'I had not thought death had undone so many' - T.S. Eliot
The interior of the Dacca Central Jail exceeded my worst fears. The primitive lavatories with their low standard of sanitation combined with an unimaginable lack of privacy were the greatest shock.
I was placed in a block called Seven Cells with five others of whom four turned out to be old acquaintances. Two were from the University. That was some comfort. The others were Division One prisoners; I was not granted this status until five days later through the instrumentality of my wife who had written to the Home Department. Normally, it is the Inspector-General of Prisons who decides whether a prisoner is to be placed in Division one or Division two, but in the case of the class of prisoners that I represented, stigmatised as 'Collaborators', the new Government reserved to itself the right to classify the detained. A few, a very limited few, had the good luck to achieve the privilege of Division One right from the beginning, but in the majority of cases, whatever tile prisoner's social status, he was made to live the life of an ordinary prisoner for periods varying from a few days to a few months before promotion to Division One. I was lucky to be assigned on the first day to a cell rather than a common dormitory, known in the jail as Khata.
Prisoners in the Khata belong to the lowest circle of this Inferno. Their life is scarcely distinguishable from that of animals. They sleep and eat in the open, perform other physical functions almost in the open, and are exploited as slaves. They tend the prison gardens, mow the lawns, sweep the roads, wash the latrines. carry water in pails from cell to cell, and perform such other chores as they are called upon to undertake. Except when bed-ridden, they are never excused from work. Slackness, if detected, is severely punished. Very few escape beatings. Warders delight in the indiscriminate use of the baton. Most of the warders are semi-literate persons drawn from the lowest social ranks. Association with criminals degrades them further so that as far as morality and ethics are concerned there is little to choose between warder and prisoner.
Most of these warders were fanatical Awami League supporters. They had been for months fed on propaganda against us. When we arrived, they started treating us as the worst kind of criminals they had ever seen. Some restraint had of necessity to be exercised in respect of prisoners in Division One, but Khata prisoners of the class called 'Collaborators' became the victims of a campaign in which sadism, malice, cruelty, arrogance all played their parts. When ill they were refused medicine or even any respite from hard labour. Persons who could hardly drag themselves from one spot to another were compelled to undertake work that would appear strenuous even for a tough young man of twenty-five. To hard labour and beatings were added vilification and abuse. Upon the slightest pretext the warders poured on their heads the filthiest expletives and the foulest swear-words.
I found myself gradually acquiring a strange kind of lingo for communication. Warders were known in this jail as Mian Sahebs; ordinary prisoners attached as factotums to prisoners in Division One were called Faltus, a word whose lexical meaning was 'extra'. Prison kitchens were referred to as Chowkas. It took me a whole week to get used to this vocabulary. Each prisoner upon his admission into the jail was produced before the 'case-table' which meant a place where either the jailer or one of his subordinates took down in a register his particulars. The words 'case-table' were corrupted into something like cash tepol. When I first heard the term, I actually thought it was a new word not known to me, and since I was made to understand what it signified, I ceased to bother about its etymology. Then one day, hearing someone pronounce it a little differently, I began to isolate the syllables mentally and arrived at the truth. It was quite a lesson on phonology.
The jail hierarchy was an interesting study. At the top was the Inspector General of Police, Olympian, invisible, a person whom prisoners seldom, if ever, meet. He is concerned with prison administration in the country as a whole and has very little to do directly with this or any other jail. Under him is the Deputy Inspector General who inspects the jail every day, going round the cells. When I first arrived the DIG used to visit the cells every morning between nine and ten. Later, the visits became weekly affairs; our cell was visited every Friday known in the jail as File Day. The DIG is supposed to supervise or oversee things; he does not directly interfere in details. Next to him stands the jailer, the most important and powerful functionary in the prison. His pay hardly exceeds two to three hundred rupees a month; he does not enjoy the rank of even a gazetted officer, i.e. an officer whose appointment is announced in the official gazette. But inside the jail, he wields really unlimited powers, is feared as a monster by the prisoners and worshipped by his subordinates as god. His word is law. It is he who minds the details of administration, who awards or withholds such facilities or privileges as prisoners are entitled to enjoy, who controls the staff, punishes the wayward and recommends promotions for the faithful and loyal. He is assisted by about half a dozen deputy jailers who have no real powers although they do their best to harass prisoners. Between the jailer and the DIG, there is another officer, known as. the Deputy Superintendent whose main duties the supervision of the factories and mills operated by the jail. Occasionally in the absence of the DIG, he deputises for him.
Between the deputy jailers and the Subedar or Chief head warder, the functionary next in rank, there is a big hiatus, in pay and status and qualifications, but he too insists on being treated as an ‘officer’, and has been known to resent any infringement of his prestige. Subedars are usually literate, but literacy is all the educational qualification they possess. 'The number of Subedars is limited to two or three. Next come the head warders, popularly known as Jamadars, the chief pillars of administration, who oversee the work of the warders, act as intermediaries between prisoners and jail authorities, look after sanitation, administer punishments and have to be at the beck and call of the jailer round the clock.
A jail differs from other administrative establishments in one fundamental respect. Its machinery has to be kept functioning from sunrise to sunshine without remission or intermission. Every few hours, guards change, fresh batches of warders and chief warders take over from those on duty before, prisoners are n counted, registers checked, and bells rung. The two most important-counts are those that take place at six in the morning and at six in the evening. Warders on duty immediately before the counts are not permitted to leave the jail premises until the figures have been checked and found correct. Surprise inspections by the jailer or deputy jailers keep the negligent on their guard. Derelictions of duty are punished by immediate suspensions or even dismissals.
Prisons, like everything else in this country, are riddled with corruption: incompetence and inefficiency are evident in every aspect of their administration; but I was struck by the fact that whatever their other deficiencies, the warders and head warders perform their routine duties without fail, almost mechanically, from force of habit. The loudest complaints are heard from those who are put on duty at night between nine and three; they grumble continually; but seldom do they fail to turn up punctually. The worst offence, from the administrative point of view, that they occasionally commit is to fall asleep; if caught, they are immediately punished. I suppose it is fear of swift punishment, which no offence can escape, which acts as a deterrent against slackness. In any case, the mechanical punctuality of the warders in a world where punctuality was at a discount and mocked at as a sign of idiocy rather than envied as a virtue, could not fail to arouse my admiration.
Mr Nirmal Roy, the jailer, handsome, outwardly polished, was a man in his late forties or early fifties. He told us one day that he had been in the Dacca Central Jail in various capacities for over fourteen years. He naturally possessed an intimate knowledge of all its secrets. He knew all the tricks that either prisoners or jail staff could possibly resort to in order either to evade the rigour or their punishment or to shirk their duties. He was feared on this account. His attitude towards the ‘collaborators’, which was one of unmixed hatred, was well concealed behind a mask of courtesy and polished manners. Only once or twice did he lapse. It is reported that once when introducing Dr Hasan Zaman to the DIG during a weekly inspection, he proceeded, until checked by a sharp rebuke from Dr Zaman himself, to describe him as a murderer responsible for the deaths of a large number of people. Other reports of the same kind reached us from time to time, but apart from these instances, one could hardly tell from the way he talked to us, that at heart he regarded the ‘collaborators’ as a species of vermin.
Other members of the jail staff were much less careful. The doctors attached to the jail hospital were frankly and openly hostile. The man usually referred to as Captain Samad was positively aggressive. Sick prisoners who were obliged to go to him for treatment were always roundly abused, seldom given the medicines they needed, told that they deserved to die. Sometimes he would go to the length of inquiring sarcastically how many patients he had killed or helped kill. Occasionally the patients, driven to desperation by his rudeness, hit back. He was reduced to temporary silence on one occasion when in reply to an inquiry of the sort mentioned, a prisoner told him that he had shot about a hundred but regretted having failed to dispose of him.
The compounder, a man named Abdur Rahman, who has since retired, regarded himself as the chief representative agent of the Awami League in the prison, the chief personal spokesman for Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Outwardly, he preserved towards us an attitude compounded of pity and a dash of contempt for our lack of political foresight, but behind our backs, all reports agreed, he was vituperative and fulminated against our alleged misdeeds. On one occasion in the presence of my cousin, Mr Qamarul Ahsan whom he did not know, he spoke contemptuously of me as a person who, notwithstanding a poor academic background (a third class M. A. degree he alleged) had by flattering the authorities risen to eminent office. He was surprised when my cousin contradicted him, but the contradiction did nothing to shake his conviction. That however did not prevent him from exploiting my service. When I was in the jail hospital in April 1972, recovering from an attack of acute dysentery and colitis, Mr Abdur Rahman came to see me one day and asked me to help his daughter who was taking the Higher Secondary examination by composing a few essays in English for her. I dictated from my bed four compositions on topics considered suitable by Mr Rahman. I felt vastly amused when, a few days later, he returned to tell me that the compositions had been approved by his daughter. He could conceive of no higher compliment to my intellectual attainments!
Of the many restrictions and deprivations that are inseparable from prison life, the most galling seemed to me initially the rule which would not permit a prisoner to have his own safety razor for shaving, I was relieved of all my blades by the chief head warder who examined my baggage on the day I was admitted. He said that if I were elevated to Division One, I would be allowed to borrow one blade at a time for use in the presence of a head warder who would take it away after my shaving was over. But in fact those were never restored. Likewise, all the medicines I had with me had to be deposited with one of the deputy jailers. Most of them were never given back. Later when on account of the general scarcity of medicines in the country, the jail authorities failed to supply even those recommended and prescribed by their own doctors, this particular restriction was withdrawn and we were encouraged to obtain our own supplies from home.
Actually to this day, I do not know what exactly prison rules are, and what rights and obligations the prison code prescribes. In spite of repeated requests, the prison code was never shown to us. What facilities and privileges we could enjoy seemed to depend wholly upon the caprices of the officers. Sometimes they would object even to such things as green coconuts; on other occasions they would connive at cooked food which is believed to be absolutely inadmissible, Different officers i.e. deputy jailers, interpret the rules differently. One man, Taj Muhammad, made the lives of most of us miserable by summarily refusing to let this, that or the other thing in according as he wished. His rudeness was a byword throughout the jail.
Most people soon divined the truth that bribes were an Open Sesame to all manner of privileges. If proper bribes were paid to proper persons, one could have anything, regardless of rules. Some cynics used to observe that women were the only luxury which the jail authorities were unable to supply. Wine, such prohibited foods as beef, cooked fish, eggs, butter, cheese, could all be had easily, provided one lubricated the administrative machinery in the appropriate manner.
Bribery and corruption have been refined in the jail into a system. From the jailer to the warders everyone has a stake in it and receives a share of the takings according to a graduated scale. Helping oneself to the produce of the jail gardens is not regarded by any jail employee as a crime. The contractors who supply rice, oil etc. are obliged to contribute handsomely to keep the contracts. All this in a sense is in the day's work in the prisons. But what we saw in the first six months of 1972 was, for us at least, a truly astonishing phenomenon. As hundreds of ‘collaborators’ and non-Bengalis daily poured into the Central Jail and the prison population swelled gradually to 14 thousand, the jail staff rose from peak to peak of affluence and prosperity.
The Dacca jail has a capacity of 1966. On December 16, 1971, the day the Pakistan army surrendered, a band of over-enthusiastic guerrillas had forced the jailer to throw the jail gates open and set everybody free. We were told that every prisoner, robbers, thieves and murderers, left, with the exception of some inmates of the madhouse. The number of prisoners fell suddenly almost to zero. Then came day by day a stream of new prisoners labelled ‘collaborators’. The non-Bengali population of Mirpur and Muhammadpur areas in Dacca, were arrested ell masse, men, women and children, and driven by truck and lorry to the jail like cattle. Most of the women were sent to special concentration camps. The men and some of the children were brought to this jail.
Many of the adults had money with them, large bundles of currency notes. Some carried as much as five or six thousand rupees. They were relieved of all this without ceremony at the jail gates by the warders. Those who succeeded in entering with the notes in their possession, had, according to the rules, to deposit all they had with one or other of the deputy jailers. Then began another game. The deputy jailers entered whatever figure they pleased in the registers regardless of the sums received. Five thousand would be reduced to five and the poor prisoner could do nothing about it. The difference between entry and receipt was pocketed by the jail staff. We heard that whenever possible the individual officer who received the deposits tried to monopolise the takings, but in other cases, the loot was shared out according to an agreed system.
When the non-Bengalis discovered what was happening to their deposits, they started tearing the currency notes up or burning them rather than hand them over to the new robbers. Large fortunes must have been burnt to ashes in those few months. Sometimes prisoners suspected of having notes on their persons which they were reluctant to surrender were severely. beaten; many submitted to the beatings rather than yield and confess that they had currency notes. Later, they destroyed what they had.
Estimates of what the jail staff earned in this period vary of course; no one can possibly know the truth. But such figures as fifty, sixty, seventy thousand have been mentioned to us by the warders themselves. Some of the warders who because of the nature of their duties failed to obtain a share grew envious and spread extraordinary stories about their colleagues. The truth is that only those who were on duty at the gates and had to handle the new arrivals could have opportunities either of earning money on their own or of receiving a share of the receipts.
A new source of corruption was the bribes offered by wealthy persons for the sake of small privileges. There were quite a few millionaires among the ‘collaborators’; besides, there were business executives, civil servants, lawyers, teachers, men who were fairly affluent. The privations of jail life, the discomforts to which they had never been used, forced them to offer money to those who did them small services. One millionaire, owner of several jute mills, was reported to have spent over twenty thousand rupees to bribe the officials in the Home Ministry who had the responsibility of classifying ‘collaborator’ prisoners. He had been placed in the Khata, to begin with. Another who was even richer, put in train a regular system of monthly payments to all the staff he had anything to do with, from the jailer downwards. This gentleman, Mr Abul Qasem, had been a member of the Malek Cabinet in 1971; but all his acquaintances said he had no strong political convictions and was essentially an opportunist. Maulana Nuruzzaman used to speak of him as a religious hypocrite who sometimes affected to be a free thinker, and sometimes when any danger loomed ahead, surpassed everybody in his piety; when the danger passed he relapsed into apostasy.
A Council Muslim Leaguer in pre-1972, Mr Qasem was an industrialist and owned a chain of mills. Originally a refugee from Assam, he had worked his way up into the inner sanctum of Pakistan politics by dint of his shrewdness. What is surprising is that no one could suspect till he was arrested what he really had been, that is, a man with no faith in the basic principles of Pakistan. When Dr Malek formed his cabinet in September 1971, Mr Abul Qasem had seemed an obvious choice. After all, had he not been the General Secretary of the East Pakistan Council Muslim League? What Dr Malek himself, Maulana Nuruzzaman and others said about him now seemed to reflect the lack of judgment and foresight characterising the past policies of Pakistani leaders.
Mr Qasem's use of bribes was a serious embarrassment to other prisoners who could not follow in his footsteps. They were discriminated against by the jail staff almost openly. When Mr Qasem fell ill he had no difficulty in spite of a recent Government order to the contrary in getting himself transferred to the Dacca Medical College Hospital. The warders who guarded his cabin used to receive ten rupees apiece everyday. Others suffering from worse ailments were brusquely told that no transfers to outside hospitals could be allowed. Dr Malek, a man in his seventies, was refused permission to undergo an operation for hernia. Bribes were used by others besides Mr Abul Qasem, but not so openly. The exact details will perhaps always remain a secret, but we know from personal experience how true all this is.
Corruption of a slightly different kind flourishes among both warders and convicts in respect of food. Warders from the chief head warder downwards have their regular shares out of what is supplied to prisoners. Milk, meat, fish, tea, whatever is cooked for prisoners, has to be distributed among warders in accordance with an immemorial tradition. The tradition is so old that the illegality of the matter has almost been lost sight of. This has gone so far that should any warder miss his share accidentally, he feels defrauded of his dues, and protests openly. Some of them seriously object if tea, for instance, is offered in tumblers other than those meant for the use of Division One prisoners.
I must say however that we found the younger warders far less unscrupulous in this matter than the old ones. The latter have no sensibilities; they are as greedy as they are brutal Years of exposure to the company of criminals, reinforced by their own lack of such refinement as education confers, have so coarsened them that it is difficult to call them fully human. The younger warders retain some freshness; it was pleasant to talk to some of them; they did not appear wholly devoid of human sentiments. But the others were so much dead wood, utterly indifferent to such values as decency, courtesy, shame and honour. It is amazing how a brutal environment can brutalise human beings.
I am not forgetting that these people are recruited from the lowest rung of the social ladder; they have little education; and the pay they receive could hardly be expected to enable them to live decent lives. But their counterparts outside, who do not have even a fraction of the economic security that they enjoy, are so markedly different. They seldom are so consistently and uniformly evil. What I have seen with my own eyes forces me to conclude that it is the environment in which these warders work which so degrades them.
Seasoned convicts serving long sentences, who by reason of their good conduct in prison, which really means ungrudging obedience, have earned the confidence of the jail authorities, share some of the duties of warders. They oversee the work of other convicts, enjoy freedom of movement within the jail precincts and can even administer light punishment on their own initiative. I noticed that they were feared even more than the warders. They are also employed to spy on the latter and can get defaulting warders suspended. These convict overseers are in their own way as corrupt as the warders. Their criminal record in the outside world apart, they develop inside the jails propensities of a different kind, staking out a claim to whatever good food is available. They have to be given extra portions of bread, curry, meat, fish and milk.
It is these corrupt men who had the responsibility of handling an enormous population of fourteen thousand prisoners labelled ‘collaborators’ suddenly thrown upon their mercy. Any compunctions they might have had in dealing with prisoners in such large numbers were neutralised by the conviction that these ‘collaborators’ were ‘traitors’ who had betrayed their country and obstructed its liberation from its enemies. That seemed to justify them in treating them exactly as men would treat a large herd of cattle.
Prisoners who could not be housed in the existing cells were accommodated in makeshift bamboo huts which barely protected them from rain and cold. Open-air latrines were constructed along the walls, and as these filled up, the overpowering stench of human excreta hung like a pall over our heads. When a wind blew, it carried the stench further so that for hours on end there would be no place in the prison where one could escape this affliction. A jail with a capacity of 1966 could hardly cope with fourteen thousand. The old kitchens were not large enough for the cooking of as much food as was needed now. The ovens were kept working round the clock, but there were weeks when despite their utmost efforts the cooks could not supply even one meal a day for all. Some had to wait thirty six hours or so for their turn. Water was scarce. Most people could not have a bath even once in a month, nor enough water to drink. One day, I heard a really frightful story about the desperate straits to which hunger and thirst reduced men. A prisoner, not able to stand his thirst any longer is said to have forced himself to drink filthy water from a drain.
Those who were attached to Division One prisoners like ourselves as Faltus were comparatively better off. We tried to give them a share of what was supplied to us. Also there were better facilities for bathing and washing in these cells, from which they profited. But we were unable to help the others. So desperately short was water that on several occasions we were constrained to refuse to let outsiders use our supply. We knew this was unkind and cruel. But in this terrible struggle for survival, pity at one's own expense could only mean further suffering and we had to steel our hearts against the usual emotions aroused by the sight of human misery. The fact is that gnawing at our minds was the fear that if we allowed our sympathy to outstrip our resources we ourselves would be reduced to the same plight. I felt sometimes that I was becoming brutalised gradually.
The majority of these prisoners were from Mirpur and Muhammadpur areas, uprooted wholesale from their homes, their wives and children. Many were subjected to physical tortures before imprisonment. Their misery knew no bounds. Separated from their families of whom they had no news, they passed their time in a kind of mental stupor. Nothing seemed to matter to them. They had no idea why they had been arrested. They were non-Bengalis, technically, having originally migrated to East Pakistan from the Bihar and Uttar Pradesh provinces of India. But their children, that is, the second-generation immigrants, spoke Bengali almost as fluently as the native speakers. One could perceive from their speech and habits how far the process or racial and linguistic assimilation had gone. Yet they had been rejected, their relations killed, their homes destroyed, their property confiscated on the grounds that they had not joined the Awami League in its rebellion against Pakistan.
On the first day I came into the jail, I had with me temporarily for a few hours a middle-aged man as my Faltu. He was a recent arrival, strongly built, very healthy. Within a couple of months, the man was reduced almost to skin and bone, not because of the food, but owing mainly to his constant worry on account of his wife and teen-aged daughters. He had not the vaguest notion where they were, or whether they were alive at all. Had they been able to escape molestation? Poor Ehsan- that was his name- could only cry in anguish and eat his heart out in the intervals of his prison work. Words were the only consolation we could offer him. Before his imprisonment, he had been a fairly prosperous trader with a house of his own.
Ehsan's case was typical of hundreds of others. The mental agony from which they suffered threw their physical sufferings into the shade. The blank despair on their faces, the hopelessness about the future, was not paralleled by anything in my experience. When I thought of them I forgot my own misery.
Man's powers of adjustment and accommodation are so incredibly great that within a few months many of them--- (there were exceptions like Ehsan)---- learnt to rally and to live a kind of normal life. They mastered all the prison tricks, came to know what uses to make of lies and falsehoods and how to procure extra portions of food. I would hardly blame them. What was the alternative? Slow death, illness, misery. If by a little deceit and dishonesty in an environment where these were the only currency understood they could lighten their difficulties, how could one find fault with them?
The smokers among them suffered more than the non-smokers. People are known to have traded good shirts or other valuable articles for a single cigarette. Extraordinary services could be obtained in this way. Division One prisoners who were allowed to have cigarettes supplied to them from home soon started exploiting this weakness among their Faltus. One rich man, I know, used to distribute about five packets of cheap cigarettes a day among the various people who worked in the kitchen or did other jobs around his cell in order to buy such luxuries as a regular supply of hot water for his bath, extra portions of meat and fish, and such other services as he needed from time to time. Warders and head-warders treated him with extra consideration for the same reason.
To my surprise, I discovered one day that a religious leader who never smoked himself had taken to using cigarettes in the same way. I understood. What objections could I raise against a universal practice even though it amounted to bribery?
Imprisonment and occasional beatings were by no means the worst aspect of the fate of the non-Bengali population. Many had of course been liquidated straightway. Those sent to the Central Jail were from time to time subjected to identification parades in the presence of guerrilla leaders. They picked out whomsoever they wanted, herded them into waiting trucks, and took them away for execution. This went on until the summer of 1972. The worst barbarities of which the Nazis in Hitler's Germany used to be accused were repeated and exceeded on our soil. Not the slightest attempt was made to find for these actions a legal excuse. It was vengeance and blood-lust unconcealed and unalloyed. We seemed to be back in the world of the Nibelungenlied.
There is reason to believe that among the prisoners there was a sprinkling of spies who constantly tried to incite them to protest and violence in order that they might be subjected with some justification to further torture and punishment. A grim tragedy occurred one morning early in March 1972 through the machinations of these agents provocateurs. Some prisoners were induced to adopt a rebellious attitude; they were indiscriminately fired upon; at least eight died on the spot, among them a student from the University of Dacca whom I had met the morning before. A young warder, one of the coarsest specimens, described to me afterwards with relish how he had shot the rebellious prisoners and finished off one man who had been wounded in the leg at first. He explained that he did not want any witnesses to survive, and, rather than risk inconvenient questions at any inquiry, had put an end to this man’s life by a second shot. Actually, most of these who died had nothing to do with the alleged rebellion. Prisoners had been attacked unawares. The warders had used the incident as a pretext only.
The ripple of excitement created by this incident, of which an entirely false and distorted version appeared in the press, passed off quickly. Everyone seemed to take the line that there was nothing for it but to resign oneself quietly to all this. Protests were useless, and difficult to organise. In a few days’ time people stopped talking about it altogether. I realised that our sensibilities were gradually being brutalised and deadened.
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