Colours of the Cage

Arun Ferreira


Pages: 176  Rs. 295

An Indian Gulag, in the words of a former detainee

Arun ferreira was wrongfully imprisoned for 54 months in Nagpur Central Jail. His account of his incarceration is harrowing and an eye-opener, writes Aditya Mani Jha.

ADITYA MANI JHA  4th Oct 2014

Arun Ferreira

hese are not good times for dissent in this country. Just ask the protesting students at Jadavpur University, who were assaulted on their own campus and arrested en masse. Their crime was demanding an immediate and unbiased investigation of the events of 28 August, when a female student was beaten up and sexually assaulted inside a hostel room by a group of inebriated boys. Not too long ago, more than 7,000 complaints were filed against peaceful protesters at the Koodankulam nuclear plant in Tamil Nadu. They were booked under India’s sedition law; a colonial era relic that Indian politicians are naturally fond of, for it allows them to crush dissenting individuals effectively.

One such individual is Arun Ferreira, the Mumbai-based social activist who was kept incarcerated for a period of 54 months between 2007 and 2012. Colours of the Cage is Ferreira’s account of his stay at Nagpur Central Jail. Every time he would be acquitted in a court of law (because of the sheer flimsiness of the prosecution’s evidence), plainclothes policemen would abduct him at the gates of the prison and file freshly trumped-up charges against him, until finally, in January 2014, he was acquitted in the last of these cases.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this book is that it does not contain one angry sentence. For someone who has been wronged by the system repeatedly, Ferreira’s writing is remarkably restrained, stripped down and doggedly journalistic. There are several passages that depict the inhuman treatment that he had to suffer, but I will reproduce one from the first chapter here, because it seemed to me to be indicative of several vital issues regarding human rights and the short-sightedness of the Indian elite.

“Among my more sadistic interrogators was Abhishek Kapur, the Deputy Commissioner of Police in charge of Crime for Nagpur. He was a strapping young IPS officer, always striving for the favour of his seniors. Terrorist bashing would definitely get him a few more credits. While interrogating me, he would make it a point to make me squat on the ground handcuffed, while he sat on a chair in front of me. His ego would swell every time he looked down at me and asserted that he was from Delhi’s prestigious St. Stephen’s college, a statement intended to demonstrate that he was a class apart from other officers. But if I chose to remain silent to his questions, he would kick my jaw with his boots. I came to realise that I had been strategically placed so that he could use minimum effort to do so.”

Through Kapur, we realise how deep the rot has set in. He is unduly proud of the fact that he’s from St. Stephen’s. The power plus the sense of entitlement that an elite education can unfortunately give you has gone to his head. The only language he can speak is that of the oppressor; hence his insistence on keeping Ferreira under his boot heels, quite literally. And this isn’t even the worst of it. Kapur has realised that the only way to “gain favour” with his seniors is to be a ruthless exhibitionist when it comes to violence. This goes beyond mere yuppie cynicism: this is barbaric behaviour being encouraged at an institutional level. A similar scene sees Ferreira being forcibly subjected to narco-analysis and “brain-mapping” at the hands of “the notorious S. Malini”. In 2009, Malini was found guilty of falsifying her educational credentials. By then, she had falsely implicated innocent Muslims in a string of high-profile cases like the Malegaon blasts case and the Samjhauta Express case.

here are many parallels between the lives of Ferreira and Dr Binayak Sen. The latter was imprisoned because his activism was exposing the link between administrative failure, malnourishment and the rise of Naxalism in Chhattisgarh and other states. Before his arrest, Ferreira was working in some of Maharashtra’s poorest districts, including the perennially drought-ridden Vidarbha, the so-called “farmer’s graveyard”, where farmer suicides are commonplace. (Ferreira talks about Dr Sen’s case a couple of times during Colours of the Cage as well)

In both cases, the state indulged in patently unlawful activities, with the sole purpose of incarcerating an activist for as long as possible — to set an example for anybody daring to help the poorest of the poor, those who the state wishes to pummel into submission. The charge sheets in both cases include laughable inconsistencies. Dr Sen’s bank account had two different amounts at the same time. Ferreira was charged with a crime that had taken place while he was imprisoned. Both files even had repetitive typos, clearly indicating that the police/task force had indulged in a spot of creative writing. The presumption of guilt in both cases depended upon their possession of “seditious literature”; in Sen’s case, these were some magazines while Ferreira was allegedly in possession of an incriminating pen drive.

Unlike America, we don’t have a Patriot Act because we don’t need one: a pen drive with “seditious literature” is enough to land you in prison indefinitely.

This might seem like the ultimate cliché for a prison memoir, but the scenes you will remember from Ferreira’s ordeal are the ones that offer some small solace to him. Ferreira and a co-accused exchanging rotis and rice on a police jeep, helpful inmates catching and roasting a bandicoot on the sly (the prison food was strictly vegetarian), Ferreira teaching English to inmates, completing a degree in human rights, sketching scenes from prison life; these are the scenes that elevate Colours of the Cage, making it a great book as opposed to merely a very good one.

Ferreira’s book is like a miniature version of The Gulag Archipelago set in 21st century India. It is a clinical, damning document that ought to be required reading in colleges everywhere.