Political Prisoners and Cultural Resistance in the Jails of West Bengal

July 3, 2014


By Sabyasachi Goswami

[This is a translation, by Kuver Sinha, of parts of the original article in Bengali, available here.]

During my incarceration in Presidency Jail, we got access to a Hindi magazine called “Bhor”. It is there that we came across a captivating essay by the rights movement leader Seema Azad. One of our fellow prisoners, Subhash, translated the piece into Bengali: “Garoder Andhar Phure Bhorer Alo” (A New Dawn Pierces the Darkness of the Prison, available here: http://sanhati.com/articles/9514/).

Seema Azad and her partner Biswavijay, one should remember, were arrested by the Uttar Pradesh police on trumped up charges. They were handed life sentences, although they were later granted bail by the Uttar Pradesh High Court. Democratic minded people had protested this false trial at the time. The essay that we came across was her own experience in jail. The story of her cultural resistance in jail inspired us greatly.

Today over a hundred political prisoners languish in jails across West Bengal, targets of the State’s political retribution. Time and again protesting people have been incarcerated, both under the CPIM-led Left Front government and the Ma-Mati-Manush government of the Trinamul Congress. I am fortunate enough to have been imprisoned during both these times, for a total duration of six years and nine months, in three phases. Two Central jails, three district jails, and two subjails – I have come to know numerous political prisoners. Among them are Chandi Sarkar, Ajit Chakraborty, Himadri Sen Ray (Somen), Patitapaban Haldar, Gournarayan Chakraborty, Akhil Chandra Ghosh, Zakir Hosen, and Sadula Ramakrishnan, with whom I have participated in struggles. These struggles have maintained a continuity with struggles of the past; alongside, there is cultural resistance, about which our friends on the outside know little.

Seema Azad’s article impressed upon me the need to let democratic minded people know about the experience in West Bengal. The poet Ashok Chattopadhyay encouraged me to write about this in the bulletin of the Gana Sanskriti Parishad. I then wrote a report on recent programs undertaken by political prisoners in Presidency and other jails. And I felt that a more detailed essay might perhaps be worthwhile – hence this article.

West Bengal has had a rich history of jail struggles, from the time of the British to the workers of the revolutionary and mass movements of today. The transfer of power in 1947 was followed by a series of peoples movements in West Bengal. The Tebhaga Movement, the movement against the bus and tram fare hikes, not one, but two Food Movements – numerous people have been imprisoned. Inside the jail there developed the prisoners movements; outside there developed the movement for the release of political prisoners, during which, in turn, more people were imprisoned. Lives were lost on our streets during these protests. The revisionist leadership used these struggles as vote banks, instead of directing it at fundamental changes.

The Naxalite movement was the first struggle that gave the correct direction to the Indian Communist movement. It boldly put forth the message that every struggle had to be centered around the goal of capturing State power, instead of being lost in the maze of partial demands. Naturally, the jail struggle developed a similar orientation, that of developing the Peoples War, not being mired in lesser demands. Several historic movements thus developed. Of course, not everything was perfect; there were mistakes. In particular, the question of left deviation that developed when the movement was repressed affected the movement in the jails too. A detailed discussion of this can be carried out elsewhere. But the fact remains, the sacrifice of the Naxalite workers during that phase of the movement will forever be etched in gold in the annals of peoples struggles.

Every movement gives birth to new literature, new works of art; the movement for the unconditional release of political prisoners was no exception. During that phase, too, numerous poems, stories, and peoples songs were written. A number of plays, and a few films were made. Samir Ray, Srijan Sen, Murari Mukhopadhyay, Dronacharya Ghosh, Amiya Chattopadhyay, Jaya Mitra – all of them wrote poems during their incarceration, which greatly enriched Bengali literature. In particular, Srijan Sen’s “Thana Garod theke Ma-ke” (From the Bars of Prison to my Mother) and Samir Ray’s “May Diboshe Aami Aar Kono Kobita Likhte Parina Birenda” (I Cannot Write Any Other Poem on May Day, Biren-da) are unforgettable. Later on, novels like Minakshi Sen’s “Jeler Bhitor Jel” (Jail within Jail) and Joya Mitra’s “Hanyaman” created a stir. Poets like Birendra Chattopadhyay, Manibhushan Bhattacharya, Nabarun Bhattacharya, Sabyasachi Deb, Ranjit Gupta, Satyen Bandyopadhyay, Sarojlal Bandyopadhyay wrote steadily in support of the political prisoners. Two songs can be considered as milestones: Bipul Chakraborty’s “Ora Bhagat Singh-er Bhai” (They are Brothers of Bhagat Singh) and Amitesh Sarkar’s “Chaire Chaire Chai Mukti”.

Today’s political prisoners too are carrying on this tradition (some were imprisoned in the 70’s, and imprisoned again now when the movement has spread to an extent). Thus, alongside the movement of prisoners has developed revolutionary art and literature.

Let me begin with my own experiences. When I was first sent to Purulia jail, the senior Communist leader Gour Narayan Chakraborty was imprisoned there. He was not yet the spokesperson of the CPI (Maoist). Along with him was the Youth Movement leader Pradip Saha. We were all imprisoned under the same case. Gourda was of course a great speaker, but what is perhaps unknown is that he was a very good singer too. Pradip Saha was a painter who drew very good pencil sketches of aspects of prison life. Unfortunately, the paintings have been ruined in jail. Gourda used to sing songs. Especially popular in jail were his renditions of Basudeb Dasgupta’s song “Sathider Khune Rangapothe Dekh Hyenar Anagona” (Hyenas Roam the Bloody Trail of my Martyred Comrades) and Paresh Dhar’s song “Phuler Moto Phutlo Bhor”.

We were in Purulia jail for a very short time, during which the five or six of us got the thirty or so general prisoners to commemorate “Hiroshima Day”. We presented Hemanga Biswas’s “Shankhachil” during this program. We also celebrated “Martyr’s Day” one time. We carried out regular sloganeering during our transit from jail to Court, and sang peoples songs in the Court premises. The most frequently sung song was “Tute ho tute Gulami ki Bandhan Hazaar” by Shankar Shailendra. The lead singer was Gour Narayan Chakraborty; the rest of us joined in the chorus.

Kanika Debnath and Dipanjan Mukherjee were co-accused in the case registered against us in Purulia (the case is still going on). We were all arrested more or less together. Kanika used to sing Rabindra Sangeet really well. We were kept beside each other at the Bhowani Bhaban lockup (the CID’s head office at the time). She would return after a full day of interrogation, spent, and break out energetically into Gana Sangeet (Songs of the People). We would listen from our cells. Kanika wrote quite a few poems at the time. A couple were written at Bhowani Bhaban, and a few at the Purulia Womens Jail. They were published in a collection of writings by political prisoners. I still remember two poems – “Purulia Womens Jail theke” (From Purulia Womens Jail) and “Pathpradarshak Kakur Uddeshye” (To My Uncle, Who Showed Me the Way).

I too had the habit of writing poems on the outside. I wrote two at the Purulia Jail – “Shironam – July 28” and “Gaddalikar Srote Bhashte Bolo Keno?

Dipanjan, Kanika, and I were transferred to Bankura Jail after about three months. We were “homeless” in a sense at the time – Bankura Jail, DumDum Central, Barrackpore Subjail, a few days at the Jhargram Subjail. Our cultural activities suffered as a result. At the Purulia Jail, we led a movement against the Jail authorities and the rights of political prisoners, which was widely covered in several magazines at the time. After that, we didn’t get a chance to conduct any movements, and I wrote but a few pieces. I had issued a call to the then State Secretary of the CPIM, Biman Bose, to openly debate questions on globalization, development, and Maoism at the Purulia Court. I was thus occupied with writing a few essays on these topics.

I met Swapan Mandal at the DumDum Central Jail. Swapanda lived in the Sunderbans area, and was a poet and lyricist. I remember an amusing incident. Dipanjan took me to Swapanda‘s cell one day. I didn’t know him back then – but since he was imprisoned for anti-State activities, it didn’t take too long for us to become friends. At his request, Dipanjan sang “Sarbaharar Rokte ora Lal Pataka kore lal/ Barbar Proman korechhe ora Jotedarer dalal/ Ora pujipatir dalal” (The blood of the downtrodden makes their red flags redder/ Time and again they have proven to be agents of the Jotedar/ Agents of capital). Later I learnt that Swapanda himself had written that song.

I spent my days like this. One day I was suddenly released, and then imprisoned a few days later. This time I was sent to Krishnanagar Jail. I stayed there for five years and two months. Here I came to know the veteran Communist leader Chandi Sarkar. Amongst the dozen or so other political prisoners were Zakir Hosen, Zilai Shekh, Mantu Chatterjee, and Tofajjel Mandal. Later, another veteran Communist, Ajit Chakraborty, came there, as did Bapi Debnath, Prashanta Das, Pradip Chatterjee, Rina Sarkar, Lata Murmu, and twelve or thirteen others. Later, I spent about two and a half years with the veteran Communist Tarun Saha, in the same room.

During the time of the Trinamul Congress, Tarun Saha became the second martyr in jail. Under their rule, he was kept in Presidency Jail and died there with no access to healthcare. He was an extremely cultured man. He couldn’t sing or write poems, but held both in high regard. He would jot down Peoples Songs or poems in his diary, whenever he got the chance. Political prisoners have kept one of his notebooks in their care, to this day, and it helps in their cultural activities.

We undertook a number of protests at the Krishnanagar Jail, both on partial demands, as well as political movements. It was during this time that the 14th March mass killing took place in Nandigram, in the aftermath of which we organised a mass hunger strike with about a hundred regular prisoners. During the subsequent Operation Sunrise and killings in Nandigram, we once again organised a hunger strike, this time with almost four hundred regular prisoners. Protesting against the Joint Forces in the Jangalmahal in West Bengal, the political prisoners went on a hunger strike for nine days, joined by over a hundred regular prisoners on the last day. Hunger strikes were organised on two separate occasions to protest the Joint Forces in Lalgarh. The first time, Jaya Mitra came forward in our support; the second time, the poet Sabyasachi Deb expressed his solidarity. On both occasions, we had the support of Krishna Bandyopadhyay.

I personally took part in almost 64 hunger strikes during my time in Krishnanagar. We also took the program of wearing black badges on 26th January. Later, the protest was not only continued, but became even stronger.

We used to undertake regular programs there. Martyr’s Day on 28th July, May Day, Lenin and Mao’s birthdays, International Womens Day on March 8th – all were celebrated. August 15th and January 26th were days on which we took programs against fake independence and democracy; apart from other programs, we would boycott the government’s programs and conduct hunger strikes. Responding to the call of our rights activists and friends on the outside, we started commemorating Jatin Das and Bhagat Singh’s martyrdom days. Hunger strikes were conducted during bandhs called by the CPI Maoist.

I saw a lot of enthusiasm for cultural activities at the Krishnanagar Jail. I must mention Atin Chatterjee (Montu). Around fifty five years old and a textile worker by profession, he had never been involved in literary activities till his time with the mass movement. The political atmosphere in jail blossomed this further. He wrote quite a few poems and stories on his experiences in jail and contemporary events.

During our programs, Zilai Shekh, Montu Chatterjee, Monirul Molla, and Swapan Sutradhar would be the main singers. Swapan, especially, was a very good singer. To this day, he remains imprisoned in Baharampur Central Jail. His renditions of “Comrade bole Dak dile Keu” and “Jodi Gatar Kheteo Bhat Kapor na Mele” still ring in my ears.

About a year later, Prashanta, Bapi, Pradip, Gupi Das, Rina, Lata, Chandi Mandal, Ajit Chakraborty, and Ratan Mandal came to Krishnanagar Jail on charges of sedition. All of them were engaged in cultural activities during their imprisonment. Prashanta deserves special mention as a singer who was equally at ease with Gana Sangeet and Rahul Dev Barman – someone who could sing both Ustad Gulam Ali’s “Chupke Chupke Raat Din” and Gurudas Pal’s “Hayre Mrityu Kaale Papi to Krishna Bole Na”. A mime, an artist, a playwright, a director, and an actor. The gaps in our cultural programs were easily filled with the arrival of Prashanta and these other comrades.

We would not only participate in programs like Rabindra Jayanti – we were the ones directing them. We would try to portray the contemporary times through these programs. During the land grab in Singur, we held a recital of “Dui Bigha Jomi” on Rabindra Jayanti. We produced a play that Prashanta wrote – “Ajob Desher Golpo” (Tales of a Strange Land) – based on Singur and Nandigram. Prashanta wrote another play called “Lash” (Cadaver) based on the persecution of Christians by the Hindutvas in Kandhamal. We staged that too.

Prashanta wrote three others plays that we staged. One was based on Rabindranath Tagore’s “Dena Paona”. Another, based on Tagore’s “Juto Abishkar”, splendidly portrayed the relation between theory and practice, and how the ruling class appropriates the labour and practical knowledge of the workers. Another play, called “Bidyebojhai Babumoshai”, explored the dual relation between theory and practice. The play used music written by Gadar and Gurudas Pal. It was praised for its stage direction as well, being able to create the effect of a flowing river onstage. Mangal Mandal, Montu Banerjee, Swapan Sutradhar, Monirul Molla, and Rina Sarkar performed very well in their roles.

Paresh Tirki, an Adivasi agricultural labourer, was another prisoner lodged in the Krishnanagar jail. He was a talented flautist. Arrested for sedition, he still languishes in prison. His family is in dire straits – the help of democratically minded people is needed.

We took part in some programs organised by the authorities, always being careful not to sacrifice our politics in the process. This entailed participating in programs organized by the Ramkrishna Mission and certain Christian missionaries. It was on a board donated by the Ramkrishna Mission that we published our wall magazine. The monks of the Mission were the ones who named the magazine: “Uttishthito”. The magazine was run in an independent manner, which gave us the space to be involved in it. It was published very regularly, and almost 49 issues came out. We published three special issues on topics opposed to superstition, from an atheistic perspective. We also wrote about our sham trials. We were also in charge of organizing sports in jail. Science fairs were harder to organize under the banner of the Ramkrishna Mission, understandably so, since both Ramkrishna and Vivekananda stood opposed to a scientific outlook. Prashanta was a good artist, and some of the regular prisoners drew as well. I remember a youth named Nirmal, who also made clay dolls. He told us that this creativity blossomed only after he came in touch with the revolutionaries in jail.

The cultural activities of the womens’ wing in jail were undertaken by the female political prisoners. Previously, activities for women used to be separate; later, the authorities allowed us to participate Prashanta’s plays together, relying on the good behavior of the political prisoners. Rina Sarkar and Lata Murmu took part in varous programs. Rina also wrote several stories and poems, of which “Erokom Kotoi to Hoy” (This Happens so Often), “Ma”, “Diary”, and “Pitritantra” (Patriarchy) were published in magazines on the outside. “Jangal Mahal” and “Preronar Mukh”, two other poems by her, were also memorable.

When my three books of poems were published, I was in jail every time. The Ganapratirodh Mancha published my book “Ei Sanlaap Byaktigoto” (This Conversation is Private), and the New Horizon Book Trust published “Pratikshay, Prasab Jantranay” (Waiting, in Labor Pain). Most of these poems were written in Krishnanagar Jail.


When I went to Presidency Jail this time, I met my old comrades like Gourda, Prashanta, and Pradip. Among many other comrades like Dinesh Wankhede and Deepak Kumar, there were many that were culturally inclined. A song from the Posco movement, “Gaon Chhorob Nahi” was rendered beautifully by Dinesh. Bapi Mudi, a youth who has lost 85% of his vision and is yet locked up as a vicious Maoist at the behest of the STF and NIA (in other words, at the joint initiative of the Center and State government) was also a good singer.

Madhusudan Mandal, a well known figure of the Nandigram movement, has been in jail for a long time. The Trinamul government is bent on proving the false trials initiated by the Left Front; Gourda, Patitada, Santoshda, and Prashanta-Pradip-Madhuda remain in jail. But they have not broken down; this is clearly evident from their literary activities in jail.

Political prisoners in every jail, including Presidency jail, have continued their political resistance; hence, the cultural resistance has continued too. Every event receives a reply, in different ways, from hunger strikes to lockup boycotts, to publishing wall magazines. Cultural programs too are used as a means of resistance. The prisoners in Presidency Jail are publishing their own political magazine, “Muktir Barta” (The Call of Freedom), the first issue of which was published on the first death anniversary of Tarun Saha, who was martyred in Presidency Jail. Five issues of this magazine had been published by the time I left. This will continue in the future. It is through this magazine that many new political workers have gotten their first taste of the world of literary activities.


Every atrocity has elicited a response from the prisoners, including the recent spate of violent crimes against women. Muktir Barta dedicated a special issue on womens issues, in which contemporary events were discussed, the socio-political reasons behind the oppression of women explored, and paths to the emancipation of women were meditated upon. Prisoners in Presidency, Alipur, and other jails celebrated International Womens Day on March 8th. An open letter from Comrades Patitapaban Haldar and Gour Narayan Chakraborty, addressed to the Chief Minister, was sent out from Presidency Jail, distributed to friends outside, and also delivered to the authorities. Poster presentations were held on Womens Day and a cultural program was organized. In Alipur Jail, similarly, the prisoners wore posters around their necks and entered the jail wards, raising their voice against the recent violence on women. Participating were Venkatesh Reddy, Chhatradhar Mahato, Radheshyam Giri, Sachin Ghoshal, and others. Many of us have seen a portrait of Karl Marx that Venkatesh Reddy drew in news media.

On Martyrs’ Day, a special issue of the magazine was published and comrades painstakingly compiled and then put up a list of over a hundred martyrs on the wall. A small program was held and posters put up.

I was released on bail on March 23rd this year, on the anniversary of Bhagat Singh’s martyrdom. We were making preparations to observe that day with songs and posters. Similar preparations were made to observe the hundredth birth anniversary of the martyred poet Saroj Dutta. We were working on a portrait of the revolutionary, with the words of the poem “Kono Ek Biplobi Kobir Mormokatha” written out in the form of a calendar.

Raja Sarkhel and Prasun Chatterjee wrote numerous poems during their incarceration in Medinipur Jail. Currently, they have been transferred on false charges. Raja Sarkhel is in Hoogly, while Prasun has been sent to Purulia Jail. Even though there is no case against him there. We have heard that he does not have proper access to books. The distance has made it difficult for his friends and family to meet him.

It is worthwhile to mention that several magazines like Bondibarta, Mukti Chai, Ikshan, Peoples March, Sanskritik Samasamay, Ekhon Protirodh and others have responsibly published the writings of political prisoners at various times.


Literature and the arts cannot be class neutral. Behind a claim of neutrality itself lies a certain class position. Communists believe that all art, all literature has a certain class orientation. And for a Communist revolutionary artist, the main aim is to create art that furthers the interests of the downtrodden. This class outlook is very clearly discernible in the cultural practices of the political prisoners. On the one hand they display a deep sense of responsibility for the masses and a clear position on class issues; on the other, they have intrinsic artistic merit.

No Comments »

Leave a comment