By Quaid Najmi
Pune (Maharashtra), Jan 23 (IANS) Marking a new chapter for tourists, the Maharashtra government will throw open important prisons in the state for ‘jail tourism’, starting this Republic Day on January 26 with the historic 150-year-old Yerwada Central Jail in Pune.
Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray will inaugurate the initiative on Republic Day in the presence of Deputy Chief Minister Ajit Pawar and other top officials, Maharashtra Home Minister Anil Deshmukh announced on Saturday.
“This is the first phase of ‘jail tourism’ Later, it will be extended to other prisons like Nagpur, Nashik, Thane, Ratnagiri, etc. A small fee of Rs 5 for school students, Rs 10 for collegians and Rs 50 for general tourists shall be levied,” Deshmukh said.
Built by the British in 1871, parts of the high-security YCJ – spread across lush greenery of 512 acres, the largest in South Asia – will be opened for tourists, students, researchers and others to go around and study various aspects of the old prison deeply linked with India’s freedom struggle.
Pune’s human rights lawyer Asim Sarode welcomed the move and said it should be implemented with full security protocols for all concerned so that the tourists can get a feel of the jail without disturbing the inmates.
Earlier, the Cellular Jail in Andaman & Nicobar Islands, infamous as ‘Kala Paani’ and Fort Aguada Jail in Goa – both sea-facing – were among the major prisons where tourism has been allowed, besides the Sangareddy Central Jail, Telangana, which permits a 24-hour paid stay with full ‘jail-comforts’ for tourists.
Accessible through an imposing fortress-like entrance, with a tall foyer on which the Tricolour flutters, the YCJ Pune complex is secured by four high walls to prevent any adventurous escapes.
The prison areas are sub-divided as per security zones and barracks for the roughly 5,000 inmates, and there are ultra-secure 10 ‘Anda Cells’ (oval cells) for isolating the most heinous criminals and terrorists.
It has a ‘Kishore Wing’ for prisoners in 18-21 age-group where the young incarcerated inmates are given education or skills to keep them off crime after their release, and a 300-capacity Female Jail where the inmates get various types of vocational training.
Outside YCJ is the Open Jail where inmates with minimum five years of very good behaviour are permitted limited freedom, with basic security as per the jail norms.
The prisoners’ white uniforms are ‘colour-coded’ – Yellow Bands for those representing their groups/barracks, Violet Bands for those working as volunteers and Red Band for those who made failed escape attempts.
The YCJ also has the historic ‘Gandhi Ward’ where Gandhiji spent years as a political prisoner, now vacant, but with a ‘Charkha’ and his signed documents, besides other documents signed by other prominent personalities of the freedom movement.
The jail has a ‘Mulakat Kaksh’ (Meeting Room), a radio station where popular numbers are played and once incarcerated Bollywood actor Sanjay Dutt even served as its radio jockey, important festivals are celebrated jointly like Republic Day and Independence Day, along with Rakshabandhan, Diwali, Eid, Makar Sankranti and Gandhi Jayanti, and an annual ‘Prison Panchayat’ is also held.
Education, which is now compulsory for all inmates across jails includes courses in English, Hindi or Sanskrit with periodic examinations, besides vocational training in computers, carpentry, tailoring, soap-making, footwear, farming, etc, and the proceeds of the products sold outside get distributed among the inmates, and for recreation a library, games room, gym, yoga centre, etc.
The sprawling prison canteen prepares food for all, ensuring the menu is not repeated in a week, and on special occasions, biryanis or ‘puran-polis’ are served, a jail hospital where all treatment barring surgeries are available, besides a welfare fund was created out of the profits from the canteen or the jail industry centre.
Among the legendary historic figures who spent time here include Mahatma Gandhi, Motilal Nehru, Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, Sarojini Naidu, Lokmanya Tilak and Joachim Alva.
During the Emergency, notables who were jailed included Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Pramila Dandawate, Balasaheb Deoras, and Vasant Nargolkar.
More recently, Anna Hazare, Bollywood actor Sanjay Dutt, scamster Abul Karim Telgi and ex-mafia don Arun Gawli also were lodged here on various occasions.
In his 18-month stint starting January 1932, Gandhiji launched an indefinite hunger strike to protest the Communal Award for separate seats for depressed classes by then British Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald.
This culminated in the famed ‘Poona Pact’ signed by Gandhiji, Dr B.R. Ambedkar – the architect of the Indian Constitution – and Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya, in September 1932.
Gandhiji again spent some time at YCJ in 1942 and also in Pune’s Aga Khan Palace, from where he was released on medical grounds.
The YCJ also saw some instances of criminals getting the noose – notably the May 1899 hangings of the Chaphekar brothers – Balkrishna, Vasudev and Ranade – for killing British Plague Commissioner in Pune, W.C. Rand, in 1897, soon after the diamond jubilee celebrations of Queen Victoria’s coronation.
In October 1992, Sukhdev Singh Saini and Harjinder Singh Jinda – the killers of Indian Army chief Gen A.S. Vaidya – were hanged on the same day.
Much later, in November 2012, Ajmal Kasab, the sole surviving terrorist of the Mumbai terror strikes of November 2008, also was sent to the gallows.
(Quaid Najmi can be contacted at [email protected])