A nation may be judged by the way it treats five categories of humans - women, the elderly, children, people afflicted by mental illness and its prisoners. And of course by the way it treats animals.
Our record in these five plus one 'rishte' is, at its best, mixed and at its worst, appalling.
The nightmarish experience of Sarabjit Singh in his Lahore prison must make us spare a thought for life in prisons, our prisons. We should remember that the overwhelming majority of those in prisons, now called "Correctional Homes", are undertrials. This means the great number of 'jail-birds' are not perverts, baddies, criminals. They may well be entirely innocent, mainly innocent or just victims of that ever-present, everywhere present 'thing' called plain bad luck. 'Taqdeer' is not recognised either in the Indian Penal Code, the Criminal Procedure Code or in our Evidence Act. You and I, by a chance brush of that 'thing' could very well find ourselves trapped within the hideous bars of a cognisable and even a non-bailable offence. As easily as in a lift stuck in its chute by a power outage. Playing cricket, if an accidental swish of the bat has landed on another's skull, cracking it, can clamp the batsman in the clinker. A jaywalker, a fool kid running across the road or median fence jumper can come under the wheel of the car being driven by any of us. We do not have to be drunk driving. A call on the mobile phone is enough to do that for us. And of course for the politically active, a conscious breaking of the rule book can earn the hospitality, howsoever brief, of the thana. A cell therefore is not for 'em. It can be, like the ICU in a cardiac, stroke or trauma-care centre, very much for us. But not for that reason alone should we be aware of what life behind prison walls is like. We should know. That is all.
Prisoners the world over are known to have among them those who vent their frustration on their fellows, especially new 'arrivees'. A senior police official told me about 15 years ago that in Tihar jail those who arrive charged with sexual offences are, almost immediately on getting there, 'held' by prison toughs and put through treatment that mimics the charge. The colourful Hindustani phrase he used to describe the procedure is as un-translatable as it is unmistakable: "Uski dhajjian uraa dii jaatii hain". Hopefully, that is no longer the case.
When I was working in the High Commission for India in Colombo, I went to see a certain number of Indian prisoners who had been jailed for an indefinite period for drug-trafficking. All of them were women and, doubtless, they had been found bringing narcotic contraband into the island. But talking to them I also saw that most of them were utterly simple women, the kind citibreds would crudely describe as "village women". Wretchedly poor, they had been just used by drug-pushers into carrying "something" across the Palk Straits to be given to "relatives". And here they were in a high security prison, their eyes glazed with disbelief at their credulousness, at their fate, at life itself. "Ayya, please get me out of here…I knew nothing about the bundle…" This 'ayya' could do no more than recommend to both governments that these women be permitted to serve out their jail terms in India.
In 2006, while in Darjeeling, I spent an hour at its Correctional Home. Reached after a tight and tense journey through a precipitous mountain road, the place looked like it could have been a monastery. It had 60 inmates, almost all of them undertrials. Six of 60 were 'ISI suspects', of which two were Pakistani. One of them, from Hyderabad Sind, said to me he had come legally via Wagah to meet extended family and visit Ajmer Sharif. His only 'fault', he said, was that he overstayed his visit. I was not sure, in my mind, if I was being given the whole story but the fact, incontrovertible and miserable, was that this Sindhi lad had spent four years in his Darjeeling 'Home'. Speaking in simple English though I was using Hindustani, he said he had not been a particularly religious person "back home" but here, thanks to the Correctional Home authorities giving him a copy of the Holy Quran, he had learnt several ayts. And then this man who had acknowledged the liberalism of our system that provided him with his Holy Book had something different to say as well: "I thought only Pakistan had corrupt officers but…". There are times when you want to but you cannot smile.
The Darjeeling jail cook was a pleasant-looking man in his early 30s. Following official instruction, he offered me a welcome scarf. As he did so, I asked if he was an undertrial. No, I was told. He had been sentenced for rape. I turned away, telling the man I despised him for his crime and could accept no scarf or anything from one like him. He deserved the punishment he had been awarded, I said, if not a more severe one. A few minutes later, I thought of what I had said and realised I had been completely wrong. I asked for him to be brought across and wordlessly took the scarf he was still holding, limp, over his forearm. This was, after all, a Correctional Home.
But the overwhelming moment for me came in Male Ward Number 2. A blackboard hung outside gave the 'ward data' such as the number of inmates let out for their daily exercise session and the number returning at 'lock-up' time. It had been filled-in with a chalk by an inmate. My eyes were drawn to an unexpected piece of art on that board. Instead of the four-letter word 'lock', the artist-prisoner had drawn a brilliant manacle with four links, each representing one letter of the English alphabet. I asked to see the imaginative and skilled artist. He was an unremarkable looking person. I would not have, no one would have, cast a second look at him anywhere. He spoke little, but with others, made one request: Can we be allowed to see on television the Football World Cup?
On the drive back, I thought of things like bilateral exchange of prisoners, the discharge of undertrials against bonds, the providing of humanising touches in the Correctional Homes. These seemed to be, for a civilised nation, not options but essentials.
It had been drizzling all that day. Walking along one of the side roads of Darjeeling that evening, as I looked up, the clouds parted momentarily and a lovely blueness lit up the sky, the mountains and the silhouetted trees. And Oscar Wilde's "patch of blue which prisoners call the sky" took on a meaning for me it had not carried earlier.
Gopalkrishna Gandhi is a former administrator, diplomat and governor
The views expressed by the author are personal