Locked up in a fort, only cops for company: Meet India’s loneliest prisoner
Deepak Kanji is alone in a room for 20, with a TV, blanket, water container and 50 sq metres of empty space. The 30-year-old is the only inmate of Diu’s heritage site / fort / only jail. After the undertrial moves out, the prison will shut and management of the 472-year-old Portuguese-built fortification will revert to the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI).
For now, Kanji must make do with two hours of fresh air and cop company between 4 pm and 6 pm. At night, he lies alone in his room surrounded by vacant watchtowers. The staff has been pared down, but even at its minimum, there are still five jail guards and an assistant jailer for a facility housing one.
“They serve in shifts and the inmate is guarded 24x7, but the situation has its challenges,” says Chandrahas Vaja, who is in charge of the jail. “We cannot arrange for any real activity for the prisoner as he is the only one. For his food we have made a special arrangement with a restaurant near the fort.”
The process of shutting the jail was sanctioned in 2013, after the ASI put in a request saying it wanted to promote tourism at the site. But it was only a year ago that the actual shutdown began. “We decided to gradually empty the prison, by not taking in any more prisoners. At the time there were seven inmates, including two women,” says Vaja.
Four of the seven were transferred to a prison in Amreli, Gujarat, about 100 km away; two finishing doing their time and were released. Kanji remained, arrested in December for allegedly trying to poison his wife. No one can say how long his case will go on. If convicted, he will be transferred to Amreli too.
“It is convenient to keep him here while he is an undertrial because his hearings are at the Diu sessions court and Amreli, the nearest prison, is so far away,” Vaja says.
THEN & NOW
The fort is a moody, evocative reminder of Portuguese rule. Diu was a colony from 1537 to 1961 and this jail is one of the oldest functioning prisons in the country. The structure is situated on the extreme south-east point of the island. Inside, rows of cells stand empty, the barred doors still locked. A huge kitchen and bakery gather cobwebs. Outside, stone pathways lead to half-buried arches and a sunken tank, now dry and cracked.
ASI officials say it’s not clear if this part of the fort was always a jail; the bakery suggests it may not have been, says a senior conservator. But it was a fully functional prison when the Portuguese left in 1961. Tourists are currently allowed into the compound, but not near the jail. “Once the jail is shut, we plan to start sound and light shows and improve this tourist destination in Diu,” says a conservation assistant with the ASI.
For now, the lone prisoner spends his day reading the newspapers and Gujarati magazines. His TV set screens only Doordarshan and spiritual channels, but he can look forward to the evening walk with the guards.
“They have to keep him company because there is no one else,” Vaja says. “In bigger prisons with more people, authorities can arrange social activities which are important for the health of any prisoner. Here, there is little we can do. So we hope the transfer happens quickly.”
For Diu Collector Hemant Kumar, the transfer / release of his district’s last prisoner will be good news for a different reason. Kumar has been running a campaign to have the island declared ‘crime-free’. “We have very few criminal cases here and moving the jail out is a part of our project,” Kumar says.
For Kanji, the plans for the jail matter little. “Every evening when we take our walk, he asks about the status of his case,” says assistant jailor Dinesh Baraiya. “We just tell him to wait for the next court hearing.”