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Photo: PTI
Photo: PTI

Opinion | When a prison tells the modern history of a country

Tihar is India when no one is looking. We compensate for lapses in law and order through terrifying jails

One summer day in 1981, Sunil Gupta went to Tihar Jail to start work as assistant superintendent. He had an offer letter, but the superintendent told him there was no vacancy anymore. He had quit a secure job with the Indian Railways for this. Dazed, he waited outside the superintendent’s room wondering what he must do. A suave man appeared and asked him: “Yes, what brings you here?" Gupta explained his situation, after which the well-dressed man went into the superintendent’s office and in an hour returned with a typed appointment letter. The suave man was Charles Sobhraj, who was serving a prison term in Tihar Jail for several murders and other offences.

The extraordinary power of a famous convict to appoint his own jailor is among the stories Gupta narrates in his memoir Black Warrant, which he has co-written with journalist Sunetra Choudhury. Gupta, who according to Sobhraj was the only officer in Tihar Jail he could not bribe, recounts his career as a jailor that spanned 35 years, or “two and a half life-sentences", and in that way portrays an absurd, hilarious, terrifying and heart-breaking history of modern India, as would be the case when a prison and a prisoner tell the story of their nation.

Gupta was taught how to read a warrant, how to scan court notices and many other legalities of his job by two men who were serving time for murder and who made an income by making the warrants of other prisoners disappear. Gupta was also impressed by a convict who had, as a free man, walked into a police station posing as a deputy commissioner of police and demanded his own case file, with which he vanished.

From the moment he joined Tihar, Gupta saw very closely a vast India that existed in another dimension. Pregnant inmates of the prison did not wish to leave because they believed that a woman in captivity was likely to deliver a boy, just as Lord Krishna was born in prison. Also, jail food was, and still is, considered so auspicious that some of the most affluent families, who are not imprisoned, but miserable nevertheless, ordered Tihar’s terrible meals for good luck.

Gupta, who retired from service about three years ago, has overseen several hangings, including those of Billa and Ranga, who were executed in 1982 after being sentenced to death in a kidnap and murder case. Two hours after Ranga was hanged, he still had a pulse, possibly because he had held his breath. So a policeman jumped into the pit and pulled Ranga’s legs to squeeze the last breath out. Gupta also knew of a hangman who, after every hanging, poured liquor on the planks of the gallows as an offering to the ghost of the dead man.

The hanging of Afzal Guru in 2013 was the last Gupta witnessed. Guru was sentenced to death for his role in the terrorist attack of 13 December 2001 on Parliament, a role that he claimed was minor. He was told of his impending death two hours before the hanging. Gupta was present when Guru was informed by a superintendent, “with regret I have to tell you that today is your hanging".

Guru said, “I know, I figured."

Gupta then sat with Guru to have tea. Guru started singing a song from the film Badal (Cloud): Apney liye jiyein toh kya jiyein, tu ji ae dil zamaane ke liye (What is life worth if lived for oneself, live for the world, O’ my heart). Gupta began to sing along until Guru stopped to ask for tea. But the man who served tea was not around, and Guru’s final request went unfulfilled.

Actually, Guru did make another request. Before he walked to the gallows, he told the superintendent: “I see compassion in your eyes. Will you be there at the time of hanging? …Make sure I am not in pain."

Gupta, a man who has the courage to admit that hangings once filled him with excitement and who articulates the finest details of death, does not recount what followed Guru’s request to be spared pain, which holds in its silence an eerie sadness.

Many years before that, in 1984, Gupta was in the thick of things during the hanging of another Kashmiri, Maqbool Butt. A few days after his hanging, a court in Delhi prepared to hear a scheduled hearing of Butt’s case, and the judge was then formally informed that the State had already killed him.

As India wished to contain the emotions in Butt’s home state following his death, his body was not handed over to his family. He was buried inside Tihar. As a result, many inmates began to see his ghost. One man, who assaulted his cell mate, said that Butt’s ghost did it. Some of the most feared criminals begged not to be lodged near his grave. Gupta himself avoided that stretch.

Among the most dramatic claims Gupta makes is about one of the accused in the assault on a paramedical student in a moving bus, an event that shocked and transfixed the nation in late 2012. Ram Singh was found hanging in his cell in Tihar. The jail said it was suicide, but Gupta believes he was murdered. The cell with a ceiling 12 feet high, and bare, is an impossible place for a man to kill himself, at least without assistance. But the society did not believe it was worth its time to probe the suspicious death of such a man.

Tihar is India when no one is looking. Other prisons are even worse. There is accidental design in this. India compensates for its limitations in law enforcement and judicial processes through its terrifying jails. And the absence of human rights in prisons contributes to the safety of all. As always, what India lacks in order, it makes up through disorder.

Manu Joseph is a journalist, and a novelist, most recently of ‘Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous’

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