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Gandhi, Sanjay Dutt, Kasab — Pune’s Yerawada jail, open to public, has many stories to tell

Yerawada jail was opened to public on 26 January, making it the first prison in Maharashtra to do so. Other prisons with historical significance likely to open up too in boost to 'jail tourism'.

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Mumbai: In 1932, when Mahatma Gandhi was in Pune’s Yerawada jail, he went on an indefinite fast to protest against proposed minority representation for the depressed classes, which he thought would divide them from the overall Hindu community. 

B.R. Ambedkar was in favour of this Communal Award, as it was called, announced by the then British Prime Minister Ramsay Mac Donald on 16 August 1932. With both sides unwilling to relent, and Gandhi’s health continuing to deteriorate, there was immense pressure on Ambedkar to work out a compromise. 

The two leaders eventually negotiated an agreement under a mango tree on the Yerawada jail premises where Gandhi was held captive.

The agreement took the form of the Poona Pact, signed between Madan Mohan Malaviya on behalf of Hindus and Gandhi, and Ambedkar, on behalf of the depressed classes, on 24 September 1932, ending Gandhi’s fast.

The mango tree still stands tall and safe in what is now known as the Yerawada Central Jail’s ‘Gandhi yard,’ a small enclosure behind light blue doors right at the entrance of the high-security prison. 

On 26 January this year, the Maharashtra government opened a portion of the Yerawada jail, including the historic ‘Gandhi yard’ and the landmark mango tree, to tourists, making the prison the first in the state to be opened to the general public. Since then, 281 school and college students have visited the premises. 

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High-profile prisoners

Built in 1866, the Yerawada jail is one of the oldest and largest high-security prisons in India. The prison currently has about 5,000 inmates and is spread over 500 acres. It also has a separate women’s prison and an open prison.

Over the past few decades, the Yerawada jail has been in the news for holding high-profile prisoners such as actor Sanjay Dutt, activist Anna Hazare, Abdul Karim Telgi, who was accused in the fake stamp paper scam, and don-turned-politician Arun Gawli. 

However, the prison also has a rich history with several major leaders and freedom fighters being imprisoned during the country’s freedom struggle.

Shahu Darade, public relations officer at the Maharashtra prisons department, told ThePrint, “Many documents, photos, artefacts, handwritten letters from the time of the imprisonment of these leaders have been preserved by the jail staff over the years. These will all form a part of the tourism initiative in the prison.”

History of the 150-year-old jail

Gandhi had three stints in the Yerawada jail. The first was from March 1922 to February 1924 when he was arrested near Sabarmati ashram for writing three allegedly seditious articles. The second time was from January 1932 to May 1933 and then a third time the same year for 22 days in August. 

It was during his time in Yerawada jail that Gandhi started writing his now famous autobiography, ‘The story of My Experiments with Truth,’ and invented a new foldable version of the traditional charkha (spinning wheel), which fetched £1,10,000 at an auction in the United Kingdom in 2013. 

The leader is also said to have developed an interest in star-gazing and astronomy during the days he spent at Yerawada. 

Gandhi’s association with the Yerawada prison has also fostered a certain Gandhian culture in the prison.

On milestone days such as 2 October or the anniversary of the Poona Pact, a group of inmates sit under the mango tree in the ‘Gandhi yard’ and sing devotional songs.

In 2002, Pune-based advocate Asim Sarode launched the ‘Gandhian Thoughts Initiative’ at Yerawada jail, where the lawyer would conduct classes within the prison premises based on the leader’s teachings. 

On 2 October, Gandhi’s birth anniversary, prisoners used to write an annual examination, out of 100 marks, on his teachings. The initiative went on till 2011. 

Other than Gandhi, other famous personalities who spent time at the Yerawada jail were Motilal Nehru, Jawaharlal Nehru, Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, Sarojini Naidu, and Bal Gangadhar Tilak, among others.

Like the ‘Gandhi yard’, the Yerawada jail also has a ‘Tilak yard.’ Arrested on charges of sedition, Tilak had lived in the prison from January 1898 to February 1899.

Years later, Bose, who was lodged at the jail briefly in 1936, had corresponded with the editor of the Tilak-founded Kesari newspaper, D.V. Divakar. 

Bose had expressed his wish to pick up a little Marathi while at Yerawada and was looking for basic book recommendations for the same. According to the letters, displayed at the Tilak museum in Kesariwada, Pune, Bose had also shown his willingness to be interviewed by Kesari

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The tourism initiative 

Three sections of the 512-acre prison, the ‘Gandhi yard’, the ‘Tilak yard’ and the ‘faasi yard,’ have been opened up for tourism. The ‘Gandhi yard’ and ‘Tilak yard’ do not house inmates. 

Jail authorities have preserved Gandhi’s charkha and a few of his items, turning the yard into a memorial. Rooms where the Nehrus and Vallabhbhai Patel lived have also been preserved with their photographs.

In the ‘Tilak yard’, his famous words, “Swaraj is my birthright and I shall have it,” have been painted in Marathi in bold at the entrance to the enclosure. 

Then, up on a slight ramp behind unassuming blue doors is the “faasi yard,” where capital punishment is executed. In 1899, the Chapekar brothers, who assassinated British Plague Commissioner of Pune W.C. Rand, were executed here. 

According to the state government records, the first capital punishment here after independence was on 15 December 1952, and the last time this chamber was used was on 21 December 2012 when the 26/11 Mumbai terror attack accused Ajmal Kasab was executed. 

As of now, the tourism initiative is open only for school and college students and members of registered organisations who have to take prior permission. No more than 50 persons are allowed on the premises at a time. The tours are strictly guided with prison staff doubling up as guides. 

While such initiatives exist in Tihar jail in New Delhi and at the cellular jail at Port Blair, Yerawada is the first prison in Maharashtra to be opened for jail tourism. 

The initiative will soon be extended to a few other prisons with historical significance such as Thane, Nashik, Dhule and Ratnagiri.

“We have for now started jail tourism at Yerawada prison free of charge, but the state government is still debating whether to introduce nominal charges and if yes, how much the fee should be. Jail tourism at other prisons will be started once this issue is sorted at the level of the government,” said a prison department official, who did not wish to be named. 

The ‘showcase prison’

Dr Vijay Raghavan, professor at the Centre for Criminology and Justice, Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), said in many ways, Yerawada’s history, age and size has turned it into a “showcase prison” in Maharashtra, making it a trailblazer for most new initiatives. 

“In terms of vocational programmes, since the convict population is high, it has a range of activities and training facilities. It has a range of factories. It has a full-fledged library with a fairly large collection of books. If any trainee prison officers or guests from other states are coming in, they are taken to Yerawada to show the facilities and to Mumbai’s Arthur Road jail to show the problems,” said Dr Raghavan, who heads Prayas, a field action project of TISS in prisons. 

The first jail community radio station in Maharashtra was also started at Yerawada. The first telemedicine facility at a jail was started here too. 

The above-quoted prison department official said Yerawada has agreements with corporate companies to manufacture lock sets for scooters and wiring for cars. There is also an agreement to manufacture and export shoes. 

Yerawada is also one of the five central prisons in Maharashtra where social workers were appointed for three years with funding from Tata Trusts and technical support from Prayas. This was the only such experiment across India. 

“To that extent, it reflects the ethos of Yerawada historically being a landmark prison,” Dr Raghavan added.

“But the bread and butter of the issue of rehabilitation of inmates is to have permanent social workers and sustained counsellors, which are missing in all jails across the country. Yerawada is no different,” he added.

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  1. Sanjay Dutt and Kasab were convicted for terrorist acts. Was Gandhi convicted for same offence? The writer should be careful while listing names in the title in this manner. It is patently offensive to associate Mahatma Gandhi’s name with two terrorism convicts.

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