‘Colours of the Cage’: The memoir of a political prisoner in India

November 2, 2014

By Siddhi

“Dedicated to the thousands of political prisoners incarcerated throughout the country… and to their dreams of a more just society that will raze the prisons to the ground” so begins Arun Ferreira’s Colours of the Cage, a book that documents his long years of imprisonment in the Nagpur Central Jail, where he was imprisoned over false cases attempting to establish him as a ‘dreaded Naxalite’. Ferreira was abducted by the Anti-Naxal Cell of the Nagpur Police while he was waiting to meet some social activists at the railway station on 8th of May 2007. After eleven hours of flogging, torture and ‘interrogation’ he was taken to a police station to be arrested under the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 2004. Over the next few months, various false cases were filed against him, linking him with several other social activists who had been arrested separately, in a similar fashion, at different locations. Thus began the nearly 5-year-long ordeal of abuse in jail and harassment through long legal procedures and visits to courts, which is documented in the book.

Through the seven chapters of the book Arun Ferreira describes, straightforwardly and with simplicity, the details of police functioning, the functioning of Nagpur Central Jail and the lives of prisoners in India. To reconstruct his time in jail, Ferreira uses letters written by him to his family during the years. The letters trace the ups and downs in the process of his trail in various cases (the downs usually characterized by delays from the prosecution’s side and inefficiency of the police and judiciary mechanism), and structured around the letters are observations, themes and details that the author seeks to share with readers. And so, Colours of the Cage is a prison memoir. More importantly, it is the memoir of a political prisoner. The issue of political prisoners becomes important in the context of rising intolerance of the State towards any form of dissent- be it resistance of urban slums against forced evictions and demolitions, resistance of the villages of the country against construction of dams or nuclear power plants, of the tribal against forceful conversion of their forests into mining zones, of industrial workers against deteriorating labour standards, of citizens against the specific path of ‘development’ chosen by the State.

While one can assess the extent of emotional strain in Ferreira’s description of short and hurried meetings with family from behind dense meshing and prison bars, and the fact that year after year he is reminded of his son’s age (who was only two when Ferreira was arrested) only in letters from his wife, his own emphasis is mostly on issues concerning the mass of unfortunate prisoners- a young Muslim boy from the Students Islamic Movement of India (which was banned by the government after World Trade Center attacks), a woman forced to give birth in jail, a large number of tribal prisoners held in false cases of Naxalism- incapable of carrying out the formalities and affording legal assistance, villagers arrested over petty disputes- too poor to furnish bail amount even when granted bail by court, and the discomfort and indignity of life caused to all by a constant struggle over meager resources provided by the jail. When Ferreira discusses his repeated re-arrests in new cases (as pretexts to take him into police custody for days at stretch) and the following torture and attempts of the police to force ‘confessions’ out of him, he raises the concern of hundreds of activists who face or live under the threat of such harassment, as well as the policemen of lower grades who are under constant pressure from their superiors to provide ‘results’.

Reading through the pages of the book draws a reader’s attention repeatedly to instances of blatant abuse of law and violent excesses by the police and jail authorities. The reality of absolute disregard for the fundamental rights of prisoners, the violent enforcement of ‘discipline’ and submission (often leading to lifetime injuries and sometimes even deaths) and the fact that the response of authorities responsible for prisoners’ health and safety is only to cover up such incidences is revealed more than once. However, a closer reading suggests that in the final analysis, the problem cannot be reduced to sheer carelessness, corruption or ‘government inefficiency’. It is important to understand the police machinery as an instrument of the State– It is by design, and not by coincidence, that jails are flooded with a vast majority of poor, minorities, the tribal resisting the development schemes of the government (the proportion of representation of minorities and tribal in jail being much higher than their proportion in the society) and political prisoners and that the police enjoy impunity in violating their fundamental rights in jail.  For example, Ferreira expresses at one place how “…people accused of terrorism are invariably sent to places such as the anda barrack and many jail superintendents personally preside over their beatings as a sign of their patriotism”. He also discusses how the Prevention of Torture Bill that the government was planning to introduce in the Parliament in 2010 was nothing but an eyewash since it diluted the definition of torture and the punishment for it; most dangerously, it would not apply when the victims of torture were covered by specials laws like the UAPA and hence would not protect political prisoners. Thus the book directs towards a more systemic understanding of ‘illegal’ ways in which the police asserts power over prisoners.

In October 2011, in an interview given to Tehelka from prison in Nagpur, Ferreira provided his explanation for the exponential rise in the number of political prisoners in India’s jails1. Particularly in the context of Maoists being branded ‘India’s greatest internal security threat’ and all Marxists supporting the struggles of the oppressed being tagged as ‘left wing extremists’ (if not directly branded as Maoists) he said – “Given the Centre’s patronage, every state police department is eager to show the arrest of Naxal suspects by fabricating evidence, conjuring crimes of sedition and prolonging the incarceration by re-arrests. Such strategies will enable the states to join the anti-Naxal bandwagon, resulting in a free flow of funds and assistance.” The book also raises this issue at multiple places- Ferreira mentions how by 2010, due to overcrowding in other jails, around 60 Naxal accused undertrial prisoners were transferred to Nagpur Central Jail. He also writes about a 27-day long hunger strike that was staged by the political prisoners with him. After the re-arrest of two political prisoners (immediately after being released from Nagpur prison), Ferreira and others decided to protest the increasing malpractice of such re-arrests which ensured, by police action, that social activists remained jailed for long periods even after being acquitted and released by courts. The hunger strike had to be called off after 27 days, when some of them began falling seriously ill. Ironically (or not) Ferreira met a similar fate in September 2011, when he was acquitted of all charges by a Nagpur court but was re-arrested by plainclothes policemen at the prison gates and charged with an alleged crime that in fact occurred while he was locked up. This, and another case filed on him, delayed his release till 4th of January, 2012.

As a political prisoner, Ferreira’s unbreakable spirit is reflected in his letters home. In a letter written in August 2009, as he urges his family to ‘hang on’, he expresses the strength that he gets from his struggle to work for a better society: “…one of my biggest consolations in jail is comparing myself with the plight of the lesser privileged… so whether I like it or not, the society in which I live gives me the strength to live another day”. It is perhaps this strength, and the determination of political prisoners to uphold their progressive convictions even behind bars, which is a matter of major concern for jail authorities. In October 2011, Ferreira narrates, several political prisoners were transferred to Amravati in response to rising dissent in Nagpur jail. The organized protest by these prisoners against the brutal assault of Angela Sontakkay (a woman Naxal accused) by prison staff had worried the prison administration. He also discusses the quarantine policy (segregation of political prisoners to avoid ideological infection to other prisoners) and the fact that in July 2007, the Inspector General of Prisons issued circulars on ‘how to contain Naxalites and restrict their influence not only on prisoners but also on the prison staff ’. From the cordial relations that Ferreira’s description reveals that he shares with most other prisoners (based on a systemic understanding of the struggles of these underprivileged and strengthened by discussions around these struggles), the basis of polices’ fear about political prisoners is revealed.

And finally, the larger question that arises from the book is regarding the dangerous practice of criminalization of certain ideologies by the Indian State. Ferreira writes- “The so-called War Against Terror made security the prime motive of State policy. In India, special laws were promulgated to squash inconvenient truths. Organisations were banned, opinions were criminalised and social movements were branded ‘terrorist’. Those of us who worked to organise tribals or the oppressed in rural areas were termed ‘Maoists’.” Such practice of the Indian State is a matter of concern for every citizen who values democratic space- which seems to exist in India only as a farce. This book is highly instrumental in bringing forward this concern.

At the time of writing this review, another round of harassment has begun for several progressive social activists working in Maharashtra2. After arresting and torturing Arun Bhelake and Kanchan Nanavare (both social activists) in Pune, Maharashtra’s Anti Terror Squad (ATS) has used the statements forced out of them to implicate other mass movement activists in cases of Naxalism. Many of them were recently summoned to the ATS office in Pune for ‘enquiry’ and interrogated repeatedly as means of harassment and intimidation. Arun Ferreira was acquitted of the final case on 29th of January, 2014 by a court in Gadchiroli, two years after his release on bail. However, hundreds of political prisoners continue to languish behind bars- in this context, Colours of the Cage is an important read.

(Illustrations by Arun Ferreira)


1. ‘Thought Police and the Unfree Radicals’, Tehelka Magazine, Vol 8, Issue 42, Dated 22 Oct 2011

2. Stop harassment of social activists’, Sanhati October 15, 2014

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