Away from the hustle bustle of Delhi roads, bazaars and the crowded chaos of its nodal centres, the ordered calm of prison comes as a palpable relief. Pigeons hop in and out through the bars of the main gate on their way to the dovecote. A couple of stray dogs snooze in the shade. And a pair of painters prop tall ladders against the pink outer walls and then stroll away. Asia’s largest prison, Tihar jail, houses some 14,000 inmates, among them terrorists, murderers, petty thieves and a smattering of disgraced politicians. Various leaders from across the political spectrum have spent time here, awaiting trial for a series of high-profi le graft cases. Even as we chose to feature Vimla Mehra and the Tihar Jail in this special feature this issue, we thought we ought to also bring to you a couple of companion pieces on the establishment, and some background information on the trends started by another remarkable woman predecessor, that have now turned to torrents. Read on…

The excruciatingly slow turning of the wheels of justice is one reason prison fails to deter prominent wrongdoers. Another is that the more privileged inmates do seem to fi nd it not all that uncomfortable inside Tihar. A tour of Jail Two, the one oft en shown to visitors, houses prisoners passing their days growing bonsais, overseeing a herbal garden and goose pond, and painting murals of idyllic rural scenes, or personalities like Mahatma Gandhi. Th e model prison also boasts a thriving bakery, carpentry workshop and a mini textile mill. It has a library, a music academy and meditation hall too. Th at the powerful do end up behind bars at all, is surely a sign of change, signalled some years ago when A Raja, a former minister accused of overseeing the murky sale of 2G telecom licences, was locked up while awaiting trial. Others like Suresh Kalmadi, charged with graft over the 2010 Commonwealth games, followed. By global standards, India locks very few people up, whether rich or poor. Some 3,70,000 inmates spread across 1,400 odd jails represents barely 30 people in jail for every 1,00,000 outside, a far lower incarceration rate than in China (170), leave alone the US (730). Among the pre-trial majority, most behind bars are stuck there just because they cannot aff ord the lawyers’ fees, or bribes for offi cials that might otherwise get them bail. “Too many are jailed without investigation. Th e poor stand no chance, if they cannot pay for advocates,” avers a senior offi cial. Even in Tihar, an offi cer grumbles in stereotypical fashion that “prison doesn’t work,” fretting that inmates lack “fear” and pass their time sharing tips on how to commit further crimes. Some inmates, even murderers, can claim seven weeks’ parole with their families each year, so long as they are able to post bail. “Prison ought to be cruel,” he insists, brushing aside all suggestions that rehabilitation might be a better option. Th e superlatives associated with Tihar are not what any self-respecting Indian would want to beat his breast about … it is Asia’s largest prison complex sprawling across some 200 acres. Every year sees some 50,000 plus prisoners pass through its portals, more than 80% of them undertrials. Today there are some 500 plus women incarcerated here, not to mention some 70 odd children dependant on them. Th ere are also 200 prisoners of foreign origin. Until 1993, Tihar and its ways were something most Indians were ashamed of, what with the tales of warders’ venalities and subhuman living conditions, born out of an ingrained belief that a jail term had to be made as miserable as possible.

What happened in 1993 that brought about a change in this scenario? Well, Kiran Bedi, an irrepressible woman police offi cer, was posted here in 1993 as the IG Prisons. Her peers saw it as a punishment posting, and averred that she had been condemned to the rows of Tihar’s inmates, for Kiran Bedi was not a very pliable police offi cer. Wherever she had earlier been posted, she had sought to innovate and reform … and tread on privileged toes. For Kiran’s has been a life that’s a reference point to many of India’s women achievers. Kiran traces her ancestry to a proud and industrious clan of Peshawar, that very heart of Pathan country now in Pakistan. Th ey migrated several generations ago to Amritsar, but have continued to place a premium on honour, fearlessness and hard work. She was raised to be a winner in everything that she undertook: academics, sports, theatre, debates et al. Unconnected and unaware, thousands of parents in free India were similarly pulling their girls away from the tradition of early marriage, house-keeping, mother-hood, and the golden chain to the hearth. And Kiran does stand out among them, a champion tennis player, brilliant student and – strangely – one who fancied the Indian Police Service. Her years in the force have been notable for an insistence on implementing what the law laid down. As Delhi’s super-cop in the eighties, she towed away ill-parked cars earning her the gentle rib: ‘Crane’ Bedi.

Many postings up and down the country followed. 1986 saw her fi rst encounter with drugs and its evil hold on society. Th is appears to have triggered off a pensive phase of her life. Th e deeper she went into the problem, the more she saw it as something beyond a law and order issue, and this saw her getting moved by the human condition that lay beneath. During her work with the Narcotics Control Bureau, she did swoop down to destroy stock and grab the traffi ckers. Oh yes, she did all of that, but was not wholly convinced that this was the way or the solution. A subsequent posting in the rarifi ed atmosphere of Mizoram made her intensely study the drugs issue, which later earned her a doctorate in 1993 from the Delhi University for her thesis, “Drug abuse and Domestic Violence.”

So she lands up at Tihar in 1993, just aft er having evolved a new perspective on policing and life. And what she sees there provokes radical reactions … the jail was a veritable madhouse, its working was shrouded and reshrouded in secrecy, inmates were treated worse than animals and had come to practice a mob culture, and a fear psychosis was palpable in the very air of the Jail. Th ere was no connect between the Jail Administrator (herself, the IG) and the prisoners. With no constructive or creative activity, poor hygiene and overcrowding, inmates simply behaved the way the criminal stereotypes were ‘expected to’.

Kiran Bedi wrought her transformation script with a simple but ‘amazing’ routine, viz., walks around the prisons, and talking to inmates for feedback. Th is led to a profound understanding of the situation – and the sacking of several unscrupulous offi – cials. She then got down to tackling the rampant drug problem upfront, instead of driving it underground. Enlisting organisations like Navjyoti and Ashiara that specialised in counseling drug users helped inmates kick drugs and the smoking habit. Ensuring wholesome, if frugal, diet also went a long way. A simple innovation like a mobile complaint box that travels directly to the top, was introduced. Trust began to sprout. Festivals of all religions began to be observed. Th at uniquely north-Indian tradi tradition of Raksha-Bandhan, where a male is yoked into standing security for females, was celebrated with fervour. Th e library was revived and enlarged, yoga classes were started, and work began on formal education. Th e Indira Gandhi Open University was roped in to off er undergraduate and masters courses. Computer courses and vocational training were introduced. Soon, group singing, cultural events, theatre productions, and sporting events followed.

Then, in an event to cap them all, 1000 inmates of Tihar were introduced to Vipassana meditation in 1994. Until then an exclusive preserve of the cognoscenti, Vipassana began to open up the minds of prisoners to the beauties and possibilities of life, and till date, meditation remains a routine activity at Tihar. Creative arts like painting have naturally followed, with some of Tihar’s artists’ works even getting sold commercially today. Accent was placed on looking ahead to a life aft er the prison term. Tihar’s bustling factory began to produce branded consumer snacks, ‘TJ Specials’. Inmates were taught manufacturing or marketing these as a possible means of employment. Other trades like shoe making, manure production, screen printing, tailoring, book binding, envelope making etc., are also being taught today. Kiran Bedi, in transforming herself had succeeded in transforming a whole mindset. It didn’t take her long, and the results were apparent in 1994 itself, the same year she was bestowed with the Ramon Magsaysay Award. She has been quoted as saying: “It’s not only duty. It’s a mission. You have to invoke the creativity of 5000 years which is just lying dormant.” What Kiran Bedi began, did not end with her. Her successors continued with what she started, and some like Vimla Mehra, who was DG Prisons till as recent as last month, have sought to extend Bedi’s work considerably by building further on it.

Tihar is no paradise today, but is no den of evil and inequity either. Prisoners participate in the governance of the establishment, and conduct Lok Adalats. Celebrity visits are regular. Th ere are 10 undergraduate courses available on campus today, and the ever growing library is heavily used. Inmates can connect to the internet and have email access. Law students of DU visit the jail regularly to advise prisoners about their rights. What’s more, a new Prison Act and a revised Jail Manual are in place today, which provide for active participation by volunteer organisations in the aff airs of jails. Th e Tihar experiment has become a bouquet of best practices, which show humane means can cut through better than the crack of a whip…

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