The Rule Of Law is an essential feature of a democratic nation that ensures every citizen is equal in front of the law of the land. But it is needless to say that not all of us are treated at par by the law. It is not uncommon for us to encounter situations where the high and mighty go scot free whereas the poor are the ones who suffer due to little no crime of their own.
It is not every day that we get to know about people who are courageous enough to raise their voices against the deep-seated and widespread corruption in the system. Pradeep Bhalekar, a vada pav seller of Thane, is such an individual. He has not been deterred by the consequences of his actions and has taken up the job on his shoulders of unveiling the corrupt practices.
In an exclusive interview with The Logical Indian, Bhalekar has outlined his journey and has talked about what catapulted him in this direction of social service.
Pradeep’s past had an indelible impact on him
Born into a financially backwards family in Santa Cruz, Mumbai, Pradeep’s life has seen hardships from a very tender age. His father expired when he was only of 6 years. Since then, his mother has been trying very hard to make the two ends meet by working as a domestic help, trying to sustain her family of a young son and an even younger daughter.
Pradeep recalled, “In spite of the financial constraints that I have faced in my childhood, I must say, I had a wonderful time while in school. I was a well-behaved boy and took a keen interest in games, especially Kabbadi.”
“I was always interested in social work and have taken part in some community welfare activities while in my childhood,” he added.
However, life had something else in store for him. “While I was in the tenth standard, I became friends with a group of boys who were involved in criminal activities. I was not very mature then, but somehow, I did get this feeling that the boys I was used to be with were involved in something wrong,” Pradeep said.
“But only the financially challenged realise how important money is for survival, and they fall prey to the traps laid down by different people. It is because of this reason that I could not stop myself from roaming around with these boys- at least, I was sure of some amount of money at the end of the day,” Pradeep honestly commented. His mother’s tuberculosis had worsened the conditions of his family, and Pradeep realised that his need for money is only going to increase day by day- not only for his mother’s treatment but also for his sister and himself.
Thus, he said, he could not bring himself back from the path which he had started treading. “But I had to pay a heavy price for this decision of mine,” Pradeep said.
Pradeep went on to say that it was because of his association with these anti-social elements that he was framed in a case with which he had nothing to do. Pradeep said, “One of my friends had handed me a bag asking me to keep it with me for some time and later give it to him. I was naive and not for once did I want to see what was inside the bag.”
Pradeep found out the hard way that the bag contained something objectionable when the police came to his place one evening and arrested him in spite of him saying that he was not involved in any criminal activities. Pradeep said, “The police were not ready to leave me even when the real convict got arrested- I had my 10th board exams, but all of that went for a toss as I became destined to a considerable amount of time in jails.”
Pradeep’s horrific experience in Indian jails that shaped his politics
Unable to pay Rs 5000 fine, Pradeep had no other option but to go behind bars. Young Pradeep had a harrowing experience in the jail.
“I was bearing the brunt for a crime I did not even commit,” he paused and added, “Probably I was bearing the brunt of being naive.”
“I can hardly explain the trauma that I had to go through in the jail. Every day was a battle that we had to fight in there. I came across several hardened criminals inside the prison, but I did not fall into that category. You can imagine the impact such experiences had on an impressionable young mind,” he said.
Pradeep described, “Inside the jail, I saw, for the first time, the differential treatment that exists for criminals who have a strong hold with the high and mighty. Even the jail authorities did not dare to bother them. Instead, they supplied them with everything that was demanded. I was unaware of this level of corruption in jails; this was something that unnerved me.”
“It was easy for those criminals who had connections in the influential lobby- the baba (hawaladar) was handed a token money, and all the demands of those criminals were taken care of,” he said.
Pradeep was baffled by the manner in which the jail inmates were expected to work inside the prison. “Now”, he said, “I am aware that this does not fall under the responsibilities of the prisoners. I had raised my voice against this but in vain.”
Since he belonged to the age group of 18-20 years, he said, he was kept in the ‘baba room’ under the direct supervision of the hawaladar. It was here that he encountered the harsh reality of custodial atrocities and sexual harassment that is prevalent in the jail premises.
“The conditions under which the jail inmates are made to live is abysmal- one would not believe that a human being can survive in such conditions unless one sees for themselves,” Pradeep said. “The food was inedible, and the prison was filled out of their capacity. All of us saw this, but none wanted to protest against the current state of affairs.”
Pradeep said that although the corruption and the pathetic situations of Mumbai jails troubled him very much, he was not in a position to do anything for the cause. Post the extortion case, Pradeep was booked twice under the MCOCA (Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act).
“My life had got entangled with gang-wars and visits to jail and court premises and applying for bail became an everyday matter. Although I tried hard, it was not easy to shirk off that life.I was booked under the Maharashtra Prevention of Dangerous (activities) Act (MPDA) following my release in the MCOCA case,” he added.
“I was tired of the manner I was living and wanted to change the course of my life – I felt it was high time that I took responsibility for my family,” Pradeep said.
A new purpose to Pradeep’s life
It was during that one year in jail when Pradeep was arrested under MPDA that Pradeep got to lay his hands on the works of eminent personalities like that of Gautama Buddha, Shivaji, Baba Amte, Mahatma Gandhi, Bhagat Singh. “The jail authorities often did not allow me to go to the library and read. But I was determined to go and study and draw inspiration from them,” he said.
“It was inside the jail that I read the CrPC and IPC and it was after reading all of this I decided that I should take up serious steps for the bettering the conditions of the jail inmates,” Pradeep explained.
“It was in 2007 that I started my resistance against the conditions of prisoners booked under the MCOCA and MPDA Acts. These prisoners faced gruesome atrocities in the police custody and I felt that it is important to raise my voice against this,” he said.
Despite the resistance that he faced, Pradeep said, he never thought of stopping this effort of his. “My actions have created a stir in the society and even at the level of the government,” he claimed. “That is reason enough for me to carry forward what I am doing,” Pradeep clarified, adding that he has filed a PIL regarding the exploitation of women that takes place in Indian prisons.
When asked about the PIL that he had filed against the early release of Bollywood actor, Sanjay Dutt, he said, “I have nothing against Sanjay Dutt, I have nothing against anyone to be clear. It is just that I am enraged by the differential treatment that is meted out to the VIPs- for the same crime, ordinary people suffer a lot.”
“If anyone could explain me the reason why Dutt was let off eight months before the completion of his term, I would stop my agitation. In a country that speaks of high ideals of equality and as a proud citizen of India, I only wish to ensure equal treatment of all under the law of the land,” Pradeep clarified.
Pradeep is currently associated with Mahatma Gandhi Manavadhikar Forum that works for rendering justice to all and sundry who are entangled by the red tape in the system. He is also involved with Samajik Karyakarta Sanrakshak Samiti that intends to work as a shield to the RTI activists and whistleblowers who face the wrath of the powerful.
“I had started off single-handedly, but today I am grateful for the immense support and participation that I have been receiving over the course of time. I am particularly indebted to Advocate Nitin Satpati, who has lent his helpful hand from the first day,” Pradeep said.
The Logical Indian community appreciates the efforts of Pradeep Bhalekar who has been working continuously for the betterment of the jail inmates. He is a burning example of a person who does not take his fate to be given. Pradeep has made his destiny with his own hands and proved to the world that one is not relegated to the circumstances one is born into- life gives umpteen opportunities to us, we just need to pursue them with belief.