COVER STORY

Days of darkness

Three former political prisoners recount their years in prison

44-bellala-padma Home again: (from left) Bellala Padma, Bellapu Anuradha, Potluri Kranti | Shanthan Reddy

THERE IS AN easy camaraderie between Bellala Padma, 43, Bellapu Anuradha, 54, and Potluri Kranti, 37, as they sit on the diwan of a small house in Telangana. It is difficult to imagine that they were political prisoners who had been arrested on charges of Naxalism and imprisoned for many years in various prisons of India—Kranti in Odisha and Andhra Pradesh from 2011 to 2016, Padma in Chhattisgarh from 2008 to 2018, and Anuradha in Jharkhand from 2009 to 2013. They seem jovial and rib each other about how old they look and how much weight they have put on after getting released.

It was so overcrowded that if you stretched, you bumped into the next person.... We used to fight for space the way some people fight for land. — Bellala Padma

“The first thing that happens when we get out of jail is that we put on a lot of weight, as we try to compensate for all that we didn’t get in jail,” says Anuradha. Within a year of getting out, she put on 18 kilos, and within 20 days, Padma put on eight kilos.

I speak mostly with Anuradha, as the others do not speak English. They do, however, say that they have picked up other languages in prison. Kranti learnt Oriya, Anuradha and Padma, Hindi. “I used to set myself a daily target of learning 25 to 30 words in Hindi,” says Padma. “You are not allowed to write letters in your mother tongue, so you are forced to learn another language.” Anuradha jokes that if she is ever imprisoned again, she hopes it will be in a different jail, so that she can pick up another language.

Kranti is the quietest of the three. She seems animated only when she talks about the deep scars that prison life has left. “I was interrogated by the police for three days in Visakhapatnam,” she says. “I was badly beaten up during this time. They hit me on the ear so hard that my hearing was damaged. After three days, they said they had to do a nude search before I re-entered prison. I protested. I was in police custody for three days. What could I have been carrying?”

She says one of the worst aspects of prison life was the toilet facilities. In the Odisha prison where she was lodged, there was only a basin in the cell with no hole and no tank. You had to do your business in a bucket and then wrap it up in paper and keep it till the next morning, when you could throw it outside. There were 10 people in a cell built for two. After 2pm, she would not drink water so that she did not feel like urinating in the night. They would be served dinner at 4pm, which they used to eat outside, because it stank so bad in the cell. “I lived with that stink for four years,” she says. “Even after leaving the jail, I used to get it. Many people faced the same problem.”

Even in the toilets outside, says Anuradha, the doors were left half open to make sure the prisoners did not commit suicide. There were no locks on them. “You have to do a balancing act by keeping the door shut with one hand and doing your business with the other,” she says. Some jails have no doors and the prisoners have to hang up a lungi to get some privacy. Kranti says that in the Odisha jail where she was lodged, there was no roof on the toilets, and the guard on the adjacent building could see what was happening inside.

In the Chhattisgarh jail, prisoners lay in the wards in two rows. “It was so overcrowded that if you stretched, you bumped into the next person,” says Padma. “There were a lot of quarrels because of lack of space. We used to fight for space the way some people fight for land.” There were no nails to hang your clothes on. So, everything had to be kept in a bundle by your head, including your chappals. Some people sat in the aisle between the rows because of lack of space.

The medical facilities, too, they say, were pathetic. Once, when Anuradha developed a bone problem and could hardly walk, she was neither given any treatment nor taken to the hospital because there were no escorts. “Since I was such a ‘dangerous’ prisoner, how could I be taken to the hospital without an escort?” she says. “What if I threw a bomb on the police station [on my way to the hospital]?” It took a three-day hunger strike to get the problem solved.

Prisons were so overcrowded that infectious diseases used to spread like wildfire. In the Odisha prison, there used to be many cases of malaria. Only chloroquine would be prescribed as they could not afford costlier drugs. In the Malkangiri sub-jail in Odisha, only Rs 5,000 was allocated per year for medical expenses. Once, when Kranti fell ill, the doctor was called. He held her hand for a while and then diagnosed her with depression. Just give her some sedatives and she’ll be fine, he said. After protesting a lot, she was taken to the hospital, where she tested positive for tuberculosis. “I still suffer from recurring bouts of it,” she says.

When they had to be produced before the magistrate, they would be given a bath and made to look good, says Anuradha. The police officials tell the magistrate that the prisoner has just been arrested and request custody for a number of days. The magistrates are mostly indifferent. “They’re always writing something [on their notepads] and hardly ever lift up their heads to even look at us,” she says. “If you are aware, you could tell the magistrate that you’ve already been in custody for xx days. But then, if the magistrate rejects what you said, you risk revenge from the police officials [for daring to contradict them].”

Padma’s warrant came in the name of Lalitha. No alias was given. She was forcefully made to sign it even when she protested that the names of her father and brother in the document did not tally. “Some of us have been charged for crimes that happened outside when we were still in prison,” she says.

Anuradha says that like jet lag, many of them suffer from something they call ‘jail lag’. “You’ll still be in a prison mindset for many days after you are released,” she says. “During the night, when I used to go to the toilet, I would pinch myself to see if I was really out of prison.”