In March 2016, Kanhaiya Kumar, president of the JNU student union, was arrested on charges of sedition, locked up in Tihar Jail, and beaten up by lawyers in Patiala House court. He came out of the crisis a young political star. This is an extract from his memoir ‘From Bihar to Tihar’.
I was made to strip, then weighed and medically examined. This was the first time I had a proper medical examination. I was asked if I used any intoxicants.
After all the formalities were completed I was taken to the welfare officer. He told me the rules and regulations I had to follow. I learnt that there was a library from where I could borrow books. This made me happy. The deputy jailor soon arrived. He gave me a photograph. It was of some god woman who had a bindi on her forehead. The jailor said, look at this bindi morning and evening, it will bring you peace. He also gave me a thin booklet which contained some spiritual material.
I was then taken to the second gate of the jail. This was just beyond the visitors’ room. There was a different kind of police here, the Tamil Nadu Special Police, TSP. There are different kinds of police in the jail for different duties so that they can all keep a check on each other. The old prisoners, called sevadars, do all the mundane jobs. Once again I was checked thoroughly at this gate. My chappals were also put through the X-ray machine. After this I was taken inside the jail.
The corridors were brightly lit. The walls were graffitied, often with philosophical messages: Hate crime not criminals, said one. It was quite late at night. Prisoners were walking in the barracks and some looked at me curiously. If anyone tried to come close to me, the police pushed him away. Perhaps some of them knew who I was.
I was taken to ward number 4 of jail number 3 – the Mother Teresa ward. I remembered that the first speech I ever gave was about Mother Teresa. I had won a prize, a dictionary. Later, another such speech had made me president of JNU. Now, after yet another speech I was in this jail where I had to live in a ward named after her.
The cell was half the size of my hostel room. It had no windows but had a CCTV attached outside. Both the adjoining cells were empty, giving my small room an even greater air of desolation. There was a western-style commode inside and a small bathing area. A bucket and mug lay on one side and on the other a bedroll with a blanket. Next to it were two bowls – one blue and one red. The colours of our slogan – Jai Bhim Lal Salaam. I smiled at the coincidence.
When you enter politics you know that from that moment on your life will be full of conflicts. Those who you stand against will leave no stone unturned to harm you. I had thought myself prepared but I had never imagined that I would have to go to jail one day. Who was I, after all? Just a young man who was doing research in a university
I knew that I had to ensure that this experience didn’t affect me too much. The attack against me was an attack against something larger. The people from my organization, all the students at JNU – everyone was under attack. I had to continue to fight the fight. And to do so, I needed to buffer myself from my surroundings. I could not allow anything to get me down.
This wasn’t easy. I had a family which has always had to deal with one problem after another. This could send them over the edge. My mother, father, brother, my thoughts continuously returned home as they had since the day the cop had called my father from the Lodhi Road thana. Would they be safe? With me in jail, would they be targeted too? After 9 February I had started getting anonymous threats against my family. It was hard to feel calm and strong in the middle of such storms.
As always my trick was to reach out to others. Interacting with people had always helped me to overcome my worries and fears; hearing other people’s stories distracted me from my own. Since I was on my own in jail, I decided to talk to my solitude.
I sang songs on the first night, a favourite song of the JNU students’ movement, ‘Dabey pairon se ujala aa raha hai’ (The light is creeping in gradually). Any old songs which came to my mind. I sang as heartily as I could, so that the loneliness of the four walls didn’t overwhelm me. On the first night I didn’t have to try very hard. I was really tired. The attack in the court had left my bones aching. The day itself had drained me emotionally. I had a bath. Since I had no change of clothes I used the sheet to wrap myself. Then covering myself with a blanket, I went off to sleep. I slept soundly.
I woke up in the morning with the arrival of the jailor. He was an intelligent man who was helpful and sympathetic. He asked me about my health and said that people often suffered from depression or anxiety when they first came to jail and that he was worried about me. He asked me to freshen up and then go to his office. He noticed that I did not have any clothes and arranged for a kurta pyjama and a towel. I asked if I could be given the memoirs of Professor Tulsiram, but the jail didn’t have a copy and so he got me Premchand’s stories and Nirmala from the library, and had a TV installed in my cell, like all the other prisoners had.
I was treated as a high-security prisoner with some special rules. Three men were employed for my security, changing their shifts through the day. A fourth was meant to help me with anything else, get me food, etc. I wasn’t allowed out of the cell for meals. My tiny cell became my world.
Lunch was a vegetable, dal, four rotis, onion and salad – carefully based on the calories you were allowed to take. It was the same meal day in, day out. Being a rice eater, I didn’t feel full after this meal. The jailor kindly increased the number of rotis.
At night, a guard was placed outside my cell for my security. He was a quiet man. I started talking to him. He was from Tamil Nadu. He loved kabaddi and would lean across the cell door to watch the kabaddi competition playing on the TV in my cell. I always knew the day Tamil Nadu was playing because, when it was time for the match to start, he would ask me hesitantly, are you not watching kabaddi tonight?
The jailor told me that a few political leaders had asked to meet me. I refused. I was allowed to meet ten people whose names I had to write down for him. Not imagining that my family would travel so far to see me, I had filled the list with JNU colleagues and teachers. I said I would only meet those whose names I had written down.
We had begun to develop a cordial relationship and he went out of his way to make me feel comfortable. He always asked about the people who came to meet me and told me some fascinating things about jail.