A guided tour of India’s most famous prison.
Don’t expect Tihar to be a jail like you’ve seen in films,” warns O.P. Mishra, Jail Superintendent, on the phone. As we finalise the schedule of this visit to Jail no. 3 at Tihar, India’s top security jail located in West Delhi, I could sense that Mishra was a proud man. During two previous visits to the women’s jail as a journalist, I had got so carried away with jail reforms that I thought somewhere my perception had become clouded. So this time I was determined to look beyond the green lawns and the prayer hall, the basketball court and the bakery.
Looking at the huge padlocks being unlocked and the gates being swung open as you enter the premises of Tihar, which currently has approximately 12,000 inmates, is a one-of-a-kind feeling. Mobile, purse, digital diary, calculator and anything that could be a possible security risk is asked to be left at the gate. With a smiling Jail Superintendent for company, I feel rather cheerful. Ram, a convict who has been inside for the last 11 years accompanies us, carrying a petition box in his hands. “This box is for inmates to drop their complaints in, anonymously,” explains Mishra, adding that the practice, begun during Kiran Bedi’s time, has been enormously fruitful.
We walk past a tall white Buddha statue surrounded by well-manicured lawns. The lawns and everything that one sees inside Tihar is looked after largely by the inmates under the supervision of jail authorities. Convicts are involved in the running of various operations—administration, kitchens, canteens, jail shops, etc. As jail-lore has it, the longer the inmate’s punishment, the more his loyalty towards work inside the jail. “I like it. It’s like home,” says Ram. Ram is serving a life sentence for killing a boy at the age of 16, apparently in self-defence. After ten years as an undertrial and one as a convict, Ram has the look of a regular harmless guy from your neighbourhood.
As we walk around we see convicts dressed in impeccable white kurta pyjamas working assiduously at their assigned tasks, while the undertrials wait aimlessly, endlessly sometimes, till they join either category—freed or sentenced. The Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU) and National Open School (NOS) block inside this jail are what we visit first. This is where all the inmates who want to complete their unfinished academic courses come. Newly painted green walls, a deserted courtyard surrounded by many halls and an uncomfortable silence greet us. “The undertrials are locked up for three hours every afternoon,” says Mishra, as he takes us to a drama rehearsal organised by the National School of Drama for a play to be staged by the inmates the next month. “Every saint has a past and every sinner has a future,” says one of the many painted sayings on the prison walls. I see inmates peering from behind the bars of their dormitories. Dormitory is the preferred term. The place is clean and organized; so much so, that you have to remind yourself that it is a jail. When we are shown the paintings done by the inmates, violent colour and strokes are among the more striking aspects of these canvases.
“The system has gone completely mad,” quips Mishra suddenly, who is a civil servant posted here for the past one year. “Two months after I was transferred here, I realised that anybody can land up in jail. Anybody.” He talks about those who have been framed, of others for whom crime is a profession and of others who have only lived in a world of crime. One theme that comes up again and again is the number of people inside jail under the dowry law—Section 498 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). “No doubt the dowry law has reduced the incidence of dowry atrocities, but there are many who misuse this law to settle other scores,” says Mishra, shaking his head. “Entire families, right from children to cousins; extended families have been arrested for dowry crimes. Amongst these there are some who didn’t even attend the wedding.”
As we walk towards the langar, the huge kitchens where food is cooked for the inmates, we are told that a pair of scissors has gone missing. Scissors can be dangerous; they can make two knives. Another risky situation unfolds when a spoon can’t be traced. A spoon is easily sharpened against the ground and can be used for assault.
“What about drugs?” I ask. Everybody has heard tales of smuggled tobacco and drugs inside the jail. “Oh yes, drugs are found sometimes in the nose, in the ears or in discreet plastic coated balls which have been swallowed by the prisoners when they go for a visit outside, mostly to court or hospital,” says Mishra in a matter-of-fact tone. “They later clean it, and sell it to the other inmates.”
You can get most of the banned stuff like tobacco, alcohol and many kinds of drugs in the jail, all for a price. If you must have cigarettes, a normal pack would cost you around Rs 500, with a single ciggie going for Rs 20 to Rs 30. A small packet of crushed tobacco, which is available outside for about Rs 20 or so, would be sold for Rs 200 inside. You can buy it in exchange for coupons (which is the jail currency), favours or whatever else you may dare to exchange.
I run into Ajay Agarwal, DG, Prisons. Earlier, when I had gone to meet Agarwal in the prison headquarters, his torrent of views about policing in the prison had provoked many questions. A former defence officer, Agarwal looks the part of the rough and tough cop. Upturned, thick moustache, a direct, no-nonsense eye, and a booming voice. “I am no Mahatma,” he had thundered when I had asked him whether jail officials vent their pent up anger and frustration at prisoners. “Of course. We are human beings too. I believe in reformation and rehabilitation but that doesn’t mean I will take nonsense from some of the violent prisoners. Nor will I take it lying down if some inmate assaults my officers,” he had said. “Under the law, we are not allowed to use handcuffs, use third degree or put the prisoners into solitary confinement. But if they get together and beat officers, what do you do? Last year, some inmates of the adolescent jail had assaulted other prisoners and jail authorities, which resulted in the death of one prisoner. In such an atmosphere, we have to resort to some discipline. After all, a good 20 per cent or so of these inmates are professional criminals. You can’t control them only through a will to reform.”
Cut back to Jail No. 3, where Agarwal’s comments resound as urging echoes. It is lunch time now as we sit in what is called the chakkar, a central place inside the jail complex with offices and rooms for grievance meetings and other joint activities.
Food in jail is bland and frugal. Rice, rotis, dal and vegetables. We have a special treat—salad, potato wafers and sweets made in the jail. About 1 lakh, twenty thousand chappatis are cooked in Tihar everyday! And it isn’t entirely unlike the movies. The chappatis are dry, deliberately made from coarse flour—jail ki sookhi roti.
I meet Romesh Sharma’s (of the wine, women and politics notoriety) right hand man, a middle-aged guy called Bali. Once an NRI, he appears overtly street-smart, and smiles proudly when he is introduced as Romesh Sharma’s main man. While Sharma himself has been lodged inside the adolescent jail for security reasons, Bali is here, free to boast on his boss’s behalf. How Sharma kept even Laloo Yadav waiting or how he would spend a lakh of rupees without moving out of his room.
There are other star attractions in this jail. The most prominent is Ashwin Naik, the dreaded Mumbai gangster, once a part of the Chhota Rajan gang and now on a wheelchair. He was shot and paralysed in a deadly encounter. A week in coma and 22 recuperative months in a hospital later, Naik can stand up with support but he can’t walk. “I had often been in a rain of bullets, but this one got the better of me,” he says with a pleasant smile.
Jail Officials hold a panchayat meeting with convicts
Naik speaks good English, is very well-mannered and doesn’t mind tangential questions about gang wars, the murderous rage of men and honour among thieves. He makes no attempt to hide his superior status inside the jail. Some prisoners touch his feet as they wish him; others are reverent as they whisper a complaint in his ear. “Don’t worry, I will take care,” he reassuringly pats one and asks another to get him some chai.
“Terrorists who betray their nation should never be taken to court, they should be shot,” he says casually as he waves to someone. Naik talks about how small time criminals engage in bladebaazi (attacking each other with blades); the inference is, the mighty refrain from these petty indulgences.
Many of the things that go on in the jail mirror the world of crime outside. There are inter-jail gang wars and rivalries, there are extortions (money is to be delivered by the relatives or family outside), there are serious, sometimes murderous assaults. Not long ago Naik’s wife, who was allegedly having an affair with an ex-policeman, was shot dead outside her house in Mumbai. Though the motive has not been established, some fingers at that time were pointed at Naik, who apparently was not too happy with the goings on in his home.
Naik stays in a clean hospital barrack of the jail. But the other undertrials are not as lucky. The barracks and the cells in the other wards are exceedingly overcrowded. A barrack meant for 30 inmates currently lodges 128! A cell made for one prisoner has 7-8 inmates. Cramped with belongings and men, men and more men. The overcrowding is scary. No wonder angry fistfights, abusive verbal duels and murderous assaults are common. The barracks are unlocked at 5:00 a.m., shut for three hours, opened again and shut for the night at 7:00 in the evening.
As we move closer to some of the barracks (it is not yet time to unlock the inmates for the evening), the prisoners come closer to the bars. An African waves to us from one of the cells. We had seen him earlier in the painting room but now he too is locked inside with four other Africans who are all here under the Narcotics Act. They claim they were picked up while on a visit here by the police, beaten brutally and made to confess.
“Nobody listens. We curse the day we set foot in this country,” says one who’s been inside for four years.
Superintendent Mishra says that the law on drugs in India should be clearer and louder. “Many foreigners see sadhus and religious looking characters smoking ganja or charas in tourist places or temple cities and end up doing the same themselves,” comments Mishra. “Little do they realise that they may be caught and sentenced to ten years Rigorous Imprisonment, the Narcotics law being so strict. The tourism department in India should do something to make laws on drugs and other offences more clear.”
As we are about to leave a young handsome guy calls out. “Won’t you talk to me?” he asks in chaste Hindustani. “At least tell these jail guys not to give us sookhi roti,” he requests. Upon being asked whether he has any other problems, he shakes his head saying that he is only reaping what he has sowed and has no regrets. A jail official tells me not to get into a conversation with him. “He is from the bhuri gang of U.P.; they are criminals who brutally looted and killed dozens of people,” he says.
As evening falls, the jail complex looks like a township. It is also time for the panchayat which the jail superintendent holds everyday to resolve administrative and other complaints by the inmates. Some inmates can be seen unwinding at the canteen, others are queuing up at the tailor shop while some more get together at the electronic repair shop. The foreigners get together for a game of badminton as the net is put up and shoelaces are tied.
Festivals of all religions are observed here. There is yoga, vipassana, Art of Living, cultural concerts, workshops and a lot else to learn and practice. But the jail is no ashram. It can’t be. While no one openly talks of homosexuality or bribing the jail officials for favours, there are enough hints of what happens in the dark.
While this might look like a jail anywhere in the world, the most striking tragedy is of the undertrials who have languished here for many more years than their offences could have earned them. We meet a man who was caught picking pockets and has been here for six years!
As we walk out, a man in saffron robes rings the bells at one of the temples and then turns to feed the pigeons. I am told he was arrested for having masterminded the murder of the husband of a woman he had an affair with. The husband was stabbed 28 times.
It is past six p.m. as we leave. At the huge gate leading outside, a policeman is ripping apart the sole of the shoe of an inmate who’s returned from court. Presumably, the scene would be repeated several times every day.
This article was first published in the January 2002 issue
Image courtesy: Gayatri Khosla