The claustrophobic setting, prisoners breaking free, the mysterious environment, having a serial killer in the next cell give you life advice, strapping six-foot guards with a no-nonsense demeanour, and the hooting and hollering in cells. Thanks to films, our idea of prison life has been dramatic, to say the least. We wondered if this setting holds true in actual jail life in India. Bingedaily spoke to Aditya Rajendra Pawar, as he recounts his experience of jail during the Aarey protests, and why it’s the last place you’d want to be.
The prelude to prison
A 26-year-old filmmaker based in Navi Mumbai, Aditya has always been awestruck with the Aarey Forest in Mumbai. As a child, fascination woven around how a fast-paced city like Mumbai could hold dense foliage right within it took over his mind. It left a lasting impression on him, which would, in time to come, manifest itself as something much stronger.
When news of the Government’s plans to chop down a bulk of the Aarey Forest - the city’s green lungs, in order to make way for the car shed, started doing the rounds, Aditya was flabbergasted. “Extensive research suggested that the committee had already put forth Kanjurmarg as one of the potential sites for the car shed, but the Government was firm on its stand.” Looking for a way to channel this angst, Aditya began getting in touch with like-minded people and worked on creating a buzz on the subject. “I had a music video in mind that would highlight the plight of the tribals and the consequential actions that the city would face following the destruction of the Aarey Forest. I began work on a documentary revolving around agriculture, and travelled to states pan India, in order to get the voice of the farmers.”
As oppressed farmer voices were heard loud amidst the din, he realised the problem was much bigger than what meets the eye. City folks, ignorant in their bubbles were blissfully unaware of the struggles that rural India faces at the hands of capitalism. This daunting problem resonated with Aditya as he thought of the parallel issue in his home city - the chopping of the Aarey Forests. Meanwhile, in Mumbai, the protests were intensifying and Aditya joined in the battalion of dedicated individuals who were fighting the uphill battle against an obstinate state administration with the hope that common sense would prevail.
The Aarey protests, a jail experience and the ordeal
On 4th October 2019, the Court dismissed the Aarey Forest petition and the chopping of trees was to begin much to the dismay of angry protestors, nature lovers and fellow environmentalists. Unable to turn a deaf ear to this ensuing discord, Aditya left home expecting to be back in a few hours at the least and made a headstart towards Aarey. What he saw threw him off guard. The number of police officials at the site outnumbered the protestors. Riot gears dominated the scene, trees were already in the process of being chopped down and people were being detained. The protestors on the ground had one weapon to their advantage - social media, which was slowly drawing hundreds to the scene. This sole source of comfort was brought to a halt with the installation of network jammers, thus cutting off all contact with the world outside Aarey.
Highways were blocked as the cops assaulted the Aarey protestors, lathi-charged them, dragged them into vans that then disappeared into the night.
Not wanting to aggravate the already charged-up cops any further, the protestors continued a peaceful protest, until at 2 AM, when a senior official announced that the crowd would have to vacate the place in the next 5 minutes or action would be taken against them. Albeit assured that no trees would be cut after they had left, the crowd did not take their word for it and decided to sit there. Then was when the ordeal began.
A jail sentence for Aarey protests
Police vans were arranged around the protestors and cops began dragging them into vans. The peaceful protest atmosphere had turned into one of chaos. “As soon as we were taken into the van, it drove away from the spot with our questions of the destination unanswered. After nearly an hour, we reached the Dahisar police station and were made to sit in two different rooms for the men and women respectively. We were told we would be set free by 7.30 the next morning. This suited me fine as I was planning on going back to Aarey for the morning protests.”
The next day, however, there was no sign of the promise being kept. Constables asked the detainees to fill forms, which they were unwilling to do but were forced into. “As soon as they had our signatures, our phones were confiscated and this was when it hit me that something wasn’t right.”
The protestors had been charged with four false charges, and one of them was non-bailable.
“I was forced to keep the washroom door open.”
Aditya hadn’t experienced anything like this before. He recalls how he wanted to use the restroom and was forcibly accompanied by 2 constables who held his arm and insisted he kept the washroom door open. “Had the same police officials stopped the people from cutting the trees illegally and acted in such a strict fashion, nothing of this sort would have happened,” says Aditya. The misery was far from over. “We were taken to a government hospital at Andheri for our medical test. No test was conducted but we were made to sign on blank forms. The next stop was the Borivali Court. As thoughts of being back home for lunch and away from this ghastly treatment kept me going, the judge sentenced us to 14 days of judicial custody for ‘assaulting police officials’ which was a non-bailable offence.”
“For a couple of hours, we were kept in the court lockup which was filthy and cramped,” says Aditya recalling the ice-breaker they had with the other inmates. “Friends and relatives waiting outside sent some food to us. Worry crossed my mind to think of my family who had expected me home in a few hours.” While being escorted out of the Court jail, the scene in front brought tears to this young man’s eyes. “Complete strangers were thronging to show their support. People were lined up even on the main road shouting Save Aarey as we were being taken away.”
Made to deposit their money and other belongings at the Thane jail, the worst was yet to come. “One of the cops told us to listen to what the jailers told us. It’s a whole different world inside, he said. We had to strip naked as they frisked us before taking us to the cell. After this gruesome embarrassing process, I remember passing out on the floor next to a water tank while other people were being frisked.”
“The cell was filled with more than 150 people.”
As soon as they entered the cramped cell, Aditya and the others found their place, although with difficulty, owing to the space crunch with 150 others huddled close. “We had to sleep on a tarpaulin, and I dozed off instantly as the exhaustion took over. A loud bang in the wee hours of the morning announced the jailer’s arrival, the clanging of the utensil instead of an alarm. Breakfast was served to us, but I couldn’t get myself to eat. The plates were greasy and the manner in which people were being served was heart-wrenching.”
This was then followed by the arrival of the barbers, who shaved the inmates’ heads. The first half of the day was spent in formalities, giving their biometrics and getting the mugshots clicked. After skipping lunch as well, Aditya says it dawned on him, there are abundant little things in everyday life, which we hardly take notice of. For instance, he says after his head was shaved he wanted to have a look at himself, but there were obviously no mirrors. “I was looking for my reflection in the water.” There are no clocks and one could only guess how many days or hours had stretched on.
“Being inside the prison, instead of a mere spectator from the outside, was different. I looked at the walls and thought of the normal world outside, and its proximity to us. Yet, it seemed a dream. Toilets in the prison have no doors, they are just lined one after the other and are a part of the cell. There isn’t privacy. A metre away from the toilets is a water tank, where you can fill a plastic mug. During our time inside, I was wondering how things were outside and if people would forget about us as the days passed by.”
“I interacted with rapists, murderers, and those wrongly framed.”
Aditya's days in prison were not futile. He interacted with people who were accused of severe assault, murders, rape and also those who had been wrongly framed. “Never had I thought that raising my voice against illegal tree-cutting would land me in jail.”
After days, which seemed like weeks, one evening, a prison official asked Aditya and the other Aarey inmates to line up and they were taken out. “That’s when we thought the judicial custody was over. The cop told us that he had been working for 3 decades but there was never a time when bail had been granted to someone on a Sunday.”Citizens who were concerned about the forest had run a crowdfunding campaign and raised 2.1 lakhs to bail the 29 inmates out on a Sunday! “As we stepped out of the prison at 12:30 am, there were friends, families, Aarey activists and media waiting for us. We were welcomed with cheers and it was overwhelming.”
“The meal which I had after coming back home was the best meal of my life.”
“One day in jail was enough to give me nightmares about it.”
Now that the ordeal is over, we ask Aditya if jail memories still plague his mind, and he cannot suppress the shudders, “Just one day of being in jail was enough to give me nightmares about it for several months. I cannot imagine the condition of activists and others who are being arrested on false charges and jailed for months and years.”
After the bail, Aditya had no hope of saving Aarey or being able to do much about it. But the one good thing that came out of it, he says, was he met people who were passionate about the environment, “people who tried to stop the government from taking such wrong measures despite the severe consequences they had to face.” Now that the Government has decided to move the car shed project to Kanjurmarg, I see that that the protests were not in vain. “The Aarey movement will be remembered for years.”
Does the Government look at everything as dissent?
In Aditya’s opinion, since the past 6 years, speaking out against the government has started having serious consequences ranging from false stories to arresting people. “We faced the same backlash. After our release, there were baseless allegations suggesting we were being funded by missionaries to halt the development in Mumbai. This is the scenario in most cases where people who are genuinely concerned, are made victims of fake stories and intimidated by the system.”
The silver lining is that in spite of going through polarised times, people are becoming more aware of the current situation and have started taking a stand for what is right, says Aditya. “The protest for CAA and NRC is clearly a sign of the growing resistance towards government policies. The government tries to intimidate but people should not stop making a noise. Someone has to.”