1 Aug 2023 4:58 AM GMT
Professor Anand Teltumbde fought for civil and labor rights while holding various managerial profiles during his illustrious corporate career and had only ever passed by a prison while commuting to work. “If a profile like mine could be tarnished over night as such an oxymoron as urban Naxal, then I thought nothing would be impossible in the world", he says months after his release on bail...
Professor Anand Teltumbde fought for civil and labor rights while holding various managerial profiles during his illustrious corporate career and had only ever passed by a prison while commuting to work.
“If a profile like mine could be tarnished over night as such an oxymoron as urban Naxal, then I thought nothing would be impossible in the world", he says months after his release on bail in the Bhima Koregaon – Elgar Parishad Case where he is accused of Maoist links along with several rights activists.
In this interview, Teltumbde talks about his observations from behind prison bars, the four books he authored during his time in prison, including a book dedicated to Ambedkar and why he declined to avail court permission to meet his mother.
1. I clearly remember your indignation when you spoke at the Mumbai press club after the Pune police raided your home in Goa. The police had missed you by a whisker as you had already landed in Mumbai that day. Did you anticipate the vehemence to arrest you thereafter?
Frankly no. I have been in civil rights movement for more than three decades and seen illegal arrests and incarcerations of poor people. But looking back, I had wrong notions about myself. That I had such a stature and life sans blemish that such a thing would just not be possible. To wit, I was an alumnus of elite institutions like IIM Ahmedabad, had a long corporate career with such top positions as Executive Director, Managing Director & CEO, etc. and thereafter an exalted academic career too with prestigious institutions like IIT, Kharagpur and Goa Institute of Management. Besides, I was fairly known in public as a scholar, thinker and writer on contemporary issues and had over 30 books to my credit. I also belonged to Ambedkar family (married to Ambedkar’s grand-daughter). If such a profile could be tarnished over night as such an oxymoron as "urban Naxal", then I thought nothing would be impossible in the world. Anyway, that is the past and now even such impossibles have become the order of the day.
2. You mentioned you had never seen a prison before you were sent to one, and you spent 31 months in Taloja Central prison, what did you see?
Prisons were the eye opener for even a seasoned civil rights activist like me because of their opacity. At the theoretical level, I have never understood the rationale behind them except for the obvious fact that they are an essential part of the arsenal of the state to torment people the state does not like. That said, there is a lot that can be done to reform this institution. The Supreme Court from time to time has been expressing its concern on the sub-human conditions obtaining in prisons. It has been universally conceded that the prisoners do not lose their human rights except for freedom of movement by virtue of confining them to a bounded space. The apex Court in Ramamurthy vs. State of Karnataka (1996) had brought to the fore an urgent need for bringing uniformity in laws relating to the prisons and had directed the Central and State Governments to formulate a new Model Prison Manual. Such a model prison manual is since created and stands approved by the current regime. But unfortunately, it is not adopted by many states. Not unsurprisingly, Maharashtra that keeps patting itself as progressive still follows British times manual. People who were transferred from Taloja to Sabarmati (Gujarat) and Cherlapalli (Hyderabad) jails were finding them far better in every respect.
Some of the more pronounced issues in prison relate to the lack of rule of law. What the jail superintendent thinks is the law in jail. I saw three superintendents during my 958 days of incarceration and each change significantly impacted the lives of prisoners. Depending upon the proclivities of a person, the things change, of course, within over all limits.
Their basic needs such as reasonable quality of food, hygiene, enough living space, healthcare, communication, etc. are blatantly ignored. As a matter of fact, there is no concept of human rights within the four walls of the jail.
Prison time entails unnecessary humiliation. It is embedded in each process in the jail. I was told that in the general barracks the prisoners had to stand in row without footwear while talking to superintendent. I was also asked by the guard to remove my footwear while entering the superintendent’s office but I ignored him. The processes need to be aligned with dignity. Stripping a person every time and checking his private parts with bare hands in the name of security needs to be stopped. I saw poor inmates being made to do sit-ups in a completely naked position while the security checks at the gate. I was spared this humiliation.
THE FOOD and WATER
Prison food was supposed to be checked by the medical officer for adequate quality but all such checks and inspection, including that of the judges were a farce. There needs to be some effective mechanism to exercise check on all these processes.
I noticed prisoners don’t even get potable drinking water. While the better off buy mineral water from the canteen, ordinary prisoners drink tap water which is brought by tankers or from bore wells within jail premises. Even visually, this water may not pass for human consumption but is consumed in jail quietly.
As against the standard of 135 liters of water per person, Taloja prisoners were not given even a bucket (10-15 litres) of water daily. (In a petition heard recently the Bombay High Court ordered portable drinking water for Taloja prisoners)
THE PROMISE of CHANGE
One of our co-accused (Sagar Gorkhe) had gone on an indefinite fast for this (food water and other basic amenities), such as a shed for the visitors to wait, and a few other things. When it was reported by the media, Shri Kapil Patil, MLA intervened in the matter. In his presence, the jail superintendent accepted all the demands but nothing was done.
3. One thing that spending several nights in prison taught you.
One thing I learnt in the jail was that prison is not the reform centre as it is claimed it is the center of sadism. Every action and every decision of the jail administration is to cause maximum possible harassment to the prisoners. People over there reconcile with their fate and adjust with the given condition. Some people do take them to task. But it takes a lot of energy and patience to fight the system. I have seen some individuals who resisted and challenged the jail administration with perseveringly raising issues and using RTI as a weapon. I myself had to challenge them in the court for taking away my mosquito net and mishandling my letters. While the mosquito net stands effectively rejected by the lower court after months, petition on the issue of letters is pending in the high court for nearly two years. Even after the clear court judgement, the administration would not budge. Nothing ever happens to perpetrators.
4. You have written several books while in prison, what are these books about and what inspired you to write them?
Writing came as a necessity. There were books to read and like my other co-accused I started burying myself into books. But reading was not engaging enough and all kinds of thoughts would crowd the mind and disturb me. I started writing thereafter and found that it was a better method to thwart worries and thoughts distracting you. I started off penning down my comments on news I saw on TV. I have many such notes, which can also be developed into a book, which will be the fifth book. Around then, Varavara Rao (VV), due to his health problem was shifted to the hospital and Vernon [Gonsalves] and Arun [Ferreira] were assigned to take care of him. I learnt that VV was writing his memoires. Even the late father Stan Swamy had decided to write his. That appeared to be a good idea primarily because I had never had an occasion to tell my daughters about my past. I began writing and realised to my dismay that I do not recall many details myself. But still I continued in the hope that the gaps could be filled up when I was out. But after some 100 odd pages, I thought why I was writing it. Merely telling my daughter was not good enough for the efforts, I felt and began thinking about a worthwhile format. While writing, I had naturally tended to include some background. It struck me as the solution and decided that it should be more of that –the socio-political background and little of me. Then I began almost rewriting but encountered huge information gaps which were left as blanks to proceed ahead. They were my memoires which I have completed keying in after coming out.
“I Began Expressing My Feelings to Babasaheb Ambedkar”
The second book was a letter to Babasaheb Ambedkar who happens to be my grandfather-in-law besides being a role model. It began with a question in mind why I was arrested and rotting in jail. I began expressing my feelings to him. It went on extending it to many things, mainly his strategies and tactics. I just went on writing and completed densely written 400 pages of large sized notebooks, which may be more than 700 book- pages after filling in gaps with information. There were many reflections on his thoughts and actions. The book, I hope would be interesting to serious students of Ambedkar, his movement and contemporary India.
The third book was on nationalism. As I think, this concept after its birth has taken more lives than any other single cause. It is an artificial construct which gets effectively exploited by the ruling classes to control the masses. All abstract concepts like that are used to overshadow the concrete issues. It would be a serious book. I am yet to key in the hand written stuff into the computer.
A CURIOUS INMATE
The fourth book is about the interview some of my co-accused took in the jail. It began when I was shifted to the Anda cell and had one of my co-accused as my neighbor. It was for the first time that he was getting closer acquaintance with me. In our open time (when the cells are kept open from 6 to 12 am and 3 to 6 pm), he began asking questions that bothered him. Some were theoretical and some were asked on behalf of the outside people claiming to be Ambedkarites. I began answering each. He was noting them down. Suddenly I felt that there could be a loss/distortion in his notes and in any case these notes may remain only with him. I proposed to him that instead of asking them verbally, it would be better that he lists them out in writing so that I could also write their answers, which may benefit the larger masses in future. We then decided to include some more people to contribute questions and two more people willingly contributed. I began writing my answers and reading them out to him during our open timing. The questions and answers became nearly 300 pages. It contains many crucial questions that have been harassing the movement. Some are of very personal but they are answered nonetheless.
THE STORY OF BHIMA KOREGAON
Besides, there is another book that was started in the jail which was on our case. It would be a comprehensive documentation of the case. I would not like to elaborate on it as our case is still in the courts.
On account of my incarceration, the publication of some of my books was paused. One is cleared recently. That is not to be counted as sixth book as it was written before I surrendered to NIA. It is scheduled to be published by next 14 April.
What was the day like when you were informed about the bail order?
Oh. It was a great relief. Somehow, I had an irrational hunch that I might get bail in the HC. My wife, who attended the proceedings in the court, came over and informed me that I was granted the bail. I did not know how to react. She said that the NIA wanted a week for appeal and the court granted it. I just advised her to ask the lawyers to take utmost care. I had reached the stage where you take everything in your stead. The way the things went, I learnt not to expect anything. But after returning to the hospital, I did reveal to my neighbor the good news. The next day, it was in the papers. I had to wait for a week. Incidentally, we had the date in the court on the day the appeal was to be heard in the Supreme Court. All my lawyers were listening on phone the proceedings in the Supreme Court and I was sitting nonchalant on a bench. My wife had had gone to attend the hearing. The hearing was suspended for lunch. Soon after the lunch, the hearing resumed and the SC finally declined to interfere in the HC judgement. The lawyers came over to me and disclosed the good news and got onto the job of completing formalities. When the session court resumed after lunch, they mentioned it to the judge and sought the release order. It was reached the jail promptly so that I get release in the first batch the next day. Indeed, it was such a great relief that I am incapable of wording them adequately.
There were several allegations levelled against the prison superintendent by accused in this case, is it because you felt singled out? Or because others were not asking for their rights?
There were problems at each step. Some were general which we the BK-accused took up but some were very specific to us. Some of them were taken up by us. I already mentioned about Sagar Gorkhe’s fast. But some were quite specific with us like the issue of letters.
It is understood that the jail administration needs to scan through the letters for any code words or messages which could be a risk to outside or inside security. Scanning does not mean reading. But actually, the jail officials thoroughly read our private letters over days and delay their despatches and deliveries. As regards incoming letters, they not only read but digitally scanned our letters, forwarded to the police and stored them. There is a documentary proof of forwarding our letters to ATS and NIA, which is completely unlawful. I took this issue to the court but it is just pending. The outgoing letters could take weeks for despatch. In an ideal case, my letters could reach home just the next day. But they took usually, 5-20 days.
An episode happened with me. I used to send the bunched letters usually to each of my two daughters and one to my wife and occasionally additional one to some friend. One of such letters was retained without any intimation to me. I learnt from my wife in regular mulaquat which would be once a week, that this letter did not reach me. On enquiries, I came to know that this letter was not sent. Instead of sending it, I was given a memo from the superintendent in Marathi, which translated something like a warning letter saying that by such and such rule of the jail manual the letter was objectionable and hence retained with the office. Naturally, I replied in details how his own letter was violative of the court orders, giving the extracts of it. The superintendent called me and started pacifying with all irrelevant things. He asked me to provide a copy of the judgement, which I gave him. But nothing happened. The retained letter was not returned to me. I had a petition pending in the HC for over two years but nothing would happen. I realised that hundreds of such petition on outright violations of constitutional rights are killed in the courts of law, making such violations a norm.
5. At one point you were granted permission to visit your mother, but you did not meet her, why is that?
I wanted permission of the court to be with my mother in her grief over the killing of my brother. During the entire episode, I was most worried about my mother. Somehow, she was told that I had gone abroad and got stuck there because of the lockdown. I was worried that if she came to know of my arrest and being in the jail, she would simply die. I moved the court and requested permission to see my mother on the lines it was granted to two of my co-accused. My plea was rejected by the lower court as was theirs. In appeal, the HC granted it for two days against my request for 15 days and conditions that I would be escorted by police, I would not talk to anybody except my mother, I would be taken to police custody during nights. Due to my spondylitis it would be impossible for me to travel by train. Moreover, if my mother had not died of shock on seeing Milind's body, she definitely would die seeing me surrounded by police. All these conditions were humanly impossible to meet. I therefore decided not to avail of the permission through my lawyers.