My Days in Tihar Ashram

BP
The day at the courtroom was tiring and it became more so on account of the long drive in a police van from Tis Hazari Courts to Tihar Jail in Delhi. But the very novelty of the experience of being sent to prison for my participation in what I believed, and continue to believe, was a whistleblowing operation to expose a corruption scandal in Parliament, made my mind alert to every sight and sound that greeted me as I entered the jail. It was nearing 9 p.m. The jail superintendent, M K Dwivedi, was still in his office. A young and sensitive officer, with whom I would soon develop very cordial relations in the course of my 52-day stay in Tihar, he welcomed me with a hot and refreshing cup of ayurvedic tea, and some words meant to comfort. "Jail, after all, is jail," he said. "But having been a student of philosophy and Sanskrit, I can tell you that a man like you will find this a very good learning experience in life. It will give you solitude, which is otherwise very hard to find. Solitude is necessary to search for answers to the deepest questions of life. After all, all religions were born out of the womb of solitude when their founders wrestled with their own minds and souls."

Dwivedi was right. What made my days in Tihar most rewarding was that they taught me the value of solitude and silence. Solitude, the state of being mostly in one's own company, is a unique opportunity to begin a conversation with oneself, something that we rarely engage in when we drown ourselves in the hustle and bustle of normal life. It brings silence—not external silence but internal silence of the mind that opens the doors of dialogue with one's Maker. Few persons have described the power of the sound of silence better than Mahatma Gandhi, who spent nearly seven years of his life in jail. "The art of life," he insisted, "cannot be practised without experiencing the beneficial effects of silence." The radio he preferred to listen to, even when he was not in jail, was the "Divine Radio" because "(it) is always singing if we could only make ourselves ready to listen to it, but is impossible to listen to without silence."

The most prized gift that I have brought for myself from Tihar is my ability to be a little more attuned than before to the "Divine Radio", its songs of silence.

Although I didn't know what or how long my Tihar experience would be, in my heart of hearts, I had been craving, when the judge was hearing my bail application on September 27, an order of judicial custody. An important part of the reason for this craving was the fact that my colleagues who had worked closely with me in this whistleblowing operation in the 'cash-for-votes' scam in July 2008—Faggan Singh Kulaste and Mahavir Bhagora, both former BJP MPs, and Sohail Hindustani—had already been sent to Tihar. I, who was in the United States then, was assailed by a sharp sense of guilt that, at a time when my associates were languishing in jail, I was savouring the charms of MIT, Harvard, Boston and New York. Therefore, I lost no time in presenting myself before the court after I landed in India.

Lesson in humility

There was also a second reason for my wanting to be sent to jail. I could fathom its full meaning only as my days in Tihar rolled by. It was perhaps God's plan that I needed to think about my life from a deeper and clearer perspective, which meant I still had to learn many lessons on the importance of shedding ego, vanity and all kinds of selfish desires. As if to drive home this message on the very first day, I was greeted, while being photographed in the computer room next to the Superintendent's, by a biblical maxim on a wall calendar of the Society of Good Samaritans—God resisteth the proud, and giveth His grace to the humble." (1 Peter 5.5)

As I spent my first night in Cell No. 1 in Ward No. 4 of Jail No. 3 in Tihar, sleeping on the floor on a bed made of a few layers of kambals (rugs) topped by a white bedsheet, I reflected upon the biblical adage. I had ceased to be an atheist long ago, at the same time that I had quit the communist movement. In Tihar, I found my faith in God become more robust. This happened in many ways, often by simply looking at the pigeons flying freely across the barbed wire fence that separated my ward from the adjoining ward; at the trajectory of the waxing and waning moon night after meditative night; at the flaming red flowers on the pomegranate tree in the little garden behind my ward; or even at the army of ants crawling from one point to another beneath the tree.

Inspiration from prayers

One day I received a little book sent by my friends, a couple wholives in Auroville. It was Sri Aurobindo's Tales of Prison Life, which contains the yogi's reflections on his year of near-solitary confinement in Alipore Jail in Kolkata. The British regime had falsely accused him of masterminding a terrorist attack. The book gave me immense strength, enabling me to view my own incarceration in the right perspective. Let me quote a few lines from it.

"Friday, May 1, 1908...I did not know that that day would mean an end of a chapter of my life, and that there stretched before me a year's imprisonment during which period all my human relations would cease, that for a whole year I would have to live beyond the pale of society, like an animal in a cage. And when I would re-enter the world of activity, it would not be the old Aurobindo Ghose...I have spoken of a year's imprisonment. It would have been more appropriate to speak of a year's living...in an ashram or a hermitage...The only result of the wrath of the British Government was that I found God."

I cannot claim to have found God in Tihar, but I certainly became more godward in my thinking. I began my day soon after the warder unlocked our cells at around 5.30 a.m.— we would be locked in again at 8 p.m., allowing us to walk freely within the precincts of our ward during the day—by sweeping and mopping up the floor of the all-religion prayer complex located within our ward. Gandhiji's Ashram Bhajanawali, a collection of all-religion hymns that used to be sung at his daily prayer meetings, became my aid to my own morning prayers. Here are two of them, in translation.

"That which goes by the name of adversity is no adversity, nor is prosperity which goes by that name. To forget God is adversity, and constant remembrance of God is itself prosperity." The second hymn is 'Al Fatiha', the opening verse in the Holy Quran, which says: "In the name of Allah the most Gracious, the most Merciful...Thee do we worship, and Thine aid do we seek. Show us the right path. The path of those upon whom Thou has bestowed Thy Grace. Not of those with whom Thou is displeased, nor of those who have gone astray."

A Sikh leader of the BJP, who came to Tihar to meet me, gifted me a book of prayers in Sikhism. What I learnt from all these prayers from different faiths—and I'm not saying this to put a gloss of politically correct secularism on my Tihar experience—reinforced my conviction in the essential unity of all religions.

Musings on Freedom

There are certain things in life whose true value you come to know only after you've lost it. In prison, it is impossible not to ruminate over the meaning and importance of the loss of freedom. When one is convinced of one's innocence, the loss of liberty certainly hurts. I wasn't hurt by the fact that I was made to live in a cell consisting of two tiny (8'x10') rooms, with a small toilet and bathing space at the back, the same cell in which Amar Singh had spent seven days before being moved to AIIMS on health grounds.) After all, the living conditions for prisoners in other wards were far inferior. Nor was I hurt by the restrictions placed on my movement outside my ward. I had resolved to eat only the jail food, although some inmates in my ward had availed the facility of eating either home-delivered food or food from a rudimentary canteen inside the jail. And although one could have a TV set installed in one's cell, I decided to forgo it because of my desire not to let anything intrude into my solitude.

Nevertheless, three things did hurt me. Firstly, the loss of freedom to speak to my near and dear ones at home, especially my aged and worried mother. Thanks to the resolute efforts of Tihar's longtime inmates, a common biometric phone has been installed from which one can call a pre-determined number for five minutes daily. Sadly, the phone often didn't work. The day I couldn't speak to my mother was a day of unrelieved unhappiness for me. Secondly, I realised soon after entering Tihar that I had lost my freedom to publish my regular column in this newspaper. On the very second day of my stay in jail, I hand-wrote my column—I was not allowed to take my laptop in—and requested the jail authorities to fax it or mail it to The Indian Express urgently since the deadline was approaching. I was told that the jail's law officer had to go through it and clear it for publication. Since the column was neither about the 'cash-for-votes' scam nor in any way critical of Tihar, I expected it to be cleared quickly. Alas, the clearance never came! If there ever was a Kafkaesque experience for me in Tihar, this was it. For a writer, no loss is more unbearable than the loss of freedom to write and publish.

Far more hurtful than my own partial loss of freedom was the realisation that many freedoms that were granted to "VIP prisoners" in my ward were denied to the majority of inmates in other wards. For instance, whenever visitors came to meet us—many top BJP leaders visited my colleagues and me in jail—they were comfortably seated in the offices of senior jail authorities. In the case of other inmates, not only were the rules and procedures for visitors extremely stringent, but they could meet them only across a glass barrier in a cubicle. What can be crueler than to deny an inmate, who has probably spent several years in jail, the loving and comforting touch of his wife, parents or children? Obviously, the many indefensible class-divisions in our society manifest themselves in our prisons too.

Shocking truths about our criminal justice system

The Hindi word for education is shiksha. However, shiksha in Kannada and Marathi, the first languages I learnt in my childhood, means punishment. Tihar made me realise the nuances of the word have a significance of their own. What came disguised as punishment in my life, also came as a great educator.

In this ashram, I not only learnt more about myself, but also more about the shocking realities of our society, politics and institutions of governance. In particular, I realised that it would have been impossible for me to know the shameful truths about the criminal justice system in India if Dr Manmohan Singh's government had not sent me to Tihar.

Take this truth, for example. Out of the nearly 14,000 inmates in Tihar, as many as 75 per cent are undertrials. Many of them have spent a long time in jail, some as many as seven or eight years. Their trial is not over, the courts have not yet pronounced verdict on their guilt or innocence, and yet their punishment has already begun. Who can compensate for their years of wrongful incarceration? Who can make good the pain and suffering of their families? And in a society like ours, that continues to stigmatise ex-prisoners—I came across many stories about convicts not being invited to attend, on parole, the weddings of their brothers or sisters because of the fear that their presence might bring apashakun (ill omen)—who will rehabilitate them economically, socially and psychologically? Is there no accountability in our system? Are we living in a free and law-governed nation, or in a banana republic?

The most harrowing tale of injustice that I came across was from two inmates—Vijendra Rana, a naval officer who trained marine commandos, including those that took part in the 26/11 anti-terrorist operations in Mumbai, and Kulbhushan Parashar, an ex-naval officer and a businessman. Arrested in the so-called Navy War Room Leak case under the Official Secrets Act, they have been languishing in Tihar for the past five-and-a-half years with no sign yet of the trial starting, no sign of the charges being framed, and no sign of their bail application accepted or rejected.

Not surprisingly, the main accused in the case, with powerful connections in the Congress party, has been released on bail long ago. The papers about the case, which Rana has procured through RTI with a heroically persistent effort, show that the evidence against the two is questionable. The mental trauma that their traditionally fauji and patriotic families have suffered defies description. At the same time, I developed immense admiration for their wives who have rebuilt their ruined families on the foundation of hope that someday their husbands would come out of jail as free and acquitted men, their honour and dignity fully restored.

Real heroes are those ordinary men and women who do not crumble under the weight of injustice done to them. I saw many of them in Tihar. One of them, of course, was Rana, who has helped nearly 40 illiterate inmates get bail by helping them with their legal papers. The other was Raju, a 23-year-old poor boy from Bihar who had come to Delhi in search of a job, suddenly found himself thrown into a police lock-up, where he was beaten black and blue on suspicion of being involved in a murder case. The police have found no evidence against him although nearly four years have elapsed. Even as the case is dragging on, Raju overcame his initial phase of depression, passed his Class 10, 11 and 12 exams by studying inside the jail, enrolled himself for a degree course at the IGNOU centre in Tihar, and even succeeded in getting a good job offer at the 'campus placement' programme held in Tihar recently. He works as a librarian in the jail library, which I used to frequent in order to read as many volumes as possible out of the 100-volume Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi. (I could manage only ten.) Yet another Tihar hero is Sandip Kumar ('Guddu'), a young poet of exceptional sensitivity and talent and manager of the IGNOU centre. An unexpected turn of events in life brought him to jail. However, with his dedication and hard work, he has now proved himself to be indispensable to many transformational activities in jail.

Then there is Kobad Ghandy, a former ideologue of the Maoist movement, who is lodged in the high-risk ward in Tihar. Widely respected for his gentle and sensitive conduct, he is called "Gandhiji" by both inmates and the jail staff. Meeting him, and knowing about his honest introspection into the reasons for the failure of the communist movements in India and worldwide, provided some of the happiest moments during my stay in jail. Since my interaction with Kobad deserves a comprehensive account, I shall keep it for

another day.

More struggle, more sacrifice

As in any ashram worth its name, I learnt to live with less in Tihar. After a disciplined regime of frugal eating, yoga, pranayam and lots and lots of brisk walk, one of my biggest gains in Tihar was that I lost 12 kg! I felt stronger, both physically and mentally, than ever before.

In Tihar, I also learnt that a person in political life must be prepared to fight for his convictions and to make all such sacrifices as are called for, without ever losing one's humility. A week before my unexpected release from Tihar Ashram on November 17, I wrote in my jail dairy.

"Struggle, struggle, struggle. There is no going back now. Sacrifice yourself in the attempt to change this unjust system, even if by a tiny degree. Know that countless spirited fighters before you have made the same effort, and made far greater sacrifices. Their efforts haven't failed. If all of them had failed, how do we account for the many good features that are there in this system? Every good thing in this system is on account of the conscious efforts by fighters in the past. Therefore, no respite, no laxity now. More discipline, still more discipline. More faith, still more faith."

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