Laxman Gole, a resident of Mumbai, was convicted for a number of crimes in 2005 and sent to the Mumbai Central Prison for four years. He had studied till Class 7 before getting involved with a gang of nine operating in different areas of Mumbai - mostly extorting money from people. One day, after spending some time in prison, he decided to write a letter to the judge presiding over his case and confessed to all his crimes - accepting his mistakes and promising not to repeat them in the future. His behaviour was so good and his confession so sincere that his sentence was reduced to two and a half years.
In 2008, he became a free and reformed man. He now helps other prisoners in Maharashtra reform as well. And the person to be thanked for this transformation - in him as well as in others - is none other than Mahatma Gandhi!
Or, to be precise, it is an organization involved in spreading the word about Gandhi and his ideals - the Bombay Sarvodaya Mandal, which has been conducting Gandhi Peace Exams in Mumbai Central Jail since 2004.
“Bombay Sarvodaya Mandal started conducting these exams with the aim of teaching jail inmates about Mahatma Gandhi and his beliefs because many people are not aware of them. Through these exams, we want inmates to realise their crimes, feel sorry about them and also decide what they want to do in the future. We want to make them capable of leading normal lives when they leave jail after serving their sentence,” says Rajesh Shinde, who is currently working as a web designer with the organization.
Additionally, it has a well maintained website - www.mkgandhi.org to share information about these activities. The Peace Exams are not just conducted in prisons, but in schools and colleges too.
As a first step before the exam, organization members conduct an orientation session in the jail, where they speak about Mahatma Gandhi, his teachings, why it is good to know about him, his life, etc. Then, they take down the names of inmates who are interested in taking the exam and divide them on the basis of their educational qualifications. The inmates are provided with books, which they study for about 20 days before the exam. The books are available in four languages including English, Hindi, Marathi and Gujarati.
The final question paper has 80 objective type questions. So far, 10,000 prisoners in Mumbai Central Jail have taken this exam.
Some partner organizations of Bombay Sarvodaya Mandal also conduct the exam in different jails across Maharashtra - in Byculla, Thane, Paithan, Nagpur, Dhule, Jalgaon, Akola, Wardha, Nashik, Bhandara, Ratnagiri, Osmanabad, Yavatmal, etc.
This year, 89 inmates of Mumbai Central Jail took the exam. “I came to know the true value of truth and ahimsa. I realized the mistakes I had made and took a vow not to go astray in life,” one of them said after the exam. This prisoner had written a letter to the Sarvodaya Mandal last year, expressing his interest in reading books on Gandhi and appearing for the exam, after which Sarvodaya Mandal had sent Gandhi’s autobiography to him.
As for Laxman Gole, he now works as a management consultant with Sarvodaya Mandal. He lives with his wife and two children and also runs an NGO named Saksham Peace Foundation.
Mahatma Gandhi used to say - ‘Hate the sin, love the sinner.’ And these exams are conducted keeping in mind his belief that repentance can dilute the acts for which criminals are put behind bars. The organization is now trying to conduct the peace exams in other parts of the country too.