Writing from prison



What would G. N. Saibaba read?

Were he in a condition to pursue his intellectual interests, what would G. N. Saibaba read, and how would he and other prisoners access the books they wanted?

G. N. Saibaba, the former English professor from Delhi University, who was abducted from the streets of the University in May 2014 was imprisoned and charged for having links with Maoist organizations. He has since spent many stretches of time in prison, where he continues to languish. Saibaba, whose disability is categorized at ninety percent is bound to a wheelchair. India’s legal system makes provisions for a prisoner like him to be kept under house arrest or in conditions that do not jeopardize his life, but these have been ignored.

After debilitating spells in jail, as he has several health complications, some of which are linked to his disability, Saibaba was sentenced to life imprisonment by a Gadchiroli court in Maharashtra, in March 2017, for being a ‘think-tank and high-profile leader’ of a Maoist organization.  A recent letter to his wife that was reproduced on news sites suggests that this stretch of time has been less hopeful than previous stints in jail, during which Saibaba spoke of learning Urdu from books and from lessons given to him by Yakub Memon, who was in the same jail at the time, and whose hanging spurred reactions in different parts of the country. Saibaba said that for the first time, he read Ghalib and Faiz in a language other than English. In an interviewSaibaba mentioned that Memon himself was a voracious reader.

Kobad Ghandy, jailed in 2009 under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act on charges of being a member of the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist), produced much writing, which was published before he was released. Of late, the number of writings that have emerged from incarcerated or recently released prisoners, makes one wonder about the nature of prison libraries, their contents and the rules that determine who reads what in prison. 


here is a list of prison writings compiled by PhD student, Swarnim Khare

Mary Tyler’s My Years in an Indian Prison (1977), Joya Mitra’s Killing Days (2004), Arun Ferreira’s Colours of the Cage (2015), and Abdul Wahid Shaikh’s Begunaah Qaidi – Innocent Prisoner of 2017 are testimonials to the torture and other violations they faced inside Indian prisons.

Shaikh was acquitted of all involvement in Mumbai’s train blasts of 2006. Of his nine years in Mumbai’s Arthur Road jail, ten months were spent writing his book. In an article in Scroll, Shaikh stated that the book was less of an autobiography and more of a guidebook for other innocent prisoners fighting the “police state”. The phenomenon of the recently released prisoner, acquitted after years in prison, and in the case of Nisar-ud-din Ahmad, 23 years, has become the subject of several books, such as Framed as a Terrorist: My 14-year Struggle to Prove My Innocence, written by Mohammad Aamir Khan with Nandita Haksar. Mohammed Atik Iqbal, a computer science graduate, arrested in 2008 in connection with bomb blasts in Pune and granted bail in 2012, has consistently filed petitions for access to information and to the internet. From highlighting his illegal detention, torture, and starvation, days before being officially imprisoned, Iqbal pointed to how access to books and to the internet could enable informed prisoners secure their rights and keep track of the progress on their own cases.


The following is a series of interviews conducted by Project members at the Death Penalty Research Project at the National Law University, Delhi.

An interview in Raipur Central Jail, Chhatisgarh:

The following questions were answered by two jail inmates who worked in the library.

Q1. What is the primary material readers ask for?

Ans. There is a variety of books in the library. There are mainly six types of books. They are kept in a segregated manner inside the library.

  1. Religiously influenced books. Books which teach that teach tolerance and respect towards other religions.
  2. Magazines like India Today, Sanjeevani and others about worldly knowledge.
  3. Religious books for all religions like Hinduism, Muslim, Sikhism, Christianity. Books related to family. Books donated by Gayatri Family foundation.
  4. Books related to primary as well as secondary education. These books are mainly given by IGNOU.
  5. Entertainment related books like Mathematics, General Knowledge, Science, novels and stories like those written by Prem Chand (He is a famous Hindi author.)
  6. Books related to geography, politics, government. Geography about countries like Australia, Japan.

On clarifying if access to legal books is allowed, they said that only a few chapters related to the rights of the prisoners are distributed by the paralegal volunteers and lawyers who are part of a N.G.O. Books like I.P.C. are not available in the library. They considered these books as dangerous. Thus they should not be kept in the library. There are some things about which the prisoners should not know.

Q2. From where does the library source its materials?

Ans. The books are received by the library in the following ways:

  1. Books are donated by religious institutions, NGOs, other organizations, schools, colleges and people.
  2. Chhattisgarh Pustak Nigam gives them education related books.
  3. Jail budget
  4. A special DMF fund instituted by the Collector from which books can be bought if the other sources fall short of supplying books.

Q3. Can it and does it officially collaborate with state libraries if there is a demand for material?

Ans. There is a branch of the state library inside the prison complex. Books cannot be borrowed from the state libraries on demand.

Q4. What is the frequency of use and what are the terms of use?

Ans. There is a ‘sakshar sena’ (a group of people which are in-charge of motivating people to study.) After the institution of this group, the instances of people studying has gone up. In addition to that, a number of courses including computers, music, Sanskrit, stitching etc. are offered by IGNOU inside the prison complex. The prison has NIOS recognized extracurricular activity courses like painting, music, stitching etc. There are four main test centres inside the prison:

  1. Schools of the state of Chhattisgarh
  2. Pandit Ravishankar Vishwavidyalaya
  3. Sanskrit Vishwavidyalaya
  4. IGNOU

Q5.Is there a record of usage (are prisoners allowed to “borrow”)?

Ans. All records are kept. Books are issued on Friday and returned on Wednesday/Thursday. It depends on the size of the book. Its thickness and font size will determine the duration it can be borrowed. These rules are not that strict though. No fine has to be paid for the books.

On asking if the prisoners have to pay anything if the books get torn, they replied in negative. They have never encountered such a situation where a book was torn.

Q6. What happens when they do not have the material demanded available?

Ans. A list of the demanded books can be forwarded to the authorities. The books can be made available by any of the sources listed before. The material can also be bought through the prison fund or the special fund instituted by the Collector.

Q7. Which kind of prisoners are permitted to receive reading/writing material and in what form?

Ans. Everyone including death row prisoners is allowed to access and borrow books. “Clean and healthy entertainment is the right of every human.”

Q8. Does the library have a list or catalogue that they could release?

Ans. They said that they have a list or catalog of all the books that are kept in the library. The list can be released only with the permission of the relevant jail authorities.

The following post focuses on surveys of prison libraries conducted by two library science professionals, Anupama and Nirmal Singh, and by the Centre for the Death Penalty, National Law University, Delhi.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s