A Week in Tihar Jail

Jails mean different things for different people. For the likes of Shahabuddin or Pappu Yadav, jails are a safe haven – you can runyour mafia empires from there, you can hold parties and entertain guests, you are kep abreast of every move of your political opponents, you can order your henchmen to shoot dead a young man fresh from JNU, who dares to speak out on a streetcorner and challenge your empire... For your common prisoner, and especially for those who resist the Shahabuddins of this world, jail means somethingquite different – it's a school which teaches you, on pain of violence, to lose your sense of human dignity and solidarity.

March 31 next month will mark nine years of Chandrashekhar's murder. The entire month of April 1997 had witnessed a tremendous upsurge of students and civil society. Some years after the student movement in 1997, charges of rioting, breaking the peace, assaulting policemen, etc ... were framed - against me, as well as two senior teachers of DU, who had tried to help the injured students. In Patiala House on February 8, I was taken into judicial custody because I missed the previous date in court. As I was kept standing in the court room the entire morning, I reflected on the irony: Shahabuddin defies non-bailable warrants and roams the land free, until he is good and ready to go to jail!

Jailors are well-groomed in the art of well-calibrated humiliation, violence and other kinds of more nuanced pain. If you've no money to buy/bribe, you have to scrub and cook and clean endlessly. You do personal chores ( maalish , hairdressing, washing clothes, etc...) for the more privileged prisoners, in order to ‘pay' for necessities like soap and underwear. Books from outside are not allowed in the jail – unless with special permission. Separation from babies and small children causes severe depression among mothers. Bribes, or ‘corner-corner', as the women call it, is a way of life – necessary for being allowed to keep a TV, receive home-cooked food, and in my presence, family members of women who had got bail were even asked to pay ‘kharch-pani' (a bribe) in order to be allowed to take the women home!

The Matrons would assume that the poor and derelict women, picked off Dealhi's streets, are fair game for routine beatings. And friendship and solidarity amongst prisoners is feared and discouraged. I regularly visited an inmate in the Medical Ward who is a seriously ill heart patient, and on the 14 th , I was helping her to go to meet her visitors. The Superintendent of the women's jail, Ms. Swatantar Pahwa, came and yelled at the sick woman because she hadn't stood up in her presence. When I tried to explain that she was sick, Ms. Pahwa advanced with raised hand, with two menacing Matrons on either side, and threatened to hit me for ‘answering back'. When I told her she had no right to hit anyone, she said, ‘Do you know who I am? I have every right'. She then told the uniformed Matron next to her, named Minakshi, to ‘teach her a lesson' ( “isko dikha dena”) . A few minutes later, Matron Minakshi came up and began hitting me around the head and face, telling me I had no business to be helping the sick women, and that she'd teach me what happened to those who argued with ‘Madam'. She did not stop hitting me until fellow prisoners came up to protect me.

It took a long fight to be allowed to submit a complaint and get a copy duly stamped and received. All evening, I received warm congratulations and hugs from women all over the jail. They told me how Zohra, an Afghan prisoner, was beaten to death by a Matron in 2002. She had complained of pain after the beating, but the Superintendent and Doctor in the Jail dismissed it as ‘ nakhra ' (pretence), and eventually she died the next day. After this, women had united across Wards to wage an all-out battle; 8 women continue to serve terms for ‘rioting' in the jail that year. Further, I saw high walls with iron netting being built between Wards now. Women prisoners called those walls pinjra/chidiaghar (cage/zoo), and told me they were being constructed to prevent women prisoners from being able to mobilise easily across Wards, as they did after Zohra's death!

But the next day, my Ward was kept locked the whole day so that other women in her Ward could share my ‘punishment'. The attempt was to turn the women against me – but those women wouldn't play that game. ‘We're with you', they said. They declared they would all refuse meals till the Ward was unlocked. We held a GBM in the jail, and I addressed them, explaining the whole incident. We asked ourselves, why wasn't the Matron who killed Zohra also imprisoned in Tihar jail?

When I was released on bail that night, women shouted out greetings to me from their locked barracks. ‘Tell the TV people to come and talk to us', they said. Another fellow prisoner who left the jail a couple of days after I did, told me that my Ward remained locked 24 hours a day after I left. The Superintendent visited the women, and warned them that this was the consequence of my ‘bad behavior', my ‘answering her back'. Small children were suffering the worst brunt of this 24-hour confinement in an enclosed space, and the women are under severe stress, caged in a small compound, and unable even to take a walk in the Jail grounds or have a cup of tea from the canteen. The official explanation is that there is a rule that the Ward which houses first-time prisoners in the jail is kept locked in order to protect newcomers from the ‘dangerous' long-time prisoners. But the whole episode makes it clear that this confinement is relaxed as long as women express no protest against any action by the authorities; the minute some protest is expressed, the confinement is enforced as a ‘punishment'.

Custodial violence as an instrument of ‘discipline' violates human rights and dignity. It is rampant in most jails, and even in the so-called ‘model' Tihar Jail. It is high time ordinary prisoners in Tihar got to testify to their conditions in the jail, before a proper human rights tribunal. Only this can ensure that Swatantar Pahwa and her fellows will hesitate to claim violence as their ‘right'!

I am deeply disturbed by the fact that my having complained and taken up the issue, has resulted in further confinement and ‘punishment' for the women behind the Jail walls in Ward Number 8. I will never forget my friends from the Jail - their brave efforts to keep the human spirit alive, by sharing their meagre belongings, their stories, laughter and tears, and their celebration of every small act of defiance by one of them, despite the bitter and inevitable consequences.

-Kavita Krishnan,

National President, All India Students' Association.