Four years ago, I did a story on people who had gone through a life sentence and then been released. It was for an Independence Day special and I wanted to know what freedom meant to them. I travelled across Maharashtra’s Amravati district, which has a Central Jail, and spoke to about 10 life termers. All of them were poor and most of them had killed on impulse. One of them was Prabhakar Gaikwad, who had been visiting his sister during the festival of Bhaubeej when her neighbour had come and started hurling abuses at her over some dispute. Gaikwad intervened, a fight started, and he stabbed him to death. He spent 20 years in jail. It was while doing that story that I heard of furlough, an annual leave for prisoners when they could go home. In Gaikwad’s case, he started getting it after five years in jail. Initially, he would return to prison on time. But then, once when he was out, he just didn’t feel like going back. After a couple of months, the police picked him up. It was all very casual. He was at home and they came and asked him to come along. It was also the reason he had to serve 20 years in all. Obedient life termers could at the time get off in 14 to 17 years.
A couple of other life termers also told me about how they overstayed their furlough period.
It is ridiculously easy to escape from jail because all prisoners—barring terrorists, Naxalites, foreigners, high profile criminals and the desperately poor—get parole and furlough regularly after they have spent an initial phase of incarceration. All they have to do is not return.
This is what Bitti Mohanty, the son of a former Orissa DGP who raped a German tourist and then after conviction jumped parole, did. It is interesting to read newspaper reports in which the police say they are baffled that Bitti could have remained in plain sight for so long. It is completely explicable. In a country as vast, crowded and compromised as India, starting a new life is as easy as taking a train and getting off at a random station. For everything, including fake documentation, there is a standard operating protocol because we are a nation of millions of poor migrants who the Government is not interested in. It does not even take too much money. Soon after I got into journalism, I did a story on police harassment of migrants, accused of being illegal Bangladeshis. I got a passport from one of them and showed it to a policeman who looked at it with disdain and asked me if we didn’t all know how easy it was to make a fake passport.
Unlike in developed countries, in India it is hard work to prove your existence to the Government. Countless people whose benefits under government schemes have been delayed or denied have lived through this. In P Sainath’s book Everybody Loves a Good Drought, there is even a case of a man who has been allotted a piece of land but does not know where it is. Vanishing is simple because the State really has no truck with you, it’s always the other way round. What matters is your local community or close relationships. If Bitti (we are of course assuming that he is Bitti) had made a clean break from his past, he would be perpetually free. It needs an anonymous letter to get the police to take notice. And even then, if his case had not been so high profile, the police would really not have bothered. The only way for Bitti to get caught was for him to open his mouth about his past. Or to have maintained contact with relatives or friends who would voluntarily or involuntarily expose him.
Breaking off from your past is not as easy as it sounds. It is a form of death. In Hinduism, when someone becomes a sanyasi, s/he has to take on a new identity. In practice, the connections always carry on in some fashion. One of the sages of recent times is touted to be Ramana Maharshi. When he was a child, he had a near-death experience and then shed all his belongings, including clothes, and went off to a mountain to meditate in silence. He didn’t open his mouth for a couple of decades. But towards the end of his life, his family, including his mother, were all there in the large ashram built by his devotees while he looked benignly on.