In a recently-released popular Bengali flick Gotro (The clan), a prisoner who had spent nine years in jail is eventually accepted and welcomed into society, wholeheartedly. Unfortunately, real life is vastly different from such portrayals. Ask people like Aparajita Ganguly Bose, who shudder to think of the time spent in prison. Aparajita had been convicted on charges of murdering her husband and the 50-year-old can never stop lamenting the loss of several years in her prime, for a crime she didn’t commit.
Aparajita’s husband Kunal Bose, whom she married in 1992 after a brief love affair, went missing on May 26, 2000. His body was never recovered. A week later, she was called to the Tiljala police station in Kolkata and shown a photograph of a body resembling her husband with multiple injuries. Cops had cremated the body after declaring it unidentified. The woman, a mother of two sons, was arrested on charges of murdering her husband and was sentenced to life imprisonment in 2003.
“The prosecution accused me of having an illicit love affair with my husband’s friend and hatching a conspiracy to murder him. This was utterly baseless and false. He was killed because of a financial dispute. I had no role in his murder,” she says while stressing that she was falsely implicated because her in-laws didn’t like her.
Eventually, she managed to prove her innocence and was acquitted by both Calcutta High Court and the Supreme Court in 2013 and 2014 respectively.
The 51-year-old has already put her past behind her and started a new life. She now works as a coordinator at the Human Rights Law Network (HRLN), a not-for-profit organisation working to provide legal aid to marginalised sections of society. “I want to forget my past and start my life afresh. Nothing can bring back the time I’ve lost, but I can at least live the rest of my life with dignity,” says the gutsy woman.
Aparajita is not alone. Several women who have been released after serving their jail sentences or are out on bail are trying to put the stigma behind and start a new life in the city. Padma Das was convicted and sent to prison on charges of dacoity in 2006. She was released in 2013. Since then, she has been working at a nonprofit in Kolkata and engaged in handicrafts.
Anamika Gupta*, another convicted woman, has found new direction in life after spending six years in prison on dacoity charges. She was arrested in 2010 and got bail in 2014. Deserted by her husband, Anamika, a mother of two, is still an undertrial and has to routinely attend court proceedings. But her struggles have failed to break her spirit.
Soon after her release, she opened a tailoring shop in the city, “The shop has given me new hope and the confidence to carve a place for myself in society. I was arrested for a crime I didn’t commit. I have the responsibility to run my family and educate my two children.”
Efforts at rehabilitation
Shunned by families, ostracised by society at large and often deeply scarred and traumatised by experiences in prison, women convicts are often found to be equally despondent at the prospect of release. Thankfully, this city has seen some concrete efforts by both state and charitable organisations towards enabling inmates to lead normal, independent lives once they are free.
Asha Deep Trust of Apostolic Carmel, for example, has been giving vocational training to jail inmates since 2007. “We have been training women in stitching, tailoring, netting, painting and bag-making. The aim is to impart skills and help them start a new life. We have trained around 500 inmates in over a decade in various prisons of the state,” said Sister Sheeja, Assistant Director of the Trust.
Renowned in situ rock carver Chitta Dey through his non-profit Flight to Harmony Foundation has been also working to hone the skills of prisoners so that they are able to eke out a new life for themselves. “We have been teaching painting and sculpture work to prisoners lodged in different jails of the state,” said the artist, “Besides we are also involved in similar work at Jharkhand and the Yerwada Central jail in Maharashtra. We have trained over 800 inmates in painting and sculpture since 2007. Many of these inmates have taken up artwork as their profession after release. It has helped them to start their life afresh.”
Besides, the state government also provides vocational training to inmates. Women inmates are encouraged to take part in higher studies and complete their education. Funds are raised for their tutorial expenses with the help of non-profit partners and the West Bengal Prisoners’ Welfare Fund. The inmates are also taught book binding, tailoring, candle making, ironing to help them earn their livelihood once they step out from the four walls of the prison.
Freedom: A mirage?
Realising the hardships faced by women behind bars, Aparajita has already embarked on a mission to fight for the premature release of life-term convicts, “During my stay in the jail, I found that several women convicts had been in jail for over 18-20 years or even more. They were frail and many were seriously ill. I decided to take up their cause and get them released from confinement,” she says.
Taulat Sultana, for example, has been languishing in a Kolkata prison since January 31 1995. She was sentenced to life imprisonment for killing her husband Ramzan Ali, a Left MLA from Goalpara in North Dinajpur district of West Bengal. Ali was strangulated to death allegedly by her paramour Nurul Aslam, with whom Taulat allegedly had an illicit affair at the MLA hostel in Kolkata in November 1994. The sensational murder had grabbed headlines with newspaper reports also suggesting a larger political conspiracy.
Aparajita has prepared a list of 30 such women who are life convicts, but have remained in prison for over two decades. Taulat is among the list of such women whose release she has been pushing for. Her efforts have met with partial success as she managed to secure the release of four women convicts on compassionate grounds last year.
“The major problem is the stigma attached to a jail convict. It becomes very difficult for any individual who has spent his time in prison to be accepted by society. It is true that the government has been arranging for vocational training in jails, but the need is to also ensure that prisoners can find livelihood opportunities, such as short-stay homes for them where they can stay and earn a living, as they slowly try to get back to the mainstream,” says Aparajita.
Legal experts opine that women are ‘soft targets’ and booking them for heinous crimes is often a way to satisfy the appetite of a society baying for quick justice, “Women are soft targets because most of them do not have the resources to fight legal battles; I have seen cases where a woman had to offer physical favours to manage finances for her court battles,” said Jayanta Narayan Chatterjee, Advocate at the Calcutta High Court, “Cops overburdened with multiple responsibilities find it easier to book women on charges of illicit relationship whenever there is a case of mysterious death of their husbands; they earn brownie points from society for quick disposal of the case.”
The need of the hour is to improve the entire system, to prevent shoddy investigations and create enough opportunities for women to connect to mainstream. “The government must take a step forward by not only training them for alternative livelihoods while they are serving the prison term, but also arranging for their rehabilitation after release,” said Advocate Chatterjee.