Prisoners of Conscience


Anand Patwardhan’s documentary deals with a highly charged subject — political prisoners in India. To his credit, the film is neither shrill nor strident. In fact its power derives from the restraint shown

In a village in Bihar, where electricity was practically unheard of, the country jail practiced electrode torture . .

Suspected Naxalite prisoners were kept in iron bar fetters day and night for five years though the jail manual specified that fetters were only to he used on maniacs and those who:tried to escape…

Sanitation was extremely primitive and medical attention poor…

In general, one had a feeling that most prisoners would not have a chance, let alone of a trial, but of being taken to court at all…

Mary Tyler relives her years in an Indian prison. The British school teacher who was arrested in 1970 and accused of being a Nax-alite and a Chinese agent, is in-terviewed in .London after her re-release, five years later. Hair pull-ed back into a bun, steel-rimmed glasses, .she renders her experience as she does her book—matter-of-fact, dispassionate and understated. Consequently, more shattering.

Mary Tyler sets the tone for the film. Anand Patwardhan’s 40-minute documentary Prisoners of Conscience deals with a highly charged subject—political prisoners in India. It is to his credit that the overall effect is neither shrill nor strident. In fact the power of the film derives from its restraint. Restraint does not however imply a reluctance to state facts. The film does that only too clearly.

Political prisoners, as the film shows, were not just an “emergency ” phenomenon. They existed before June 26, 1975, and continue to exist even today. The emergency merely saw a greater: use of arrests, torture and ‘encounters’ which went beyond. the leftist groups and the working class “who were the main targets earlier, to include members of the mid-dle class. As a result, with the lifting of the emergency, there was a newly-fpund awareness of prison conditions and a growing civil liberties consciousness.

Patwardhan focuses at length on the correlation between political prisoners and a country’s social structure. And on the inevitable, arrest of: those who, refusing to accept it, struggle to change it. Now, as always, they are jailed under “criminal”—not political—charges. The film chooses not to make any value judgments on the methods of struggle adopted, instead, it concentrates on the motivation of the people jailed, on their basic inteigrity and courage. Prisoners of Conscience begins with a jolting sequence in Chandni Chowk, Delhi. It shows a man protesting loudly, being hauled into a police van. His resistance is over come by a couple of well-aimed lathi shoves. The camera moves from the faces of the onlookers to a group beating their breasts and shouting slogans against Mrs. Gandhi. It is the middle of 1975 and the beginning of the mass arrests that marked the Emergency. The arrests were not limited to a particular segment of society and the film too steers clear of any narrow political line. In a series of interviews, political prisoners from varying parties describe their experiences. Patwardhan talks to students, middle class intellectuals, journalists, peasants, members of. the CPM backed students Federation of India, the CP(ML), the Socialist Party, Subba Rao of the Revolutionary Writers Association of Andhra who was held at Mushirabad jail describes independent India’s first official political execution — of Kista Goud and Bhoomiah on December 1, 1975. The other inmates heard of the execution only 12 hours before it was to take place. That night and into the dawn the jail resounded with song. At five in the morning the condemned were led to the gallows. A series of sketches illustrate the event. And the film, in a dramatic cut, moves to the 1977 Republic Day Parade. The camera zooms out from the point of a lance to a regiment marching to “Saare Jahan se Accha” panning slowly to a scene of pomp and pageantry, resting on Mrs. Indira Gandhi who is chatting to a visitor.

The use of such cinematic device is rare and there is no unnecessary straining-after effect which one suspected in Patwardhan’s earlier film,Waves of Revoution. There are however, technical drawbacks imposed by the constraints under which certain footage had to be obtained. But these do not really detract from.the film because the content carries it through. Moreover Patwardhan is working with real people and the sincerity of his characters comes across convincingly. We see JP stressing the neccessity of public vigilance to ensure the government fulfil their promises and the formation of crvil liberties organisations all over the country. The People’s Union For Civil Liberties takes out a torchlight procession demanding the release of all political prisoners and in the background is a song composed by the prisoners of Midnapoie jail.

Anand Patwardhan has made a powerful film. “But the problems of finance and distribution still remain. “I have made the film for the middle class” he says “because I have tremendous faith in their ability to influence government policy. I only hope I manage to reach them and in doing so raise their democratic conscious ness. I wouldn’t call it a radical film—all it tries to do is extend the concept of “freedom” beyond those the middle class already cherishes, to extend to the freedom
and rights of workers and peasants.

Ayesha Kagal
November 22, 1978