Untold Stories from Tihar Jail

Black Warrant: Confessions of a Tihar Jailor (Roli Books) is a detailed and candid account of life inside a prison. Recounted by journalist Sunetra Choudhury and Tihar Jail superintendent Sunil Gupta, are stories capturing fascinating and poignant information from Gupta's three decades of work with major convicts of the nation who had received death penalties or black warrants.

Following are some excerpts from the book.

Image courtesy Roli Books

Anatomy of a Hanging

Early morning on 11 February, a sub-divisional magistrate oversaw the hanging of Maqbool Butt. There were no outsiders present and it was decided that because Butt’s hanging was going to lead to a volatile situation, he would be buried in Tihar itself. The government felt that if his body was handed over to his family, separatist supporters would make a martyr of him, and the movement for Kashmiri freedom would spiral out of control. This posed a major challenge for us because no one had been buried inside Tihar before.

In Tihar, like in many other jails in India, the Muslim population of inmates is about 25 per cent. A small number of this comprises Kashmiri prisoners and as anticipated, on the day of Butt’s hanging, some of them protested. I don’t remember it being a very significant protest but some prisoners did not eat their meals. Never once, however, did we fear that there was going to be a rebellion. And that was because of the way jail authorities have a built in system of submission. Every prisoner is kept in check by a head prisoner, who is then kept in check by a numberdar. They are all doing time and yet they all revel in their authority over the other, negating any possibility of them uniting to rebel against the authorities. If any inmate creates trouble, they risk a brutal backlash from the others and so in jail it is every man for himself, unless a common facility risks being taken away. Each one is too busy extracting favours from the jail staff to unite on religious or caste lines. This was why when we asked Muslim inmates to prepare Butt’s grave, we did not hear any murmurs of displeasure. They did what was asked of them: they dug his last resting place, cleaned his body before putting it in Tihar’s first grave and poured back the soil on his body. Also, a Muslim clergy from a nearby masjid was present to carry out the rituals.

The day after the hanging, Tufail and other members of his legal team tried to come to Tihar to retrieve Butt’s belongings, to give to his family in Srinagar. However, they were detained two kilometres away from the jail. Butt’s family also met me several times to take his belongings but there was nothing I could do for them. Just as the state decided Butt’s last letter should stay hidden, so would his books and his kurta pyjama. So for a long time, I think these were just left lying around somewhere in Tihar. I do not know what became of his other belongings, but at some point his books (which included works of Sartre and Will Durant) became a part of the library in Jail number 3. In the years to come, those who borrowed these books had no idea who they once belonged to. As for his family, I had little idea what happened to them though I later learnt that his brother Ghulam Nabi was killed in Kashmir.

The absurdity and tragedy of the way Butt was hanged can be seen by the following incident. Justice Anand’s court had scheduled a hearing of Maqbool Butt’s case a few days later where they were officially informed that the 45-year-old petitioner had been hanged, just a week before his birthday. The Delhi High Court judge sent a notice to the government asking why had he been hanged when his case was still under review in court. We informed the honourable judge that the orders to hang him came directly from the competent authority. And there ended the judicial fight against Maqbool Butt’s hanging.

The phansi kothi was never the most pleasant part of Tihar jail. Even when I joined, I remember people avoided it unless a prisoner had to be punished. If anyone misbehaved or broke the rules, they would be kept there as a punishment. The entire area was said to be haunted and some people even heard sounds at night. These stories became more exaggerated after Butt’s hanging.

I admit to becoming wary about the phansi kothi only after Butt’s hanging and would ask a helper or a guard to accompany me. I purposely avoided looking towards his grave. I remember once walking by and an inmate shouted out, ‘Sir, Sir! See Maqbool is standing there.’ He was crying and swore that he saw him standing wearing his signature white kurta pyjama.

Inmates housed near the phansi kothi were the ones we categorized as the most dangerous. But even the most hardened prisoners refused to stay there alone and we decided to club three of them together in a cell. One morning, we found an inmate murdered in his cell close to the phansi kothi. If this was not disturbing enough, when questioned, the one who had done the deed claimed that he had been possessed by the spirit of Maqbool Butt. Of course, this was a very weak excuse and he failed to convince anybody. No one in Tihar could believe that even the ghost of Maqbool Butt was capable of harming anybody.

However, it must be said here that these stories were not limited to just prisoners. The Tamil Nadu Special police guarding the area also reported similar stories. Many of them apparently ‘saw’ Maqbool Butt standing near his grave. Some even said that he came and grabbed them by the neck. Every time someone raised an alarm like this, extra forces would rush to the ward, but they would find nothing there. Ghost stories relating to Maqbool Butt live on even today in Tihar.

They are not all scary though. Some inmates truly believe in the benevolent spirit of Maqbool Butt. They have told me how he came to them in their dream and told them they would be free soon. And in some cases, apparently proved to be true.


Afzal Guru: The Final Act

When your workplace is a prison, you learn to keep secrets. Sometimes, secrets are necessary for reform and rehabilitation to help an ex-prisoner adjust to the world outside. For instance, an unspoken rule is that you may share a camaraderie inside jail but if you bump into a former prisoner once they have left jail, you do not assume familiarity. It is not considered polite to remind a person who has done time about their days of incarceration. It is for this reason that I do not accept invitations of weddings or other functions of former prisoners. Even if I saw someone I knew really well, I would avoid him in public. A few months ago I was at Bikaner House, New Delhi for a book launch where I saw industrialist Raj Sethia who had spent time in Tihar for a financial crime fraud. He was in prison at the same time as Sobhraj and the two knew each other well. We both registered each other’s presence but even after so many years together, we did not speak to each other because, I feel, he did not want to be reminded that I had been his jailer at one time.

Another secret I keep is the number of people I have indulged with jail fetishes. For example did you know that a common fetish is to eat jail food? Yes, that is right. Some believe that if you are going through a rough patch, and experiencing bad luck in life, all you have to do to fix things, is to eat the food from a jail kitchen. One possible explanation for this is that all other miseries are put into perspective after eating the abominable food from Tihar. But seriously, I have received calls from friends, lawyers and even high court judges who wanted me to organize food from Tihar so that their own lives could become more appetizing. There were others who asked for jail food because their horoscopes apparently said that they would do time in jail at some point in their life. To ward off this predestined misfortune, they would ask us if they could voluntarily spend one night in jail or eat jail food. This fix is supposedly mentioned in Lal Qitaab, which is like the ‘bible’ or even an almanac that some communities in North India use to tackle miseries dictated by our stars.

It is strange when even the most educated are willing to suspend their rational minds for superstition. Besides many judges, there was one bank manager who I remember well. She was in trouble at work because she had given a loan to someone who had defaulted on it. She took someone’s advice and came to see me. I could not turn her away because she was sent by a good friend. She came to see me about three times and would not only eat the jail food but also clean cupboards and dust the room! How can anyone believe that this kind of fix will work? By this logic all ex-convicts would be living without a care in the world!

Besides prison food other articles from jail were also believed to have ‘healing powers’. The wood used for the hanging plank was highly sought after because it was believed to ward off fear. Some people believe that by placing a piece of this wood in a child’s bedroom could help him or her get over nightmares and also stop bedwetting. It could also help a child overcome exam fear. I have been told that many seers sell amulets with soil from a jail because of its supposed extraordinary powers. Whenever someone would ask for water or soil from Tihar, we would go along with it and one of the constables would organize it for them.

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But there was one superstition which we, as jail authorities, tried to actively counter. In 2001 we noticed there had been a rise in the number of childbirths in Tihar. As I was compiling the annual statistics, I noticed there were at least 50 women in jail who were pregnant. In many such cases, the women would apply for bail and would get it soon after the birth of the child. The initial assumption was these women wanted to be arrested because they wanted to avail of the jail’s fairly decent pre-natal facilities. If you were poor, being in jail was a good option because it meant that you would get regular meals and your medical needs would also be taken care of. While our facilities were far from fancy, some of the poor prisoners would not even have access to the most basic healthcare outside of Tihar.

However, when I chatted with these women, I found another reason why they so badly wanted to remain in Tihar. Many of them held the belief that giving birth in jail would ensure they have a son instead of a daughter. Apparently, this belief finds it roots from the story of the birth of Krishna. According to mythology, Devaki and Vasudeva were imprisoned by her brother, King Kansa, because he knew that one of their children was going to be the cause of his death. Kansa managed to kill their children but when Vishnu reincarnated himself as Krishna and was born in prison as their eighth child, Vasudeva found himself free and managed to swap the baby with a girl child born to Yashoda and Nanda. Thus Krishna survived, grew up as a cowherd and then, as legend has it, slayed the evil Kansa.

This phenomenon of pregnant women purposely trying to get arrested in order to ensure a male child was not at all acceptable to us as it perpetuated the ancient evil of a bias against the girl child. The belief that jail brings forth a male child was so strong that women would get into petty fights or theft in the final stages of their pregnancy. The desperation to have a son drove them to try this as an added measure. We faced the challenge of sending them away. How were we going to convince them? There was not much we could do about it actually other than spread facts. We shared these facts with reporters so that they could write about it and the word would spread. However, this was not that simple because most of the women were from low-income families with little education. Finding that the news reports were not really helping, we pasted these statistics in slums and other areas adjoining the jails. We did everything we could, but it did not have the desired effect.

These are excerpts from Black Warrant: Confessions of a Tihar Jailer written by Sunetra Chaudhury and Sunil Gupta and published by Roli Books. Republished here with permission from the publisher.
Sunetra Choudhury is a journalist and author of the books Braking News and Behind Bars: Prison Tales of India's Most Famous. She's the recipeint of Red Ink award and Mary Morgan Hewett award. Currently, Choudury is a political editor at Hindustan Times.
Sunil Gupta has worked with the Tihar Jail for three decades, and as its spokesperson and legal advisor. He has been awarded the India Vison Award for his work on improving India's prison systems. This is his first book.