Of Injustice & Resilience: Arun Ferreira On His 5 Years In Prison
I feared that the police could murder me and pretend that I’d been killed in an encounter.
(This is an excerpt from ‘Colours of the Cage: A Prison Memoir’ by human rights activist-lawyer Arun Ferreira, published by Aleph Book Company. The excerpt has been published in the context of the author’s recent arrest on Tuesday, 28 August in Mumbai due to having alleged Maoist links to the Bhima Koregaon violence.)
It was a typical hot Nagpur summer afternoon when I was arrested at the railway station. I was waiting to meet some social activists when around 15 men surrounded me. Some of them bundled me into a car which drove away at high speed. I was kicked and punched by them all the while. After five minutes, the car halted and I was carried to a room on the first floor of a building, which my abductors later told me was the Nagpur Police Gymkhana.
'Maar Dalo Saale Ko, Encounter Mein Usse Khatam Karo'
From their conversations, it became evident that I had been detained by the Anti-Naxal Cell of the Nagpur police. They tied my hands with my belt and I was blindfolded, so that the officials involved in this operation would remain unidentified.
‘Maar dalo saale ko. Encounter mein usse khatam karo,’ they yelled, threatening to kill me in an ‘encounter’, or extra-judicial execution, a bluff police routinely use to scare people they’ve detained. I could hear screams from the next room. Someone else was being beaten too.
The blows were interspersed with questions and promises. ‘Sach sach bolo to chhoda jayega’ (If you tell the truth, you will be set free.) The man wasn’t even given a chance to answer before I heard his next scream.
Through the day, I was flogged with belts, kicked and slapped, as they attempted to soften me up for the interrogations that were to follow. They were especially angry because no one was answering the phone at my home in Mumbai and they assumed I had given them a false address. As it turned out, my family was away on vacation. But how could I explain this to people who just wanted to beat the hell out of me? I was afraid they’d kill me. Thus far, there was nothing official about my detention.
They hadn’t shown me a warrant, nor had I been taken to a police station. I feared that the police could murder me and pretend that I’d been killed in an encounter. I’d read about many situations in which the police claimed to have had no option but to open fire when suspects they were attempting to arrest had resisted.
I knew that the National Human Rights Commission had noted thirty-one cases of fake encounter killings in Maharashtra alone in the previous five years. The physical torture, though painful, was relatively tame compared to this prospect. At midnight, eleven hours after I had been detained, I was taken to a police station and informed that I had been arrested under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 2004, which is applied to people the state brands as terrorists. I spent that night in a damp cell in the station house.
‘Finally Served a Meal: Dal, Rotis and Abuse’
My bedding was a foul-smelling black blanket, so dirty that even its dark colour could barely conceal the grime. A hole in the ground served as a urinal. It could be identified by the mass of paan stains around it and its acrid stench.
I was finally served a meal: dal, rotis and abuse. It wasn’t easy to eat from a plastic bag with jaws sore from the blows I had received earlier in the day.
The only solution, I learnt, was to soften the rotis by soaking them in the bag of dal. But after the horrors I had undergone, these tribulations were relatively insignificant and allowed me a brief moment to pull myself together.
I managed to ignore the putrid bedding, the humid air and the ache in my body and dozed off. Within a few hours, I was woken up for another round of questioning. The officers appeared polite at first but quickly resorted to blows in an attempt to encourage me to provide the answers they were looking for.
They wanted me to disclose the location of a cache of arms and explosives or information about my supposed links with Maoists. To make me more amenable to their demands, they stretched out my body completely, using an updated version of the medieval torture technique of drawing (though there was no quartering). My arms were tied to a window grill high above the ground while two policemen stood on my outstretched thighs to keep me pinned to the floor.
This was calculated to cause maximum pain without leaving visible injuries. Despite these precautions, my ears started to bleed and my jaws began to swell. In the evening, I was forced to squat on the floor with a black hood over my head as a posse of officers posed behind me for press photographs. The next day, I would later learn, these images made the front pages of newspapers around the country. The press was told that I was the chief of communications and propaganda of the Maoist Party.
‘Police Trying to Drive a Wedge Between Dalits and Naxalites’
I was then produced before a magistrate. As all law students know, this measure has been introduced into legal procedure to give detainees the opportunity to complain about custodial torture—something I could establish quite easily since my face was swollen, ears bleeding and soles so sore that it was impossible to walk.
But from the deliberations in court, I gathered that the police had already accounted for the injuries in the story they’d concocted about my arrest.
In their version, I had fought hard with the police to try to avoid capture. They claimed they had had no option but to use force to subdue me. Strangely, none of my captors seem to have been harmed during the scuffle.
That wasn’t the only surprise. In court, the police said that I’d been arrested in the company of three others—Dhanendra Bhurule, a journalist with a Marathi daily called Deshonnati; Naresh Bansod, the Gondia district president of the Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmulan Samiti (Maharashtra Superstition Eradication Committee); and Ashok Reddy, a former trade union organizer from Andhra Pradesh.
The police claimed to have seized a pistol and cartridges from Ashok Reddy and a pen drive containing seditious literature from me. They said we had been meeting to hatch a plan to blow up the monument at the Deekshabhoomi in Nagpur. This is the spot where the Dalit leader Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar and more than 300,000 of his followers had converted to Buddhism in October 1956, seeking to liberate themselves from Hinduism’s oppressive caste system. By manufacturing a plot to show that leftists had been planning to attack the hallowed Ambedkar shrine, the police were obviously trying to drive a wedge between Dalits and Naxalites. But mere allegations would not be sufficient. They needed to create evidence to support their claims.
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