Working with women prisoners familiarised me with the concepts of lockdown and social isolation
If you have ever visited a prison you will know 'lockdown' is a concept that accompanies the daily routine of the prisoners and 'social isolation' is a part of their everyday monotonous prison life.
In 2008, as a student social worker, I began working in Mumbai, the financial capital of India, in a prison, for under trial women. Thereafter, my journey continued in two women’s ward/prisons in Kolkata, the cultural capital of India, for my doctoral research under JU-SYLFF programme in 2010-11.
In India, there are specific periods of time when the prisoners are allowed to move about in the prison campus, while the rest of the time is spent locked within their cells. Life in COVID19 lockdown has several resonances.The pain and desperation caused by lack of freedom and meaningful human connections was represented by the women through their narratives and body language. Working with women prisoners brought me to realise the the burden of stigma and the distress of isolation .
Living lockdown life in COVID-19 pandemic brings back powerful memories of women inmates I met in prison
68% of the foreign national prisoners in India are there due to the profound ignorance exhibited by a certain British lawyer, Sir Cyril Radcliffe, who had never been to India, or anywhere else in Asia, and was unmindful about the psycho- graphics and demographics of British India.The legacy of his acts continued in post-independence India.
Women, I researched for my doctoral thesis, were from the neighbouring country Bangladesh and were charged under the Foreigners Act 1946. They were in prison for having crossed the India-Bangladesh border without valid official documents. I spoke with 40 Bangladeshi women in two prisons of Kolkata. According to the Correctional Services, West Bengal, “Report of BD Nationals including UT, Convict and Released (JK) as on 01.06.11 of different Correctional Homes”, there were 2160 Bangladeshi prisoners housed in 33 different correctional homes in Kolkata in June 2011. According to the data furnished by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), it has been found that at the end of 2018, out of the 5,168 foreign national prisoners in India, 68.8% were Bangladeshis.
The high percentage of Bangladeshi prisoners in India must be taken note of in the context of the shared history between India and Bangladesh and the everyday interaction across their porous borders. Here, it must be brought to notice that British colonial rule partitioned one community into India, Pakistan and Bangladesh (was erstwhile East Pakistan). The Radcliffe line which was artificially drawn between India and Bangladesh divided people’s homes and neighbours. It imposed a sense of estrangement between communities which were historically attuned to living in close proximity with each other. While the scars of partition continue to be passed on from one generation to the next, so do the socialities between people across the Indo-Bangladesh border. People continue to maintain relationships across the borders and this is evidenced through, kinship ties and border markets. The Bangladeshi women I met in prison also stated the historical relationship between India and Bangladesh as one of the reasons why they decided to migrate to India.
First as an area of curiosity and then as a humanitarian issue which needed the attention of civil society and policy makers, I went on to explore and understand their journey from Bangladesh to being a prisoner in India.
Researching with the Bangladeshi women in prison on issues which impacted their life opened new areas of my limited conceptual understanding. I started with three research questions:
- How do they negotiate, manipulate and resist both societal and institutional norms?
- How do they challenge the notion of ‘honour’ which is integral to the male-dominated South Asian society?
- How do they make meaning in their everyday existence, living in incarceration?
The narratives of the Bangladeshi women in prisons in India ‘answered’ my research questions and brought to my notice how their lives were shaped not only by violence but also an experience of love with other male and/or female prisoners. They challenged my normative understanding of their mundane prison life and brought me to understand how they resisted and negotiated the institutions and structures they were confronted with in their everyday life. Being in love in prison enabled them to recast themselves and re-imagine their lives and sense of self. It provided them with a sense of hope in an otherwise uncertain future. The women utilised every opportunity to imagine and express a feeling of love and being loved. They wrote love letters to male prisoners, exchanged glances with men when they went to court or other parts of the prison outside the female ward. They carved the names of their lovers on their arms with the help of henna from a plant in the female ward. Their love went beyond the heteronormative ideas of monogamy and love as an end to reproduction.
Aalia, 30-year-old Bangladeshi woman in prison sang:
Manush jibon e prem ache (there is love in human life)
Tai toh shobai bhalo bashe (this is reason people get attracted to each other)
Prothom jaare lagey bhalo (the one who appeals to you at first sight)
Dekhte mone ichcha kore (you want to see them again)
Aalia, like many other women in the prison often recited or wrote songs about love.
Riya, an eighteen-year-old married woman, said in a moment of rage: "You are also a young girl. We are younger than you. Don’t you do what you want to do and when you want to do it? Think about us...we cannot do anything that we want...Can you do me a favour...when you go out and tell people about us please also tell them that these girls want to come out of prison because winters are approaching and they cannot stay in the prison without a man. I hope you understand what I am trying to say."
The women’s expressions of love made their bodily desires visible as well as constantly invisible, by virtue of a lack of space or opportunity to enact those desires. They encountered the pain of imprisonment through imagination, language or bodily expressions of love. The idea of being in love enabled them to recast themselves and hope for a better future.
Practitioners, scholars, and activists were invited to discuss the plight of women prisoners in India
What the love stories of Aalia and Riya have to offer us in this time of crisis?
The Narratives of Aalia and Riya demand that we look at various ways for sustaining the emotional lives of the prisoners. There is an urgent need to re-imagine the world order and re-build it on an ethic which ensures emotional sustainability. Recovery of the economic and political life, or the 'physical bodies of humans' and 'physical structures of society' is not enough. There needs to be a strong co-existence of the mind/body and reason/emotions for sustainable living. In addition, any policy and institutional framework designed for humans, needs to take into account the complexity of this co-existence and the intersectionalities of caste, class, race and gender which confine them. Politics of emotion needs to be an integral aspect of understanding society. An understanding of the politics of emotion opens the door for co-feeling with those who may not occupy the same echelons of power, thereby, fostering a space for power sharing and empathy.
Re-imagining Recovery Package with Radical Empathy
-The 21st century industrial society needs to shift gears and understand diverse aspects of human life
-The recovery packages cannot be transformative by focusing on only physical and economic well-being
-Human well-being and justice in all its multiple dimensions need to be in consideration, not just economic recovery
-Invest in building social capital to stay engaged in eradicating despair and isolation from society
-Social Scientists, Social Workers, Humanitarian Action Workers need to lead the way forward through knowledge generation and dissemination
-Investment in inclusion of social work and humanitarian action in the region as a required course in curriculum of each educational institution
Society as a whole can only thrive when we focus on emotional well-being and a sense of self worth amongst it's participants. It can only be sustained if the essence of radical empathy is incorporated in our everyday understanding of social-political institutions and the functioning of the market : from the micro to the macro. Connectedness, not isolation, is the way ahead.
Author of Women, Mobility and Incarceration: Love and Recasting of Self across the Bangladesh-India Border (Routledge 2018).