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27 February, 2013

From Despair to Hope: The Tihar Story

       Tihar Central Jail is the largest prison complex in Asia.  Earlier, it was considered one of the most notorious as well.  It was meant to house 2,500 inmates, but around 9,000 prisoners were incarcerated there -- and that included women and young children, some of whom had been born in prison and had never seen the outside world.  As for healthcare and education... well, they were non-existent.  One often heard monstrous tales of corruption and extortion both by guards and criminals inside the prison.  Besides, Tihar was filthy.  It was lawless, and violence was a way of life there -- the gang wars, the drugs, and the inhumane living conditions made Tihar a hell on earth.  A place where all hope was lost.

       On 1st May 1993, when I was appointed Inspector General of Prisons and assumed charge of Tihar, I was well aware that it was a 'punishment posting'.  That morning, I stepped out of the staff car and walked towards my new office at Tihar, with the strange feeling that I was walking on quicksand with a mountain on my back.  I was in charge of the place, but had no idea what lay in wait for me within those high walls topped by barbed wire.

       My office was claustrophobic, and the rats there apparently had the right of way.  And when I called my first staff meeting, I sensed that the staff were neither enthusiastic nor motivated -- merely curious to find out what my agenda was.  And whenever I asked a question they looked at one another through the corners of their eyes, and gave me guarded, non-committal answers.  One did not have to be psychic to realise that the task ahead would be an uphill one.

       My mother would always say, 'Do everything with passion and purpose, and help others.  That's the only way to live.'  It had become a way of life with me -- my mission, in fact -- and I was determined to do just that.  Ever since my early days as police officer, I had believed that the purpose of prison should not be to punish offenders but to rehabilitate and reform them.  I believe everyone (if given a chance), will try to change, and I wanted to give them that chance.  Now, it had become possible for me to translate that desire into action.  I was confident that we -- the prison staff, the prisoners and I -- would, in due course, find ways of working together as a team, for collective growth and reform.  The prison would somehow be transformed into a humane place where the convicts could pick-up the skills to live productive lives and stay away from crime, even after.

       I had joined the police force because of the power it gave me to change 'the system', and nudge things in the right direction.  But how did one do that in a place such as Tihar?  I was all too aware that I was venturing into the unknown... walking the razor's edge, as it were... and no, it would not be easy.  My spiritual beliefs, however, have always been an enormous source of strength and comfort to me.  So I decided to follow the call of my inner voice.  I wanted to do more.  I wanted to share more.  I wanted to create more.  I wanted to give more.  And transform Tihar -- which was now a training ground for more criminals -- into an ashram.

       The first time I set out on my rounds of the prison wards, I saw faces, and more faces with all sorts of expressions -- angry, anxious, bewildered, despairing, blank ...  They were in dire need of help, but first I had to find a way to reach out to them and earn their trust.  The question was: how?

       I paused, and suddenly, I felt I had the answer, 'Do you pray?'  I asked.  Payer is something that remains internally with me.  If things have been good for me, I thank the Almighty and my circumstances.  If I face a challenge and don't have the answer, I pray.  When I asked the prisoners whether they pray, I was basically asking them whether they were seeking help.

         No one answered.  The prisoners looked confused and turned to the warders who looked even more confused.  I repeated the question, and this time there were a few hesitant nods.  I knew instinctively that prayer would prove to be the big break through, but it would take a little time.  And I needed something right then that would help me connect.

       Did they know the popular song, Heh malik tere bande hum?  Yes, of course, they did!  I asked them to sing it with me, and at the end of the song, I felt as if they had begun to respond to me.  It was a small beginning, but an encouraging one.

       Quickly, I chalked out a simple routine -- every day, I went around the prison, chatted with the prisoners, listened to their problems, got their feedback, sang, joked and laughed with them.  And made sure that they got wholesome food as well, not the usual burnt chapatis and watery dhal.  For me, spirituality is clean thought, clean mind, clean action, and clean human being.  So, one step at a time, we climbed the mountain -- from the problem of drug addiction to healthcare to vocational education and sanitation, we tackled them all.  Nothing is impossible, no target unachievable; we just have to try harder and harder ... focus on the present and do our best.


       You can't  steal or kill someone without generating an incredible amount of anger and hatred.  So for any positive transformation a person must cultivate a moral mind first.  It was evident that the prisoners needed more holistic solutions.  The change had to come from within them, and touch them on a spiritual level as well.  I found the answer in vipassana meditation.  Why vipassana?  Well, like the Tihar Jail, my temple has all religions in it.  It is the power of spirituality that I worship, not the form.  and vipassana is not a religion, or a mantra.  It help us understand the true nature of reality and ourselves, by exploring the deepest levels of the mind.  And, most importantly, in a place like prison where there are people of all faiths who hold rigidly to their views, vipassana works well because we can enter the realm of the spiritual without praying to a specific deity.

       Tihar harboured hardcore criminals and was rife with feelings of the revenge, anger and hatred.  Yet, when vipassana meditation was first introduced, it proved to be a success and there was a distinct transformation in the men who attended the course.

       In April 1994, a more ambitious vipassana meditation programme was held in Tihar, this time for over 1000 prisoners (charged with crimes from drug dealing to robbery to murder and terrorism) and staff from various religious backgrounds.  With the productive and cooperative spirit now prevailing in the prison, the inmates drug drainage ditches, laid pipes, weeded and levelled a large area and helped erect a huge shamiana.  To put over one thousand prisoners together in a tent such as this was a high security risk.  Yet, as always, I felt that there was an invisible hand protecting me and I was grateful.  At times, when I could have been killed or hurt, something has always protected and stayed with me.  To me, it is a special spiritual grace.

       In the early hours of the day during one of the vipassana courses, a sudden storm struck, and the shamiana collapsed in the rain and wind.  Everything was soaked and the place was wrecked.

       After breakfast, the weather began to clear, and a large team of prisoners pitched in to put things in order.  They dried the cushions and carpets outside, redid the wiring and baled out the water.  It was a massive cooperative effort, and the tent was ready for the first discourse, on time!

       During the course, the men battled their personal demons.  On the closing day, many prisoners expressed their joy at their 'self-liberation'.  Also, the prisoners and the jail staff began to interact much more harmoniously.

       The meditation had such an effect on the prisoners that, later one convict actually went on the stand confessed to his crime!  Another accused of murder begged forgiveness from a victim's family.  And that year, two girls from the victim's family tied rakhis on his wrist.  'Today, I look after them as if they are my own family,' he says.  There were more tales to remorse and gratitude ... and redemption.  I could not think of a better way to return human beings to humanity!

       And my own journey...?  Vipasana helped me look at my work from a clearer perspective  taught me to police myself before policing others; seek forgiveness and forgive, thus making me more effective ... and leaving me with a lighter heart!

Source: Excerpts from the book on Chicken Soup for the Indian Spiritual Soul" article written by Kiran Bedi.

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