• The Paltaiyya Torture and Gupta-ji’s Cavalcade

    Translated from Hindi by Madhu Singh

    Ramchandra Singh

    May 25, 2018

    This is an excerpt from 13 Years: A Naxalite's Prison Diary by Ramachandra Singh, translated from Hindi by Madhu Singh, published by Navayana. Republished here with the permission of the publisher. From 1970 to 1983, Ramchandra Singh, an avowed Naxalite, did time in five prisons across Uttar Pradesh. From inside the behemoth that is the Indian prison system, emerged pages filled with his experience in captivity. 

     

    Poster for the launch | Image courtesy Navayana's Facebook page

    All the jails of Uttar Pradesh that I was placed in had more or less the same layout.  Their internal plan differed only in terms of the available space. In all jails, just after the main gate is the office of the jail superintendent, and next to it that of the chief jailor. Then, after crossing one or two big gates and some open space, comes a dalaan or courtyard—which may be large or small. The courtyard leads to all the circles via galleries. The circles hold the barracks where prisoners live. The structure of the circles and galleries varies with the size of the jails. 

    Fatehgarh Central Jail is the largest in Uttar Pradesh. Around two thousand prisoners are on its roll. Built in the year 1865, it has more than a hundred and fifty officials and employees. Its dalaan is huge, from where lead all the pathways to the circles. Even the circles have plenty of space and the compounds of the barracks are large. Besides, the jail has factories on its premises. This was a change from the smaller jails I had thus far known. Factories are a feature of the larger or central jails where long-term prisoners predominate, whereas only undertrials who come and go (on bail) are found in the smaller jails like Hardoi.

    A number of small industries function inside the jail where prisoners are forced to work. The compounds of the factories are spacious. There are green shady trees in and around the circle and the factories. The atmosphere is nonetheless one of fear and oppression, and the prisoners slog like beasts of burden. Tent manufacturing is one of the major industries here. Rugs, carpets, cloth and so on are also produced. In addition, the jail has a huge agricultural farm.

    This jail is a pilgrimage site on account of the many brave warriors of the independence struggle who were incarcerated here, among them well-known revolutionaries such as Bishambar Dayal Tripathi, Shiv Kumar Mishra and Balgangadhar Tripathi. The rebel, Manindra Nath Bannerjee sacrificed his life while on hunger strike here. In independent India, the walls of this jail remained witness to many prisoners who were innocent or who had taken the law into their hands upon being refused justice. 

    The moment I reached the gigantic gates of the jail, the cry ‘Inquilab Zindabad’ escaped my lips. The guards at the gate were startled. A voice hollered from the inside: “Quiet!” With this shout, a small door at the gate rattled open and the head warder of the jail, Pandit Chotelal, moved menacingly towards me twirling his moustaches and waving a long, thick cane in his hand. A man in his mid-fifties, he had a thickset body of average build, a salt-and-pepper handlebar moustache—the hair on his scalp dyed black—and the agile bearing of a youth. In short, his appearance was that of a seasoned goon. 

    “I’m still outside the jail and I have every right to shout a slogan,” I said.

    “I must remind you that you are now within the jail precincts.” His eyes burned and he shook with anger at my audacity. Seeing this, I became certain that I was in for a special welcome. As soon as I entered he handed me over to two inmates and left, seething. He was sure that these two, notorious for their brutality, would set the foolish newcomer to rights in no time at all.

    “Why were you shouting?” The two hulking men with dull but cruel eyes rolled up their sleeves and stomped towards me like testy bulls.

    “It was for my party and for the masses of my country.”

    “What masses? Which party?” One of them asked. 

    “The workers’ party! The Communist Party (Marxist–Leninist), the naxal party.” 

    “So, you are a naxal. Which is your home district?” 

    Hearing the name Unnao, he became hesitant. (Later I came to know that he too belonged to Unnao.) 

    “Go and sit there quietly. If you shout slogans in the jail anymore, you’ll be thrashed. This place is ruled by Gupta-ji. You hear? Gupta-ji!” 

    I took my bag and sat in a corner. Then I was searched. I was asked to remove my clothes and my slippers. These were thoroughly scrutinised. The two journals in my cloth bag—Point of View and Mainstream—were seized. After the search, I was handed over to an inmate and sent to the circle. The inmate told me that I had been let off quite easily. Newly arrived tough criminals are made to remove all their clothes and even their rectum is checked to see if they have hidden a roll of currency notes there. I was shocked out of my senses. I couldn’t credit this story but other inmates removed my doubts.

    The inmate-supervisor informed me that a while back some farmers from the rural area of Kanpur (East) had been jailed for their alleged involvement in the agitation over the supply of irrigation water. They too had shouted slogans at the gate. But once inside the prison, they were roughed up by the hardened inmates. A boy among them suffered an injury to his ears and blood had gushed out from his mouth.

    I too recalled an incident told by a freedom fighter. During the British period the prisons did not allow even tobacco or beedis within the jail premises. But these were smuggled in with the help of cleaners or the cart-men who removed garbage in their bullock carts. The scavengers hid the contraband in containers of human excreta, while the cart-men concealed it in the rectum of their bullocks. Once, a bullock happened to excrete in the precincts of the Naini jail and out came the beedis and tobacco rolled inside waxed covers. When this came to light, the cart-man was penalised and the prisoner for whom it was meant was brutally beaten up. I wondered if there was any difference between the jails of the British period and those of today.

    Soon I met comrades who had arrived before me: Amar Singh, Badri Prasad, Vibhuti Prasad and one Mangatraj-ji who was involved in another naxal case. We were all prisoners to be kept under strict vigilance. Here, we had to slog harder: from unloading coal off the truck to taking care of the jailor’s garden. Then I was sent to the First Circle to work on the Amber Charkha. I was given a blanket, a mat, a plate and bowl (tasla-katori). The inmate-storekeeper warned me that if any of these items were lost, I would undergo the paltaiyya, a torturous punishment in which, at the instruction of the official, the prisoner was thrown to the ground and the soles of his feet caned by five or six inmate-warders or senior inmates. After every thirty to forty strikes, the battered and bruised inmate was made to run to restore the blood circulation in his leg. After a few rounds, he was again thrown on his back and made to undergo the same torture. This cycle would continue for some time. Called the paltaiyya or talua parade in prison jargon, it was considered at the time to be the easiest punishment at Fatehgarh jail. The prisoner would recover after applying warm mustard oil on his swollen soles, though his spirit might be shattered for life.


     

    Ramchandra Singh of Bangarmau village in Unnao district of Uttar Pradesh, was part of the editorial board of Red Star Monthly. Madhu Singh is a professor in the Department of English and Modern European Languages, University of Lucknow.

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