On the Conditions in Tihar Jail

S.A.R. Geelani

We reproduce three recent documents that simultaneously illustrate (a) the treatment of alleged Muslim terrorists in the hands of the Delhi police, and (b) the human rights response to it. The first document is S.A.R Geelaniís petition to the National Human Rights Commission describing prisonerís abuse inside the Tihar jail. On its part, the NHRC forwarded the petition to the IG (Prisons) who, unsurprisingly, denied the allegations. The NHRC closed the case on this basis. The second document details the treatment in police custody meted out to a senior human rights activist from Kashmir, Mohammad Ahsan Untoo, after his illegal arrest. The third document concerns the petition to NHRC by the Committee for Inquiry on December 13 seeking intervention regarding a series of possibly false arrests and fake encounters in recent months. NHRCís response to this p etition is awaited.

New Delhi - 110025
January 7, 2004

Dear Prof. Rajni Kothari,

Please accept my sincere best wishes for the New Year. It is now more than a month since I was acquitted. I have been trying to resume my responsibilities at home and at work. As you can imagine it is not easy to go back to my previous routine and it has taken considerable effort but I have had support from friends and colleagues. However, I am still haunted by the memories of the living conditions in the Tihar Jail and my promise to focus public attention on the plight of the detainees and prisoners lodged in Tihar Jail.

You had asked me to write down the problems and difficulties faced by detainees and prisoners in Tihar jail at the Press Conference just after my release. I am writing to you in response to your request.

I should straight away state that I cannot write about the conditions in Tihar jail as a whole since it is a vast place with seven Jails. Jail no. 6 is the jail for women and Jail no. seven has been newly built. I myself was incarcerated in Jail no. 1 and Jail no. 3. Throughout my time in jail I was in an area that is called the high-risk ward in jail parlance. I do not know whether there is a provision for such a special category under the law. In my understanding it would be highly illegal to categorise any detainee as a high risk even before he has been convicted.

In Jail no. 1 there are seven Blocks in the high-risk ward with 25 cells. The other jails have far fewer cells in the high-risk ward. Each cell is approximately seven feet by ten feet and when one is locked up in the cell one feels one is in a cage. There is a courtyard just outside but there is no feeling of stepping into the open. When one steps into the courtyard one merely feels as if stepping out of a small cage into a larger cage. In summer hot winds blow into the cells and in winter the cold, damp fog fills the entire cell.

The detainees do not have an opportunity to go outside unless someone visits them. Most of those inside the high-risk cells do not have any visits from family or friends. They meet their lawyers only occasionally when they are produced in the courts. As for the official visitors and volunteers who have been designated visitors, they are prevented from visiting the high-risk cells. In the two years I was in jail the only people to visit me in my cell were members of the International Red Cross. However, they cannot really effectively intervene to improve the conditions of the detainees.

The jail authorities can and do impose all manner of illegal punishments on the detainees and prisoners lodged in the high-risk cells. I have witnessed the beating of several prisoners. The prisoners in the high-risk cells complained that the jail authorities on the smallest pretext punished them. Apart from beating, jail authorities even torture the detainees by pushing poles up their anus, making the man drink urine and depriving them of drinking water for several days at a time.

The Kashmiri detainees are the special targets of the jail authorities. It would seem they think they can contribute to solving the conflict by subjecting the Kashmiris to indescribable brutality. Many of these men have been undertrials for many years without even a hope of getting a trial at all. Some who have been convicted have not got a fair trial and have been falsely implicated by corrupt police officers, like I was.

In addition to the physical abuse is the verbal humiliation heaped on the detainees and prisoners in the high-risk cells. The majority of the men are Muslims and the jail authorities vent their prejudices and hatred without any hesitation. They also instigate the convicts to follow their example and their communalism defies description. Even if their victims forget the torture the verbal abuse cannot be wiped out of their memories.

The dehumanisation of the jail authorities is best seen when they do not allow the detainees to offer Namaz on the occasion of Id. They seem to derive infinite pleasure from preventing the men from praying.

The majority of the men locked in the high-risk cells are undertrials. However, they are not allowed to visit the jail library and there is neither any game nor did we have access to a television or a radio. It is on a rare occasion that the doctor visits the high-risk cells and even if he does visit he does not ever record the torture.

The men in the high-risk cells do not have access to ordinary jail facilities such as the canteen and even though we were allowed to subscribe to one newspaper the jail authorities did not give us the copy if they felt like it without assigning any reason. I was not given the letters written by my daughter but the jail authorities never failed to deliver hate mail from Shiv Sena goons written to me.

I do not know what we can do to intervene in this situation. I am sure you will remember when the Defence Committee complained to the National Human Rights Commission when I was attacked in the jail. As you know the jail did not take any action against those who attacked me because they instigated the attack. That is why I did not bother to make any more complaints.

Before I end I would like to state that I have not written to you with any bitterness. As someone who deeply shares your concerns for Indian democracy and future of secular values I believe that by focusing the condition of detainees in the high risk cells of Tihar jail we are focusing attention on the wider problem of how communalism leads to certain dehumanisation in society and polity of the country.

Once again I wish you all the best for the New Year,

With warm regards,
Your sincerely,

Abdur Rahman Geelani

Click here to return to the September 2005 index.