‘It is important for journalists to find jail experiences and write about them’

TV journalist Sunetra Choudhury’s Behind Bars: Prison Tales of India’s Most Famous has been received well by the market. Part of the interest it generated owed to the 13 high profile people whose jail tales it detailed in an impressive narrative. The Roli Books publication is a major addition to India’s jail literature that precedes 1947. In her brief interview, Ms Choudhury talked about certain issues that are closer to Kashmir

KASHMIR LIFE (KL): How important is it for imprisoned to write about their jail terms?

 SUNETRA CHOUDHURY (SC): I don’t know if it is important for the imprisoned themselves to write about their jail terms because everyone may not have the skills to express themselves by writing. I know that it is important for all of us journalists to find out about different jail experiences and write about them. It is our job as writers and journalists to do that. We have to speak to those who have been imprisoned or those whose families have been, find out the kind of excesses taking place there and bring them to light. Can you imagine that a woman (Manjula Shetye) died in a Mumbai jail because she was tortured? That prison authorities had the belief that they could perpetrate such horrors and get away with it. Thank God, it was publicised but the figures show that there are so many more deaths across the country which people don’t know about. When I was finishing my book, Rafique was acquitted after 12 years from a Delhi jail. Rafique’s story of being a boy doing his MA in Kashmir University who was accused of terror despite his teachers testifying that he was in class, terrified me and was exactly the same as the character in my book, Wahid Sheikh. Wahid had his neighbours, who were Hindu and were watching the blasts on TV with him, but it didn’t stop ATS from charging him. He, like Rafique, spent a decade in jail wrongly incarcerated. Their stories, their nightmares of torture need to come out. How can this happen in a country like ours which takes pride in being modern and civilised? And that’s why these stories need to be told.

KL: What is the net difference between an elite and an under privileged when it comes to jail?

SC: The difference is the ability to buy facilities. Do you want edible food in jail? Well, you need to have at least 30 rupees per meal so that you can improve the meal you are served (this is in Tihar Jail). Do you want to be able to have a proper mulakat with your relatives? Well, if you are elite, then there is no time limit, and as A Raja said – his daughter came to see him whenever she wanted and they met in the superintendent’s office. If you are a regular, privilege-free person, then your relatives will have to keep calling a landline in order to get an appointment for their weekly visits and then wait for 3 hours out in the sun, till they are let in. Once they are let in, they will have to speak through headphones and a glass partition and the screams of other inmates’ and their families. I think this gives an idea of the difference privilege makes in jail.

KL: Of the 16 tales, which one was the most disturbing one for you as a human being and why?

SC: They were all very disturbing but Wahid Sheikh’s story disturbed me most. He told me how in between his torture in police custody, he was let off for Independence Day. As he was an English teacher in a government school, he mentioned paying his respect to the flag with his students. I found that deeply moving, and traumatic. The ability to be patriotic after a night when your legs have been split at 180 degrees, till you urinate blood. I couldn’t sleep for days afterwards and in a way, he changed my book too.

KL: Do you think, Afzal Guru’s story is still an untold one?

SC: Yes, for sure. I am so glad that an aspect of his story came out in my book. It was quite unexpected. I was following Kobad Ghandy because I wanted to bring out how people age in jail. He had an irritable bowel syndrome so he was forced to spend a lot of his 6000 rupees prisoner allowance on mineral water because the jail couldn’t even give him that. Anyway, I went to Cherlapally jail to meet him and talk to him when he suddenly mentioned that Afzal was the man in the next cell, and someone who spent two years with him. I suddenly realized that all the stories that we’ve heard are the ones emanating from prison officials or authorities and ministers. Nobody knew what happened those final hours even though we’ve all reported how the family wasn’t told about the hanging. To me, it was a really important resource and Kobad had a completely different perspective. He had a repulsion towards others accused of terrorism, he said many were very militant. But all he could talk about Afzal was his poetry, their conversations and Rumi. I had to record that and it became one of the most important aspects of my book.

KL: Most of the Kashmiri prisoners who walked out of Tihar were pronounced innocents by the court. By then, however, they had spent a lifetime in the jail. Why are not their stories helping the criminal justice system improve?

 SC: I agree. But not just Kashmiris. All those who are walking out innocent, their experiences should be used to improve the criminal justice system. There are two aspects behind this. First, majority of those who come out are just too traumatised, bitter and don’t want to talk about it. They reject the system and deal with it internally. The second aspect is just apathy. In my opinion and going by the limited amount of work that has been done in this area, very few people seem to care in the establishment about prison reforms. The mindset is -’who cares about how undesirable characters are treated?’ or ‘There must be some reason that they were arrested in the first place’. The onus is on us to keep at it, to keep writing. Also, there are some like Wahid who have decided they will not lie low or quiet. They have formed the Innocence Network which is raising awareness about this across the country. Hopefully, the judiciary will take note and carry out much needed reforms.

KL: How have been your experiences in covering Kashmir, so far?

 SC: I’ve had limited reporting experience in Kashmir. The only major assignment I had was to cover the Kashmir floods in 2014. It was one of the most moving experiences I’ve had and also a challenging assignment. Challenging because the people were understandably angry at the media arriving too late and I was obviously one of them. I understood their anger but I was keen to tell their story. Once we got beyond that, I could just do my job. In one area, the young men were so angry, they shouted at us which made just doing my story a little tough. But that’s not my lasting memory. My lasting memory was standing submerged in water in a woman’s home and she asking me, while her house was flooded, if I wanted some tea. That’s what I’ll remember of reporting in Kashmir.

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