On a tour of the infamous Cellular Jail in the Andaman & Nicobar Islands, or Kaala Pani, one’s stereotypes of the British Raj-era prisons is reaffirmed. Stories of dark dungeons, prisoners in shackles and consumption make one’s skin crawl. Stereotypes so strong that they continue till today.
The mention of Tihar evokes similar visuals in the minds of most people. The idea of the jail only as a punitive facility dominates. More recently, Tihar has gained notoriety for playing host to members of Parliament, anti-corruption stalwarts and scam-tainted businessmen.
But a look behind the high walls of Asia’s largest prison facility reveals a different, more positive story.
Tihar’s in-house rock band is on a roll — making music with leading artists, getting new instruments and a possible CD deal.
Jamming with Menwhopause and Ska Vengers — both Delhi- based bands — Flying Souls, Tihar’s in-house rock band, is all ready to roll. Their inspiration? “Our pain and guilt,” voiced several band members.
Bhagirath Khadiya, 27, serves as vocalist, drummer and guitarist for the band. In jail since 2010 for dacoity, he spent a month learning these instruments. With no musical inclination before, Khadiya now can’t do without his daily dose. “I feel lost. It’s the best way to keep my mind occupied,” he said.
The prisoner welfare fund may have given them the initial round of instruments, but musicians outside have also provided inspiration, and support. Ska Vengers arranged a concert with other bands such as The Vinyl Records to raise funds for musical instruments for the inmates.
Menwhopause performed at Tihar last December. Bassist Randeep Singh considers it among the top gigs of his career. But did he have any apprehensions about performing with criminals? “I was fine but when I told my mother, she was quite shocked. But then we ended up laughing it off,” he said. But it isn’t that easy for all, adds guitarist Anoop Kutty. “I know that some people are not as comfortable.”
Sandeep Kumar, another vocalist for the Flying Souls, explains the origin of the band’s name. “Music fills our souls, and we want our souls to transcend the jail boundaries through this music.”
Twenty-nine year old Sandeep Kumar’s is one such example. An inmate at Tihar’s Jail No. 3, he is a teacher at the computer training facility, counsellor for fellow inmates, holder of a tourism management degree and post-graduate diploma in social work from the jail’s Indira Gandhi National Open University(IGNOU) centre, and finally, vocalist for the in-house rock band, the Flying Souls. It would be hard to dispute his model inmate credentials.
Guddu, as he likes to be called, is a product of Tihar’s education and vocational training initiatives. A Rajput from Uttar Pradesh, he initially didn’t tell his family that he was in jail. “I was afraid that once people found out, it would bring disgrace to the family,” he said. After all, he had two unmarried sisters to think of. “Who would marry a convict’s sister?”
Now in the fifth year of his sentence for kidnapping, he recalls that the first six months were the hardest — depressed, he even tried to commit suicide. “An empty mind invites negative thoughts,” he said. Slowly, prison counsellors helped him integrate into the environment. “I joined computer classes at the jail. Today, I teach other inmates and help counsel them,” said the fair, scrawny Guddu. “The classes have become a part of my life — Sundays now feel empty without them,” he added.
Over the last 20 years, Tihar has been on the forefront of remodelling the prison reform system in the country. “The first step towards a prisoner’s reform is literacy,” said Neeraj Kumar, commissioner of Delhi police and ex-director general, Tihar jail. The jail’s latest initiative, Padho aur Padhao, has achieved a 100% literacy rate within the prison. “We want to generate confidence and self-esteem in the inmates,” said Sunil Gupta, law officer at the jail.
A day spent at jail No.3’s study centre seemed like one at any university — from mathematics classes being conducted at the ‘Amartya Sen’ classroom to auditions for ‘Tihar Idol’, aimed at promoting dance and music abilities of talented inmates, at the ‘Tansen’ music hall. At the ‘Narayan Murthy’ computer centre, inmates were tapping away at their keyboards, digitising accounts as part of data-entry training, too busy to even look up and pose for our photographer. “Inmates learn web and graphic design as well,” said our de-facto guide Guddu.
These efforts have paid off. “Our placement record is a clear indication of the success of these initiatives,” said Kumar. In five placement drives, 338 inmates have successfully landed up jobs; 192 of them just last year. Guddu, one of the more successful candidates, landed a R6 lakh per annum package as a business development executive at DevelopMen, a Netherlands-based company.
Prior to such rehabilitation programs, the interaction of inmates with the outside world was limited, and drug use was common. Depression and revenge were the dominant feelings. “By instituting such programmes, we rehabilitate prisoners. Also, by successfully marketing our products, we show society that criminals are also people, capable of contributing positively. We are changing mindsets,” said Gupta.
With a strength of over 12,000 inmates and increasing stress on resources — overcrowding statistics for 2011 were 194% — the success of these initiatives is indeed remarkable. Model jail
The list of vocational programmes at the jail is long: carpentry, paper-making, tailoring, weaving, upper shoe-making, bakery, spices, petha (sweet meat) unit, herbal henna, candle making and an incense sticks unit, to name a few.
Despite the turnover from Tihar jail’s products rising from Rs 2 crore in 2006 to over Rs 15 crore in 2011, jail authorities play down its success.
“We never calculate profits. Our primary purpose is successful rehabilitation,” said Gupta.Ex-inmate Ganesh (name changed) is a living testament of the positive impact. He secured a job through the jail’s placement programme at Aggarwal Packers and Movers in Delhi. "I did an MBA as well as a post-graduate diploma in tourism during the five years I spent at Tihar," he said. "It was my family that motivated me to get out and earn a respectable living. Society may not always be ready to accept you, but through education you ensure that you can at least get a well-paying job."