The Telegraph
Sunday , June 19 , 2016

The jail that sparked many a story

I stop at Purnea to meet Girindranath Jha, a journalist, who has returned to his ailing father and begun farming. I read his blogs and Facebook posts on harvesting potatoes, the impact of the westerly wind - pachiya - on fruits, the joy of seeing rice saplings sprout, the significance of green fields and running rivers, all intermingled with his own fiction and research on the writings of Phaniswarnath Renu, one of the greatest modern socialist writers from Bihar.

We decide to start by visiting the Purnea Jail. My father had been a political prisoner there as a 25-year-old in 1957 with the Maharaja of Vizianagram Vijay Gajapati Raju, Loknath Joshi, Kalikaprasad Singh, Sarju Mishra and about 95 other socialist leaders. They were all part of a pan-Indian movement to remove English from official use. My father used to describe the room where 65 prisoners were jailed with one open toilet between them, the mess, the courtyard where they did yoga, the tree that had thousands of bats hanging from it...

As we drove to the jail we stopped at the Indubhushan library, started by the father of Satinath Bhaduri, a socialist writer who wrote the great novels Jagori and Dhorai Charit Manas about India's freedom struggle against the British. Professor Partha Chatterjee, whose writing and teaching have helped to decolonise the humanities, was informed by the subaltern characters in Dhorai Charit Manas in writing The Politics of the Governed.

The writer (top) in front of the Purnea central jail where her father was a political prisoner in 1957. Pictures by Sudhanshu

Bhaduri was born in Purnea and went to jail in Bhagalpur, Giri reminiscences, and Renu was born in a village in Araria and went to jail in Purnea. Bhaduri was Renu's guru. Both were influenced by the Indian National Congress and later the Congress Socialist Party.

The characters in Jagori and Dhorai Charit Manas describe the jail in Purnea as does Renu.

We reach the jail and meet the kind-hearted jailor, who does not let us inside the actual prison, but we are allowed to peep in from the outside and visit the room with an open toilet that my father occupied. It is disused. The jail is clean, there is a garden and the prisoners are allowed to pursue cultural activities.

Indians have done better than the British in the treatment of prisoners. Bihar has gone one step ahead. National Crime Records Bureau data reveal that Chhattisgarh and the Union territories are arresting increasing number of people, whereas the numbers of those arrested in Bihar are going down. I had read recently that Sweden has closed down its prisons because they do not have anyone to arrest. They have chosen to use the funds to invest in people instead. Perhaps, the socialist government in Bihar is going to follow its socialist partner's path.

Purnea was the first district to be created by the British in 1771, one of the worst exploited and thus the worst hit by the Bengal Famine. Timber contracts to those in service of the British Raj ended up turning this area, once called Puran Aranya (Total Forest), into a swamp, that generated one of the cruellest cholera outbreaks in human history. As a result, Purnea became the centre of resistance and intellectual ferment. Its young men and women were delegates to the Indian National Congress, attended rallies, spun the charka, went to jail, wrote pamphlets and books. Purnea became a literary centre. Today it is one of the big education centres of north Bihar.

The disused rooms in the jail could easily be turned into a museum on the role that Purnea played in India's independence struggle. It would be a striking way to remind the next generation of their hard won independence.

Over lunch at Sanjha Chullah it is evident that Giri will carry on the legacy of Purnea's literati. Like Renu his writings are both reportage and fiction. His newest book, Ishq me Maatisona, has been published by Rajkamal.

I then go to Gulabh Bagh, one of the most notorious red-light areas in north Bihar, situated near the largest grain depot in eastern India and on a highway. Truckers used to routinely buy little girls here and the traffickers would provide a constant supply of poor, low caste children from nearby villages. To my pleasant surprise, I heard from a young girl, Roshanara, on her way back from school, that a female police officer, Kim Sharma, has arrested many of the kingpins and things were much better here. Roshanara adds, "One more push and investment in the girls and women here could make this a non-red light area."

I leave, thinking that perhaps, we are too hasty in saying nothing has been achieved in 60 years. We have forgotten what once was. The legacy of zamindari and the Raj are vanishing. Two days ago, women won more than half the seats in the Purnea municipality.

• Ruchira Gupta is a feminist campaigner, writer, visiting professor at New York University, adviser to the UN, and founder of Indian anti-sex trafficking organisation Apne Aap Worldwide. 

Follow on Twitter and Facebook @ruchiragupta

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