There was no library in jail where the prisoners could read books. Neither was there any private supply of newspapers. Each circle got a newspaper that went directly to the deputy jailor’s office. After him, it reached the hands of a few privileged convicts – peon, writer, storekeeper. Some of the educated prisoners would occasionally get to read the paper, either outside the deputy jailor’s office or at their barracks, thanks to the benevolence of the factotums mentioned above.

On the evening of June 26, 1975, when the prisoners returned to their circles from the factories, I asked a prisoner-peon from the jailor’s office for the newspaper. I saw the bold headline of the Emergency on its front page, and the whole newspaper was full of related news. Curiously, the editorial column was blank with only the sign of a question mark that said a lot without saying anything. Hurriedly, I scanned the newspaper for all its headings and sub-headings. I was disturbed by a horde of troubling thoughts. Yet, there came to my subconscious mind a faint glimmer of hope on seeing the question mark in the editorial column. Man certainly finds a way to redeem his freedom of expression even in adversity, which may in future lead to complete liberation.

As far as I can recollect this was the Dainik Jagaran, a Hindi newspaper with a big circulation. Like other print media, its owner and journalists were also targeted by the Emergency regime. Yet, I was shocked to learn later that when Indira Gandhi visited Kanpur during the Emergency, Narendramohan Gupta, the editor of this very newspaper, was at the forefront to welcome her. (Later, he became close with the BJP leader LK Advani and was made a Rajya Sabha member.) As far as I can tell, to these followers of the Jan Sangh and RSS, the act of putting a question mark in the editorial was only a commercial strategy to increase circulation during these troubled times; apprehending future oppression, they found other ways to surrender before the Emergency.

Ramchandra Singh's prison diary was first serialised in the Lucknow edition of "Rashtriya Sahara" in 1984

The little hope I had preserved of release from prison now seemed futile. The circumstances under which the Emergency was declared made it look as though it might be prolonged endlessly, or if it was lifted at all, Indira Gandhi would by then have destroyed the democratic structure of the nation forever. Well-known leaders were being arrested. Frenzy and fear ran through the prison. It must be admitted that to those already there the Emergency made little difference, but prison is a place of rumours and widespread illiteracy. A lot of misleading stories began to circulate, such as that no one would be released by the courts now.  Indira Gandhi would decide whom to release and whom not to.  The most vicious rumour that went around eventually was that all prisoners would be sterilised.

The number of the imprisoned did swell as hundreds of political prisoners were thrown into the barracks of Fatehgarh Central Jail. The First and Second Semi-Circles were packed with these political prisoners. The Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA) had been invoked against many of them for political reasons. The number of prisoners rose to three thousand. Security was tightened and jail employees were instructed to be more vigilant. But Superintendent GL Gupta’s dictatorial attitude could not subdue these prisoners of state. The new arrivals shouted earsplitting slogans of “Bhujia ya tarkari hai, ya baillon ki hariyari hai?” (Is this food for humans or fodder for cattle?) And, “Gupta teri tanashahi, nahi chalegi, nahi chalegi” (Gupta you’re a crook, your tyranny won’t be brooked), directed at the mismanagement and adulterated food.

The prisoners shuddered to hear GL Gupta thus challenged and thought that even if nothing else happens, baton blows were bound to fall on the leaders. These miserable inmates with their shattered self-esteem and dead souls believed Gupta to be the world’s most powerful person.

Decades of confinement had dimmed their perception. Despite Gupta’s display of muscle power through a hundred baton-wielding nambardars and warders who followed him around, the deadlock could be resolved only through negotiation between the two groups. The inmates now realised that their bada sahib was not invincible after all.

The bada sahib’s ceremonial procession drew ridicule from the political prisoners. Whenever they found an opportune moment, they chanted in unison:

“Bol jamure kya dekha?
Bina tilak ka raja dekha
Aur jamure kya dekha?
Chanwar dulate pakka dekha.”

“Tell me sidekick, what do you see?
An unanointed king is what I see.
What else, sidekick, do you see?
A muscleman waving a fly-whisk.”

An infuriated bada sahib looked for an opportunity to crush their ego. Soon, he found it. One night, Pankaj, a MISA prisoner, had a pain in his chest. His friend, a young man of about twenty years, was giving him a body rub. As a result, the bed rocked. When a warder on duty peeped through the window grills to enquire, the youth told him the reason. But in order to be in the good books of Gupta, he raised a ruckus saying that the two were having unnatural sex.

Hearing this, all the MISA prisoners became infuriated. It was a noisy disturbed night. Early next morning, Pankaj was brought before the superintendent while the rest of the state prisoners were kept in lock-up. When Pankaj sat on a chair in front of Gupta, a ferocious-looking pakka knocked him off the chair with a tight slap. Gupta pretended to stop the pakka but the boy had been hit at his instructions. This incident created widespread discontent among the state prisoners. Immediately after this, Gupta had leaflets distributed among the inmates which read:

“Bol jamure kya dekha?
Neta ke upar neta dekha.   
Aur jamure kya dekha?     
Machhardani hilte dekha.”

Tell me sidekick, what did you see?
Saw one leader atop the other.
And sidekick, what else did you see?
Saw their quivering mosquito-net.”

The prisoners chanted these words with great relish and ran around shouting them out. Who could tell these senseless creatures that it was all a lie, a fabrication. They just loved repeating “Bol jamure...” perhaps because this gave them the freedom to create a ruckus, by leave of their Great Master himself.

It was surprising to me that during the cold war between the prisoners of the Emergency and jail officials, the loyalties of the common prisoner lay with the cruel masters who had never treated him any better than a beast.

Such prisoners, with the mindset of slaves, cursed the politicals and stole things from them to please their masters. It goes without saying that with the connivance of such people, protesters and political prisoners in our jail were frequently thrashed and the matter disposed of by reporting such incidents as common brawls. In our country, and perhaps all over the world, the structure of the prison system crushes the spirit of long-term ordinary prisoners to turn them into callous brutes, and that is the extent of their mental reform.

Many of the political prisoners and seditionists came from far-flung districts. They were brought here from jails close to their native place without their families being informed. They longed to see their families but rarely got to do so. The officials had been instructed not to allow them to write more than the stipulated number of letters, with every word monitored and censored.

During this time, the jailor of the First Circle was a drunkard, and a suspicious, cruel and cunning man. He showed concern for the state prisoners, but this was deceit. Impressed by his friendly behaviour, some MISA detainees sat and chatted with him believing that if they kept the jailor in good humour, they would be allowed to send more than one or two letters home. He even encouraged them to write more letters. By evening, when many letters collected on his table, he would hand them over to his peon and say, “Go and give them to ‘Chirag Ali’.”

This was code for them to be burnt behind an old deserted barrack while the inmates waited endlessly for letters from home that never arrived.

Rajkumar the peon was a decent man. He felt terrible about burning the letters but had no other option. We were quite close to each other and occupied the same barrack. One day, after lock-up, he brought a packet of letters in his pocket which he couldn’t burn. He confided in me about them. I could not help but read every single letter. Later we sealed them with a paste of jaggery and gram. These letters gave voice to deeply personal emotions. Having read them, I sat down and held my head in my arms in complete dejection.

The next day, my father was expected to arrive. I convinced Rajkumar to let me have these letters and carried them in a bag to my father. I requested him to post them in Kanpur. During family visits, and sometimes even before the visits, the inmates were thoroughly searched. Had those letters been found on me that would have certainly spelt my death. Later, with Rajkumar’s help, I found other ways of smuggling out letters.

An issue of 'Samkaleen Dastavez' that carried Ramchandra Singh's diary in May 1991

Prisoners managed to find ways to sneak in paper currency received from their visitors, despite strict vigilance and the high chance of being searched. The visitor followed the instructions of the inmate, who folded his gamchha (shoulder cloth) and placed it on the floor. While putting legitimate articles on the gamchha, the visitor slipped the contraband into its folds. At the end of visiting time a search of the prisoner’s person and belongings was mandatory, but this could be a pretend exercise. The prisoner then carried his loot back to the barrack. Sometimes, visiting relatives would remove the tobacco from a few cigarettes and roll currency notes into their tubes. This was risky as any nambardar or pakka the prisoner encountered on the way back could extract a cigarette as toll.

Prisoners who had a pact with one of the warders collected the desired supplies through him once he had taken his own share. It was difficult to keep such money safe. The cash would be hidden in the gap between the bricks of one’s berth and the gap closed over with mud. Others gave their money for safekeeping to authority figures among the inmates – such as a writer or peon to the jailor – with whom they shared good terms. These personages were seldom searched and could successfully conceal prohibited articles.

Meanwhile, the political prisoners had also established secret conduits. There were warders in their favour who carried information for them out of jail.

The nature of these warders was very typical of their class. On the one hand, they thrashed all the prisoners, political or common; on the other, they cooperated with them on special occasions.

The internationally renowned book Notes from the Gallows by the Czech revolutionary Julius Fucik, written in pencil on tiny bits of paper during his incarceration in a solitary cell, was smuggled out of prison with the help of such a warder. During British rule in India, when the big leaders were put into prison, these warders played an important role as a communication link. No one will ever learn the name of the warder who smuggled out the autobiography of the great martyr Ram Prasad Bismil in instalments from the Phansi Garad (the execution cell) of Gorakhpur jail. Many such noble souls also helped the MISA prisoners. My own experience was quite amazing. One of the warders did such a daring thing for me it would have cost him his job had he been discovered. He brought me a camera so I could shoot pictures to send home for remembrance. I kept the camera for two days, but did not find the opportunity or courage to use it. Had it been found on me, it would certainly have been construed as an attempt to map the prison and plan an escape, even a grand conspiracy. He did this for me out of the goodness of his heart and it is distressing that I cannot mention his name, much as I wish to. I had addressed him as “Bhai sahib” and never learned his name.

Having remained the kingpin of Fatehgarh Central Jail for about six years, GL Gupta was transferred during the period of Emergency.

Known to be the worst tyrant ever in the history of the prison, his departure was a relief to the inmates but the shadow of his terror remained for a few more months. The prisoners were apprehensive that he might return. Only after the new superintendent took over did the deathly silence gradually break. The new superintendent KS Pandey was a sensible man. He had concern for the prisoners. Corporal punishment and highhandedness continued but not directly from him. Consequently, the atmosphere of terror gradually waned.

Pandey-ji had the habit of picking his nose while talking. I remembered that during 1967-68, when he was the jailor of Lucknow District Jail, I – then a student in Kanpur – was brought to his jail as a member of the state’s United Opposition Front, arrested along with the hundreds who had protested before the Vidhan Sabha Bhavan. This was the first time I was arrested, and stayed in prison for a month. Among my fellow detainees were the communist leaders Shiv Kumar Mishra, Shankar Dayal Tiwari, RN Upadhyaya, Vijaypal Singh, Ramharsh Vidrohi, samajwadi (socialist) leaders Arjun Singh Bhadauria and Ramsevak Yadav, student leaders like Ram Asrey Verma and Surendra Singh, and “the joker of Indian politics” Raj Narain.

Seeing the superintendent rubbing his nose after all these years evoked innumerable memories. There was a world of difference between prison life then and now. Then my ambition had run high. Confidence was at full steam. I had dreams in my eyes. I often reflected in solitude how my role in the socialist struggle would be significant. But these convictions were now dying as if on the gallows; as was I, serving my life term. Now I was reduced to a prisoner in a red striped vest, pajama and cap. I could see only red bricks around me, and each day seemed like a year.

Excerpted with permission from 13 Years: A Naxalite’s Prison Diary, Ramchandra Singh, translated from the Hindi by Madhu Singh, Navayana.