“I think they’re just waiting to rearrest them,” jokes Jyoti Jagtap, a member of Pune’s Dalit-Left cultural troupe Kabir Kala Manch (KKM), to the small group of people waiting in the visitor’s courtyard of Navi Mumbai’s Taloja jail. We’ve been here for over an hour now, awaiting the release of KKM members Sagar Gorkhe and Ramesh Gaichor on bail after four years in prison for alleged links to Naxalites, when Jagtap notices a group of plain-clothes cops standing next to the jail’s imposing blue gate. A passing policeman tells us they’re from the Intelligence Bureau. Gaichor’s sister looks on in concern as the rest of the group trades stories they’ve heard of people being bundled into waiting police jeeps as soon as they step out of jail. The mood is one of anticipation, but with a strong undercurrent of tension and worry.

“You know when you’re returning from a vacation and you’re close to home, it feels like time has slowed down,” says a middle-aged woman — a lawyer — who has travelled with the group all the way from Pune. “It’s like that. We’re all just waiting for the moment we can finally see them.”

That moment arrives half an hour later. Gorkhe and Gaichor walk out of the blue gate with big smiles plastered on their faces, their eyes searching the courtyard for their families and comrades. Gaichor is immediately smothered by hugs from his sister and his wife Jagtap. A few steps behind, Gorkhe is reunited with his wife (and KKM member) Rupali Jadhav, while fellow KKM members Deepak Dengle and Siddharth Bhonsle pat him on the back. On the road outside the jail’s main gate, the two pose for pictures in between phone calls to their parents. Their friends hand out sweets to passers-by, including the jail officials who walk up to congratulate them on their release. Once things settle down a bit, the group relocates to a nearby chai-stall, where Gorkhe and Gaichor regale us with jokes and stories about their time inside. The sense of relief all around is palpable. Their six-year-long nightmare is finally ending.

Founded by college students in 2002 as a response to the Godhra riots, the KKM is a troupe of cultural activists who rose to prominence in Maharashtra with their songs about caste oppression and workers’ rights. In 2011, Dengle and Bhonsle were arrested by the Maharashtra Anti-Terror Squad for their alleged links to Naxalites. The rest of the group went into hiding, resurfacing only when Dengle and Bhonsle were let out on bail in 2013. Bombay High Court Justice Abhay Thipsay wrote in his ruling, “It is surprising that highlighting the wrongs prevalent in the society and insisting that there is a need to change the situation was considered as evidence… of them being members of the Communist Party of India (Maoist).” Emboldened by the ruling, former KKM president Sheetal Sathe and her husband Sachin Mali — the two have since left the group citing ideological differences — courted arrest in April 2013, and the rest of the group followed in May. Sathe, pregnant at the time, got bail three months later. Gorkhe, Gaichor and Mali — who were lodged in Arthur Road jail — would have to wait for almost four more years.

“I wake up in the middle of the night and look around, just to make sure I’m not back in the barracks,” says Gorkhe, when I meet him and the rest of the group a week after his release. We’re sprawled on the living room floor of his small flat in Pimpri Chinchwad, discussing the difficulties of adjusting to life outside prison. Gorkhe speaks about being stuck, unable to go past the haze of prison memories. Yesterday, he finally sat down to watch Sairat, but five minutes into the film he was staring at the wall, lost in thoughts. “There’s a negativity in prison that tries to break you,” adds Gaichor, who has been silent and pensive. “The feeling of being completely under someone else’s control, being unable to make even the simplest choices for yourself. The people who control you, they don’t look at you like you’re a human being. You’re not even an animal, they’re better with cats and dogs. So you have to fight that negativity with studying, writing, creativity, or you will go insane.”

Gorkhe and Gaichor thought they were well prepared for prison. A day in Arthur Road’s overcrowded and filthy general barracks quickly disabused them of that notion. Around 250 inmates were packed into a space meant for 80. There was no space to sit, and inmates were sleeping on their sides in tightly packed rows. Three of the four bathrooms had broken doors, and only one working tap between them. The food was so bad that they barely ate for the first few days.

The two were later shifted to the high-security section in Taloja jail, which also houses those booked under the Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act (MCOCA) as well as terrorism-related cases. The situation was a little better there, they had their own room with a functioning fan and 24-hour water supply. But life in the anda cell brought new challenges. Locked away in their rooms for most of the day, unable to even see each other, the inmates struggle with loneliness and depression. Events of the day would swim in their head all night, conversations replayed over and over in a state of anxiety. Sleepless hours would be spent thinking about their homes and families. Gorkhe was so disturbed he went to the prison psychiatrist for medication, but that only made him vomit. He eventually took to meditation to deal with the stress.

“Also in the anda cell was a policeman held for a fake encounter and he used to scream at night. A couple of people tried to kill themselves,” interjects Dengle. When Dengle was picked up outside his workplace in 2011, the police allegedly tortured him for a day in lockup before registering an arrest. Gorkhe and Gaichor’s high-profile status as political prisoners at least protected them from the beatings meted out to less-fortunate prisoners. But there were other little ways to harass inmates — verbal abuse, interception of private letters, confiscation of books and reading material. Both men were also upset that their wives and comrades were harassed by the police and even — in one instance — assaulted by the ABVP. They kept their spirits up by engaging in political analyses of the burning issues of the day, filing RTIs, helping other inmates with paperwork and once organising the inmates to protest against the terrible prison food.

What also kept them going was their art — the two not only wrote over 100 songs, they also worked on plays and books of poetry. They would perform the songs they wrote to other inmates and sympathetic jail officials, or constantly sing them to each other so they wouldn’t forget the tune before they found a way to put it down. “It really helped us cope,” says Gorkhe. “We knew we couldn’t do anything physically but at least we could work with ideas.”

While they were in prison, they say their families struggled with police harassment and the social stigma attached to the ‘Naxalite’ tag. Their parents and siblings, they allege, continue to be regularly visited by the police, who intimidate and occasionally pick someone up for a few hours of interrogation. When the group was still in hiding, one policeman allegedly visited Jadhav’s mother, showed her a picture of a woman killed in a police encounter and claimed it was her daughter. The mother had fainted on hearing this. When Jadhav took up a job as a receptionist, the police started turning up at her office to investigate her. Meanwhile, Gorkhe’s neighbours and extended family started a social boycott of his parents. “Their water was turned off, their electricity was switched off,” remembers Gorkhe. “They had to deal with constant taunts from their neighbours. Eventually, they had to shift out of that basti, despite not having any money and no jobs.”

Legal experts have warned us for years about the flagrant abuse of anti-terrorism laws like the UAPA (Unlawful Activities Prevention Act) to target activists and non-violent dissidents. Over 77,000 people were arrested under its heavily criticised predecessor TADA, with thousands of them spending long stints in jail as their trials dragged on. Only 725 were ever convicted, at a conviction rate of one per cent. Similar data for UAPA cases is not available, but a report last year by The Tribune indicated that not much has changed. According to the report, over the last seven years, a 100 UAPA cases in Punjab have led to only one conviction. The pattern — of the trial as punishment — repeats itself.

In its order granting bail to Gorkhe, Gaichor and Mali, the Supreme Court noted that the State had told the court last July that the trial would be completed in six months. But till January 2017, not even one of the 147 proposed witnesses had been fully examined. At that rate, they would have spent a lifetime in jail waiting for the trial to end. This is by no means an anomaly. In a recent article for DailyO, political activists Arun Ferreira and Vernon Gonsalves explain how such delays are the result of “a deliberate dalliance between police and prosecution to postpone service of summons, hold back witnesses, neglect bringing the muddemaal or physical evidence to court and other such means to ensure that the trial process is effectively paralysed.” The end result is a de facto “sentence” that keeps “the undertrial rotting in jail without the hassle of obtaining a conviction.” The chilling effect — other activists censoring themselves to avoid state harassment — is a nice bonus.

Both Ferreira and Gonsalves are speaking from experience, having spent years in jail on Naxalism-related charges. They add KKM to a long list that includes Binayak Sen, Sudhir Dhawale, Soni Sori, Laxman Madavi and, most recently, seven members of a Telangana Democratic Front fact-finding mission to Bastar.

Back at the chai-stall, after a round of tea and omelette pav, Gaichor breaks out into a song that he wrote in prison. Gorkhe taps out a rhythm on the plastic table. A full-on jam session breaks out, with everyone joining in on the chorus as they pick up the words. The woman who runs the stall stops her work to applaud when the song ends. Gaichor and Gorkhe make their way through more songs, in both Hindi and Marathi. The performance ends with a dedication to lokshahirs Annabhau Sathe and Vilas Ghogre. Despite the six-year ordeal, their revolutionary zeal remains intact. There is a lightness to their step, an eagerness to put their jail time behind them and get back to work. As we walk to wards my car, I ask Jagtap what is the first thing they’ll do once they’re home. “We’re going to Camp,” she says with a mischievous smile. “Beef khayenge.”