It’s India’s most fabled jail that housed the notorious and the respectable, and where some prisoners were more equal than others and some executions were stranger than what was reported. Startling revelations of a man who witnessed their lives and last moments
Madhavankutty Pillai | 08 Nov, 2019
Charles Sobhraj (left) (Photo: Reuters)
ON MAY 7th, 1981, Sunil Gupta left his employment in the Railways and landed up the next day at Tihar to join as assistant superintendent of prison only to be told that there was no vacancy. When Gupta pointed out he had an appointment letter, it made no difference because, well, that was just how it was in Tihar. The Superintendent (SP) was all powerful and could simply ignore a government document. Gupta would later learn that the SP preferred people from his own state and caste to be employed there. In panic, Gupta dropped the name of an IAS officer he had seen in school textbooks, which made the SP ask him to sit outside.
And that was where he saw a ‘smartly dressed man wearing a tie and jacket’ who asked him in English what he was doing there. When Gupta explained his crisis, the man told him, ‘Don’t worry. I can help you.’ He went inside, came out after an hour, handed Gupta his appointment letter and walked away. When Gupta asked a passerby who this man was, the answer was: ‘He’s Charles Sobhraj. He is the ‘super IG’ of the jail, he runs everything here.’ Sobhraj was a multiple murderer and would later become nationally famous for escaping from Tihar. Gupta, after he began duty, saw that Sobhraj had a cell that looked like a studio apartment with other prisoners as servants. He also had the unique privilege of being allowed to cook his own food.
In 2016, a week before Gupta was due to retire, he was given a chargesheet because of an unsettled bill 10 years earlier. It had nothing to do with him. These were electronic items ordered by the earlier Director Generals of Prisons (DGP) who had not cleared the bill. But the chargesheet was seen as his present DGP, Alok Verma (later to be famous as the CBI chief who was chucked out by the Modi Government), punishing him. Gupta had complained about the extraordinary facilities being provided to another famous Tihar prisoner, Sahara chief Subrata Roy. Roy had become the ‘only inmate in the history of Indian jails to have an air-conditioned stay. He also got internet and Wi-Fi access to hold video-conference meetings and use cellphones and laptops. His staff of stenographers and assistants were allowed to stay from 6 am right through to 8 pm.’ This was as per a Supreme Court order which allowed Tihar’s conference room to serve as Roy’s cell. However, it had only been stipulated by the court for 57 days to negotiate the sale of his properties and what rankled Gupta was that the jail authorities simply extended these facilities for his entire two-year stay.
Thirty-five years separated the day that Gupta joined Tihar to when he retired and the manner of both events illustrates the character of the institution that houses India’s most famous criminals. If New Delhi is the capital of India, then Tihar Jail, located a little under 15 kilometres from the seat of Government, is the capital of incarcerated criminals. The most notorious of them are housed there. It is also where some of the most respectable politicians and businessmen find themselves. Beyond the tidbits of corruption and favouritism that the media manages to intermittently glean out, Tihar is a hidden world. Gupta’s book Black Warrant (co-authored by journalist Sunetra Choudhury; Roli Books; 208 pages; Rs 395) throws the glare of a neon light on it.
Gupta, who served in Tihar in various capacities, including spokesperson and legal adviser, saw eight hangings at close up, from the child murderers Billa Ranga to Indira Gandhi’s assassin Satwant Singh to the Parliament attack convict Afzal Guru. The book is titled Black Warrant because that is the document, with black linings across the edges, a court issues with the date and time of execution, which is then informed to the prisoner. In the book, Gupta talks candidly about ordering beatings of prisoners, the relationship of fear and power that jailers have with them, how the system is compromised at every level, and also compassion and reform. The book is a confessional of sorts and the only reason he can do a tell-all is because he is now retired and has a second career as a lawyer. The most captivating parts of Black Warrant are when he talks about the infamous criminals he interacted with, their lives and deaths in Tihar.
Charles Sobhraj (Multiple murders and jailbreak): The Sensationalist
AS GUPTA SETTLED into Tihar, he found that all he had heard about Charles Sobhraj’s influence in the jail was true. Sobhraj, who was in for multiple murders, was never locked up and would be always found in the administrative office, almost like a jailer of sorts. He didn’t have to share his cell with anyone and had a line of prisoners who were like servants. They gave him massages, washed his clothes and cooked for him. ‘In his cell, Sobhraj had a shelf full of books and had arranged the furniture he was allowed—a chair, table and a bed—so well, it looked more like a studio apartment. And unlike all other inmates, he had the freedom to cook his own food. He could do all this because he paid jail staffers or he did jobs for them that no one else could. For instance, he would draft petitions for both prisoners and jailers.’ Gupta found himself in the odd position of having received help from Sobhraj and now wanting to maintain a distance from him.
Charles Sobhraj was never locked up and would be always found in the administrative office, almost like a jailer of sorts. He didn’t have to share his cell with anyone and had a line of prisoners who were like servants. They gave him massages, washed his clothes and cooked for him
When Sobhraj started dropping into his office to read the law books, he would ask him to leave. ‘But he was so used to moving in and out of various offices, I don’t think he ever took my objections seriously,’ he writes. And then, 10 years after Sobhraj enjoyed a great time in prison, just as his sentence was about to end, he escaped. It was Gupta’s day off. He heard the news on Doordarshan and rushed to work. He found the guards in a drugged stupor. Sobhraj, under the pretext of his birthday, had fed them sweets mixed with enormous doses of sleeping pills and coolly walked out with 12 other prisoners. He was caught later and brought back to Tihar. There was intense speculation that he planned on getting caught because if he had served out his term, he would have been extradited to Thailand where he was facing murder charges and would have been executed. On his return, when Gupta asked Sobhraj why he had escaped, he got a different answer. ‘He simply smiled and said, ‘I like creating a sensation.’’
Billa and Ranga (Rape and murder): The Hanging That Didn’t Kill
THE HANGINGS OF Billa and Ranga were the first that Gupta witnessed in Tihar, and it didn’t go according to plan. Before Nirbhaya, an equivalent crime that shocked India, was the rape and murder of Geeta Chopra, a 16-year-old student who, on August 26th, 1978, along with her 14-year-old younger brother, sought to take a ride to Akashwani Bhawan in Delhi where she was to host a radio programme. Billa and Ranga picked them up in a car they had stolen. The original intent had been to kidnap anyone wealthy and ask for ransom. But then, something changed and the two ended up, in a horrifically slow and extended manner, murdering both the siblings after raping Geeta. They were caught by accident because of venturing into a railway compartment reserved for soldiers. Each blamed the other for forcing him into the crime. They couldn’t stand each other and also, says Gupta, exhibited diametrically opposing temperaments. ‘Ranga’s name in Tihar was ‘Ranga Khush’, a literal representation of his disposition. He was a 24-year-old and about six feet tall, and eerily, seemed quite happy in jail. ‘Ranga Khush, Ranga Khush, Ranga Khush’ (Ranga’s happy). I think he picked this line from the dialogue of a film and used it repeatedly as if to convince himself that he was in a happy place and not on death row… In contrast, 22-year-old Billa who was much shorter, only about 5.5 feet tall, would skulk around the jail. Ranga participated in the daily life of the jail community, but Billa did not talk to anyone,’ Gupta writes.
When the doctor inspected them, Billa was dead but Ranga still had a pulse. A jail staff jumped into the well beneath his hanging body and pulled his legs, thus ending his life
They were hanged on the morning of January 31st, 1982 and Gupta was posted outside the death cell. He recounts how each met his death. Ranga calmly ate his dinner and slept as if it were any other day. Billa paced inside his cell and kept telling everyone that he was innocent. ‘Ranga saw Billa’s tears and mocked him ‘Dekho mard hoke ro raha hai! (Look at this pathetic man who cries!)’. The next morning, too, Billa sobbed his way to death while Ranga ‘was triumphant until the end shouting ‘Jo Bole So Nihaal, Sat Sri Akal!’’ But there was an unexpected twist in the tale. Two hours later, whilst still hanging, when the doctor inspected them, Billa was dead but Ranga still had a pulse. Nothing in the jail manual specified what was to be done and an impromptu solution was arrived at. ‘So one jail staff was given the task to jump into the well beneath his hanging body and pull his legs. The guard did as he was told and in this fashion, the last breath of Ranga’s life was finally pulled out of him.’
Satwant Singh (Indira Gandhi’s assassin): Photoshopped Wedding
WHEN SATWANT SINGH, the man who shot Indira Gandhi, was first brought to Tihar, the 22-year-old was violent and would often attack the guards. But he later mellowed down. Singh, writes Gupta, got a special cook when he was in Tihar because the Intelligence Bureau thought the other prisoners would poison him. The food was first tasted by his doctor and securitymen before being given to him. He would only be hanged five years later, in 1989, but the previous year he got married, or rather his family married his photo to a woman in Punjab who had fallen in love with him.
A year before Satwant was hanged he got married, or rather his family married his photo to a woman in Punjab who had fallen in love with him. His father organised the wedding at a gurudwara and used his photograph as a proxy for him
Gupta writes, ‘He told me his father had organised the wedding at a gurudwara and used his photograph as a proxy for him. ‘Why did you allow him to do that?’ I asked Satwant. ‘He (my father) said to me that she refuses to marry anyone else other than you.’ Satwant added, ‘You have to agree she is very bold to want to marry me despite knowing my future.’’ On the day of the hanging, Gupta remembers Satwant and Kehar Singh, also on death row as co-conspirator, shivering with fear. The Government did not want to hand over the bodies to the families and the rules said that cremations could only be done in designated areas and Tihar wasn’t one. They found a solution. Gupta writes, ‘So we came up with a plan (it is quite remarkable how the Government can be innovative in its thinking when it wants to be). We got in touch with the Municipal Corporation and quickly got a piece of land next to Jail number 3 declared as a cremation ground.’
Afzal Guru (Parliament attack): A Song Before the Hanging
OF ALL THE CONDEMNED men that he saw during his tenure, the death that most affected Gupta was that of Afzal Guru, who had been convicted as a conspirator in the 2001 terrorist attack on Parliament. Guru had been intimated about his date of hanging at the very last minute and his family was not even informed. The responsibility of getting the black warrant for the execution fell directly on Gupta, after the President had rejected the mercy petition in 2013. He went to meet the judge who gave a date after four days. It turned out to be a Friday and, because intelligence agencies thought that would spark a law and order issue in Kashmir, Gupta had to convince the judge to change it to Saturday. There were no professional hangmen alive and it was decided that a jail staffer would do the hanging. But when they tested on sandbags, which are prepared as per the prisoner’s weight, the rope which was specially brought in from Buxar jail, broke because it had been procured in 2005 when Guru had been given the death sentence.
It was only on the morning of the hanging that Afzal Guru was informed but by then he had guessed it. They asked him whether he wanted tea and as they sipped it, Guru told them he was not a terrorist and that all he had wanted to do was fight corrupt politicians. He then started singing a song from the 1960s movie Badal, ‘Apney liye jiye toh kya jiye, tu ji ae dil zamane ke liye’
‘At that time, the deputy superintendent of Jail number 3 took the details of Afzal’s height and weight from our records (which are constantly updated) and got another rope made in two days and at a cost of Rs 860 from Bihar,’ writes Gupta. But even this rope broke. It was only in the third attempt that the test was successful. Meanwhile, Guru had not been told that he would hang. It was only on the morning of the hanging that he was formally informed but by then he had guessed it. They asked him whether he wanted tea and as they sipped it, Guru told them he was not a terrorist and that all he had wanted to do was fight corrupt politicians. ‘And then he started singing a song from the 1960s movie Badal, ‘Apney liye jiye toh kya jiye, tu ji ae dil zamane ke liye.’ (What’s the point of a life lived for ourselves, my heart lives for others)… There was something about the way Afzal sang it, that I could not help myself. I sang along with him until he stopped and asked for more tea. Unfortunately, the man who serves tea in prison had already left so this wish of his remained unfulfilled.’
When Gupta went home later, he broke his rule of keeping his family away from his work. ‘I told them about my role, about the song he sang, and the note he left behind. This was the first time I broke down and cried.’
Ram Singh (Nirbhaya case): Murder in the Cell
WHEN THE FIVE rapists and murderers of the victim who would be referred to as Nirbhaya arrived at Tihar Jail, Gupta says the then DGP, Vimla Mehra, made them as unprotected as possible. The Nirbhaya case affected Mehra deeply to the extent that she would ‘get overwhelmed with emotion and break down and cry’. The consequence of it was that when Gupta told her that it would be better to put the men in a high security ward given that they might be attacked elsewhere by other prisoners, she flatly refused and ordered them to be put in regular jails. ‘‘What if somebody kills them?’ I asked. ‘Let them,’ she said, ‘What do you have to do with it?’’
During the identification parade, Gupta got a chance to talk to Ram Singh, one of the main accused, and asked him why he had done it.
‘His answer was matter of fact, almost as if he had merely committed a petty theft. ‘We were drunk. Where we live, people are not good.’
‘Why, it is your home?’ I retorted.
‘No, good people are not there. They drink and they curse and I have also become like that, like an animal.’’
The director general of prisons, Vimla Mehra, made the Nirbhaya rapists as unprotected as possible. When Gupta told her that it would be better to put the men in a high security ward given that they might be attacked elsewhere by other prisoners, she flatly refused and ordered them to be put in regular jails
Gupta’s fears came true a few months later. The alarm went off and when he rushed to the jail, Ram Singh’s body was hanging. While it has been passed off as suicide, Gupta says he doesn’t believe so. ‘For one, his viscera report which I saw showed alcohol content in his body. This should have raised suspicion and made the police register an FIR—how could an inmate get access to alcohol? The second reason as to why his ‘suicide’ was suspicious was that the ceiling where he had been hung from was at least 12 feet high. Considering that there were three other inmates in the same cell as him, I felt that it was not possible that Ram Singh had managed to quietly hang himself from such a high ceiling… To me it looked like he was made to drink and then hanged… At that time no one was interested to know why Ram Singh’s death was suspicious. They wanted to see him dead and if it had been done in jail, then so be it.’
Manu Sharma (Jessica Lal murder): Playing the Good Boy
The story of how Manu Sharma, who in 1999 shot dead model Jessica Lal for refusing to serve him drinks at a party, fared in Tihar is paradoxical, in how it reveals both corruption and also the possibility of an individual’s reform. After he was sentenced to life by the Supreme Court and came to Tihar, Manu Sharma’s family did something extraordinary to make his life comfortable in prison—they bought a five-star hotel nearby and started pampering jail officials in it. ‘Usually, there is an elaborate system that is set up for prisoners to secretly pay off their jailers, but in this case they could be wined and dined nearby. Starting 2006, the superintendent, deputy superintendent and many others in Tihar became part of the ‘Sharma payroll’. So much so that it was Manu who was considered the superintendent of Jail number 2. After 2010, and the acquisition of the hotel, his sphere of influence increased and he even secured jobs for their families at the hotel… If I was to do a conservative estimate, it would be fair to say that Manu got jobs for at least 50 relatives of jail staffers at the hotel.’
When a judge asked Gupta to get the children of a prisoner who had murdered his wife admitted to a school or a care home in Rohtak, he asked Manu who immediately took care of it and also paid for their education
But there were certain redemptive qualities to him. He was not arrogant and behaved like other prisoners in front of officials. He was also willing to help out people when necessary. When a judge asked Gupta to get the children of a prisoner who had murdered his wife admitted to a school or a care home in Rohtak, he asked Manu who immediately took care of it and also paid for their education. He also took charge of TJ’s, the brand of products manufactured in Tihar, and made a success out of it. ‘He converted it from a Rs 6 crore business in 2006 to a Rs 31 crore business in 2016, the year I left Tihar… It was he who suggested we open TJ’s outlets in various places such as district courts… He said if judges consume products that have been made by inmates, it will invariably spread a positive image of Tihar.’ Sharma became popular among prisoners and staffers because of such initiatives. ‘I was impressed by his efforts to reform himself by using his time in Tihar positively. In a place where everyone is a hardened criminal, it is not difficult for those who have kindness and behave themselves to stand out,’ writes Gupta.
In contrast was Sharma’s co-accused in the murder, Vikas Yadav. ‘Manu was quiet and sober while Vikas was a bully. He behaved badly with everyone and people were scared of him because he had nothing to lose—he was already connected to two murder cases. He roamed around freely in jail and no one really wanted to take him on.’ In fact, even Manu didn’t want to associate with Vikas and the two had to be put in separate jails.
Anna Hazare (Anti-corruption activist): Staying Put
WHEN ANNA HAZARE and some of his followers were brought to Tihar after being arrested during the India Against Corruption movement, the jail’s officials found themselves in a peculiar situation. The Government had ordered their release but they didn’t want to leave. Even more ironically, the people who they used as symbols of corruption in their protests, like 2G scam accused A Raja and Commonwealth Games scam accused Suresh Kalmadi, were also in the same vicinity as the anti-corruption protestors, ‘close enough for them to come face to face with each other’. Since the jail authorities didn’t want that to happen, they emptied an entire barrack for Hazare. When the order to release them came, it was Arvind Kejriwal who informed them that they wouldn’t leave. The jail staff used a ruse then. A deputy superintendent told Hazare that he would need to leave his cell and come to the jail headquarters to meet a Government negotiating team. He was taken to the Director General’s office to wait and since he was now not technically in jail, Gupta told the media waiting outside that Hazare had been released. When he returned, he heard Hazare’s voice call out to him. ‘‘Arrey! How can you say on TV that I have been released from jail?’ I smiled meekly. ‘Annaji, we have released you from jail. You are in the jail headquarters, which is almost 2 kilometres away.’’
Hazare said that he had been cheated and that he would sit here in that very room and be on dharna. Gupta then appealed to Kejriwal for help, saying that he had heard Hazare only listened to him. Kejriwal’s reply was that Hazare didn’t listen to him either and did what he thought was right. They kept asking Hazare to leave in vain. He told them, ‘Do you think if I leave from here, they will care for me or my demands? No, I am not going.’ He left only after the Government agreed to their demand of continuing the agitation at the Ramlila Maidan.