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In Tihar’s most heavily guarded wing, only four high-value prisoners

The four are underworld don Chhota Rajan, gangster-turned-politician Mohammad Shahabuddin, Delhi gangster Neeraj Bawana and suspected middleman Christian Michel.

india Updated: Mar 08, 2019 07:19 IST
Prawesh Lama
Prawesh Lama
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Tihar,Chhota Rajan,Mohammad Shahabuddin
Across the 400-acre complex, overcrowding is a perennial problem — 15,000 prisoners are lodged in space meant for not more than 6,200 inmates.(HT File Photo)

What do you call the most guarded corridor inside New Delhi’s Tihar Central Jail, India’s biggest and most secure prison complex?

Jail officers simply call it Ward X — a row of barracks, deep inside the prison compound, where only four prisoners are kept. Four men whose security is a top priority for the state government.

The four have been carefully chosen: underworld don Chhota Rajan, convicted of the 2011 murder of journalist Jyotirmay Dey and sentenced last year to a life term; gangster-turned-politician Mohammad Shahabuddin, found guilty of a 2004 double murder and serving a life sentence; Delhi gangster Neeraj Bawana, convicted and sentenced to seven years in prison in 2016 for engaging in a shoot out with the police; and Christian Michel, the suspected middleman in the Rs 3,600 crore AgustaWestland deal for the supply of 12 helicopters to ferry VVIPs, signed in 2010 and later scrapped.

Across the 400-acre complex, overcrowding is a perennial problem — 15,000 prisoners are lodged in space meant for not more than 6,200 inmates. In Ward X, there is no such problem; Rajan, Bawana, Shahabuddin and Michel are lodged separately and cannot interact with or see each other.

The individual cells of Ward X are regular cells with a small courtyard and an attached bathroom, a prison officer said on condition of anonymity. Each cell also has a television set. The cells are guarded round-the-clock, and the inmates get to meet only their relatives, lawyers and jail officers.

“It isn’t a dungeon, like in the movies. It is an open and spacious cell. There is a courtyard, too, where prisoners can step out and take a walk. Underworld don Rajan lives in a space that could easily accommodate over 50 prisoners. But no prisoner has access to him or other prisoners. Such is the security that we have to keep in place for their safety,” the jail officer cited above said.

Even during periodic visits to the prison hospital, the four are escorted by armed guards and at a time when all other prisoners have finished their check-ups. The hospital visit timings of Rajan, who needs regular treatment for some health conditions, are changed regularly.

The latest addition to Ward X is Michel, a British citizen who is alleged to have paid bribes to bureaucrats, political figures and even Air Force officers in the AugustaWestland deal. Last week, Michel’s advocate filed a complaint alleging he had been shifted to a ward where “hardcore criminals” are lodged.

“People like Michel or Shahabuddin are important prisoners for any government. At this ward, the Intelligence Bureau routinely keeps a watch and makes suggestions. The record of all prison guards, who deal with these four men, is checked regularly. Based on their confidential reports, the duties of the jail guards are also changed regularly,” another senior jail officer, who did not wish to be named, said.

Jail officers declined to comment on record on Ward X. Most senior officers said discussing the layout of the ward could be compromising jail security. Ward X has its own rules. While other prisoners are allowed to step out of their cell and meet their relatives twice a week, the prisoners of Ward X receive visitors in their cell to avoid any chance of being attacked by rivals or paid assassins.

Michel is not the only person who has made a requests to be shifted from Ward X. Bawana has approached court at least five times requesting a transfer to a regular cell. Bawana’s advocate has claimed that his client was losing his sanity because of being lodged in the ward.

Until his arrest in April 2015, Bawana, whose real name is Neeraj Sehrawat, was the most wanted gangster in Delhi. Before being shifted to Ward X, he killed two rival gang members inside a jail van while returning from court. Bawana’s gang members are lodged in different jails across the Tihar complex.

Last month, a Rohini-based businessman informed Delhi Police that he allegedly received an extortion call from Bawana’s aide, Rahul Kala, who is lodged in jail 1. Kala had reportedly made a video call over WhatsApp to threaten the businessman to pay Rs 50 lakh, according to the complaint.

Explaining the clout that prisoners such as Bawana wield, the former jail officer narrates an anecdote about the gangster. About two years ago, the officer was stressed because a relative’s granddaughter had been unable to secure admission in a particular south Delhi school. The officer, a senior Delhi government bureaucrat, tapped a friend in the government’s education department, but he couldn’t help either.

On a summer morning he was out conducting regular checks across jail 1 when he passed by Bawana’s cell. The usually reticent gangster, the office remembers, got up and wished him. Bawana then made him an offer — “saab, mein admission kara sakta hoon uska wahan [Sir, I can get her admission there].

First Published: Mar 08, 2019 07:16 IST