Tihar ‘Ashram’ was the worst of the six prisons with a ‘Bladebaaz gang’ roaming inside

Writing on the ‘lawlessness’ in jails, Kobad Ghandy in his book paints a disturbing picture but also points to the North-South divide. Jails in Telangana and AP were much better than the one in Delhi

Tihar ‘Ashram’ was the worst of the six prisons with a ‘Bladebaaz gang’ roaming inside
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AJ Prabal

It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones: Nelson Mandela

Dons and politicians in prison can contest elections while in judicial custody; but undertrials— not convicted and thus presumed to be innocent—are not allowed to even cast their votes. Both judiciary and the Election Commission have overlooked denial of political rights to them.

Kobad Ghandy’s book Fractured Freedom is the latest in a long line of books providing fascinating and intimate glimpses into Indian prisons and the criminal justice system. Much of what he describes has been written before but a lot had also remained unstated.

The prison Tihar Ashram in Delhi, where Ghandy spent six and a half years, he unhesitatingly asserts was the worst of the six prisons he was taken to. Compared to Hyderabad jail, where each cell had a TV, running water and a wash basin and Western toilet for every 2-3 cells and a block to sleep, Ghandy was the only inmate in Tihar to be given a table and a chair on medical advice. Food at both Hyderabad and Vishakhapatnam jail were also infinitely better with breakfast of upma, haldi rice and vada every alternate day, and puri-sabzi and chicken curry on Sundays. At Tihar, breakfast consisted of two slices of bread baked in the prison and watery tea. Did someone say corruption?

Everything in Tihar Ashram, Ghandy writes, was available for a price. Severe restrictions such as checking, strip-searches, restriction on phones and visitors, 24x7 CCTV surveillance, lights never switching off at night etc, failed to stop phone, drugs and other things reaching inmates with money to spare.

But even more worryingly, Ghandy writes of the terror unleashed in one of the most well-known prisons in India. “Even to move from one place to the other in the ward was dangerous as one could be attacked any time by the bladebaaz, a group of blade-wielding inmates who were purposely put in the ward to terrorize us,” he writes before adding, “Then we had the dalals, our fellow prisoners, who were more vicious than the staff. Often, the staff would act through these dalals to teach a lesson to some recalcitrant inmate. It could be a slash on the face by a blade or worse.” “…

The more the restrictions, the more the illicit earnings of the staff…” he mentions in support of his contention that security restrictions to stop contraband had the opposite effect because the main carriers were apparently the staff, who began to command a higher price.

Most of the rules made no sense, he writes… “we were not even allowed to donate our bodies to medical science in case of death. A fellow inmate once acquired a form, which we duly filled and had countersigned by a close relative; it was rejected by the superintendent and the forms were torn up.”

Former Haryana chief minister Om Prakash Chautala, serving a ten-year term for corruption, Ghandy recalls, would call his lawyer every day so that he could continue his political activities from within the jail. But while Chautala was not punished, Tihar Ashram restricted the visit of lawyers for other inmates to just one every week. If lawyers from other states, where there could be cases involving the inmates, arrived on the same day, they would be sent back.

Although Tihar describes itself as an Ashram, Ghandy writes, there was no effort at reforming prisoners. With inmates forced to resort to extortions within the jail to get the money for their daily fix, most petty criminals learnt tricks from big-timers, exchanged notes and planned how to commit bigger crimes and developed new contacts.

The inmates had nothing to do, he recalls, except for gambling and watching TV when and where it was made available. Ghandy himself was denied access to the library and refused permission to take a course in human rights from Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU) on the pretext that he was a ‘Naxalite’.

Denied conjugal rights, contact with relatives and friends and humiliated and brutalised on a daily basis, undertrials either developed suicidal tendencies or were encouraged to take to crime.

Prisons and police in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, he writes, were better administered and far more humane than Tihar and some of the other jails he was lodged in.

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