By Swami Divyananda
Swami Divyananda, head of the Malda center in India, has personally been involved in much of the current Ramakrishna Mission work in correctional homes (prisons). The work spans nearly 25 prisons across West Bengal.
This article was first published in 2006 in the March and April issues of Prabuddha Bharata. This is the second of two installments. The first one appeared on this site in July, 2006.
20 March 2005 was the day of the public celebration of Sri Ramakrishna’s birth anniversary at Belur Math, and lakhs of devotees had thronged the Math premises. An unusual sight was provided by a handcuffed man moving about on the Math premises with several guards by his side. On enquiry we found out that he was Shyamal Khawas, an inmate of Medinipur District Correctional Home. We also learnt from Shyamal that he was a regular subscriber to Udbodhan, the Bengali monthly of the Ramakrishna Order, and that he also sent regular donations for Math activities. He had applied for mantra diksha and was awaiting his turn. He had taken special permission from the Inspector General of Correctional Services to attend this function. He offered pranams at all the temples on the Math grounds and then gave Rs 20 as donation. He also purchased some books from the bookstall. We presented a large laminated photo of Sri Ramakrishna to Shyamal. He touched it to his head and as he clasped it to his heart his eyes turned moist. As he walked over to take prasad, the sub-inspector accompanying him had his handcuffs removed. ‘I don’t want him to take prasad with these on’, he said.
11 June 2005 was a special day at Mother’s House on 1 Udbodhan Lane in Bagbazar, Kolkata. The Ramakrishna Math there was celebrating the anniversary of Holy Mother Sri Sarada Devi’s arrival at this house, her permanent residence in Kolkata. Shyamal had got permission to attend this function too. This time five other fellow inmates accompanied him. They too were regular subscribers to Udbodhan. All of them donated money from their jail savings to the Math’s work and Shyamal purchased a set of The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda to take back with him.
Many inmates, whether Hindu, Muslim or Christian, visit the Malda Ashrama after release, usually with their families. Some of them come to inform us of their release before going home. All the students of the literacy programme are given books like Sabar Swamiji (Swami Vivekananda for All) on release. The inmates also receive invitations to the Ashrama’s functions.
The 150th birth anniversary of Sri Sarada Devi was celebrated in Malda and Balurghat correctional homes. The inmates participated with songs, recitation of poems and talks on Holy Mother and her teachings. About three hundred devotees joined the inmates in the celebrations as did the district magistrate and senior police officials. Devotees and monastics did the cooking and serving, and all partook of the prasad sitting together.
Men and women of all religious affiliations easily identify with the liberal teachings of Sri Ramakrishna, Sri Sarada Devi and Swami Vivekananda. The Muslim inmates of the correctional homes say, ‘Mother is our very own.’ But the classes and celebrations at the correctional homes are not restricted to the teachings of the above three alone. Inmates conduct readings from the Quran, Bible, Buddha’s life, and other religious texts.
Malda District Correctional Home has many Muslim inmates. Id is celebrated there with all inmates joining in, irrespective of religion. The Ashrama provides fruits, sweets, cakes, and other eatables for Iftar during the Ramzan fasts. Monks and devotees join in these celebrations.
All our programmes are voluntarily attended by all inmates. At the Krishnanagar correctional home the superintendent, Janab H Alam, told us, ‘Maharaj, many other teachers had come here earlier. Their classes would begin with two hundred inmates and end up with just two or three. With your programmes we find the numbers increasing instead of decreasing.’ Our universal and non-sectarian approach has helped the inmates relate to us irrespective of their creeds.
Our interactive session at Alipore Central Correctional Home lasts for two hours. One day I had work elsewhere and had to leave thirty minutes earlier. The inmates protested, ‘Maharaj, your schedule is for two hours. Please don’t reduce this. We get great mental peace during the time that you are here.’ Since then we have always tried to give them as much of our time as possible and the inmates too have responded with great enthusiasm.
Our volunteers include both Hindus and Muslims. Several inmates have also joined us as volunteers. The teachers at the Malda correctional home include inmates like Ishaq Muhammad and Muhammad Hakim. In all our programmes we request the inmates to have a session of singing at the end. On one such occasion at the Alipore correctional home, first a Hindu inmate, Krishnapada Mandal, came forward to sing ‘Mon re krishi kaj jano na; O mind! You know not how to farm.’ I asked him if he knew the song ‘Sakali tomar ichchha; All is Thy will.’ He did not remember the song in full, but another inmate, Dr Pranatosh Mukherjee, did. He came up and sang the song with great emotion. After this Rahmat Piyada got up and sang ‘Sakaler majhe muhammad, kabay masjide giye ki hobe, manusher seba karo; Muhammad is in the midst of all. What is the use of going to Kaaba or to a mosque? Serve people instead.’ Next a Christian youth sang a song that he himself had composed: ‘Jesu amar baba, jesu amar ma, jesui amar sab, tini amay koto diyechhen, ami take ki diyechhi, baki jibone jeno ar tar kachhe kichhu bhiksha na kori, ami jeno tar jonye kichhu dite pari; Jesus is my father, Jesus is my mother, Jesus alone is my all. He has given me so much, what have I given him? May I not beg anything of him for the rest of my life; may I be able to give something for him.’
We tell the inmates, ‘One arrangement in the correctional homes is heavenly. We see you having your beds on the floor, lying side by side, making no distinction of religious or caste affiliations. All of you share in the cooking and eat the same food. One inmate’s distress or need evokes sympathetic response from all. Let us pray that just as we live harmoniously within the jail, let there be harmony in the outside world too. Let no Hindu cause pain to a Muslim or a Christian, nor a Muslim or a Christian cause hurt to a Hindu. Let there be no communal feelings amongst us. Let us always remember that as humans we are one. Let us also pray for and think of the welfare of all. Let us pray for our sick brothers. Let us tell our visiting relatives and friends also to do the same.’
Mr Guin, the superintendent of the Balurghat correctional home, is of Nepali descent. He told us, ‘Swamiji, I keep track of people who leave our jail. I find these people preaching the human values and liberal religious sentiments that you have inculcated in them. They are virtually instruments of your cause.’ Mr Guin is now a regular attendee at the Balurghat Ramakrishna Ashrama (another unaffiliated centre) functions as are many former prison inmates. Many of them had been drug traffickers or murderers, but now they can walk into the Ashrama with their heads held high, having successfully overcome their past. They had earlier been social outcasts and had preferred living at the fringe of society. Now they feel more confident in entering the social mainstream, and the local society too is more receptive to them. They include people of all religions. Devotees of the Ashrama also consider these people their very own.
At one Independence Day celebration Hakim Master said, ‘The Ramakrishna Mission is doing so much for us. Can we also not do something?’ This initiative resulted in the total-literacy programme of the Malda correctional home. At first no writing material was provided from the Ashrama, for we wanted to make sure that their enthusiasm was genuine and lasting. But the inmates showed their ingenuity by using the floor for slates. It was only then that we supplied blackboards and 200 slates for the programme. The Rotary Club has donated colour television sets to all wards of the jail, but the inmates decided to forgo the evening TV programmes for the literacy classes. Each class consists of half an hour of reading from an inspiring book and two hours of literacy training. On their evening rounds the jailors are now treated to the sounds of a, aa, ka, kha from some rooms and chalo, bolo, karo from others, and when they look in they find the inmates engrossed in their studies. These night classes have been specially availed of by the elderly inmates who feel shy to attend the daytime literacy programme. Hakim Master has set the target that on release every inmate must sign his name and go out reading Swami Vivekananda’s books. The literacy rate of Malda district is 50-55% whereas every individual leaving the Malda correctional home at present is literate. In the other correctional homes too we have been able to achieve a significant rise in literacy. While most of the classes of the literacy programme are in Bengali, at the Howrah correctional home a Hindi literacy class has been started for Hindi-speaking inmates.
Akhtar Hussain and Mehmud are awaiting trial for train dacoity and murder. Inspired by the story of Pavhari Baba and the robber, narrated during one of our classes, Akhtar resolved to lead an honest life on release. He picked up hairdressing from the jail barber. While on bail, he borrowed Rs 12,000 from his father and set up a salon in his village Bamungram of Shujapur area, ten kilometres from Malda town. At our request he took Mehmud as his assistant. The trial judges and correctional-home authorities too have been very sympathetic towards these efforts of Akhtar and Mehmud. Mehmud has been provided with a salon chair, a mirror and a hairdressing kit from the Ashrama. Akhtar now earns Rs 5,000-Rs 6,000 every month. He is now married and has a son. He feels more confident about making an honest living and also more responsible. His parents are happy and his family members spared of the harassment resulting from police enquiries. The villagers are also happy to see one of them successfully rebuild his life. Whenever he comes to Malda to attend court hearings once every two to three months, Akhtar visits the Ashrama and requests us to pray for him that he may continue to be honest.
Malda is a flood-prone district and the Ashrama has to conduct flood relief virtually every year. Several released inmates have come forward and helped us in this relief work, even bringing us water and tea. On one occasion our vehicle carrying relief supplies broke down. A stranger approached us and asked if he should get a mechanic to repair it. When asked who he was, he said he was a student of ours, Sanjay Mandal by name. ‘In which school did you study?’ we asked him. ‘In the jail school’, he replied. ‘I had been to the Ashrama soon after my release and bought some books from the bookstall, for I have now become addicted to books.’ Sanjay had been convicted of pickpocketing. He was now working in a nearby mango orchard, and he ran over to his hut to get and show us the books he had purchased. We asked him, ‘Your work in the orchard lasts only three to four months a year. What do you do the rest of the year?’ ‘I am saving some money and shall set up a grocery’, he replied. Incidentally, with an initial capital of Rs 2,000- Rs 3,000 one can earn the same amount monthly by selling grocery. The income can even go up to Rs 10,000 if one works hard at it. A woman inmate has in fact become self-supporting after the Ashrama provided her this initial capital.
Our programme at the Seuri correctional home was started in April 2005 and a library was opened there the next month. On that occasion the inmates were also given books. A week later one of the inmates who had read the book Ami Ma, Sakaler Ma (I Am Mother, the Mother of All) came and told us, ‘Swamiji, if only I had come across this book when I was young, I would not have got into the world of crime. Now I realize my mistake. When I am released I shall try my best to make an honest living. We shall be honest by all means. May the blessings of Sri Ramakrishna, Sri Sarada Devi and Swami Vivekananda be on us.’
Sonajuri of Malda district is a Santhal village. We had organized a health-awareness camp there. A young man, slightly drunk, landed up at the camp, a small wooden vina in hand. Playing on his vina he sang out, ‘Swamiji, you have come! You have converted the local jail into my maternal uncle’s and in-laws’ house! Now I feel like committing more offenses and getting back in there! The food is good there now and the stay is good. There is a library; people are getting literacy and manual training. Now I feel like returning there to get some training and set up a business!’
The day Akhtar’s salon was inaugurated, Sri Joydeb Chakraborty, Inspector General of Correctional Services, West Bengal, telephoned us saying he felt like getting himself jailed for some ‘technical’ offense! ‘We hardly get any free time. I wish I could avail of the library and read and meditate like the inmates.’
At Malda the inmates raise vegetables, greens and some fruits within the correctional- home campus. They decided that they ought to give something to the Ashrama in return for the services they received. So on more than one occasion they arranged to send the jail produce as an offering to the Ashrama temple. For this, of course, they had to obtain permission from the inspector general as no jail commodity is supposed to be sent out. They even approached Sri Biswanath Chowdhury, the minister in charge of prisons, to permit this ‘transgression’ of rules. The same thing occurred at the Balurghat jail too.
Sri Biswanath Chowdhury while hoping that these welfare activities were further extended regretted that the government was unable to allocate funds for the programmes. Sri Joydeb Chakraborty has requested Swami Smarananandaji, General Secretary, Ramakrishna Math and Ramakrishna Mission, to expand the work. Swami Smarananandaji as well as Swamis Shivamayanandaji and Suhitanandaji (both Assistant Secretaries) have seen these programmes at Malda. The Mission’s headquarters at Belur has approved this activity as a special programme of the Malda centre and has granted financial aid.
The work had been started with the understanding that it would not commit the government to financial aid. That still stands. For lack of publicity the programme suffers from shortage of funds. For instance, the libraries need to be expanded (life convicts say they have already finished reading the books and need fresh ones!), and more material and financial aid is needed to rehabilitate freed convicts. But given the great help that we have been receiving from all quarters, we are confident that this program me will continue to grow and will be of genuine help to individuals as well as to our society as a whole.