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India's jailhouse shock

At the end of the day, prison life is largely a miserable, brutish and subterranean one. it is one which merits the attention of experts. Chanakya writes.

columns Updated: Mar 16, 2013 22:54 IST
Hindustan Times
Chanakya,Tihar jail,Sushil Kumar Shinde

Is it just me or did you get the feeling that all the wrong people jumped into the fray no sooner had news come out that one of the accused in the Delhi gang rape had allegedly committed suicide in Tihar jail? For a start, our never-at-a-loss for words home minister Sushil Kumar Shinde was all over the place tsking tsking about the major lapse in security, the need for more CCTV cameras and so on. After an enthralling performance, the dear soul told us that actually the administration of prisons did not come under his ministry at all. I can only then presume that the whole exercise was to give us the pleasure of listening to his dulcet tones.

But he was not alone in his desire to be seen and heard. Into the pit jumped the National Commission for Women chief Mamta Sharma who informed us that a probe was needed and sundry women's activists who raised the issue of the rape and other related issues. But to my mind, the death of the accused had nothing to do with gender, though he was in jail for the heinous rape and death of Delhi's braveheart. It had everything to do with the appalling manner in which our jails are run.

It is all very fine for do gooders to talk about the need for vipasanna meditation and vocal education in jails. But the first thing that has to be done is to separate the categories of prisoners. An undertrial accused of petty theft ought not to be put into a cramped cell with one accused of a crime like rape or murder. In the case of the late Ram Singh, it would appear that despite being in jail for a crime which caused so much national revulsion, anger and sorrow, a crime in which an innocent girl lost her life, he was put in a cell with other prisoners. And in a twist worthy of Sherlock Holmes, he managed to hang himself with such stealth and dexterity that none of his cellmates even stirred in their sleep. A woman prisoner also subsequently committed suicide in Tihar jail.

There are many questions about Ram Singh's death that will need answers but the larger point is our very porous prison system. That prisons are overcrowded goes without saying, the premier Tihar jail has more than double its capacity of residents. The jail apparently has counsellors and psychiatrists, something woefully lacking in other penal facilities. In a reversal of our jurisprudence in which you are innocent until proven guilty, the prison authorities and other inmates consider those accused of crimes like rape fair game. They are often brutalised, even killed by those in jail, victims of the very system which should ensure justice commensurate with their crime.

Of course, at the risk of sounding like a stuck record, our law makers have contributed more than their mite to this sorry state of affairs. They and those who enjoy their patronage have been able to subvert the system, in the eventuality of their having to grace our prisons, by checking themselves into hospital. If they have to stay in, they are able to get themselves luxuries denied to common and garden prisoners. The message goes out that the system can be twisted to your benefit if you have the power and the means. The Yadav cousins, accused in the Nitish Katara case spent a great deal of time in hospital for no known medical condition until someone vigilant put a stop to it.

The first and most urgent thing to do would be to dispose of cases of petty crime double quick so that jails do not get overcrowded. In high security jails, there have to be periodic reviews to ensure that CCTV cameras work. Those who are accused of heinous crimes and those who exhibit violent or suicidal tendencies ought to be isolated and on special watch. These are not steps that will break the bank but will be effective in protecting the lives of those in jails. Then as Mr Shinde's waffling shows, there is the question of jurisdiction. The administration of Tihar jail comes under the Delhi administration while the police force comes under the home ministry. Naturally there are bound to be overlaps of jurisdiction and with it many cases could fall through the cracks. There is bound to be little sympathy for Ram Singh, but I cannot accept that such a prisoner died in such suspicious circumstances when the authorities were meant to keep a special watch. Some of the details which have come out about his ill-fated life do make a case for psychiatric counselling. But he does not seem to have been provided any such thing.

We must not get taken in by the fashion shows featuring clothes made by Tihar inmates. At the end of the day, prison life is largely a miserable, brutish and subterranean one. It is one which definitely merits more attention, one which could be assigned to those with expertise in the subject. We should not allow all sorts of feminist activists and misinformed politicians to usurp the platform. The death of Ram Singh has also allowed the focus to move away from rape to the circumstances of his death. This is not how the course of justice for the victim was supposed to run.

First Published: Mar 16, 2013 22:51 IST