said: “Aare, kal toh tumhari team ne hamari team ko hara diya”. More than once, I’ve been asked how many wives my father has, or how many I intend to have. If they feel you have taken offence, pat comes a defence, “Arey kya galat bola, aap logo mein toh aise hi hota hai na.

I have also realised that a Muslim is always seen as part of one large national, or rather a transnational, group. They are bereft of any individuality. So many questions posed to him or remarks passed at him are not about him, but about “aap log”—you people.

“Arey aap logo mein to aisa hota hai, na?”
“Aap ne kyun Owaisi ke baare mien kuch nahi bolte?”
“Yeh aap logo ne kya kar diya Afghanistan mein?”

None of the above comments that I have faced at different times, have come from consciously hateful people, or from people for whom hate is a political agenda. Instead, they come from ordinary and otherwise ‘nice’ people, people who come and share their food with you, who tell you their stories of how they landed in jail and ask for your advice on legal matters. And then, talking about the news of the day, would slip into something like this:

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“You can’t deny Khalid bhai, Muslims support the Pakistani cricket team when they play against India.”

“How many Muslims do you know in your life who support Pakistan?” I ask back.

“I do not know any Muslims in my life, but I know they support Pakistan.”

The prejudice is so deeply ingrained that they believe they are speaking the obvious truth. And it also comes with such moral righteousness that makes any argument extremely difficult after a while. You simply retreat into silence. Is this where the “tryst with destiny” was to bring us after 70 years? Are these the destiny’s children?     

It is not that I am discovering prejudice, bigotry or even hate for the first time. Over the last 5 years, the regime and its pied pipers in media have constantly reminded me of my “Muslimness”, and also of the place of Muslims in ‘New India’. But till now, hate came from a distance, usually from TV and mobile screens. I always had the option of switching it off, if it got too much. My immediate circle—the people I spent time with in real life sheltered me from hate.  

Jail has removed this distance. Now hate and prejudice are up close and in my face. There is nobody to shelter me, and nobody to confide in.

In my long hours of silence and an otherwise apocalyptic solitude, I keep telling myself not to turn bitter about my circumstances. It is quite easy to succumb to bitterness. But bitterness would not leave me good for anything productive, certainly not for the fight we have set out to fight—of reclaiming our country from the forces of hate and divisions. I also keep telling myself to look at the larger perspective.  

A friend recently told me the story of a human rights lawyer in Chile who, all through the years of Pinochet, kept fighting cases against him in court. He lost all the cases. But after Pinochet fell, his petitions were used to indict Pinochet for his brutality and crimes against humanity. And now many years later, Chile has elected a left-wing president. So I tell myself—no tyrant lasts forever, he cannot trump the truth and hate can never triumph over love forever.

And on cold starry nights, when I miss my beloved, I find strength in the words of Faiz Ahmad Faiz, written from behind prison bars:

Dil se paiham ḳhayāl kahtā hai
itnī shīrīñ hai zindagī is pal
zulm kā zahr gholne vaale
kāmrāñ ho sakeñge aaj na kal  
jalva-gāh-e-visāl kī sham.eñ  
vo bujhā bhī chuke agar to kyā  
chāñd ko gul kareñ to ham jāneñ  

 “Though they may concoct tyranny’s poisons
They will have no victories,
not today, nor tomorrow.
So what if they douse the flames  
in rooms where lovers meet?
If they are so mighty,  
let them snuff out the moon.”

(This appeared in the print edition as "Prison Diaries")

(Views expressed are personal)

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Umar Khalid is a student leader and activist

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