Behind Bars in the Shadow of the Raj

Remnants of the Raj

Behind Bars in the Shadow of the Raj

Illustration: Akshita Monga

The last thing to go down at the barracks of Tihar Jail every evening is ginti.

Ginti is jailspeak for headcount. It takes place every night and every morning to check if the number of prisoners shoved into the barracks at lockdown is the same as the number that come out bleary-eyed in the morning. The difference is usually explained by overnight death or illegal departure – both of which are frowned upon.

There is nothing circular about this space, it is merely a meeting patch of sorts between the barracks lit by bare bulbs affixed to electricity poles under which we line up, one after another, waiting to be tallied. Like cattle.

At the end of the exercise, the chief munshi registers the count and yells, “Sab accha hai,” and closes the book.

These oddly formal three words stick out in the coarse landscape of Tihar, especially when mouthed by the Haryanvi jaats who usually make for munshis – and who are more likely to yell, “Ghusa do andar ma****chodon ko.” But “Sab accha hai” has been part of every munshi’s ginti for over a century now, handed down by the Raj.

Sab accha hai. Everything is fine.

Every time these words would ring out in the chakkar, I would imagine a young white, fresh-faced warden delivering this verdict in a distinctly Tom Alter accent to his superior, with a prominent emphasis on the “i” in the hai.

It was probably the only Hindi he knew.


A few weeks inside the yellowing walls of India’s largest prison complex will tell you that nowhere is the hangover of the Raj more evident than here. I had three years.

I entered Tihar in the winter of ’94 on a drug charge under the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act. One of the first things I was told as an undertrial was that I was not allowed to sit on a chair. I would have to sit on stools or the ground whenever I was summoned to the admin block. It was a tradition carried over from the Raj. Back in the day, undertrials were usually young men hastily shoved into prison for suspected anti-Raj activities: an incendiary speech, insubordination, or sloganeering. These were our rulers and we were the ruled and squatting was expected of us.

That mentality hasn’t changed until today.

The warden still sits on a chair and the undertrial on the floor, since a stool is never available. One fine Sunday morning, a few months into my term, a Bengali chap – educated but fresh off the boat – challenged the warden, saying, “Tell me where does it say that I have to sit on the floor?” The warden replied by slapping him soundly.

It came as no surprise that every bail application I saw began with the sentence: “The case against the accused is false and fabricated.”

Regular thrashings, segregation in wards, restriction of movement are all legacies of the British, who used them to keep the “natives” in check. Kiran Bedi, the inspector general of Tihar Jail from 1993 to 1995, changed a lot of that during her two-year stint. But there was a lot she couldn’t change. Two years has nothing on a legacy that has survived for more than a hundred years.

Tihar came into existence after India became independent but it is governed, like all other prisons, with jail manuals established by the Prisons Act, 1894.

A prisoner classification system, handed down from the British, was the most important thing that would decide your fate inside.

Right up until the late 1990s, most prisoners were classified into B- and C-Class upon entry. B-class meant greater privileges – special diet, better furniture in the cell, cigarettes, latrines, and a confirmed phatta to sleep on. But the most significant thing on the B-class menu, was a bubble of protection. The B-class was conceived for white people, to keep them away from the natives who were heaped into C.

The classification was not blatantly racial. It was cleverly done: Only those who were graduates and presented income tax certificates would qualify. Invariably, the only people who made the cut were the British. The natives were packed in like a can of sardines in the large barracks and were left to fight it out for a space to lie down on the ground. In free India, that classification works very well for the haves and the have-nots, with the haves getting away with cushier jail life.

I spent my three years relatively protected in B-class and I can’t say that I’m not thankful for it. There is much to be said for hot parathas for breakfast.


A few months after entering Tihar, I met Ravi Qazi who worked in legal aid, a system put into place by Kiran Bedi to process applications for undertrials. It was only there that I realised that it wasn’t just traditions, manuals, and attitudes but the bedrock of the Indian criminal and justice system, the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC), that reeked of the Raj.

The CrPC was enacted for the first time in 1861 as part of a series of criminal law reforms undertaken by the British in the wake of the 1857 mutiny. It was designed to quell the uprising by trapping freedom fighters, as was evident from the immunity it conferred on whites from the criminal jurisdiction of district courts. European British subjects could then only be tried by high courts.

In spite of minor amendments (most notably in 1973), the CrPC in play today largely remains intact, which in essence means that the government is ruling us with a law made for the ruled.

At first, my work in legal aid started off with simple applications for bail and parole. I wasn’t required to make any legal input, just write applications in English. Despite the fact that 70 per cent of the prison population is illiterate, our legal system only accepts applications in English. Another decree we can thank the British for.

Thanks to Ravi Qazi, I slowly picked up CrPC sections. I started reading criminal cases, judgments, criminal reports, all appeals, and high court decisions. I realised certain sections of the CrPC, like the preventive arrest Section 151 which gives the police the power to arrest without orders from a magistrate and without warrant, present immense leeway for misuse. Case papers can be made subsequently by the police, and often on plain, white sheets of paper without time and date stamps.

While working with Qazi, I lost count of the number of undertrials from far-flung regions of India, languishing in jails on cases that are flimsy, false, or wholly fabricated. Illiterate, poor men who are hopelessly entangled in a law they don’t even understand. It came as no surprise that every bail application I saw began with the sentence: “The case against the accused is false and fabricated.”

Many of those men were still languishing in Tihar when I left in 1997. Kiran Bedi had come and gone and whatever little effort was being made at overhauling the system came to an abrupt end. However, the ball she had set rolling by petitioning the high court for abolition of the B-class hit the pins and down went at least one relic of the Raj. Others still stand strong.

I was to go back to Tihar in 2002, and this time, there’d be no parathas. Two cold slices of bread would be the new collective, non-segregated reality of independent India.

And boy, would it suck.