77 days in jail: political notes from an imprisoned worker under Left Front ruled Bengal

February 9, 2009

By Shankar Das. Translated by Dhiman Chatterjee, Sanhati.

Loomtex Engineering Pvt.Ltd., West Bengal, continues to be a jute mill where 2,300 workers are well past the age of retirement. The management has not cleared their gratuity dues for the last 10-15 years and forces old, feeble, ailing workers to work at a measly rate of Rs. 100 per day. Loomtex is also a mill where the Provident Funds accounts of the workers have not been audited since 1997. Sangrami Mazdoor Union, newly formed by workers, has been agitating for clearance of the due provident fund and gratuity of since January 2008. On May 15 2008, a personnel manager was found dead in his office on the mill premises, while the Sangrami Mazdoor Union (SMU) was conducting a peaceful gate meeting protesting the non-payment of long standing provident fund and gratuity dues. Police and management blamed workers, throwing many of them in jail, while the spiraling violence perpetrated by the management’s hired goons threatened to break the back of SMU.

These notes from jail are by an imprisoned worker and appeared in ShramikShakti, November 2008.

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The fondest word for an inmate is “release”. The boy posted near the gate would cry “Hey release!” when the release order came, and the fortunate ones would rush towards the gate.

The release order for the twenty of us has arrived sometime ago. Finally the time has come for which we have waited eagerly for the past seventy-seven days. We have already talked with our comrades and have vowed to intensify our struggle. Now it is time to talk to other prisoners before leaving the jail premises. None of our faces betray any trace of joy.

Some are stern, some cry silently. A strange grief has filled the hearts of the struggling workers. They have had to leave their friend, their favourite leader Com. Alik Chakraborty in jail. Of the twenty-one arrested in connection with the murder of a manager of Loomtex Engineering Pvt. Ltd. (popularly known as Mathkol), only Alik has been denied bail by the Kolkata High Court.

Other prisoners who have been watching us depart are spellbound. Newly liberated prisoners with grief-stricken faces! They have seen many new things in these struggling workers, things they had never seen before. Our interaction with them had started almost two and a half months back when we had first entered this Barrackpur sub-jail.

Jail is our University

Jail is perhaps like a University to political prisoners at all times. We have heard this from others, read it in books, but have never experienced it. Before entering the jail we could not have imagined how one can remove all the meat allotted and just leave the bone for distribution; we could not have imagined how small a piece of fish can be (the joke that goes around is that under light the other side of the piece of fish will be visible!). We didn’t know that someone could be detained in jail for a long time because of want of money to pay even when bail has been granted or due to the faulty judicial system. That these same old inmates would torture those who had just entered the prison!

While struggling to achieve justified demands, the workers have landed up in this unknown and adverse condition – this hell that is the jail.

What crime did they commit? They had demanded an audit of the provident fund (PF) and gratuity that had been deducted from their hard-earned salary. After working for forty years in the industry when one is expected to get at least 1 to 1.5 lakh rupees as PF, the mill-owner had handed them a paltry sum of thirty-forty thousand. After this when they did not receive the gratuity, then they were forced to work as temporary workers at half the salary. Extreme poverty had driven these workers, who were dragging along somehow from one day to the next, to ask for their payments.

Young workers of the factory, having watched the condition of the elderly workers, have realised that if they do not start their struggle now, their futures will also be no different from that of their father’s or uncle’s. So these workers have shunned all the corrupt, pro-management unions and have started their own union. Today’s fight is carried out under the leadership of this union. After the initiation of the movement, factory management had carried out the usual attacks. External goons, hired by the management, disrupted the gate-meeting of the workers. This resulted in an outburst of the angry workers and amidst confusion that followed, the Personnel Manager of the factory was killed and the blame was put on the struggling workers. Immediately, the pro-management police and administration sprang into action and the workers were put in jail.

The workers of Mathkol realised that between the victory of the movement and them there stands the jail.

In all the sub-jails, the role played by money is well known. The extent of the pervading corruption, however, is hard to guess! Old inmates of the prison have occupied individual rooms, taking leases by paying hefty amounts to the jail administration. Other rooms house 30-35 prisoners. Newcomers to the jail are coerced to give money to the old residents.

After spending the first night in the temporary accommodation of room number 1, we were allotted individual rooms. On the other side, the prisoners were cleaning the drain. A young man and his aged father had been sentenced to jail for some family feud. Asking the young man to watch, the inmates compelled the sixty-something old father to clean the drain. The son had to watch helplessly as his father was abused. The aim was to extort money from them. The jail administration turns a blind eye to all these developments as they also get a share of the money earned. The editor of the Bengali daily, Anandabazar Patrika, always laments that the Bengalees are “idle” – he would have been happy to see how diligently Bengalees are engaged in making money! We look at each other uneasily as we watch, wondering how our inmate-companions would fare.

At six o’ clock we had to get up and roll up the blankets that made up our bed. Locks were removed and an officer counted the number of prisoners present. At night they did the head count once again to ensure that all the inmates were inside. After head count was over, we were given two hours in the morning, after which we were again put back into the lock-up. Between 10 AM and 12 noon, bathing had to be completed and we were again put in jail between noon and 3 PM. Between 3 PM and 6 PM we were allowed to walk inside the premises after which we were again confined. This was our routine inside the jail. Between 3 and 6 PM, we sat together by the side of the kitchen and talked. Other prisoners watched us with great surprise as within the jail they did not expect anyone to bother about others.

In the morning, we were given puffed rice; for lunch, we got some rice and curry and at night five rotis (Indian bread) with some curry. The quantity of food given was very low and it was almost unpalatable. For the last 15 days we have been given a tasteless pumpkin curry that is cooked by boiling the pieces of pumpkin in water along with little turmeric and salt. On Mondays we are given meat and on Fridays fish, descriptions of these items have already been given. After 30 days of entering the jail, we started getting eggs on Tuesdays.

Most of the workers were not political activists and did not have the prior experience to anticipate these possibilities. One of us, Bhagatji, is seventy years old. He had received a PF of forty two thousand after retirement that he had used for his daughter’s marriage. Since then he has been working as a casual worker with a daily wage of Rs 100. He is with us from the first day of the struggle. During the gate meeting the hired goons of the factory management had struck his leg with a stick. He had gradually recovered from that injury but regarding food his voice choked with emotion when he said “ we may be poor but such a …”.

The government has allotted Rs 52.50 per day for each of us but we got hardly Rs 15 worth of food.

Corruption has spread to all levels during the thirty-two years of Left front government’s rule. By supporting the corruption they have been able to garner support of some people. In one stroke of political wisdom thus the left party in power achieves three things: they pose themselves as kind-hearted by granting the money, they keep their supporters happy by allowing them to continue with the rampant corruption and in the process they teach the protestors a lesson. But it is very difficult to dampen the spirit of the struggling workers. Despite the hardship, everyday we vow to continue the struggle. Jail has taught us how to face hardship. No wonder that a jail is considered as a University where the struggling masses relearn the condition of their country.

Outside the struggle has gained momentum

Outside the jail, the movement to reopen the Mill and for the release of the workers intensified. This movement, under the leadership of the Union, is carried forward by people who were hitherto not in the forefront of the struggle but have assumed new responsibility after the arrest of the leadership. Despite threats from the police and poverty at home, common men have started taking extraordinary roles in the struggle. Sympathizers have started coming to our side. We have received money from far-away Chennai or Delhi. Besides the deputation-procession-meetings, legal fight has also been initiated.

The management is also not sitting idle. A group of jute mill owners have met the Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya and requested him to take action against us workers and the Union. The Chief Minister has also assured them that he would provide necessary support. This information of the prevalent war-like situation and the organisation of the forces outside the jail reached us within the jail as well. We waited eagerly for such news to arrive and during our afternoon meetings we discussed these events with great enthusiasm.

On one such day while we were talking, the young boy who ran errands for and massaged the more powerful prisoners, came to us and said, “Your case is different. Even inside the jail all of you are together. Think about our condition. I have got bail 56 days back but could not go out, as I cannot pay Rs 100. In my house only my mother is there and she is blind. So there is no one to visit me. I am trying to please the other convicts so that if they are pleased they may give me Rs. 100.”

We realised that we had not tried to mix with other prisoners. Slowly we got to know others and they also started mixing with us freely. Gradually the picture of judiciary system of our “great” democracy unfolded in front of us. If for some reason, the police records a person’s name for some criminal activity, then for all crimes in the locality the police will round him up, more so if the actual criminals have political shelter. The next day it is flashed on the papers and citizens feel assured that the elected Government is performing its duties well. In the process young people slowly become hardened convicts – the story of this transformation does not find place in any newspaper.

Left Front government has renamed jails as “reformatories”. What an irony! If one enters the jail, it is very difficult to come out. In lower courts cases are piling up and there is neither proper infrastructure nor time or interest on the part of the judges to dispense with a speedy justice. Even for bailable offences, getting bail takes an unnecessarily long time. For speedy delivery of judgement, Government has formed fast-track courts. But in reality what is happening? For cases involving serious offences like robbery, rape or murder, police is submitting charge sheet very quickly. Once the charge sheet is prepared, usually a person has to stay in jail till the court gives the verdict. If the police fail to produce charge sheet within 90 days, then a person can get bail. But though the police may be fast in framing the charge sheet, the judiciary moves very slowly. As long as the hearing is in the lower court, the case is taken up every fortnight. But once it goes to the session court, it will take 3-4 months for getting a date for hearing. If in a murder case, there are 10 witnesses, then the recording of the statements from the witness itself will take 30 months and after that the judge may take 14 dates to give the verdict. After such a prolonged hearing, a person may be acquitted on all charges and such an incidence is not rare. Thus in the name of fast track, the government has given the police great power¾ to implicate someone on false cases and detain them for 3-4 months is a very easy thing for the police to do. The practice of custody trial thus continues. As the struggle against the existing capitalist system intensifies, the state will tear off the veil of democracy and the real face of the oppressive system will be exposed.

Inside the prison a transformation is taking place

As we are coming out of the jail, we shake hands with the prisoners. One inmate does not shake hands – he clenches his fist, raised above the shoulder. A traditional red salute! I embrace him out of delight. In my hurry to leave, I forget to ask him where he has learned this way of expressing red salute. For sure we have been able to influence some of the inmates during our stay.

In the meantime, slogans can be heard from outside. The prisoners who are coming back to jail from session court have informed us that many of our comrades have gathered outside. Suddenly the strong wall of the jail appears very fragile, as the emotions of the people from either side of the wall have merged. The struggle of Mathkol workers will definitely usher in a new era of enthusiasm in the struggle of the working class. New organisations are springing up and the workers are preparing for an intensified struggle. The efforts of Marx and Engels will not go in vain. One day the courageous and fighting workers will win over the entire world.

1 Comment »

One Response to “77 days in jail: political notes from an imprisoned worker under Left Front ruled Bengal”

  1. Sharmistha Choudhury Says:
    March 22nd, 2009 at 12:00

    Shankar Das is not a worker, he is a political activist involved in organising workers. He is a member of the communist revolutionary group CCR-ML and will be contesting the Lok Sabha elections frm Dumdum constituency under the banner of this organisation.

    Of the 21 arrested for the murder of the personnel manager of Loomtex, 19 were workers. Over six months after being released from jail, they continue to be denied re-employment by the mill management. The workers, under the leadership of Loomtex Engineering Pvt Ltd angrami Mazdoor Union, will launch an offensive against the unfair practice of the management and sit on an indefinite dharna in front of the mill gate from April 3, 2009, demanding immediate reinstatement in service.

    All sympathisers and democratic-minded people are requested to come to the dharna site (before the Loomtex gate in Titagarh) and express solidarity with the struggling workers.

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