After 35-year-old Ram Singh, one of the accused in the infamous 16 December Delhi gang-rape case, was found hanging in his cell in Jail No. 3 of Tihar, Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde called it a major lapse in security. The minister would do well to read this story.
TEHELKA has found out through interviews and testimonies of former and under-trial inmates of Tihar that torture, sodomy, custodial deaths, negligence, and rampant corruption — India’s highest security prison has all this and much more. Even though questions have been raised on the circumstances around Ram Singh’s death, nobody is surprised that it was possible in Jail No.3, which houses close to 4,000 of Tihar’s 13,000 odd inmates.
TEHELKA went through the testimonies of inmates who detailed their ordeal inside Tihar for a public interest litigation (PIL). Sample this from Samrat*: “On 14 January 2012, I was cut across my face with a sharp weapon. It is the duty of the jail officials to take care of under-trials, protecting them from inmates who have such violent behaviors. But unfortunately the jail officials often turn a blind eye to such inmates in exchange for the greed of money,” he says.
“We both are educated and know our rights. He is being subjected to torture because we decided to complain to authorities about the things that happen within those walls,” said Samrat’s wife, speaking on the condition of anonymity. She further reveals that she was asked to pay a bribe of Rs 5,000 to get a relative’s name in the Mulakaat List (list of outsiders who are allowed to interact with the inmates). Another former inmate says he had to pay a bribe of Rs 50,000 to a high-ranking official to get a better place to sleep. “In a place where a pouch of tobacco that otherwise costs Rs 20 can be bought at about Rs 500, coercion becomes a skill to survive for convicts,” he says.
For 39-year-old Jacob Philip, an NRI from Dubai who had spent a decade in the USA, torture stared at him the day he entered Tihar. “I entered the designated ward on 20 September 2008. I had no place to sleep as the place was overcrowded. That night I saw 10-15 inmates beating a fellow inmate in front of everybody. I found later that he was being beaten because he had the audacity to say ‘bye’ to others after getting a bail that day,” says Jacob.
Absurdly, Jacob ended up in Tihar under the Extradition Act. Under the act, the enquiry on the accused cannot continue for more than 60 days. Yet, Jacob ended up spending three and a half years inside Tihar, until he was acquitted and finally released on February 25, 2012. “I used to help people write their bail applications and appeals. At the same time, I also knew the powerful people inside. During my time inside, I saw things I cannot even begin to describe. I can say without exaggeration that I saw at least a thousand cases of torture perpetrated on weaker inmates by stronger ones with tacit and sometimes open support from Jail authorities,” he adds. “In Tihar, nobody is accountable. Nobody is answerable. How can anybody expose anything?”
Jacob describes Tihar as a parallel world with its own set of rules. He was lodged in Jail No. 4 of Tihar. The ward behind his is 4B, a punishment cell (kisuri ward in Tihar parlance). Jacob spent countless nights hearing screams of inmates being tortured. Convicts running the ‘chakkar‘ (Control room, but also refers to torture), armed with sticks and blades, would beat up fellow inmates. Motives would range from extortion and punishment for non-conformism. Sometimes, even jail guards would join.
Mohammed Amir, who spent 10 years in Tihar as a terror accused before his acquittal in 2012, confirms all the above and more. Amir claims he was subjected to torture by fellow inmates, who attacked him at the behest of some jail officials. “You cannot expect Tihar to be a correctional facility. Everybody there has a very criminal mindset,” he said.
Three inmates also spoke about the economics of sodomy inside Tihar. “There’s forceful sex for extortion. And there’s sex that inmates often indulge in for money. Some pay in fear of forceful sex. Some indulge in sex in order to earn a little,” said a former inmate on the condition of anonymity.
Journalist Iftikhar Gilani, who documented the sinister world inside Tihar in his book My Days in Prison, agrees that Tihar is hardly a place to reform. “Here criminals are brutalised. Under-trials spend years inside and convicts run the place.India does not understand the point of having its prisons. The people who man these prisons know nothing about criminal psychology or social science — key elements for helping prisoners to reform,” he says.
Iftikhar was not merely a witness to torture. He had been wrongfully arrested, accused of being an ISI agent in June 2002 and spent close to nine months in Tihar. “I was beaten up inside the jail superintendent’s office the day I arrived there. In the subsequent days, I was put in solitary confinement. I was also made to clean the toilet with my shirt. On a particular night, when I was really sick, one of the wardens said “marne do usse” (let him die), when my fellow inmates called for help,” recalls Iftikhar.
The shocking negligence that Iftikhar recalls from his days in prison are still prevalent as is obvious from the case of Santosh Kumar, who died on 25 February last year. An inquiry report by district and sessions judge IS Mehtain has observed that Santosh died due to negligence on part of the jail authorities. Santosh had consumed acid some years ago, which damaged his oesophagus to an extent that he could never consume solid food again. He was completely dependent on a liquid diet, which was being administered using a feeding tube inserted into his stomach. Arrested in December 2010 and lodged in Tihar, Santosh was denied four liters of milk that was due to him as per court orders. By December 2011, his health had completely deteriorated. Despite the Patiala Sessions Court order, the jail authorities failed to provide him medical treatment, ignoring Santosh’s pleas. On 16 January, Santosh was taken to AIIMS where he was diagnosed with tuberculosis. His treatment however started only on 7 February. Within three weeks, Santosh was dead. He had spent his last days writing letters to authorities to provide him the required medical treatment.
While the National Human Rights Commission has received a multitude of complaints regarding human rights violations and custodial deaths inside Tihar over the last five years, some inmates are battling it out in the courts. A particularly determined inmate is 60-year-old Christopher Rozario, who in a petition to the Delhi High Court, has alleged that he has been repeatedly tortured by jail authorities. Christopher claims to be a PhD holder from Cambridge and a former employee of Kerala University.
However, Sunil Kumar Gupta, Chief PRO of Tihar rubbished Christopher’s allegations. Gupta also rejected all the other assertions. “There might have been isolated instances of torture. I can guarantee that things have changed over the last year. There’s no blade-baazi these days. We have reigned in on the ‘chakkars‘ and convicts do not enjoy the same powers as earlier. We have complete transparency in place,” he said responding to TEHELKA’s queries.
Former top cop Kiran Bedi, credited with bringing several reforms feels that bringing more technology would go a long way in making Tihar a less brutal place. “Add more transparency. Bring more cameras. You won’t find corruption. You will give convicts space to reform,” she says.