Listen to the caged bird's song in Arun Ferriera's Colours of the Cage

  • Shriya Mohan, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Oct 25, 2014 15:13 IST

On a hot May afternoon in 2007, as Arun Ferreira, a human rights activist, waits to meet some colleagues at the Nagpur railway station, 15 men surround him, bundle him into a car and kick and punch him senselessly as they drive him away. Blindfolded, he stumbles into the Nagpur police gymkhana when he realises that he is being detained by their anti-naxal cell. After 11 hours of being flogged with a belt, and no sight of an arrest warrant, Ferreira is informed that he has been arrested under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act 2004, and alleged to be the chief of communications of the Maoist Party.

To extract a confession about his links with the Maoists, the police concoct diabolical ways of torture and finally give up. He writes: '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.'

The colours of the cage is Ferreira's Kafkaesque account of enduring four years and eight months of being falsely implicated in multiple cases inside the Nagpur central jail's most condemned ward - the anda or egg barrack, dreaded for its maddening seclusion and confinement without a fleeting glimpse of daylight. The book tells the macabre story of how custodial torture is practised by openly violating every single law in place to protect against it. A 1996 judgment passed by the Supreme Court makes it mandatory to ensure that those under police custody aren't tortured. So every 48 hours, Ferreira and his fellow accused would be taken to the government hospital for a checkup where the police would repeatedly convince doctors not to report the wounds and excuse the excesses of his department since these were "dreaded terrorists".

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While the gate officer at Nagpur Prison is supposed to record injuries of new prisoners due to torture in police custody, all injuries are deemed to have existed prior to arrest. Add to that the violation of an inmate's most fundamental right such as the right - to be treated as innocent until proven guilty, or the right to remain silent, as guaranteed by the Indian Constitution under Article 20(3). Ferreira recounts how the jail superintendents partake in the physical abuse of a criminal such as a rape accused with much gusto, "as a sign of their patriotism", sometimes leading to death. Maharashtra still tops the charts for the highest number of custodial deaths in India. The NCRB, of course, attributes these to natural causes or suicide.

The police would keep implicating Ferreira in new cases, obtain custody to interrogate, inflict torture, fail to extract a confession and return him to jail, only to falsely implicate him in yet another case. Within this rigmarole, Ferreira finds the opportunity to make friends, understand the complex backgrounds and ideologies fellow criminal offenders come with, play volleyball tournaments, capture-cook-and-eat bandicoots on the sly in the strictly vegetarian prison, teach English and complete a post graduate programme in human rights via correspondence. Ferreira and his prison friends also find an impressive way of coordinating a hunger fast (with minimal human interface) in protest of implicating social activists as Naxalites.

As people who have steered through the stormiest seas arrive with an ocean of calm within, Ferreira is an unruffled story teller, making you chuckle at the satire within prison walls. In one instance, when the inspector shouts "Arrey, Bajirao ko bulao!", in comes a constable with what all the policemen across Maharashtra fondly call Bajirao: a narrow belt attached to a wooden handle, used to whip the soles of prisoners' feet. Ferreira writes: 'Many (officers) spoke nostalgically of the good old days before the spread of awareness about human rights and prisoner rights.'

Being a prisoner understandably makes one sympathetic to the abuse of other prisoners. But in Ferreira's eyes, those behind bars are full of inherent goodness. Being in the unique position to interact with inmates imprisoned for the Mumbai train terror blasts, several rape offenders and even those sentenced for the Khairlanji killings, Ferreira's larger take away that people are motivated to crime because they are "compelled by circumstances" seems naive. His horrific experience is both a gift and a curse for the reader. A curse because it makes one wonder what other gems could have come out of a more fearless, uninhibited Ferreira. It makes one long for the rich shades of grey in his own passionate political beliefs. Now set free, he writes: 'This freedom is definitely better than a caged existence. This freedom however needs to be worked on. Yes, it needs to be worked upon.'

Sadly, given India's dangerous intolerance towards dissent, this is our loss.

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