Indian Decade

The Death of Jailbird Heroes

Jails in pre-independence India were the focus of inspiring political activism and discourse. Not anymore.

In pre-independence India, prison played a significant role in shaping the personalities of political leaders involved in the fight against British colonial rule. Going to prison was a matter of honour then—a sacrifice in the service of the nation. The dingy confines and suffocating atmosphere of the Cellular Jail for instance—a colonial prison for political prisoners on the Andaman and Nicobar Islands—never deterred determined freedom fighters from defying the imperial government.

In fact, some major historical incidents have taken place in the country’s colonial prisons. The Poona Pact, for example, was made in 1932 between Gandhi and Ambedkar in Yerwada Jail in Pune. Jawaharlal Nehru’s interaction with his fellow prisoners in Ahmednagar Jail, meanwhile, inspired him to write Discovery of India, a wonderful historical narrative of the country.

But post-independence, the image of jail-going politicians has changed dramatically in India, not least because the reasons they’re getting jailed for are far less noble than in the past. The inspiring jailbird heroes of yesteryear are giving way to lawmakers whose mission now is diverting the nation’s wealth for their own gains.

Delhi’s Tihar Jail highlights these changed values. Just look at former cabinet minister Andimuthu Raja, who was taken into judicial custody there for his alleged role in the 2G scandal. Judging from media reports, there could well be plenty more officials following him.

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Such unseemly greed stands in stark contrast to the self-sacrifice of campaigners like Bhagat Singh and Batukeshwar Dutt, who refused to run after throwing bombs at the Central Assembly in Delhi in 1929 (the bombs, as intended, didn’t hurt or kill anyone). Singh was arrested, but used his jail time to write his political treatise, asking that he be allowed to use the courtroom during his trial to address the people about his vision for the nation. And, when the judge issued a death sentence in the case, Singh said he took heart from the belief that his martyrdom would electrify the entire country and inspire a new passion among the people to fight for freedom.

Similarly, when Mohandas Gandhi was charged with sedition in 1922, he used the Ahmedabad trial courtroom to pronounce his views on the British government and spread his ideas of non-violence.

Now, Indians may well have to get used to seeing their elected politicians locked away, having betrayed the trust of the people. The widespread lack of faith in lawmakers was highlighted at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi recently when people from all walks of life gathered to express solidarity with social activist Anna Hazare, who led a fast to draw attention to the issue of rampant corruption and sleaze in the Indian political system.

It’s hard not to wonder whether at the speed with which corruption cases involving politicians are tumbling out of the closet across the country, we might need a dedicated jail to house them all.

The incarceration of the chief of the Commonwealth Games’ Organizing Committee, Suresh Kalmadi,is certainly long overdue. Kanimozhi Karunanidhi, the young leader of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) party, meanwhile, appears to be on the waiting list, as is the chief minister of Karnataka, Bookanakere Siddalingappa Yeddyurappa,and some of his cabinet colleagues.

One man who really deserves a stint in isolation, though, is Narendra Modi, chief minister of Gujarat. But Modi’s alleged crime isn’t tied to the diversion of public money. Instead, many hold him directly responsible for violence that led to the deaths of hundreds of Muslims in unrest that engulfed the state in 2002.

The sad thing is that the apparent decline in standards among our elected officials isn’t a regional phenomenon, it’s a national one. It seems that these days, those left kicking their heels behind bars will be writing The Destruction of India, not The Discovery of India.

Guest Author

Sanjay Kumar

Sanjay Kumar is a New Delhi-based journalist and correspondent for The Diplomat.

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