A Thought on Political Prisoner by Jean Arasanayagam


Political Prisoner by Jean Arasanayagam

for Steve Biko and others (1985)


In a prison cell

he lies dead

when did it happen?

we were all asleep.


It was somewhere towards dawn

we did not hear

his silent scream

or grating whimper

he died alone

who mourned

was it a person or a nation?


In a prison cell he died

his breath twisting round the bars

no one sat by him

although a multitude stood outside

in a prison cell

he died we read it

the next morning

in the papers

in cold dead print

perhaps you passed it by

he died alone quite alone

in his prison cell

four walls a roof

locked doors and little else.

You’d be in there too

but you wear masks you’re clever

at disguise you’d rather not.

in order to be safe, speak out your

thoughts aloud,

you don’t want bullets passing

through your ribs to burst your lungs.

let others spill their blood and wound their flesh

your lips in silence clamp down tight

guns continue to splutter

bombs go off

if you step from the forest

onto the road in pools of blood

you’ll slither.


But look the hangman’s noose

drops lower, it’s a ring of rope

that slowly tightens round your neck

snaps the bone,

watch it coming

swinging closer

do you recognize that face?

cry out in recognition?

he is one of yours.

Is he the friend

and you the foe?

Jean Arasanayagam was a Sri Lankan poet and fiction writer. She wrote her works in English. The theme in her work was ethnic and religious turmoil in Sri Lanka. Jean Arasanayagm had experienced the ethnic turmoil in the country and captured the feelings of victims of that in her poems. She seems to try drawing parallels between the tragic assassination of Steve Biko with the similar incidents happen in Sri Lanka during that grim period of time.

Bantu Stephen Biko was a South African anti-apartheid activist. Ideologically an African nationalist and African socialist, he was at the forefront of a grassroots anti-apartheid campaign known as the Black Consciousness Movement during the late 1960s and 1970s. On August 18, 1977, he and a fellow activist were seized at a roadblock and jailed in Port Elizabeth. Biko was found naked and shackled outside a hospital in Pretoria, 740 miles (1,190 km) away, on September 11 and died the next day of a massive brain hemorrhage.

She seems trying to wake up a sleeping nation to speak against the human right violations. She accuses the people who turn their blind eyes to the injustice happening in a country. She calls them people in disguise in order to save themselves from death. Indirectly, she accuses such people cowards and opportunists who yield the benefits of others sacrifices. She warns people who keep their senses shut like three wise monkeys. She asks to stand with the people who stand against injustice or else, you will be the next one to face the devil’s face of injustice.    

Though Jean Arasanayagam had written the poem about a past incident, it has the universal value as political prisoners still give their life in order to give a better world to the others. Her poem is an eye opener to the world to protect the people who try to make the world a better place.  

May this post be a tribute to the heroes who selflessly sacrificed their lives for a better tomorrow. May this post be a strength to people who stand against injustice and raise their voice against human right violations.



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