Sutirth Sahariah is a graduate in media management and journalism from the University of Stirling, UK. He writes for The Guardian, London, from Delhi. He covers human trafficking, gender violence and development issues. He has also worked for the BBC, Dutch Public Radio & TV and the NPR
Tabassum, a 24-year-old, remembers the day when one evening police came knocking at their doors to arrest her mother. “I was around 5-years-old and suddenly there was a lot of commotion in the house,” she says. “I realised that mom was about to go somewhere. The police didn’t handcuff my mom in front of us, but they were harsh. I and my younger brother clung onto my mom wailing and refusing to part from her when someone pulled us away.”
Afsha Praveen, her mother, was in her early twenties when she was convicted on the charges of kidnapping and was sentenced to fourteen years of imprisonment in Delhi’s Tihar Jail in 1999. The court had granted that her two very young children could remain with her in the prison until they attained the age of six. “I knew that my life was doomed but didn’t want my children to have the same fate. The life inside prison was tough and full of dangerous people. I was very worried about my children’s safety and future,” says Praveen, 45, who was released after serving her term in 2014.
Tihar prison in New Delhi, where Praveen was imprisoned, has over 10,000 inmates making it one of the largest prison complexes in the world. In 1993, a high-ranking woman police officer, Kiran Bedi, was given the charge to run the affairs of what was then one of the most notorious and dismally run high-security prisons in India.
“There was an undercurrent of violence, tensions and distrust between the inmates and authorities. There were 7,200 inmates as against the sanctioned capacity of 2,273 and 90 per cent were under trails. The prison management was almost dysfunctional. The prison staff was so illiterate that they could barely count. Women prisoners were subjected to most humiliating experiences, which robbed them of what little dignity and self-respect they had before coming to the jail,” Bedi says.
“I took it as an opportunity to directly connect with people in dire need and was determined to create an environment for the prisoners’ self-reform,” says Bedi, 69, who is now the lieutenant-governor of the Union Territory of Puducherry. “I started with whatever we had inside the prison. We crafted out the creche from women's prison premises. We then reached out to NGOs outside to extend support. We got it all in abundance. My approach to administrative reforms was based on respecting the human rights of prisoners, winning their trust through non-violence, compassion and welfare policing – and it gradually paid off.”
In August 1994, she was awarded the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award for her work. Bedi used the prize money to expand her work to other prisons and set up charity (NGO) India Vision Foundation (IVF). “I always believed in expanding the scope of doing good when in a position of influence and power, so I dedicated it to promote the causes for which I was given the award. It greatly helped in institutionalising the programmes of women and children inside prisons and helped bring about the much-needed continuity,” says Bedi. The 2016 India’s National Crime Records Bureau shows that there are 17.834 women in prisons across India who make up 4.3% of total prisoners in the country. A study says that though there has been a marginal rise in the number of women criminals since 2001, the number of the women arrested and convicted for serious criminal activities like human trafficking, drugs and prostitution have gone up drastically.
Supreme Court Order
In 2006, the Supreme Court of India issued various guidelines and directions to the federal and state governments, encompassing all kinds of issues concerning incarcerated mothers and their children. It was held that a child can remain in jail with his or her mother until the age of six and they shall be entitled to food, shelter, medical care, clothing, education and recreational facilities as a matter of right. The top court also said that in case of separation of the child and mother, the Department of Social Welfare must ensure the well-being of the child.
Monica Dhawan, the director of IVF, says the charity ensures that the needs of women prisoners and their children are attended swiftly. “The focus of our work is to make the inmates believe that their term in the prison is an opportunity for them to rebuild their lives. Intervention programmes are designed to impart education, inculcate a strong value system through a range of co-curricular activities and enhance their skills with vocational training programmes.” In the last two decades, the charity has transformed the lives of 10,000 prisoners, ensured that over 500 children of women prisoners completed their higher education and had a job, and over 1,000 kids attended its crèche facilities which it set up in various prisons.
Praveen was persuaded by Bedi in one of her visits to the prison to send the two children to a boarding school. She says: “Madam (Bedi) encouraged us to think about our children’s education and said she could offer financial support. Through her, I saw a ray of hope for my children’s future.”
India Vision Foundation found a good boarding school for Praveen’s children. The charity also ensured that they met their mother in prison during school holidays. “These interactions are important so that there is a strong bonding between the child and the mother. The mother is also consulted while taking decisions for the child. So, when Tabassum completed her school, she wanted to study management. We informed the mother and then looked for a residential college for her,” says Dhawan. When Praveen was released from prison, both her children had jobs. Tabassum did very well in her studies and now works for a multinational company. But like Bedi, whom she considers her mentor, she aspires to be in a position when she can make a difference to the lives of people.
Bedi says Tabassum’s success is an inspiration to the society. “I treat all the children of prisoners as my children. I would like to see them run the IVF themselves one day. They are the best to run it.”
Tabassum says she is delighted to be united with her mother. “My mother made mistakes, but she has taught me to be strong and righteous. Today I feel very proud to be her daughter.” “She wakes me up every morning with a hug, makes my breakfast and sees me off to office. I feel so happy as these are the little things I missed as a child,” she says. “Being with her gives me a great sense of security. I would never want to lose her again.”