Review Article

Yerawada Prison Diary

Joydip Ghosal

From Phansi Yard, My year with the Women of Yerawada by Sudha Bharadwaj, published by Juggernaut is a remarkable and poignant account of the world of women prisoners in Yerawada Jail in Pune. An early morning knock on her door took her into a world of incarceration, first at home and then in prison. This book tries to unravel many aspects of prison life which though harsh is not altogether bleak. She dedicated the book to all those, unjustly incarcerated and Maaysha, her daughter who suffered her absence most. In this book there are 76 impressionistic sketches of fellow prisoners she had an opportunity to watch during her stint in Yerawada Prison.

In the introduction part of the book she took resort to questionnaire format to make the perspective clear for the readers to understand. It was more suitable for her to compress the six decades of her life into that format. She was born on 1st November 1961 in Boston in the United States where her parents Krishna and Raghunath Bharadwaj were both post-doctoral fellows in economics. Later her mother accepted the opportunity of a fellowship in Cambridge. Renowned economist and close associate of Antonio Gramsci, Piero Sraffa who was author of Production of Commodities by Means of Commodities invited her. So Sudha Bharadwaj spent her childhood in the university town of Cambridge. When racism started rearing its diabolical head in that university town her mother decided to return back to India. Be Shankar Guha Niyogi apart, her mother remained a constant inspiration throughout her life. In truth her mother played a pivotal role in establishing Centre for Economic Studies and Planning in Jawaharlal Nehru University along with Sunanda Sen, Prabhat and Utsa Patnaik and Amit Bhaduri. Krishna Bharadwaj's pathbreaking book Production Conditions in Indian Agriculture still provides insight into the complexities and interplay of different aspects of agricultural systems. Apart from doing her five-year math degree at IIT Kanpur Sudha gradually became aware of socio-economic realities of the country.

During the Asian Games held in Delhi in 1982 the entire city was dug up. Migrant workers were being brought up from the marginalised areas of the country. Huge camps were built to house them. She along with her co-workers reached to the workers of Birla Mill, Delhi Cloth Mills. She interacted with the workers of Ballabgarh Industrial belt. Odia migrant workers poured their heart out to them about their plight, the repression they faced. She realised terrible conditions of bondage they were subjected to. She along with her friends brought out a hand-printed wall magazine, Meri Teri Uski Kahani. It was named after novel penned by progressive Hindi writer Yashpal. In her own words: “This is when we began to understand the cruel power structure that underlies this misery”. It was a revelation for her. She firmly believed in the words of Bertolt Brecht that one could not have a ‘pass in the pocket’ to leave these workers as per wish. It would shove them to more risk. She remained true to the ideal that trade unionism demanded a life-long commitment. Through the workers of textile mills she met Shankar Guha Niyogi around 1983-84.After he was incarcerated under National Security Act Sudha Bharadwaj and other students went to JNU and other Delhi University professors to collect signatures on a petition demanding his release. She gave up her US citizenship to work among the ‘faceless multitudes’.

In this book in the introduction part Sudha Bharadwaj described her association with Chattisgarh Mukti Morcha (CMM). She worked among the contract workers in Bhilai. She categorically mentioned that they taught her perseverance and a lot about not thinking that one was supreme of the world. She touched upon her life in Bhilai, the assassination of Niyogi on 28 September, 1991, the savage police firing on rail-roko Satyagraha when seventeen workers lost their lives. Readers get to know the trajectory of workers’ movement after Niyogi’s martyrdom. After becoming a lawyer she moved to Labour camp in Jamul where a new phase of trade union life commenced. She was instrumental for the revival of PUCL in Chattisgarh after Dr Binayak Sen’ arrest. Gradually the organisation grew in diversity and strength. Rajendra Sail, Ms Julaikha Jabeen, Dr Lakhan Singh and Sudha Bharadwaj gave their utmost effort to keep the human rights discourse alive. Unequivocally she declared in this book that as the secretary of Chattisgarh PUCL she was bound to face state’s wrath.

In 2018 she was arrested along with several others–scholars, lawyers on the charge of inciting violence in Bhima Koregaon village in Maharashtra. She was put under house arrest. Then she was taken to Pune and kept in police custody. Finally she was put behind the bars for more than three years.

First Yerawada Jail and after some time shifted to Byculla Jail. She was released on bail in December, 2021. As per the bail conditions she cannot discuss the case or leave Mumbai.

This book (Courtesy Amartya Sen) is a testimony to the fact that she remained an unflinching observer of the harshness meted to the inmates and stark realities of prison’s life. Throughout the book, her warmth compassion for her fellow prisoners was evident. She took a journey through the prison life weaving portraits of the inmates, their children. In this granular account she tried to reflect on everything from children of the fellow prisoners to caste hierarchy. Even during Covid- 19 she discussed the irrationality of quarantine procedure with jail physicians. She marvelled at the creativity of fellow prisoners and their zest for spirit of life.

In an interview she said that if one wishes to dissent she should brave such attacks. Arundhati Roy rightly said “It is a wonderful, kaleidoscopic sketch of prison life… It teaches us a great deal about this country of ours”.

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Vol 56, No. 26, Dec 24 - 30, 2023