The superlative numbers associated with the Tihar Jail in
Delhi are not what a self-respecting Indian would want to boast about:
It's the largest prison complex in Asia spread over 180 acres. In a year
over 50000 prisoners pass through it, 80% of them under-trials. There are
today about 500 women among them plus about 70 children dependant on them.
There are also 200 prisoners of foreign origin.
In fact till 1993, Tihar and its ways were something
Indians had to be ashamed of. There were tales of warders' venality and
sub-human living conditions. There was an ingrained belief that a term in
jail had to be made miserable.
A post-modern Indian woman:
When Kiran Bedi, an irrepressible woman police officer
was posted there in 1993, it seemed to her colleagues that she had been
condemned to the rows of Tihar's inmates.
For Kiran Bedi, had not been a pliable police officer.
Wherever she was posted she sought to innovate and reform - and tread on
You can't easily silence her either, for she is always up
to the fight that there is.
Kiran's life is a model that has shaped many of India's
current woman achievers. Kiran traces her ancestry to a proud and
industrious clan in Peshawar, that very heart of Pathan country, now in
Pakistan. They 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 etc. Unconnected and
unaware, thousands of parents in free India were similarly pulling their
girls away from the tradition of early marriage, house keeping and
mother-hood. Kiran stands out among them.
She was a champion tennis player, a brilliant student and
- strangely for the times- 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 the gentle rib: 'Crane'
Bedi. Many postings up and down the country followed. Kiran Bedi was
always in the news!
1986 saw her first encounter with drugs and its evil hold
on society. This appears to have triggered off a pensive phase
in her life. The deeper she went into the problem, the more she saw it as
something beyond a law and order issue; she began to be 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 traffickers. Yes,
she did that, but was not wholly convinced that that was the solution. A
subsequent posting in the rarified atmosphere of Mizoram, made her a
student of the drug issue, earning her a doctorate in 1993 from Delhi
University for her thesis, "Drug abuse and Domestic Violence"
New eyes for Tihar:
So we find her in Tihar in 1993. She had developed new
perspectives on policing and life. What she saw there provoked new
responses: The jail was a mad house. Its working was shrouded in secrecy.
The inmates were treated like animals and had come to practice a mob
A fear psychosis prevailed. There was no communication between the
Inspector General and the prisoners. With no constructive or creative
activity, poor hygiene and overcrowding, its unfortunate inmates behaved
the way criminals were 'expected to'.
Kiran Bedi began with the simple but 'amazing' routine:
walks around the prisons and talking to its inmates for feed-backs. This
led to an understanding of the situation - and the sacking of unscrupulous officials.
She then began tackling the rampant drug problem up-front
instead of driving it underground. She enlisted organisations like
Navjyoti and Ashiara that specialised in counseling drug users. She helped
inmates kick the smoking habit. Ensuring wholesome, if frugal, diet went a
A simple innovation like a mobile complaint box that
travels directly to the top, was introduced.
Trust began to sprout.
The love offensive:
Then began her love offensive. Festivals of all religions
began to be observed. That uniquely north-Indian tradition of
Raksha-Bandhan, where a male is yoked into standing security for females,
was celebrated with fervour.
She revived and enlarged the library, started yoga classes,
and began to work on formal education. Indira Gandhi Open University
joined up to offer graduate and masters courses. Computer courses and vocational training were
Group singing, cultural events, theatre productions, and sporting events
Then in an event to cap all, in 1994 1000 inmates of
Tihar were introduced to Vipassana meditation popularised by Mr.
Till then a preserve of cognoscenti, Vipassana began to open the minds of
prisoners to the beauties and possibilities of life. Meditation is a
routine activity today at Tihar. Creative arts like painting have
naturally followed. Some of Tihar's artists are being commercially
Accent was placed on looking ahead to a life after the
prison term. Tihar's bustling factory began to produce branded consumer snacks,
'TJ Specials'. Inmates are 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 taught.
No more whips:
Kiran Bedi in transforming herself has transformed a
whole mindset. It didn't take her long. The results began to show by 1994,
the year in which she was honoured 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
Tihar may not be paradise but today, it's not an evil den
Prisoners participate in the governance of the prison,
conduct Lok Adalats or courts of enquiry . Celebrity visits are
regular. There are 10 graduate courses available on campus today. The
library is growing and is heavily used. Inmates connect to the internet
and have email access. Tihar runs a web site which brings transparency to
the fore. Law students of the Delhi University visit to advise the
prisoners of their rights.
Finally, to set a seal on all these positive moves, a new
Prison Act and a revised Jail Manual are in place today. These provide for
active participation by volunteer organisations in the affairs of India's
prisons. The Tihar experiment is now poised to spread.
India has seen how humane means cut through better than
the crack of a whip.
The Tihar website.
Post script: As this article is about to go
on line, comes the announcement that Kiran Bedi's book ,'What Went
Wrong' has just been published. This is said to be a series of profiles of
people who were driven to drugs and the reasons why they were.