Thinker in Bokaro Jail

Thinker in Bokaro Jail

No matter how terrible the experience, one can derive lessons and apply them positively to life.
In this piece, the author supported with excerpts from his book The Bad Boys of Bokaro Jail, re ects on his harrowing month in jail and how it tested to the T this philosophy he has endeavoured to live by.

“Attitudes towards women (in small-town India) are downright scary. When I was imprisoned, the Delhi gang-rape case was very much in the news. And surprisingly, most men in the jails, and also the local press, did not quite get what the big deal was.”

“One assumes that a listed company would have all the basic hygiene factors in place. Reported numbers would be true. Audited results would be factual. The fact is even listed Indian companies, and the results they publish, can’t be trusted.”

The fact that I’m writing for this magazine, I guess assumes I am a “thinker”. I can’t say much about that, but yes, I did actually spend a month behind bars in Bokaro jail. The initial stuff one has to deal with after walking out of jail are typical—stereotypical reactions of stigma, peoples curiosity about possible physical and mental abuse, life behind bars in general, and so on. Slightly later the “sensationalism” of the story itself (corporate guy, lands in jail, writes a book) kicks in.

Now, since I am comfortably distanced from the experience with enough time between me and my jail-time, I have been thinking about the learnings from the experience. There have been quite a few. I am using excerpts from my book, The Bad Boys of Bokaro Jail, to illustrate them.

  1. One misdeed – even a huge one – doesn’t make a man fundamentally evil.

Many people who meet me ask about the other people I met in jail. The impression they all have is that everyone in jail is unmitigated evil – Satan himself. In reality, there is a lot of pretty regular folks. Many are people you can sit and have a conversation with.

The fact is that jails are not full of serial killers and professional assassins, although they are there as well. You have enough people who acted in anger on provocation, or got tempted by a cellphone or bicycle which was left unattended. So a lot of them are just men who have made one huge mistake sometime in their lives.

The best society can do is to give such men a second change to come back into the mainstream, and have a second shot at life. Unfortunately the prison system mostly does the exact opposite of that.

(Excerpt pages 82-83)

As I feel more secure and comfortable in my new surroundings, I have also started talking to more people and learning more about the jail. There are many questions one can ask directly, but many that one cannot. I also realize that some people hesitate to speak openly in front of me because they feel that I will stand in judgement, and probably judge them harshly. Being in a jail myself I try my best not to sit in judgment.

This jail is a small one with 275-odd prisoners. This includes some eight to ten women in a separate building, who are completely isolated in their own section of the jail. The men have no interaction with them. Importantly, everyone in the jail is an undertrial, which means nobody here has been convicted yet. The only convicts here, I think, are Aseem and Nageshwar and they also both have their cases in appeal.

I obviously do not know all 275 inmates, but have had conversations with many, and would broadly classify the prisoners as follows:

This is a rough categorization. There are grey zones that exist—for example, some of the innocent people framed are also possibly guilty. It is impossible for me to say. Similarly, many of the people incapable of defending themselves may actually be guilty. But in my view they are victims nonetheless.

At one level everyone in here is a victim of the legal system. Only a select few know how to use it to their advantage, and those people rarely land up in jail.

  1. An empty mind is a devils workshop

The biggest problem in jail for me was not physical discomfort. Or pain. Or hunger. It was boredom—the lack of anything productive or meaningful to do with my time. That is why I started to write my diary while in jail which then eventually became “The Bad Boys of Bokaro Jail”.

And I was released in a month.

Now imagine the average jail inmate, who would on average be at least 10 years my junior so a very large proportion fitting into the definition of “youth”. And many of them cooped up inside for much longer than a month. Further, this was a jail for under trials so what we are actually talking about is a crowd that is “guilty until proven innocent”.

To give such men a chance to bounce back outside, to have a shot at life – the best thing we can do is give them something positive to do. Teach them a skill. Give them a vocation. Or at least the means to earn a respectable living.

(Excerpt page 66)

“Then there is the ward which is dedicated to noble ideas and terrible implementation. I call it the ‘Broken promises’ or the ‘Lost opportunity’ ward. It is a ward in which nobody lives. But the ward is full of weaving equipment—not a little but a lot. And we are not just talking Gandhi charkhas, but much more complex (and expensive) equipment—worth tens of lakhs of rupees. When I tried to find out the story nobody seems very certain. Even Nageshwar—who has been in this jail for over seven years—does not remember a time when the things were actually used in any kind of productive manner, but the inmates said it is cleaned and dusted and shown off during all visits and official inspections etc. It is one of the government schemes on which so much money is spent, but which are doomed to failure because of the lack of actual implementation.

The ‘Broken promises’ ward stays locked and hardly anybody ever goes in or out. The equipment has collected a significant layer of dust. And 250-plus capable but directionless, idle men who could learn a new vocation and effectively produce something of value—and in the process feel worth something more themselves—kill their days hanging around making small talk and eating khaini all day.”

  1. Any industrial town – like Bokaro steel city – is similar to big cities like Delhi

Maybe I am naive. I thought that the world was progressing at an equal rate all across the nation. However, in a place like Bokaro (the people inside Bokaro jail are pretty representative of small-town India in general) the attitudes and mindsets are very different from those in, say, corporate India.

Attitudes towards women are downright scary. When I was imprisoned, the Delhi gang-rape case was very much in the news. And surprisingly, most men in the jails, and also the local press, did not quite get what the big deal was. Many actually sympathized with the rapists.

About a third of the inmates in the prison were in for dowry related cases, including dowry deaths.

(Excerpt page 165-166)

“Jail does have a culture of its own, and I don’t think it is very particularly a criminal culture. I think it is simply a Jharkhand small-town culture. Lower-middle class in its flavour.

There is still a significant distance that generations maintain here. For example, there are many things that sons do not do before their elders. It is true for me as well but in a much smaller way. But I think it is much stronger and more pronounced here. Pappu Ansari and his two brothers live in Ward 2 while his father and two uncles live in Ward 10 (the Roja ward). He said that he felt that everyone is more comfortable this way. It is not that his brothers do anything blasphemous like drinking. They are all teetotallers. But they just feel that they have to watch themselves a lot less, and are also able to smoke more comfortably if they live in a different ward. Another aspect which I initially found shocking, but have increasingly come to accept as ‘normal’ is the difference in the attitude toward women and their rights.

People here believe that women are very clearly and unequivocally inferior to men, and should be kept in their place. Even to the gang-rape story the response has not been as black-and-white as in my ‘CNN-IBN’ bubble. So when the Madhya Pradesh industry minister Kailash Vijayvargiya talks about a ‘Lakshman rekha that women should not cross’, most men nod their head in agreement. There is a case where a man had been arrested along with a bunch of other men as the rape accused. However, this one guy is supposed to be the victim’s boyfriend and said he is wrongly accused as he had never raped her. The victim had evidently come to meet her boyfriend in jail a few times on her ‘scooty’—and it was seen as extremely inappropriate behaviour by everyone in the jail. On top of that she had assured him that she would arrange for his release! Such audacity in a woman!! It is also interesting to see the difference in the English and the Hindi newspapers—especially the more local Hindi dailies. The indignation that an English daily paper express about someone making a chauvinistic statement— say about the gang-rape case—may simply be a factual statement being quoted without judgement in the Hindi one.

Clearly, the role of the newspapers here is not as much to change opinions as to reinforce existing opinions. Makes it that much easier to sell.

There is a whole cycle of interests that drive the information and opinion cycles. The newspapers have clearly defined audiences, and no paper wants to be seen as preaching, so everyone tries to toe the line and stay well within the mainstream of local opinion to be able to sell the most number. That doesn’t matter if you sell soap, but as a journalistic entity, competition of this nature actually is a bad thing—it helps stick with old ways of thinking. It is actually a negative force, because while every newspaper provides the same information, the press is afraid to have a strong opinion because of the fear that too many people may disagree (and consequently, move to a less forward thinking newspaper). So all Hindi dailies stick with the mainstream opinion of their audience, which is safe. This is unfortunate as there is very strong power and credibility that the written word carries. But most people stay happy in their closed loop of self-affirming sources of information and opinions.”

  1. Even listed Indian companies, and the results they publish, can’t be trusted.

One of the reasons I chose to join Everonn – despite its recent run of interesting events – was because it is a listed firm. I just assumed that a listed company would have all the basic hygiene factors in place. Reported numbers would be true. Audited results would be factual.

However, once I joined I realized that the company was only skeletons and no cupboard. I should have bailed that very instant. Even though new management and money had walked in the door, there wasn’t an upright spine left in the company.

Actually I should’ve seen the red flag even before I joined. I swear never again to work for any company whose name rhymes with Enron.

(Excerpt Page 173-174)

“From a neutral and purely leadership perspective, I think this is a huge opportunity lost for Everonn. The company is currently emerging from a crisis, and has a workforce which is very demotivated and uncertain about the future. The Gems group of Dubai had taken control a little over a year back. However, in over one year of ownership it had not been able to bring about any noticeable change to operations and business on the ground. A lot of promises had been made. But not enough were kept, and too many broken. The company continued in a state of limbo of sorts, and with the continued uncertainty many good people left. Then, to effect a serious change, the Gems group brought on board a senior advisor, who in turn brought me in to join the senior team in October. And in December I was arrested. The two critical things for Everonn to manage at this point were:

  1. How quickly the employee in prison is released
  2. How the business interest of Everonn in Bokaro is handled

The company had the opportunity to demonstrate intent, confidence and a new, changed leadership. Positive, effective handling of the situation would have spoken more loudly to the employees than any words ever could. However, Everonn faltered on both the above fronts. Not only has Everonn been unable to secure a prompt release for me, it has also not effectively handled the situation on the ground at Bokaro. The centre will eventually shut down if things continue at this rate. Since the company did not execute, this incident will also fall into a familiar pattern of lost battles and broken promises that the employees are used to seeing. This especially undermines the new management, and leaves it with no credibility. Everonn is like a losing fighter in a boxing match. There was a brief opportunity to land a flurry of blows on the opponent and get back in the reckoning. Instead, the fighter let his guard down, and took a further beating. Pity.”

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