By Fr Cedric Prakash sj*
On September 27, 2011 Arun Ferreira was released from the Nagpur jail after being illegally incarcerated since May 2007 on charges of being a Naxalite. Just as he stepped out from the gates of the jail even as his aged parents and other family members waited outside the jail to welcome him back into their loving embrace, Arun was forcibly arrested once again and that too without a warrant.
The next day, on September 28, he was produced at the JMFC Court in Gadchiroli district, Maharashtra in a fabricated case of criminal conspiracy of 2007 despite the fact that the Trial Court had exonerated him of every single charge the previous day. He continued to languish in jail till January 3, 2012 when he was granted bail; only on January 29th 2014 was he finally acquitted of all the false cases which were foisted on him by the State and other vested interests.
Arun Ferreira is a saga in courage. An alumnus of St Xavier’s College, Mumbai, he is basically a human rights defender, engaging in social and political activism. As a college student, he organised students to fight for their rights and against social atrocities. He deeply involved himself in the ‘right-to-housing’ struggles of Mumbai slum dwellers and later on with the tribals and other marginalised communities in rural Maharashtra. For his commitment to the rights of the poor, he was picked up in 2007 and was falsely charged of being a Naxalite. For nearly five years in jail after that – besides being charged with several crimes like criminal conspiracy, murder, possession of arms and rioting – he was tortured and suffered greatly from police brutality.
Arun was our guest at Prashant on November 16, 2015, the day which is observed by the United Nations as ‘the International Day of Tolerance’. We had invited a select group of our collaborators and well-wishers to listen to his painful and traumatic experience in prison. Without rancour or anger, but in a way which touched the hearts of all present, he shared with those present the ordeal of being a prisoner in India today.
His prison memoir entitled ‘Colours of the Cage’ contains a fair bit of what he went through in jail. On the cover page of the book is a note from well-known author and activist Arundhati Roy “Arun Ferreira gives us a clear-eyed, unsentimental account of custodial torture, years of imprisonment on false cases and the flagrant violation of procedure that passes as the Rule of Law. His experience is shared by tens of thousands of our fellow countrymen and women, most of whom do not have access to lawyers or legal aid. This country needs many more books like this one”.
During his conversation at Prashant, Arun highlighted the need and importance for civil society to work for prison reforms; the condition in the jail, he says, are abominable, inhuman with very archaic rules which govern them. Secondly, he asserted, that people should come out to fight draconian laws like the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), 2004 which is draconian, violative of basic human rights and goes against the letter and spirit of the Constitution of India; such anti-people laws need to be abolished.
In the foreword to ‘Colours of the Cage’, Naresh Fernandes writes, “Arun Ferreira reminds us that diversity of opinion and debate are essential for any society to flourish. The worst thing we can do to ourselves is to imprison our imagination”.
Today, Arun continues his activism as an advocate focussing on issue of political prisoners, prison reforms and on the state of Indian democracy. He is truly a prophet for our times: a saga in courage!
*Director of Prashant, the Ahmedabad-based Jesuit Centre for Human Rights, Justice and Peace