From Sagar, Son to Father Vernon: Happy Birthday Dada!


It is my father’s birthday today. He turns 63. Due to the brutality of our government and the failure of our judiciary he will be spending his birthday in a prison cell. At the time of a serious global pandemic when he falls in the category of people most vulnerable he will be spending his birthday in an overcrowded prison with no adequate health facilities.

Today I thought of sharing a little about how he has has been spending his time in the past year and a half in Yerwada prison, Pune.

The image below is part of a letter written by a political prisoner Arun, who is still in Yerwada jail, to my mother. The letter was written after my father was shifted from Pune to Mumbai. In this Arun speaks of his own meeting with another prisoner Sonawne who was with my father in the same yard in Yerwada jail.


Sonawane told Arun

“Vernon Uncle is a very nice person. He taught me how to study the Constitution and created in me an interest about it. He is very talented. Varavara Raoji gave me a gift of poems as a gift. Both Vernon and VV gave me a lot of respect. They gave me the inspiration to become a better person. Nowadays I spend my time studying the Constitution. Do tell them that I remember them and send my salaams.”

Yes this is what my father, the ‘Urban Naxal’, has been doing in prison. Teaching people about the Constitution.

He would hold one hour long classes in his prison yard with around 10-12 of the other inmates. He would mainly teach them English with a focus on spoken English. He would encourage them to read out loud and speak a few sentences confidently. He would ask us to send him simple books which he could give for his students to read and borrow from the prison library also for the same. The diary of Anne Frank was one of the books he borrowed. He took these classes almost daily.

The last time I met my father in court he told me about how his students had an extra long session with in the last few days before he was shifted from Pune. Everyone candidly shared their life stories and spoke about their experiences. My father gave me a very enthusiastic description of this farewell session with his students. It conjured vivid images of all of them sharing warmth and cheer in very bleak circumstances.

I haven’t been able to hear from him at all since that day which was almost two months ago so I’m not sure about how he spends his time in Taloja Jail.

Through one of the prisoners out on bail from Taloja we got to know that my father had written that person’s bail application and many other prisoner’s interim bail applications after the COVID outbreak.

My father’s experiences and writings have given me a ringside view of the many inequalities and injustices that exist in our criminal justice system and our prisons. Innocent people are thrown into prison because of their identity on false charges. It takes years for their trials to even begin and they end up spending more time in prison as under trials. They come from poor families and hence don’t have access to good legal support as well which increases their prison time.

It is his stories that make me completely agree with Joan Baez when she sang about razing the prisons to the ground.

Our prisons and the entire judicial system desperately need systemic changes which would make it a justice system in the true sense.

My father is a very kind and compassionate person who always tries to make the people around him laugh. The work he continues to do in jail is a true testament to this nature of his. In such a difficult situation, he still is actively helping others in need and giving them a reason to smile.

Happy Birthday Dada ❤ Thank you for everything.
I am extremely proud of the person that you are and the work that you do.
And shame on this system that is punishing you and so many others for speaking up against the injustice that is so prevalent within it.

Jail Manuals require prison administration to conduct literacy and other educational classes, facilitate induction in higher education courses through universities with provisions for distance learning and organise vocational training programs for prisoners specially those convicted for an offence. This is one of the primary objectives of Jails in India – to facilitate a meaningful engagement for prisoners – ‘reform’ of prisoners in other words.

In India, Jail administration is more often than not supported by NGOs and individual social workers in this effort. In addition, learned prisoners themselves organise classes for each other. This note gives an insight into one such episode in Yerwada Central Jail, Pune, written by a family member of ex Mumbai University Lecturer and Activist Vernon Gonsalves who is an undertrial in the infamous Bhima Koregaon case.




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