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Bound by not just walls

The memoirs of Sunil Gupta bring to light the struggles, emotions, and mindset of those who administer Tihar jail. Their own lives are affected by the miserable conditions of prisoners

PRISONS ARE fascinating places. When it comes to Tihar Jail—one of Asia’s most secure jails — the fascination becomes stronger. The memoir of ex-jailer Sunil Gupta, who retired from service in 2016 is therefore a very interesting read. The book co-authored by Sunetra Choudhury (award-winning journalist and political editor at Hindustan Times) while talking about some famous inmates focuses on the life of the staff stationed within the premises. ‘Black Warrant’ refers to the death warrant issued to a jail when a convict is to be hanged.

The narrative begins in 1982, when Gupta came to Tihar after quitting his job at Northern Railways. When he reported for duty, the then Superintendent BL Vij told him, “There’s no vacancy for the post of an Assistant Superintendent of Prisons (ASP) here”. Though he was carrying the offer letter, nobody listened to him and it was only after he gave the random reference of an IAS officer whom he himself had never met, that there was a change in the superintendent’s attitude.

Later, a well-dressed man come to him with a typed copy of his appointment letter; the man was Charles Shobhraj — convicted of serial murder charges, one of the most famous jail inmates at the time. It was Gupta’s first meeting with him. Shobhraj later described Gupta as the only officer he could not bribe.

In the book, Gupta narrates the dynamics between the staff and the inmates at Tihar. Recounting his own experiences, he talks about how he was helped by inmates to read a warrant and scan court notices. Further, he talks about politics within the premises, love stories, emotional breakdowns and the latest fad among civilians of experiencing jail life for just a night.

Gupta, a witness to many hangings, shares how it can be difficult understanding the psychological condition of a person on death row. Those awarded the death penalty have to stay in a solitary cell, which makes their time in jail very tough. In case their file for mercy petitions is pending, then this time is prolonged. Carrying out the death penalty is not as easy as it seems. Killing someone is a difficult task even if a person is a criminal.

He recalls clearly the case of Ranga and Billa, who were sentenced to death and executed in 1982 for the kidnapping and murder of sibling teenagers Geeta and Sanjay Chopra in Delhi. Two hours after Ranga was hanged, he was still alive. So, a man jumped into the pit and pulled Ranga’s legs to squeeze the last breath out of him. Gupta describes the fetish of a hangman who, after every hanging, poured liquor on the planks of the gallows as an offering to the ghost of the dead man.

Within the book, the author recounts the hanging of Afzal Guru who was sentenced to death for his role in the 2001 terrorist attack on Parliament building. Hours before Guru was to be hanged, Gupta sat down with him to have tea. Guru started singing a song from the film Badal (Cloud): ‘Apne liye jiyein toh kya jiyein, tu jie dil zamaane ke liye’ (What is life worth if lived for oneself, live for the world, O’ my heart). Guru stopped to ask for tea. But the man who served tea was not around, and Guru’s final wish went unfulfilled.

He shares that Guru did make another request. Before he walked to the gallows, he told the superintendent: “I see compassion in your eyes. Will you be there at the time of hanging?…Make sure I am not in pain.” But Gupta does not recount the hanging for readers.

Talking to the Patriot, Gupta said, “There have been cases when a person was sentenced to death and he was doing good in jail; when the court asked for a report of his conduct and found him reformed, courts converted the death sentence to life imprisonment.” Gupta believes that young people should not be hanged as there is always scope of reforming them.

Amongst other things he also touched upon an important but less talked about issue — the loneliness of a corrections officer. Talking to the Patriot, he said, “Prison staff of Tihar Jail lives with very low self-esteem as they stay with criminals and criminals come with a lot of negativity, which affect the mind and peace of jail staff as well.”

Officials lack job satisfaction and often compare themselves with police personnel, who are paid relatively well. Gupta wrote in his book, “While we wore khaki and were expected to work like the police, we were not the police and we were certainly like them.”

Gupta also added, “Prison staff never wants anybody among them to get promoted. They believe that if someone did get a promotion, he would take revenge on them. There are studies that reveal that jail staff wants somebody from outside to come to supervise them.”

The book reveals many hair-rasing details. One of the most shocking claims that Gupta makes is about the suicide of Ram Singh, one of the accused in the Nirbhaya case in 2012. Gupta believes that it was a murder. The bare cell with a ceiling 12 feet high is an impossible place for a man to kill himself, at least without assistance. But society did not believe it was worth probing the suspicious death of such a man.

Overall, Black Warrant is a riveting tale that gives an interesting perspective about contemporary criminals that shaped the history of India. It brings to light a side that is gut-wrenching, intriguing and worth telling. The book shows the mirror effect that events outside the walls have on the inmates and staff in Tihar Jail. The prison ecosystem is part of our society.