The Sydney Morning Herald from Sydney, New South Wales, Australia on February 6, 1999 · Page 307
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The Sydney Morning Herald from Sydney, New South Wales, Australia · Page 307

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Sydney, New South Wales, Australia
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Saturday, February 6, 1999
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Page 307
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i social science, experimented with innovative approaches to problem-solving. She founded the highly successful Navjyoti, a police foundation providing free one-month residential detox programs for Delhi drug addicts. The no man's land behind the floodlit, barbed-wired walls of Tihar Jail would likewise be the proving ground for radical ideas. Previous prison governors had ceased coming to work, discouraged by incidents such as the one in which a former inspector-general had his finger bitten off during an inspection tour. There was trepidation when Bedi announced she would be making daily visits, walking unguarded along the metal pathways between the barracks and dormitories, trademark notebook and pen in hand. A deeply spiritual woman, she began her first such tour by encouraging male prisoners to join her in prayer. After some initial reluctance, they did, and the voices of jailer and jailed joined in a chorus of Aye Malik tere bande bum, aise bon hamare karam, neki par chalen (Lord, we are your creation, may our actions be worthy). Soon the floodgates of reform were open. An early target was the notorious "20 Cells", the black hole in the black hole, where Tihar's "mad" were held in solitary confinement, without clothes or toiletries. A jail official who visited the cells had reported that anyone kept there "for even a week ... would definitely go insane". Bedi closed the cells. f ff. ? I A" ' 'v 1 .ft - f. Homeopaths began making daily visits to ease the agony of drug-addicted new arrivals going through withdrawal in isolation wards. The Indira Gandhi National Open University set up shop within the prison walls. Computers and cable television were introduced. Panchayats, or local governing groups, were formed, with the prisoners organising educational programs, HIV and AIDS awareness programs and cultural activities. A nursery school was opened, sports were reintroduced and, for the first rime, the children of Tihar were taken on excursions to visit gardens, museums and the city zoo. The prison became a strict no-smoking zone. Its motley crew of murderers, rapists rupees, but just down the road the foreigner will be stopped and searched by other police, who will demand bribes of 100,000 rupees to turn a blind eye. Often the backpacker won't be carrying that kind of money and they're carted off to jail." Australians are among those caught in the maelstrom of injustice. In November, a 66-year-old Australian citizen was released from Pune jail after charges of drug trafficking against him were thrown out of court. He had spent three years in custody. The man, who did not want to be named, told Good Weekend: "First they put me in Bombay jail and then I was moved to Pune. The jails are a nightmare. Whatever you want, you have to pay. "They loved me and I loved them. The experience of Tihar can be universal. Wherever determination is based on innate goodness ... anything is possible." and terrorists began attending meditation classes led by gurus brought in by Bedi. Significant reductions in anxiety, depression and hostility were noted as a result. At first, prison toughs tried to disrupt classes. But ignoring their jibes and taunts, the gurus persisted. Warders who opposed the changes were paid to stay at home. For every advance she made, Bedi had to confront entrenched bureaucratic obstacles. But her persistence was recognised by the awarding of the Magsaysay Award - Asia's Nobel Prize -and other honours. Despite her enthusiasm for social reform, Bedi could be a stickler for the old ways. She refused to allow condoms into the prison, for example, because homosexuality is illegal in India. And she faced accusations that she was a publicity hound and favoured prisoners whose high profiles matched her own, such as Charles Sobhraj (since released and now living in France). Bedi dismisses her critics. "I felt within me that Devi Sarawati, the Hindu goddess of learning, had started to reside inside Tihar," she writes in It s Always Possible. AT 49, HAVING MADE A DIFFERENCE AT TlHAR, Bedi has returned to the streets of a violent city of more than 10 million people, where respect for law is at an all-time low. In the 1 0 months to October last year, New Delhi recorded 310 murders, 172 abductions and 194 rapes. The Indian capital has 60,000 police, but 40,000 are deployed in VIP security duties. Their "Dad's Army" weapons are no match for criminals armed with AK-47s automatic rifles capable of spraying 30 bullets a second. AH the evidence is that the criminal justice system is collapsing. Of the 9,000 prisoners held in Tihar, 90 per cent have not been convicted of any offence. More than 20 million cases are pending in India's judicial jungle, and court delays are the main factor in Tihar's overcrowding, despite the fact that the Supreme Court held recently that a speedy trial is a right guaranteed under India's Constitution. India's main jails have foreigners' wards, where young Western tourists wait, usually on drugs-related charges which diplomats say are often trumped up by bribe-hungry police. "Often plainclothes police will approach young foreigners and offer them charas a form of marijuana or brown sugar," says a consular official attached to one foreign embassy. "It will only cost 40 If you want to contact your family, if you want your visitors to be able to come and see you, if you want to see a doctor, everything costs money. Also, the overcrowding is tremendous. There were 200 people in one ward, and you only get water twice a day, even in the heat of summer. It's like hell there. There are no human rights." EVEN IN THE FLUSH OF HER FIRST EXPERIMENT with change in her new job, Bedi concedes not everyone in the police force will buy her new thinking: "The old ... are too old to unlearn," she says. "They've grown up in a backscratching system which protects the rich and powerful. I'm mainly interested in teaching the young to swim with the sharks, without getting eaten away." Her many supporters believe her style of policing can overcome corruption in the ranks. One of her Tihar helpers, an American Buddhist nun and social worker called Sister Max Mathews, observes: "I wasn't initially sure how I could make a success of the project. But after you meet Kiran Bedi, you can't say no." Even if change does come to the Delhi force, will it last? Since Bedi's departure from Tihar jail in May 1995, bureaucratic inertia has returned. More than half the 300 nongovernment social organisations which were working inside have gone. Without support from the jail administration, money-spinning initiatives such as composting the jail's garbage have collapsed. The media - who, under Bedi, had unprecedented access to the jail are now banned from entering. The self-managing panchayats have been wound up and only institutionalised programs such as the Open University have survived. When Bedi's sudden transfer from Tihar was announced, inmates went on hunger strike for days and tensions prevailed for months. A small group of warders distributed sweets to celebrate her forced departure, in what writer Khushwant Singh described as "a victory for a handful of small-minded, envious people over a gutsy woman". Bur, true to what she had taught her charges, peace prevailed and, when released, many Tihar prisoners make a pilgrimage to see the woman who gave them hope of life after -and during - incarceration. "They loved me and I loved them," Kiran Bedi once said of the prisoners. "The experience of Tihar can be universal. Wherever combined determination is based on innate goodness ... anything is possible." 42 GOOD WEEKEND FEBRUARY 6, 1999

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