May 22, 2001


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The Rediff Special/Sheela Bhatt and Geeta Manek

'No one can stop Bharat from speaking the truth'

Saraman saro manas anhi criminal bani jai [The most virtuous man would become a criminal here,]" says Bharat Shah, the fallen badshah of Bollywood, as he sums up his experience at the Thane jail.

On January 8, Shah, who once ruled both the city's diamond and film trade, was arrested by the Bombay police under the Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act. Accused of using underworld funds to finance films, Shah is now in the infamous anda (so-called because of its egg shape) cell at the country's oldest jail, which, at one time, held prisoners like Lokmanya Tilak and Veer Savarkar.

The anda cells -- or the kala pani barracks as they are sometimes called -- are high-security cells that hold solitary prisoners, who are not allowed fans or home-cooked food. Most of the time, there is no one to talk to.

Shah, says an eyewitness, had a tough time initially. He would go into a rage and scream abuse, mostly at the state government and Deputy Chief Minister Chhagan Bhujbal, who holds charge of the home department. "Mujhe latkaya," he would constantly repeat, "mujhe fasaya (They have left me out to dry, they have trapped me)."

Compared to him, stockbroker Ketan Parekh, who secured bail on Monday, May 21, was cool. Reserved, the few requests he made from his anda cell included Western pulp fiction and Tinkle cartoon digests. At no point, says a senior police officer at the jail, did he show any kind of regret for his actions. "Parekh," the officer says, "did not look the emotional type at all."

According to a jailhouse tout in Thane, Parekh's wife sought the help of a local Congress politician to send her imprisoned husband a clean bedsheet. The tout told, "Parekh was surprisingly compromising and adaptable throughout his stay in prison. Emotionally speaking, he was never hyper. Shah and he were neighbours there, so they chatted every day."

For anda cell inmates, life in prison normally means a blanket, a pillow, a cheap German silver plate and a bowl. Shah and Parekh lived in rooms that were 90 to 100 square feet in size. These rooms included an attached, but open, toilet.

Indian jails are feudal in their administration. Poorer prisoners help the richer ones with the cleaning and washing. According to one police officer, when an affluent person is imprisoned at any Indian jail, it signals a boom time for that jail's staff. His claim is buttressed by the relative of an accused housed at the Thane jail, who says he paid Rs 20,000 to visit his brother out of turn.

Revealed another tout, "Shah and Parekh have no clue about the current rates of bribes. Shah, apprehensive about the meals cooked by prisoners, once apparently offered Rs 100,000 to get home-cooked food in the jail. But his request was refused for security reasons. Since then, both Parekh and Shah lived mostly on the fruit sold in the prison shop."

It was the British who originally converted the Thane fort into a jail. Like most prisons in the country, the Thane jail is overpopulated. Meant to house 800 prisoners, it now holds 2,820 inmates. Since most of them belong either to the middle or poorer strata of society or are associated with underworld gangs, both Parekh and Shah have become a spectacle. Relatives of other prisoners found it amusing to see Parekh's Lancer and Shah's BMW parked outside the jail.

Suresh [name changed], a member of the Chhota Rajan group with three murder charges against him who was released this month after 10 years in Thane jail, provides some insights. "Bharat Shah was screaming the first week. But now he has settled down."

Suresh, who considers himself an expert on the jail, claims, "The superintendent is quite strict. Yet, almost everything is available inside the jail. For a price. Except air-conditioners and television sets, most things are available. One can smuggle almost anything in. Some prisoners even keep cell phones hidden inside the water matka [pots]. You see, when we buy stuff from the shop, they give it to us in plastic bags. Rich people wrap their cell phones and hide it in the matkas."

He adds, "Shah and Parekh would have had a serious security problem in jail. So they have been kept out of reach of gangsters in the prison. Inside the ordinary barracks, any tapori [small-time hood] can pose a threat to Shah and force him to pay outside the jail. That's the rule of the game. The rich can live in peace only after paying extortion money; the poor, on the other hand, have to toil in the jail. It's jungle raj there. Ask me. I have experienced a decade inside Thane jail. Since Parekh and Shah have been jailed, more and more policemen are trying for a posting outside or around the jail. Ye sab normal hain [All this is normal]."

Confirming much of this information, Shah's brother Bipin told "My brother was agitated in the beginning, but he is sleeping well now. He has good company around him. An NRI and a doctor are in the same corner of the prison. Even Ketan Parekh was there. They kill time in each other's company. My brother restricts himself to a diet of fruits, since even undertrials are not allowed to receive food from home.

"Bharat believes in Jain Guru Yashodev Suriji," reveals Bipin Shah. "We believe he is blessed by Goddess Padmavati Devi. Bharat is also reading the history of Jainism. He asked for these books and some Gujarati novels. He gets newspapers from the jail library.

"The irony of the police case is worth noting," adds Bipin. "My brother is in jail for allegedly talking to a gangster for one minute and 35 seconds. The police say they taped conversations with the gangster for a full eight months, but my brother's voice has been allegedly taped for less than 100 seconds. Even the judge noted this fact. So it is difficult for us to understand why he has to undergo this hardship."

What keeps Bharat Shah going? What helps him survive in prison?

"Hope," declares Bipin Shah. "The temperature inside his cell is unbearable. But Bharat is not complaining about anything. He is hopeful and dreams of better times. He knows very well that no one can stop him from telling the truth. He is just waiting for the day he will be released from jail. Please wait until then."

You may like to read...
Bharat Shah: The complete coverage
Ketan Parekh: The complete coverage

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