Special Reports

How an inmate tried to change the lives of Tihar Jail prisoners

With over 70 percent of the jailed population being under-trials — technically innocent yet languishing — what can be done to lessen their trauma and pain?

Several readers have been telling me that I’m focusing only on dark realities. Well, a writer dwells on the ground realities; sadly, we are living in dark times, with murky political build-ups, dragging along horrifying aftermaths.

Its only rarely that one comes across a positive story or a person carrying hope for others! Last month I did come across such a person, who though himself went through a very tough phase, yet he not just withstood that trauma but tried to reach out to hundreds and is still trying to do so…Yes, I am writing about the New Delhi-based theatre personality, Mahmood Farooqui, who is also called the Badshah of Dastangoi, master of the art of storytelling.

Actually last month I was invited to be part of a discussion on the Anti-Sikh riots. And as soon as I reached the venue – The Attic – what caught attention was a poster carrying details of Mahmood Farooqui directed plays focusing on jail inmates. Lurking in the backdrop the fact that he was jailed in the Tihar jail on charges of raping an American researcher but those charges proved baseless in the court which acquitted him last autumn. It was clear from the details in the poster that he had been not just holding theatre workshops for jail inmates but also staging plays with them, for them.

Even before meeting Mahmood Farooqui, I marvelled his grit and courage and that ability to carry on in that jailed condition. In fact, most prisoners I have met and interviewed have told me that they cannot take the strain and find it very difficult to cope… And with that in the background, I decided to meet him and ask him details of his work in the Tihar jail and also what can be done to lessen the plight of the jailed, especially the under-trails who form almost 70 per cent of the jail population.

Yes, amazing, the way Mahmood Farooqui has reached out to the Tihar jail inmates – not just through teaching them English, voice training, conducting theatre workshops but also by starting off the Tihar Akhbar, a weekly paper that he conceptualized and edited. “The newspaper is meant for the inmates to get news of the entire jail as well as know the status of their cases. This newspaper helps inmates who have little legal help or knowledge of their rights. The newspaper encourages inmates to express themselves through stories, poems or non-fiction writing. And there could be more coming – a media hub, to quote him on this – “yes, a Media Hub for the jailed - A Centre for learning media including camera, sound and editing has been proposed in collaboration with AKJ Mass Communication Centre and IIMC, Delhi. The proposed centre will provide up-to-date technology to the inmates to learn skills that will help them in employment and rehabilitation in society…The proposal has been passed by the jail authorities and has been sent to the Government. I don’t know if it has been approved or not.”

I asked Mahmood Farooqui to comment on several aspects. To begin with, I asked him the obvious: what made him reach out to the jailed inmates of the Tihar jail with theatre workshops and other creative activities? “I had done some theatre before taking up Dastangoi so when I first landed there I was distressed to see the absence of engaging activities for inmates. I did a Dastangoi session for newcomers and from that emerged the idea of doing a play. The first story I adapted was Premchand's Nasha. It is very different doing theatre in jail because most people are either illiterate or barely literate so you have to chose your content carefully. Workshops, plays, performances, they provided a lot of catharsis to participants as well as other inmates. It was also a kind of healing for me.”

Now that he is out ofthe jail confines, what’s been happening to the activities he’d started? “The Tihar Drama Club, that I founded, did seven or eight productions while I was there and with the help of the administration we even took it to all the different jails of Tihar and even participated in the Tihar Kala Abhiyan which was held last year. Before my release, I was preparing for Ramlila with the troupe, which they staged on their own afterwards. I am still continuing with my work there. I go there once a fortnight. Recently, they performed Premchand's Namak ka Darogha at their own initiative which really delighted me. There is some real talent out there and there is nothing better than theatre to bring out pent-up feelings.”

Does he feel that such activities should be and could be introduced in other jails so that there's some basic relief for the jailed? “Oh yes, absolutely, the Hollywood actor Tim Robbins has been working with inmates over the last decade… he shows how it is possible to use theatre to rehabilitate and to prevent people from repeating their errors. Theatre heals, it should be made a compulsory activity.”

With over 70 percent of the jailed population being under-trials — technically innocent yet languishing — what can be done to lessen their trauma and pain. “We have to make bail easier for them and try and incentivise them to do better work in jail so they can be released earlier. Jails must provide a value-addition to the poor and the disadvantaged, which they are not doing right now. Too many warders think their job is only punitive and not corrective.”

And finally, the big question: he went through a turning point in his life, yet he didn't let the trauma demolish him…what kept him going?

“The incredible bravery and grace of my family and friends kept me going. Oh yes, there were many moments when I was very depressed and totally despairing but then I would look around me and feel blessed that I had a family, visitors, lawyers...that I could read books and poems and do plays to sublimate my misery and grief whereas most around me didn't even have that. Because of theatre, I got izzat in the midst of zillat, so I am deeply grateful to the Almighty for this.”