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What are the positive aspects of prison? What can being imprisoned or working with people imprisoned offer nonviolent activists? Jyotibhai Desai offers three short tales of the use of prisons in creating a humane society.

So live!

A scholar of Gandhi and Tolstoy from the US asked the founder of the Vedchhi Ashram “How do you decide when to offer Satyagraha and when to continue with constructive (village development) work?”

"I never went to prison, the prison came to me!", he answered, and added “we do not seek issues nor do we seek confrontations. Ours is a way to life. So live; So live! that the perpetrator of injustice, be it the state or the landlord, may understand how to correct their mistakes. A true Satyagrahi (one who offers satyagraha) lives all the 24 hours with a total consciousness to create a society where truth and love prevail.”

Gandhian education

In 1972, some 452 dacoits (bandits) voluntarily surrendered to veteran Gandhian socialist Jayaprakash Narayan. JP's concern was how to help them to rejoin society as honest human beings. At Vedchhi we had our University Graduate's teachers training programme based on Gandhi's ideas of education. We expected our teachers to share the burdens and problems of the entire nation and not remain merely confined to the problems of the village or the city where they found their postings. As a result it was in schedule for our academic year to involved the group in “on the job training to face conflict situations”! So, from 1972 to `77 - for six years - the group of trainee-teachers got the opportunity to work for three weeks in prisons (open jails) where the dacoits bandits were held. We attempted to live with them as Ashramites!

Living like a prince in prison

One of the bandits, Muratsinghji - a Robin Hood-like figure and a desperado in his region - was accused of 200 murders. His gang of 80 were considered the number one criminals in the region. In Sagar prison, Muratsinghji lived like a prince. He held regular darbar (court) and all the officials - perhaps everyone - used to bow to his “honourable” self. Even in prison he was served food on silver plates!

A lesson learnt

We had arranged a common meal in order to bring all the inmates of the prison of different castes together for dinner. Even in prison the caste distinction persisted and was accepted as nothing debasing. One of the lieutenants of the gang asked Satya, one of ouryoung women trainees: “Dauji” - —as Muratsingh was addressed. - “wants you to serve him and ten of us tomorrow at the common meal!” Satya asked: “Why me?” The answer was “We have found out that you are a high caste Brahmin, that's why!”

Here was Satya, a lone young person cornered, but she unhesitatingly answered, “Dauji, why the farce? I can get our group to drop the idea of the common meal! Were I to accede to your suggestion, the spirit of having an inter-caste get-together will be lost!”

It was then that Muratsingh rose to the occasion: “Oh you fools! Learn from this young woman! We are now trying to be Gandhians, as promised to the respected JP. We cannot continue our old ways!” Next day he sat with the lowliest caste prisoner and had his meals with him. Not only that, for three successive years he insisted on having common meals when our group went to live with him in prison! The prison became a Gandhi Ashram for all of us: simple living and sharing our lives together, singing and praying to change ourselves. It helped our trainees gain self-confidence and the ability to communicate directly with individuals and groups who had used violence as a means of livelihood. It also helped these misguided friends of ours to regain their humanity.

Narmada

The anti-dam protests in the state of Gujarat have provided me with a chance to understand satyagraha better over the years, having been arrested five times since 1989.

In August 2000, 37 of us were detained by police in the city of Vadodara. We had gathered to proceed to Narmada Valley where the water level had risen due to the increased dam height. It was a mixed group of activists, some had been associated with Narmada Bhacho Andolan (Save Narmada Campaign) for years, as well as fresh witnesses who just wanted to be convinced or otherwise about the dire situation that the tribals were facing.

We were held by the police in a rather spacious room in which we sat and started singing protest songs and the folk songs of the tribals of the Narmada Valley. After eating we had a discussion on “where do we go from here?”, evaluating our situation and the anti-dam protests.

One of the police constables who sat through the discussion asked “Do you know our village river Kolak has been polluted by industry?” There was a young woman in our group who was actively involved in an anti-river pollution campaign. The policeman became interested and wanted to join the anti-pollution group.

During India's independence struggle prisons were considered real life universities, places where one learnt how to live and change one's own life. The spark of such an atmosphere was rekindled in our discussions during our arrests for Narmada.

Full circle

Let me add one last instance of the use of prisons in creating a humane society. One of our colleagues at Vedchhi, after having participated in our dacoits prison camps, became a Superintendent of Prisons. Raghuvir Vora attempted to reshape the prisons as Gandhi Ashrams. The most touching experiments he carried out was the “Sisters Day” celebration. He persuaded the wife of a murder victim to tie a rakhi (wrist-band tied by sister to brother) to the imprisoned murderer, as a token of forgiveness and to accept him as her brother. Both the families came closer and “forgiveness” was no longer just a word. During his eighteen years in the prison service, reconciliation between families were regular occasions in the prisons where he were posted.

Gandhi said, “A Satyagrahi does not know what defeat is, for s/he fights for truth without being exhausted. Death in the fight is a deliverance, and prison, a gateway to liberty!”

Jyotibhai Desai works at the Vedchhi Ashram, Gandhi Vidyapeeth, Vedchhi, Via Valod, Dist Surat, Gujarat, India.