India's forgotten prisoners learn to meditate on their fate: Tim McGirk finds a female governor is using prayer to keep the lid on one of New Delhi's toughest jails

Tim McGirk
Wednesday 25 May 1994 23:02

THE scene is unimaginable in a British high-security prison: over 1,000 men and women convicts - bandits, rapists, bombers, embezzlers and poisoners - sat meditating in silence for 10 days. Prison officials sat cross-legged with the prisoners under a billowing coloured tent in a courtyard of New Delhi's Tihar jail. Other guards dozed, while the chant-master's mantra buzzed in the hot air like the sound of flies. None of the guards had a gun.

Inside many British prisons, where pent-up rage and frustration are palpable, a large, unpoliced gathering would be an invitation to riot. Why is Tihar jail different? Its potential for unrest appears explosive. Built for 2,500 prisoners, it is the largest prison in Asia, crammed with over 8,500 of India's worst criminals.

Eight Britons and over 130 other foreigners are locked inside, most busted for smuggling hashish and heroin. Until recently Tihar was notoriously corrupt. Guards sold drugs and pocketed money meant for the inmates' food. For a few rupees, wardens would drag women inmates to the cells of powerful gang leaders for sex.

Anger runs high in Tihar against the Indian judicial system. With a backlog of over 1.5 million cases in the high courts, and another 10 million cases in the lower courts, many of Tihar's inmates have been behind bars for five, sometimes 20 years, awaiting trial. Several Britons, arrested for drug trafficking, a non-bailable offence, have sweltered for two years in Tihar, and have yet to face a judge.

What keeps Tihar from erupting is not the 500 wardens but a woman. Kiran Bedi, 41, is the prison's inspector-general. A small, wiry woman, Ms Bedi was the first woman to join India's police force. Her swift rise earned her praise - and enemies. Alone, she stopped a Hindu mob from attacking Muslims. As Delhi's traffic chief, she towed away one politician's car too many.

She was banished to India's north-east, where ethnic revolt smoulders. Ms Bedi returned to Delhi over 18 months ago, to what many regarded as a dead-end job, running Tihar jail.

After taking over, Ms Bedi swept out corrupt prison officers, broke up gangs and halted the flow of hashish and heroin into the prison.

'Drug abuse bred the violence in Tihar. We had to stop it,' she said. Her philosophy, new in India, is that prisons exist to reform, not punish. 'Many people think that the way to run a prison is through herd management. If you keep them from escaping you're successful. But we have to stop them from coming back to prison, again and again.'

She set up libraries, language courses, sports programmes and theatre groups. Then, in April, she convinced inmates to embark on meditation known as vipassna, in which the pupil must keep silent for 10 days, give up smoking, sex and eating meat. Mohan Lal, 21, serving life for murder, said: 'That feeling I had of putting everyone in my village - especially the police - in a straight line and shooting them, that feeling of revenge is gone.'

She refuses to let in condoms because, she says, the cells are too crowded for sex.

To ease over-crowding, Ms Bedi urged foreign inmates to petition the Indian President, to demand release from long detentions without trial.

Her success at Tihar jail has not gone unnoticed. She was recently invited to Washington to have breakfast with President Bill Clinton, but Ms Bedi's jealous superiors refused to let her leave.

(Photograph omitted)

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