Prison Conditions Case Study

Tihar, Delhi

By Sudip Mazumdar

(From PUCL Bulletin, Nov 1981)

See also,
Jails in India: An investigation
Case Study: Arrah, Bihar
Case study: Sakchi, Jamshedpur

It took two Supreme Court inquiries. three writ petitions, innumerable complaints, the Home Minister's first-hand experience and fourteen hard-hitting expo-sures by The Indian Express, to remove just one man from his post of privilege in the Tihar Central Jail in New Delhi. The man is B. L. Vij who was till October 1, 1981, the superintendent of the most notorious jail in the country.

The whole episode points to many important as-pects of the criminality in the state and public ad-
ministration and also in our political life. Let us look into them closely.

Tihar jail is located in the western end of the capital on several acres of rich fertile land. Encircled by a high wall mounted with barbed wire fence, this jail houses about 2500 prisoners, both convicts and under-trials. Tihar has also had the distinction of keeping such noted persons like Sanjay Gandhi, Indira Gandhi and Charles Sobhraj in detention.

Apart from habitual offenders and petty criminals, rich smugglers, black-marketeers, political workers and dreaded killers are lodged in this jail. Its yearly budget is huge, staff big and the scope of corruption is immense.

During the Emergency, hordes of political workers of all shades other than of Congress(I), were lodged in this jail by Mrs Gandhi's Government. In 1977, the Janata Party came to power and political workers saw freedom. But the new Government failed to take any concrete steps which would improve the conditions of the jail. Life was miserable for most of the prisoners, the bulk of whom are in jail because they could not afford to buy justice in the courts. There are many prisoners who should not have been jail. What was surprising was that the political workers, who experienced a bit of the murky life in the jail, for-got all the difficulties a common prisoner faces, the moment he became somebody in the new political set-up of the Janata colour.

Criminals like Charles Sobhraj, Sunil Batra, Ravi Kapoor, Vipin Jaggi, Rakesh Kaushik and some other killers virtually took over the administration of the jail. Two cliques were formed-one led by the Sobhraj - Batra gang-up and the other by Rakesh Kaushik of Vidya Jain murder case. In 1978, the overall charge of the jail came under B. L. Vij when he was brought on deputation from the Haryana jail cadre. Vij and two of his deputies, S. N. Trikha and 0. P. Sharma, soon became the source of patronage for the criminal cliques. Inside the jail, Sobhraj and his friends set up their own dens from where they ran their business-dealing in narcotics, selling of drugs and liquor. Sobhraj an his friends would beat up any-body who would dare put up resistance. The condi-tion of the jail deteriorated to the extent that docile prisoners became target of abuse by the hardened criminals. Vij and his cronies who had managed to keep higher officers in the administration in good humour, looked the other way when criminals went on the rampage inside.

The Supreme Court passed strictures against the jail administration. Vij and his gang were the subject of criticism. More complaints poured in. But Vij remained in his place. And he prospered.

It was by accident that an Indian Express reporter came across a few instances of glaring irregularities while working on another story. The first story in this series appeared in August. It detailed the way Charles Sobhraj was ruling the jail with direct support from B. L. Vij. Two jail officials, V. P. Garg and M.S. Rittu, became targets of the official displeasure. Both faced penal action. Strangely, the Inspector-General of Prisons and other officials ordered the penal action. And nobody paid any notice to the exposure in the newspaper.

One after another, reports appeared in the Indian Express about the link-up between officials and crimi-nals. There was no action to improve the condition or set things right. Instead, all attempts were made to plug the leaks to the newspaper and try to run down the reporter's credibility.

Then came the famous visit by the Home Minister, Mr Zail Singh, to the jail. He was offered a bottle of liquor by a drunken prisoner. Apart from this he saw many other goings-on in the jail. He was shocked and enraged. But even the Home Minister did not order immediate penal action against Vij and his company. Five days later, the Indian Express again came out with a report about the Home Minister's visit to the jail which was kept secret: There was no other way. Mr Zail Singh had to order the suspension of two jail officials S.N. Trikha and O.P. Sharma. Vij, who had links in the Prime Minister's secretariat, activated his contacts and managed to get out of the difficult situation. Des-pite this scandalous episode, Vij remained in his place.

His confidence grew instead. Charles Sobhraj, who later claimed that he had been paying huge sums of money to Vij, had planned a strategy through which he wanted to get out of the jail. He had one of his many girl friends in the underworld network, Shireen Walker, called to India. He planned to marry her and under the rule of marriage wanted to get out of the jail. Shireen came to Delhi and checked into a five-star hotel. She met Charles for six consecutive days in Vij's office room in the jail for hours together, flout-ing all jail regulations. All this under Vij's patronage.

Again the Indian Express came out with the illegal meetings and the Vij-Sobhraj links. The administration was not bothered. On the other hand, the Lt. Governor of Delhi called the Times of India and, in an exclusive interview to the paper, tried to denounce the Indian Express' efforts to correct the wrongs in the jail.

A few days later, a PT! reporter was approached by Vij and his "friends in journalist circle". PTI carried on its national network a story trying to justify Vij's stand and attacking, in effect, the campaign for jail reform launched by the Indian Express.

The Indian Express did not lose heart. It pursued its investigative reporting more vigorously. The news-paper exposed more instances of Vij's misrule like escape of prisoners in his regime.

The sustained efforts of the paper finally resulted in some action. At a high-level meeting in the Home Ministry, it was decided that Vij should be removed from his post. Even at that meeting some senior offi-cers of the Delhi Administration tried to defend Vij. But it was too late. The Intelligence Bureau had inde-pendently done investigation about the newspaper reports. What was surprising was that Vij was merely removed from Tihar and sent back to his parent state in Haryana. No action was taken against him. The charges against him were of criminal nature. Yet he remained free, outside the jail.

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