Book Title: Prisoner No. 100: An Account Of My Nights And Days In An Indian Prison
Author: Anjum Zamarud Habib
Published : 2011 by Zubaan Books
Reviewer: Gowhar Fazili
Prisoner No. 100 is Anjum Zamarud Habib’s personal account of five years in jail, nearly all of them as an under trial. She is one of the numerous victims of the draconian POTA – Prevention of Terrorism Act 2002, a successor to a similarly notorious TADA – Terrorist and disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act, which lapsed in 1995. POTA made the grant of bail prior to the dismissal of the cases nearly impossible and rendered confessions extracted in police custody admissible as evidence in court and remained applicable to people framed under it even after the law lapsed or was scrapped. All such draconian laws in India, including PSA and AFSPA, have been statistically established to be biased in their use against the minorities and the marginal nationalities. The account provides deeper insight into the experience of trauma resulting from such laws and how peoples’ lives and families are thus systematically devastated.
Even while POTA and TADA have been scrapped for being dangerously discriminatory, ironically the classes of people who frame and misuse such laws for political and diplomatic gains remain unscathed and are never held accountable. Further, no mechanism to prevent such lawless laws from being reenacted by the same system is ever considered necessary. The book through a detailed exposition of a prisoner’s subjective experience, exposes such laws for what they are in actual practice – a yet another means to curb freedoms of particular categories of people deemed ‘undesirable’ by the establishment, and not deterrents to ‘crime’ as they are supposed to be.
The book is an elaborate exposition of what an Indian jail means to a Kashmiri prisoner, especially the one who happens to be a female pro-freedom socio-political activist. It illustrates through many anecdotes how nationalist, racist and religious biases operate both among the inmates as well as the authorities and lead, as in her case, to persecution. It brings alive the horrors of delayed justice, longing and waiting.
The author also raises the issue of having been abandoned and betrayed by her male Kashmiri colleagues in the Hurriyat even while being the sole female founding member of the organization. Some of them even denied having ever known her once she landed in trouble (P 172-173). The very fact that women are not proportionally represented in the movement for national liberation is damning enough. But abandoning the only such woman in crisis exposes shocking insensitivity. Further, the exact circumstances and methods used to frame her and its instrumental link to the diplomatic row between India and Pakistan are noteworthy. Clearly, in the larger game of titans, mere individuals become dispensable. She is sadistically even informed to that effect by one of those officers who framed her. Her revelations further expose the state that intervenes to rescue Kashmiri women from Kashmiri patriarchal men through the promotion of various civil society and counter insurgency efforts, but treats female Kashmiri political activists as badly as their male counterparts.
The book does not restrict itself to the binary of Indian and Kashmiri nationalism and delves deeper into the question of prison as a system and as an experience by itself. It leads us to consider the broader strategies and purposes of normalizing people and how the patterns of authority and control operating in the prison are simultaneously an extension of the structures that exist outside. Yet in practice, the jails are beyond the compass of the purported ‘fundamental’ rights.
The book provides experiential access to the inner world of a Kashmiri woman prisoner of rural background with a history of indigenous social and political activism, who finds herself suddenly transported among five hundred alien female detainees in Delhi with whom she shares very little. The strangeness she experiences is both in terms of her personal and political background as well as her nationality. A jail is in any case a strange place. It is stranger when it is practically in another country and among inmates hostile to your identity as well as politics. She faces hostility both from the jail authorities as well as the prisoners who whip up their patriotism and religious biases to put her in her place, to isolate her and to break her will (P 213). Muslims are stereotyped as anti-national and Kashmiris as terrorists (P 97, 134) who can be treated as untouchables. (P 210) National day celebrations and Indo-Pak cricket matches are further used to rub in the otherness (P 81).
Yet she acknowledges certain inherent solidarity and anti-authoritarianism that pervades all prisoners due to their shared subhuman condition and the manner in which the system excludes them from humanity. The crosscutting intersections of nationality, race, gender and faith constantly come into play throughout the narrative and give us some remarkable insights into how these markers operate in a controlled space like prison.
The Indian prison condition one gets to know is appallingly persecutory and almost medieval in its orientation. Essentially the prisons are not reformist but vindictive. Humiliation and dehumanization both literal and in terms of the living conditions to which the inmates are subject seem to be an approved and understood mode of punishment (P 51, 68-69, 134). Sadism and vindictiveness are built into the system and not an aberration. The cumulative effect of the minor and major indignities that the prisoners are subject to results in a mixture of dejection, fear and anger. It becomes apparent that in the eyes of jailers, ‘criminals’ and under-trials do not possess any rights, deserve to be stripped of basic human dignity and treated as fair game for all kinds of abuse. The under-trials, often in custody for long years are treated with such indignity and scorn that they start believing themselves to be criminals and respond submissively to unreasonable commands as though they were proven guilty and worthy of such treatment. The author lapses into implicit and unconscious submission to such authority in her narrative.
The book details how power politics operates in jail and the extent to which the jail authorities are complicit (P 199). While understandably, some inmates in jail may possess certain criminal traits, the manner in which the jail staff and legal authorities seem to function within the jail premises is no less than organized crime. From petty corruption (P 62) and smuggling, to custodial killings (P 48) and false framing of people –the two communities, of the supposed criminals, and their custodians, blend seamlessly. And yet, one group has the power of life and death over the other.
Often the prisoners seem to be morally on a higher pedestal than those who have been assigned the job of punishing the guilty. This could be attributed to the fact that this is an account of a prisoner and not a jailer. A certain exaggerated sense of persecution –that everyone is working against you—is understandable under the circumstances, especially when you believe that you have been falsely framed in a criminal case for political reasons. Yet even after factoring in the subjectivity of the prisoner-author, there still remains too much damning detail to be wished away. What prevails is a master-slave relationship between the jail authorities and the prisoners, and amongst the prisoners – between the ones patronized by the jail authorities and the rest.
There is a Kafkaesque quality to the account. Tranquilizers made liberally available as a cure to all ailments are used to pacify prisoners often turning them into addicts (P 71). The same tablets pose a danger as they may be consumed in excess. The authorities dread suicide. Perhaps they see it as a means to escape punishment that they must necessarily administer (P 128). But an accident like fire can dissolve all rules, demonstrating the fragility of order and control (P 186).
To know that it is not fiction, but an exposition of the condition of living, breathing people, makes it profoundly disturbing. One is forced to take cognizance of both the subjective sense of persecution as well as the intentional suffering inflicted. Both are palpable in ample measure.
There are clear parallels between how the jail functions and the way societies and institutions are managed through ever increasing rules and regulations, procedures, surveillance systems, authoritarian and military structures, fines and punishments. Prisons thus appear to be the laboratories for authoritarianism that is more extensively dispersed in society. Extensive authoritarianism is especially palpable among the populations rendered beyond the purview of conventional law. Places like Kashmir in so many ways are no longer unlike prisons and like Tihar in their functioning.
The book through anecdotes establishes the dangers of questioning or confronting jail authorities. Expressions like “living in a pond, how can you nurture any enmity with the crocodile? ” encapsulate how the authorities run their writ in the prison through fear and vindictiveness rather than commanding respect that accrues from fairness. Sadly this holds true for the ‘authorities’ in the larger society as well – powerful politicians, bureaucrats, corporate tycoons, police officers and the military. Only that the helplessness experienced inside prisons is exponentially increased. While there is at least an illusion of redress in the world outside, inside prison there seems to be no effective or illusory check to prevent abuse of authority which is absolute. As an instance, the agitation around a custodial death was legally used by the police against the inmates so as to protect their own service records (P 48). Policemen seek to show that there is no crime under their jurisdiction since they get rewarded for maintaining order and not for how they handle difficult situations. Such colonial practices and notions continue to thrive in police circles.
We come face-to-face with the farce of jail reform and Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) interventions in jails which seem to be rife with corruption, nepotism, religious bias and tokenism. Religious prejudice also prevails in the form of Hinduvised reformism and selectiveness in letting particular organizations to work with the prisoners (P 52, 70, 95-96). In the author’s opinion there is greater need for reform among jail authorities and the philosophy that underlies imprisonment than the prisoners. The condition of the prisoners would improve exponentially if the jailers under whose complete mercy they happen to be were rendered more sensitive and responsible.
Racism, sexism, classism, exclusion and othering become visible not only in the manner in which the prisoner is treated by the authorities or the inmates of a different nationality, but on occasion in the author’s own attitude towards certain people. Somehow the blacks (referred to as Habshis) always appear to be bad as though it were in their very nature to be so, though the author may have chanced upon a few individuals of a particular nationality who happened to be hostile towards her (P 86, 90). A black woman, who cooks and eats a pigeon, possibly to supplement her nourishment in a jail that seems to be strictly vegetarian, becomes ‘sleazy’. (P 188) Jat women who happen to dominate the jail are similarly portrayed as intrinsically dominating and hostile, though the author is eventually able to make friends with a faction among them (P 197). However the narrative is sensitive enough to take into account the shifting empathies, identifications and group loyalties among prisoners as the circumstances undergo change (P 198). Such appreciation of the dynamic nature of relationships and alliances across identities is valuable.
The author narrates intriguing myths and stories in circulation among the jail inmates, for instance the myth of a sacred tree inside the jail, that according to the legend, a woman prisoner had used to escape so as to feed her hungry infant (P 184-185). Mysteriously the woman was released soon after her re-arrest. The tree, though cut following the incident, has ever since become sacred to the inmates regardless of their religion. Such myths and the objects in which the prisoners are invested may generate hope and give meaning to their lives otherwise rendered unbearable and incomprehensible. It may also be a way of personalizing and taking ownership of the space that is supposed to be strange. The author merely understands all this as superstition. Perhaps her puritanical religious beliefs come in the way of her being able to appreciate the significance of myths. Similarly, scary stories about secret dungeons under ‘Vipasana’ hall (where people are supposed to be hanged to death) may be devices that the prisoners use to lend some sort of meaning and mystery to the otherwise bleak and characterless place. The power to create mythology and generate a collective sense of space, meaning, amusement and fear may be an expression of agency and freedom that people assert even in prisons.
Interesting encounters with ‘strangeness’ in the form of women referred to as ‘Chandi matas’ (women who supposedly reject/resist conventional notions of morality and values and challenge the believers) seem to have made an unsettling impression on her (P 194). Hijras (eunuchs), who make an appearance in the jail, seem unjailable. Having been arrested for creating nuisance in some elite neighborhood, they create such ruckus inside the jail that they have to be released only in few days while others continue to languish. Their early release is further facilitated by the superstition that hijras can bring bad luck. (P 166) It is interesting to note the range of ‘deviances’ jails try to normalize on behalf of the society and possibly fail to subdue. The potential creativity of such ‘deviants’ could be explored in greater detail.
There are references to different forms of memory and remembering that come into being in jail. Most people keep track of time through seasons or personal milestones rather than calendars (P 125). There is an altered experience of time as one’s incarceration becomes a long drawn meaningless continuum. In terms of style the book is neither a coherent story stitched together after the experience nor a running diary of everyday life in jail. It is a post facto relation of the psychological condition of and by someone who has undergone an extended prison term. The narrative is experiential and not an orderly considered relation of sequentially arranged events. Although it was penned down after the experience, it transports the reader to the immediacy of Tihar. The claustrophobia thus generated is hard to last through. The text wears the reader down as though he were going through the tedium of prison himself. The apparent lack of coherence, broken narrative, abrupt slippage between the state of dream and reality, reminiscence and experience, fragmented sense of tense and time, schizophrenic oscillation between hope and despair, mundane and shocking, shifts between conscious representation and unmindful relation, though hard to plod through, embodies the essence of the book. The free associative character of the book may have been part of the healing process and recovery for the author.
Unlike the conventional masculinized style of writing that mimics strategies of deployment and are too focused on singular objective, the book ventures into details that may appear trivial, personal, minor or purposeless to a reader on lookout for hard facts. The author dwells on little joys and kindnesses – someone oiling her hair or fetching her hot water, sharing a kind word, paying attention to personal pain and suffering, even as she celebrates collective joys and resistances to the jail authorities and rues over personal betrayals (e. g. P 57). Many such mundane details may not bear direct relevance to the theme, and are left suspended and inconclusive. It is through these episodes that the author salvages humanity that survives in prison.
The labours of translation from (Urdu to English) of a text which is erratic like the stream of consciousness, must have involved painstaking labour and commitment. Its wider circulation is made possible through translation. However some errors that have crept into the translation. ‘Greenland Bank’ is probably, the erstwhile ‘Grindlay’s Bank’ on the Bund (P 171). ‘Iflatoon’ is Aflatoon and so on (P 212). The poetic verses are clumsily transliterated.
The author can write and through her writing represent herself as well as others, the facility not available to many of her other prison mates. She defines her jailers, tormentors and rivals and thus finally acquires agency.
Gowhar Fazili is a Kashmiri social activist and a scholar based in New Delhi.