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Life and the noose

They go to bed fearing that the next day might turn out to be their last. Abhishek Sharan pieces together the in-prison lives of four Tihar inmates on death row. Read on...
By Abhishek Sharan | Hindustan Times
UPDATED ON JUL 12, 2008 10:26 PM IST

They count their time in hours and days, not in months or years, as the 11,594 other inmates of the high-security Tihar Central Jail usually do. They go to bed fearing that the next day might turn out to be their last. Each morning is filled with the dread of the arrival of the official ‘warrant’, that would seal their fate. For, convicted of the ‘rarest of rare crimes’, these men are to be ‘hanged till death’.

Most of them have been on death row for several years, owing to delays in the judicial disposal of their petitions challenging the verdicts, or the pending status of their appeals for a presidential pardon. They keep flitting between despair and hope — while most have already reconciled to a grim inevitability, others are in a state of denial. For now, Tihar’s high-security wards — enclosed by tall walls painted white, yellow and pink — is their world. Most of their time is spent in their cells sized 16 feet by 8 feet.

Everything is done by the clock. The day begins at 5.30 am with a headcount and ends with another at 10.30 pm. Tea and bread slices are served at 7 am and at 4 pm; the spartan lunch comes at 11 am sharp and dinner is at 6 pm, and there’s a two-hour ‘leisure period’ between 3 and 5 pm. Those on death row do not need to work. They were once on the ‘most wanted’ list of the police; today, they have to cajole jail officials for access to amenities such as radio, television, or, at times, a movie screening. They even need permission to walk around in spaces larger than the corridors outside their cells.

Except for their dear ones, who get to meet them twice a week for half an hour, no one from the outside world gets to meet them. Hindustan Times has pieced together the lives of four such inmates with the help of accounts from the jail officials.

Mohammed Afzal Guru

The reluctant ‘hero’

You are unlikely to take any note of him at first glance. Of a short height and slight build, he’s usually dressed in a T-shirt worn over a loose pyjama or trousers. As such, he does not seem to be a conspirator in the 2001 Parliament attack case, in which five armed terrorists made a failed bid on parliamentarians. But Mohammed Afzal Guru’s eyes definitely attract attention — when not darting around behind the steel-rimmed frame, they are unblinking and cold.

Guru is polite to a fault, converses in fluent English, especially with jail officials, and displays remarkable alertness. He never discusses details of his case with a stranger and offers no regrets for any of his alleged crimes. An MBBS dropout and a Delhi University alumnus, security officials confirmed that he is the most high-profile inmate of the Tihar at present. An armed sentry gives him company when Guru goes for a stroll — it’s supposedly for protecting him from possible assaults by in-house toughies known as ‘blade-baaz’ gangs.

The 38-year-old, a self-confessed former ‘surrendered’ militant of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front, is an intensely private man who tolerates the company of only a select few — usually a few convicted ‘senior’ terrorists.

He spends his time tracking political news from around the world, especially from Kashmir. For hours he pores through two Urdu and three English newspapers, and magazines such as Newsweek and Time. A small FM radio set, made available to all in the high-security ward, keeps him constant company. The most cherished spot inside his cell is a small, embroidered Kashmiri rug on which he offers namaaz five times a day.

To the others dozen-odd others sharing the ward — most of them convicted terrorists — Guru is a ‘hero’. They rarely speak to him though until spoken to. “Other terrorists consider him khuda ka farishta (god’s angel), owing to his background,” says an official.

Guru is reportedly pleased with officials since he was granted a concession rare for a death-row convict — he was allowed to walk on a small lawn for an hour twice a day, along with another inmate named Devinder Pal Bhullar, a Khalistani terrorist. The walks have helped him fight off the depression that used to engulf him earlier.

Guru is often visited by his wife, Tabassum (32), son Ghalib (10), and another relative during the visiting hours.

It’s also learnt that Guru has a wish: to pick up computer skills at the prison facility and get a TV set. But the administration is reluctant to concede to his wishes since “mobiles could be hidden inside TV sets, and other inmates might attack him if he steps out”.

Sushil Sharma

The ‘Baba’

In police files, this former Congress leader appears as a calculating, ruthless person who killed Naina Sahani, his ‘wife’, in 1995. In jail, however, he has the reputation of being an intensely religious man and a samaritan.

Nicknamed Baba by fellow inmates because he sports a tika on his forehead, Sharma, took to religion from the time he stepped into the jail 13 years ago, says an official. He is now known to claim that meditation has given him mental peace and freedom from “fear and temptations”.

His days begin at 3.30 am, two hours before death-row convicts are expected to wake up to mark attendance. Then, the morning prayers are followed by a cup of steaming tea and bread slices, with non-stop recitation of hymns from the Durga saptashati and Gayatri mantra. He spends up to eight hours doing chanting and meditating. A small temple inside the ward is where he’s likely to be found during his afternoon ‘free’ hours.

Sharma’s target apparently is to chant the Gayatri mantra at least seven crore times. He is fond of saying that if ever his death sentence gets commuted to a life term, he would devote the rest of his life to spirituality.

Apart from things spiritual, Sharma takes networking seriously too and is allegedly a glib talker. He approaches officials to discuss problems of other inmates but “never for himself”. But he makes it a point to network with the jail officials, too. “He is a politician at heart and has not forgotten his skills,” says an official. He is usually seen in a spotless white shirt and trousers.

Sharma is said to regret his past, but does not specify which parts of it. He is in good health and breaks into an occasional full-throated laughter... and tears when his mother comes visiting.

Santosh Singh

The ‘brooding lawyer’

Demons from his past still haunt him. One look at his face can tell you that he is a tormented soul, claims a jail official.

Santosh is yet to come to terms with his plight, and he broods over it. He is known to discuss the minutiae of his case with sympathetic inmates and officials, peppering the discussions with quotes from the Indian Penal Code and the Evidence Act. “He says he had not murdered Priyadarshini Mattoo... that he got framed,” says an official. The murder-and-rape case happened way back in January 1996.

A mere mention of the case, sometimes, can throw the Delhi University-trained lawyer off his guard — and he would often break down in tears. He cries easily and often, says the official. Apart from his personal problems, perhaps what worries Singh is the plight of his wife and kid, and a mentally challenged elder brother. His father, a former Indian Police Service officer who was anchoring the family financially and otherwise, died a few years ago.

When in a good mood, Singh gladly offers valuable legal counsel to his fellow inmates and spends a lot of time at the cyber centre set up for the inmates.

Tall and lean, Singh is mostly attired in clean, ironed clothes. He is also said to be fond of stylish leather slippers and shoes.

Not particularly religious, Singh perhaps finds more solace in a game of cricket. An all-rounder of sorts, Singh captains one of the jail’s cricket teams. Last week, though his team lost to another jail team, Singh excelled, says the official.

Devinder Pal Bhullar

The ‘well-connected’ terrorist

Bhullar, with a flowing beard and a small build, is a quiet character. He is religious and is said to be unrepentant about his alleged involvement in a 1993 bomb attack in Delhi that left eight dead. He spends his time reciting from the Guru Granth Sahib and other religious scriptures, and listening to his radio set. He is a man of few words, but enjoys the respect of ‘old-timers’ at the high-security ward of Jail Number 3.

Bhullar is a good friend of Guru. Together, for two hours a day, they stroll, or at times walk briskly across a green patch. What they talk during the walks is not known to anyone.

Bhullar claims that he enjoys the good wishes of many prominent Sikh community leaders and politicians, who pay him regular visits or ‘support his family financially’. He is also fond of referring to the demand, by some prominent political personalities from Canada, for commuting of his death sentence to a life term.

In his forties now, Bhullar suffers from depression-related problems and has been provided “adequate psychiatric treatment”, reports an official. His knees trouble him a lot too, and he is being treated for this ailment as well.

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