Lodged in Delhi’s Tihar Jail since 6 September for alleged corruption in the INX Media case, former Union minister P. Chidambaram, who is reportedly suffering from Crohn’s disease, has transformed into a shadow of his former self. He may or may not have come to terms with his life as a prisoner now but as an elite member of the privileged political class, he was seeking a western toilet, a separate cell, adequate security, and permission to carry his spectacles early last month when it became clear where he would be spending his next few weeks.
But Chidambaram isn’t alone. With BJP president Amit Shah at the helm of the home ministry, it doesn’t take much to see that the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and the Enforcement Directorate (ED) will remain overactive, and more opposition leaders may find themselves in jail. Congress’ D.K. Shivakumar, arrested by the ED in a money laundering case, got bail on 23 September after spending nearly two months in Tihar Jail. (The ED has issued fresh summons to his wife and mother.)
NCP’s Praful Patel could end up there any time – he was grilled by the ED in June, by the CBI in August (in an alleged aviation scam) and summoned again by the CBI days before the Maharashtra assembly election last month (in a money laundering case). His party colleague and NCP chief Sharad Pawar too has a case filed against him.
But while there certainly are political repercussions of leaders ending up in prison (as the RJD in Bihar has learned in the absence of its stalwart Lalu Prasad since March 2018), India’s political class isn’t known to get too bothered by the prospect of spending days and nights in jail.
If they don’t just manage to turn their prison cell into a home full of facilities (like AIADMK general secretary V.K. Sasikala), they fall ill, acquire some sort of health issue, and move to five-star-like hospitals to, sometimes, not return for months (like TMC leader and West Bengal’s former transport minister Madan Mitra).
But it wasn’t always like this. There was a time when jailtime for netas meant a period for reflection, penance, writing books, letters, and diaries. From Jawaharlal Nehru to M.K. Gandhi, prison for India’s politicians used to be a badge of honour because it was for a good cause – in the fight for freedom from colonialism.
But a fresh kind of patronage emerged in post-liberalisation India, when the new economy saw licences being allocated – from telecom to coal mining – under controlled auctions. These resulted in leaders like A. Raja and K. Kanimozhi serving extended time in prison in what was called the 2G scam, before getting acquitted.
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Serving time, in their own way
Politicians usually try to skip as much of the prison time as they can, often claiming some illness. Meeran Chadha Borwankar, who was, among other things, the chief of Maharashtra prison department, recalls how politicians would fake illness to avoid jail time. She told The Print about one former minister in particular who got himself admitted to a Mumbai hospital for more than six months.
“All our attempts to get him back failed as he would get favourable medical reports to continue (his stay) in hospital. I shared it with a friend in the media who caught him on camera taking morning walks in a jogging suit. He (the former minister) promptly reported back to the prison…”
Perhaps one of the most infamous cases in recent times was that of TMC’s Madan Mitra, who spent most of his jail time “wrapped in luxury” in the comfort of the Woodburn ward of the state-run SSKM Hospital in Kolkata over complaints of “uneasiness”. An accused in the Saradha financial scam, he was finally given bail in 2016.
Pushback brings consequences
When she was the head of Tihar Jail, Kiran Bedi, the Lieutenant Governor of Puducherry, told ThePrint she was vigilant about politicians faking illnesses. “I would always ensure the local doctor of the hospital attached to the jail tested them first. Also, we did not allow anyone from the staff to be overawed by their fame. We responded case by case. The powerful people know we would not fall in line, or be controlled by them.” She added: “We did not rush (the prisoners) to AIIMS. We went to the Deen Dayal Upadhyay Hospital across the street.” As for political pressure, she says it is applied only if there is a “vacuum” in the leadership at the top.
Usually, there is a backlash. D. Roopa, the Indian Police Service (IPS) officer who exposed the special privileges that AIADMK special secretary V.K. Sasikala was enjoying while lodged in a Bengaluru jail in 2017 allegedly in exchange for a bribe of Rs 2 crore, was transferred to the traffic department. The Deputy Inspector General (Prisons) at the time, Roopa had come out with a report saying “a special kitchen had been set up on the prison premises for Sasikala, who was allowed to entertain visitors for hours.”
But that was in the jail itself. Recalling the case of mining baron and former Karnataka minister Gali Janardhana Reddy, Roopa said that when she was posted as deputy commissioner of the City Armed Reserve in Bengaluru, her duty was to supervise the allocation of manpower and vehicles to carry prisoners to the court or hospital and back. “But as per my understanding, in those three months, Reddy hardly ever stayed in jail. He would be whisked away to a special suite in Columbia Asia Hospital where there was laxity on visitors and food,” she said. When she questioned her senior on the special privileges accorded to Reddy, she was soon transferred.
Journalist Sunetra Choudhury, who wrote the eminently readable Behind Bars: Prison Tales of India’s Most Famous, told ThePrint that former MP Pappu Yadav had himself explained to her that the hospital was the best way to escape prison. “Apparently, the certificate that is most useful is the one declaring that the inmate has TB. This not only ensures a stay in the relatively more comfortable hospital ward but also non-vegetarian food in the form of stew,” Choudhury said. Her book also details A Raja’s stay in Tihar Jail. She quotes him in the book as saying that “during the day, I would be with the other officers going through files et cetera and by evening I would sleep in the DIG’s room.”
Raja had his own cell in Jail Number 1 and former telecom secretary Sidharth Behura as well as former private secretary R.K. Chandolia as next-door neighbours. Choudhury writes, quoting Raja: “It was the high-security ward, and so apart from us there was also IPS officer R.K. Sharma (accused of murdering journalist Shivani Bhatnagar). I was the only one with a separate cell, a fan and a Western toilet. It was very comfortable.”
Neeraj Kumar, Director General (Prisons), Delhi, once said: “Jail is a great leveller.” Yet, for some, it is more equal than for others.
The author is a senior journalist. Views are personal.
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