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Tihar Jail is a good model for prisons in India

The strong foundation laid by Kiran Bedi at Tihar sustains a great  experiment.


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 privileged toes.

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 culture. 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 long way.

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 begun too.

. Group singing, cultural events, theatre productions, and sporting events followed.

Then in an event to cap all, in 1994 1000 inmates of Tihar were introduced to Vipassana meditation popularised by Mr. S.N.Goenka. 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 sold today. 

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 dormant."

Tihar may not be paradise but today, it's not an evil den either.

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.