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Renaissance studies

As we celebrate 20 years of Mandela’s release and 80 years of the Dandi March, let’s cast a glance at the state of prisoners in India’s jails today. Gopalkrishna Gandhi tells more...

india Updated: Mar 26, 2010 22:48 IST

Goodness knows what bitters and sweets the rest of this year, 2010, holds for us but Mandela Freed 20 is one delectation we are assured of. We must revel in it. But will we learn something from it as well?

Mandela’s release, 20 years ago, after 10,000 days in jail, sent me to his account of his first imprisonment, prior to the one that found him in the now famous Robben Island. The year was 1956, the day December 5. Just after dawn, 28-year-old Mandela was woken by a loud knocking at his door. ‘Hoogverraad; High Treason’, the words, he writes, ‘leapt out’ of the warrant that was held up to him.

Mandela was among 105 Africans, 21 Indians, 23 whites and seven Coloureds to have been picked up and brought to Johannesburg prison, known as the Fort, ‘a bleak, castle-like structure on a hill’. Mandela writes in his autobiography that on reaching the prison they were all taken to an outdoor quad, made to strip, and line up against a wall.

Humiliating? Of course. But Mandela being Mandela, he describes the procedure as only he can: “Despite my anger, I could not suppress a laugh as I scrutinised the men around me. For the first time, the truth of the aphorism ‘clothes make the man’ came home to me. If fine bodies and impressive physiques were essential to a leader, I saw that few among us would have qualified!” The pugilist Mandela was doubtless the clear leader in that involuntarily sunny competition as well.

I did not quite realise until I re-read Gandhi’s Satyagraha in South Africa on reaching that country in 1996 that his very first jail term, beginning in 1908, almost half century before Mandela’s also began in the same prison, the Fort, Johannesburg. But that is not all. Gandhi had the same initiation as well. I do not know whether it is Indian prudence or prudery that has drawn a veil over the incident.

He writes: “In jail I was asked to put off my own private clothing. I knew that convicts were made naked in jail. We had all decided as Satyagrahis voluntarily to obey all jail regulations as long as they were not inconsistent with our self-respect or with our religious convictions.” The emphasis in Gandhi’s description is on one’s own clothing being substituted by prison clothing, not in the perceived humiliation of stripping.

Obviously, being stripped in public did not embarrass the 39-year-old future Mahatma. Nor was the change-over to prison clothes as such “inconsistent with self-respect” although he writes, “The clothes that were given to me were very dirty. I did not like putting them on at all.” But this was a hygiene matter, not a self-respect one. And not one that came in conflict with the principle of non-violent resistance that he had given to his movement.

Like everyone else, I was aware of the aura of the Gandhi movement over South Africa’s history, but I was unfamiliar with the precision of its impact on Mandela and the African National Congress (ANC) detail. Until I heard President Mandela at the credentials ceremony. After presenting my parchment on August 6, 1996, I was struck by what the great leader had to say in his speech. He described the Natal Indian Congress as “the first organised and disciplined political movement in the country” and Gandhi himself as the man who “introduced the first organised and disciplined political struggle in our country”. The significance of President Mandela’s remarks grew on me during the days that I was privileged to serve in that country.

Mandela was, as I said, a trained pugilist in his youth. He has remained so as a politician. “I did not enjoy the violence of boxing,” he writes, “so much as the science of it. I was intrigued by how one moved one’s body to protect oneself, how one used a strategy both to attack and retreat, how one paced oneself during a match”.

This year is also the 80th anniversary of the great Dandi March where one man of extraordinarily agile limbs used an unexpectedly fresh strategy, pacing himself, moving his body, beckoning nothers to follow, to take on an iniquitous system at its very foundations. Organisation and discipline were at the heart of that satyagraha. Countless men and women filled India’s prisons as a consequence.

Jail bharo is a programme one hears of, in the context of agitations that are not without merit in them. But, please, our jails are already overfull! Mandela Freed 20 and Dandi 80 (which was followed by countrywide arrests including the Mahatma’s own) should help us cast a glance at the condition and number of prisoners in India’s jails today, of who the vast number are undertrials.

‘Prison-reform’ is as old a concept, or almost as old, as prisons themselves. But who can deny that a society’s criminality and a State’s civility are both to be found in their prisons? Visitor access in conditions of privacy, psychiatric cover and occupational therapies need augmenting in our prisons, now re-named ‘correctional homes’. But give prisoners every reform and they will still want that one thing which no reformer has the power to give, and that is release.

One of the most remarkable enactments passed in recent times has been the amendment in 2005 to our Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC) which through a new Section 436A enables certain categories of undertrials who have served more than half of the maximum period of imprisonment specified for that offence, to be released from upon giving a personal bond without sureties.

As I write this, comes a report from Moscow that in May, to mark the 65th anniversary of the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany, Russia proposes to grant amnesty to 300,000 convicts and release 45,000 persons imprisoned since World War II. So, if our administrations activate the amended CrPC, they will be doing something which is along the grain of contemporary opinion. They would also incidentally give the best anniversary gifts possible to Mandela and to the man he so respects.

Gopalkrishna Gandhi was the Governor of West Bengal from 2004 to 2009. The views expressed by the author are personal.

First Published: Mar 26, 2010 22:43 IST