Convicted killers and kidnappers who suffered no qualms of conscience in bending the law are now pounding the books in their prison cells in the land of Mahatma Gandhi.
Indeed, the high-security central jail in Ahmedabad in Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state of Gujarat, which was once notorious for bloody violence and drug smuggling, has turned into a serious study center, thanks to a vigorous reformation and rehabilitation program.
Many of the merciless murder convicts and under trial rapists are among the 4,000-odd prisoners in the 2,700-capacity claustrophobic iron house.
But today, dozens of these lawbreakers boast diplomas and degrees from prestigious universities and famed institutes in subjects as diverse as better parenting, women empowerment, technical education, human rights, food and nutrition, local self-government system, business administration, computer concepts and what have you.
After all, Ahmedabad-based B.R. Ambedkar University, Vadodara’s M.S. University, the Indira Gandhi National Open University, Annamalai University and couple of agricultural varsities enroll and guide the dreaded but repentant criminals in various distance learning courses without charging any fees what with some 50,000 books having been distributed among the eager-beaver inmates in the recent past.
Only last fortnight, when the results of a test on the Gandhian philosophy were out, the top scorers among the 77 examinees from the jail were, coincidentally, all those who have been accused in a sensational serial bomb blasts case in which 56 people were killed when 24 low-intensity bombs exploded in different places in Ahmedabad within a span of 70 minutes on July 26, 2008.
Even in 2016, the first-ranker in the same test on Gandhian studies was none other than Safdar Nagori, the alleged mastermind of the terror strike and one who carved out Indian Mujahideen from the banned Student Islamic Movement of India (SIMI), leaving the jail officials confused and confounded.
Even others who also came out with flying colors in the test were part of the 24 highly-qualified serial blasts accused who were caught-red-handed while digging up a 213-foot escape tunnel in the 74-acre slammer located just a heartbeat away from the gushing Sabarmati river.
“They read the books on Gandhiji’s teachings so carefully that they even pointed out typos and other printing mistakes”, says Vivek Desai, managing trustee of Navjeevan Trust, a publishing house founded by Gandhi, which conducts the tests at regular intervals “to spread Mahatma’s ideology.”
According to V.H. Dindore, deputy superintendent of police in charge of the big cage, the jail library is well-stocked with some 20,000 books on all religions and subjects and “if a prisoner needs a non-controversial book not available in the library, he or she may place a request with the authority and the book is ordered from outside”.
A doctor who was sentenced to a 10-year imprisonment in 2005 for violation of the then Foreign Exchange Regulation Act, read most of the books in the library during his incarceration, kept on joining the correspondence courses conducted by various varsities and earned a record number of 31 degrees and diplomas in spiritualism, science, commerce, etc. before he was set free much earlier for his good behavior.
Not long ago, as many as 11 murder convicts serving life term in Vadodara’s jail decided to turn over a new leaf and had together obtained coveted degrees and diplomas in subjects of their choice.
The state-run Society for Creation of Opportunity through Proficiency in English had identified 300 educated inmates in the Ahmedabad central jail who wished to learn English language to boost their job prospects when they are out of the penitentiary.
What’s more, even some of the 15 senior police personnel pushed behind bars in the sensational Sohrabuddin fake encounter case pursued higher studies in their barracks.
While D.G. Vanzara, former chief of the Anti-Terrorist Squad of the Gujarat Police, completed courses in Human Rights and Information Technology, and even penned four books of poetry on patriotism, former deputy superintendent of police Narendra Amin did certificate courses in computers and Cyber Laws from an open university in Pune.
The Gujarat Sahitya Akademi published a compilation of tales and poems penned by prisoners in Gujarat’s 27 jails who also submit their contributions to the state government’s monthly Gujarati magazine.
Women inmates – for whom a special computer room has been created – bring out an in-house magazine in which they also contribute articles narrating their tale of woes.
Only recently, a quarterly magazine, Saad (meaning “voice” in Gujarati), carrying the literary creations of the scholarly inmates, has been launched which is printed free of cost by Vivek Desai’s Navjeevan Trust.
“All this is part of our jail reform and rehabilitation programs and we are aiming at 100 percent literacy in jails. But then, new unlettered men and women accused of various crimes keep coming in,” explains T.S. Bisht, additional director-general of police (prisons).
But if the former hoodlums and hooligans want to clean up their acts and have fallen in love with books, a part of the credit should also go to selfless volunteers of organizations like Brahma Kumaris whose inspiring spiritual discourses have brought about a change of heart in countless criminals, including some 400 dacoits.
In other words, every prisoner has the right to pursue education but sometimes the jail authorities are hamstrung by lack of funds to create the necessary infrastructure for the born-again bibliophiles.