A seven-hour drive to the south-east of Mumbai takes you to a small, dusty village, where men work on farmland, women take care of modest homes and children scamper about the tree-lined narrow lanes. Swatantrapur, which means free town, may be your typical Indian village, but it’s unlike any prison you know. Here, you see no barbed-wire fences, high walls, watch towers or armed guards.
The Swatantrapur Vasahat is a 57-hectare open prison colony in western Maharashtra’s Atpadi taluka, where 27 men sentenced to life in jail for murder live with their families, work for wages and try to build better lives for themselves.
The colony began in pre-independent India as an experiment influenced by Mahatma Gandhi’s ‘self-rule’ principle and his philosophy of love and compassion. It had six murder convicts when it opened in 1939.
Over the years, Swantantrapur has been home to dozens of convicts and their families. Its tales of reform paved the way for the setting up of several more open prison colonies across India and even inspired filmmaker V Shantharam’s 1957 classic ‘Do Ankhen Barah Haath’.
Swatantrapur is also home to hundreds of stories – stories of struggle, reform and dreams.
Sixty-seven-year-old Babytai Ramchandra Sutar’s story begins 47 years ago when her husband, the late Ramchandra Sutar, was arrested.
“I was 22. I was married off at 12 and my husband was 15 years older,” says Babytai, recalling the night of the arrest in vivid detail.
“Ramchandra was a well-known wrestler. He defeated another wrestler from his own village, but this did not go down well with that man’s father. A week after the fight, three men attacked my husband right outside my house. My husband retaliated and ended up killing the man’s father with an axe.” Babytai says her world came crashing down. “I had two sons and a toddler daughter and nowhere to go.”
Ramchandra was convicted and sentenced to 14 years in jail. For 10 years, he was shifted from the Yerwada jail to Paithan and then to an open jail at Nagpur, before he was sent to Swatantrapur. Babytai then joined him with the children.
“The colony was very different then. The kholis or tenaments were mud-brick structures. There was no electricity and we shared the area with 24 families, all of murder convicts.” The children studied in the local school and the produce from the land given to Ramchandra ensured the family was fed.
Several batches of prisoners, like Ramchandra and his family, have lived peacefully with the local residents. “There has never been friction or animosity between inmates and the locals. Some of them have even settled down in nearby villages after release,” says Vijayrao Lale, a journalist with a Marathi daily.
When Ramchandra was set free after four years, residents of the neighbouring Bhingewadi village urged him not to go back to his village. “They told my husband that his rivals may now target the children. They even arranged for this house for us to stay,” Babytai says.
The inmates talk of how the benevolence of the locals and the company of their families are helping them make a fresh start.
“This is not a jail, it’s more like an ashram,” says 45-year-old Dattatreya Harikrishna Suryavanshi, who worked as a medical representative in Nashik before he was convicted for killing his wife over dowry.
Usually, only convicts who have shown good conduct and are nearing the end of their terms make it to the open colony, says Sanjay Sable, the superintendent of the open colony. “We observe a convict’s behaviour in closed jails for years before they are even considered eligible.”
Additional director general of police, Dr BK Upadhaya, feels reform, and not retribution, is the ultimate aim of the criminal justice system. “Reformation and rehabilitation is the motto of the prisons department. Open jails and the company of family help convicts gradually adjust to the social life from which they were cut off years ago.”
A normal day at the colony begins at 8am with an attendance call and a prayer session. Inmates work on their farms till noon, break for lunch, and wrap up at 6pm. Dish TVs and smart phones have found their way into the colony now, and the jail staff feel this has led to fewer people visiting the colony’s library. The inmates and their families live in 100 sqft rooms and cook their own meals.
But do they take advantage of the sparse security? “Who wants to go back to jail again? There are barely any fights, and rarely does an inmate break the rules” says Prakash Daral Patil, a former research scientist from MERI convicted for killing six members of his family. Patil’s ailing wife occasionally joins him at the colony.
The signs of change in the inmates are evident, according to residents of the neighbouring villages.
“I have grown up seeing these inmates walk in and out of the colony,” says Babasahed Krishna Jadhav, who lives just outside the campus.
“These are basically good people, who accidentally committed a crime. They help us in our farms also. In fact, a few of years ago, when the area was hit by drought, the prisoners offered free labour to dig the reservoir,” Jadhav says.
“It is complete freedom here,” says Dayanand Shende, 39, a commerce graduate from Nanded, sentenced to life for killing a villager over property. Shende has big plans now. “I will start my own business and get married once I am out.”
The evening light is fading and the inmates make their way back to their rooms. For many of them, the open colony is not just a chance at a better life; it means they can now dare to dream.