In September 1970, Ramchandra Singh, then a member of the Communist Party of India-Marxist, entered the Hardoi District Jail, in Uttar Pradesh, as an undertrial Naxalite prisoner. He had been arrested for his involvement in the killing of an oppressive landlord in Bakhuara village, around 15 kilometres from his native village of Bangarmau in Unnao district. “We annihilated him,” Singh recalled in an interview. Singh was convicted and served 13 years of imprisonment in five jails across the state from 1970–1983. While serving his sentence, he wrote a diary recording in detail the everyday experiences of his life in jail and his interactions with other prisoners.
In 1984, Singh’s memoirs of his time in jail, was serialised in the Lucknow edition of the Hindi daily, Rashtriya Sahara. Seven years later, the literary magazine Samkaleen Dastavez published the diary under the title, Thehre Hue Terah Saal—The Thirteen Years that Stood Still. This year, the publishing house Navayana released an English version of Singh’s memoir titled, 13 Years: A Naxalite’s Prison Diary, translated by Madhu Singh, a professor in the University of Lucknow. Singh died on 2 March, as the book was going to press. In the following excerpt, Singh recounts the operation of caste within the jail. Though there was no such directive in the jail rules, Singh wrote, “The authorities did set work according to caste, owing to their Brahminical mindset.”
In the Fatehgarh jail, we were given a watery masur dal (red lentil). Some flour was added to make it thicker. Tiny worms floated in this concoction. We took them out and then dipped our rotis in it. I was disgusted to see inmates mash their rotis in this dal and eat it up nonchalantly. Once this stock of rotten dal was over, we were given rice for both meals during the cold months of December and January. I like rice but the kind we got here is hard to describe. It was difficult even to tell whether it was a handful of rotten boiled rice or a mashed gruel. Ants in the dalia were a common sight. One day as I was having my meal in the barrack, I found a piece of dried mango in the masur dal. In those days there were frequent power cuts and I couldn’t quite make it out in the dim flickering light of the lamp. I soon realised that it wasn’t a piece of mango I had been sucking on, but a dead cockroach. Sometimes, we had to eat just rotis and salt. In the name of vegetables, we got rotten smelly stuff unfit for consumption. As a result, most of the inmates suffered from serious stomach ailments. Diarrhoea and dysentery were common complaints. Batches of anaemic prisoners with pale, sickly faces would go to the hospital, from where they would be dismissed with some general pills or even spurious drugs while genuine medicines were secretly sold off by the doctors and compounders.
The prisoners who kneaded flour for bread were beaten with a leather belt or broom to make them work harder. Kneading such large amounts often broke their fingers. They were beaten even after they became unconscious. When this work was given to a weaker inmate, he was a terrible mess, crying as he kneaded the flour in a cement trough with his feet. I could always hear the ongoing brawls and beatings that took place in the kitchen. Inmates who made rotis over the huge furnaces became dark in complexion because of constant exposure to heat. The dark skin stretched over cheek bones made their scorched faces look terrible. In this atmosphere of terror all prisoners had to cooperate in stealing rations from the kitchen.
While there is no provision in the jail rule book to delegate work on the basis of religion, caste or social status, the authorities did set work according to caste, owing to their Brahmanical mindset. Cleaning duties were assigned to prisoners from the oppressed castes such as Chamar, Paasi, Dhobi, Dhanuk and such. Had there been a Kamaan to wash clothes, prisoners of the traditional dhobi caste would have been assigned the job. An “upper-caste” man with any education at all would be taken up by the jailor or other officials as their peon, writer, or godaami (storekeeper). Not even illiterate prisoners of the dominant castes were employed in the safai kamaan (cleaning section); instead they were inducted into soot-katai (spinning) and dera kamaan (where massive military tents and other articles procured by the state were manufactured). A shrewd priest-type character was once interned at the Fatehgarh Central Jail. In the morning, after the counting was done, he brought flowers from the garden and, placing them on the jailor’s table, told him with folded hands that he was a Brahmin priest. He was assigned to the cleaning of the flower beds, and from that day on it became his daily ritual to bring flowers for the officials. Sometimes he would chant incoherent mantras and on special religious occasions tie the auspicious red thread or kalawa on the wrists of officials. Whenever he got the opportunity, he would preach during conversations and never lost a chance to show off his knowledge and wisdom. As for the job of tidying the flower beds, all the work was done by other inmates who came from backward castes or Dalit communities.
So intricately was the caste-ridden structure of Indian society replicated in the prison system, it also informed the practice of corruption. At the Hardoi District Jail, a well-off Brahmin prisoner was once assigned the duty of cleaning filth, simply so the jail authorities could extort money to relieve him of this shaming work. It proved an effective psychological weapon. He gave in, and a large amount was duly squeezed out of him. Extracting money from Dalit and ordinary prisoners was routine, requiring no particular ingenuity. Their visitors had to bring money and that was that. There was even a fixed warder to collect it from them. Those poor Dalit visitors who had nothing to give would somehow pool together a little money to get to visit the prisoners occasionally. The jail employees also exacted back-breaking work from Dalits and no exceptions were made for age or infirmity. Amongst the most wretched of the prisoners, Dalits predominated. The consciousness of caste was not merely a tacit suffusion in the workings of the jail. It could be passionately voiced too.
This is an edited excerpt from Ramchandra Singh’s 13 Years: A Naxalite’s Prison Diary, translated by Madhu Singh and published by Navayana.