By Sunetra Choudhury
‘During the day, I would be with the other officers going through files etcetera and by evening, I would sleep in the DIG’s room.’ This fine treatment was a trademark of CBI’s premier status – the roughing up, second or third degree was only for other police agencies to use. Not that anyone would use it on A. Raja in any case. Even as the accused, he claimed to be forever explaining the technical details which once when the investigating officer finally understood, he apparently exclaimed: ‘Mr Raja, you are acquitted!’
But the legal steps, or what officers like to call ‘due process’, still had to be followed. And so from Lutyens’ Delhi they moved to the West Delhi complex called Tihar Jail. Raja moved into his own cell in Jail Number 1, and for his next-door neighbours he had his associates – his telecom secretary Sidharth Behura and his private secretary R.K. Chandolia. If Raja was the first minister to go to jail, Behura was also one of the first from the powerful Indian Administrative Service to be charged, and who the CBI had sanction to prosecute. The charge against him and Chandolia was that they had connived with Raja ever since Raja was the environment minister. The friendship with businessmen Sanjay Chandra and Shahid Balwa went back to those days and they all got together to ensure that Chandra and Balwa got the precious 2G licences, which they then sold to foreign investors like Etisalat and Telenor at huge profits. Behura and Chandolia as senior bureaucrats were accused of manipulating public notices, helping Raja bring forward cut-off dates surreptitiously, so that only a favoured few would qualify. From Paryavaran Bhawan to Sanchar Bhawan, they were all now left to confabulate in Jail Number 1.
‘It was the high-security ward, and so apart from us there was also IPS officer R.K. Sharma. I was the only one with a separate cell, a fan and a Western toilet. It was very comfortable.’
The jail experience of a regular inmate and a VIP is never comparable. Ward Number 9 in which he was staying was the very same one that Indira Gandhi was also kept in 1978. There were only five cells in that ward and a separate kitchen to cater to them. Each cell had two rooms, one sitting room and one bedroom. The bedroom had an attached bathroom with shower, washbasin and a mirror. The other occupants of this plush setting included Subrata Roy or Saharasri and a former minister from Haryana, Gopal Kanda.
Raja may not have had the court-sanctioned digs that Saharasri enjoyed, but he too had the entire jail staff at his beck and call. The only luxury they couldn’t have was an air-conditioner in their cells, but as Raja was a high-security prisoner, he could spend his day in the jail superintendent’s office which was air-conditioned. At any rate, their cells were privy to the luxury of a cooler. According to their security assessment, the 1.76 lakh crore tag meant that some common criminal could attack him in jail, and so if he needed to go around jail, he needed security. So they preferred him sitting in the superintendent’s office. If others were woken up at 5 a.m. and were served breakfast at 6.30 a.m., Raja had a jail orderly asking what they could get him from the canteen.
‘Only non-vegetarian food wasn’t allowed, but the food was delicious and we also had sweets and nariyal paani (coconut water). It all came from the canteen. Every day, someone would come and ask: “Sir, what would you like today?”’
Even if he ventured towards the library, Raja would have about five policemen following him. That is why the DG of Prisons and other officials gave him the provision to get all the 2G documents in his own cell. Not just that, he could also have the other 2G accused come into his cell, so that they could all work on it. Now, if you want to know why that is a big deal, you have to remember that when the CBI filed the charge sheet in court, they had to bring in seven trunk-loads of paper. So the jail permission meant that a rickshaw had to make several trips to jail to carry all the papers that were needed for these accused. And they were all stacked up along the corridors of their cells.
‘You have to understand. If they threw the jail book at me, then each and every paper would have to be cleared by the jail authorities, but they were very kind. I also never asked for unreasonable things, but this allowed us all to work together on the case even from inside.’ The most limiting thing about jail life is that you have to be locked up at particular times, like in the afternoons from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. and by 7 p.m. in the evening. But this allowed the entire 2G gang to be together as Raja had asked for all of them to be able to legally work on their cases. Raja is a trained lawyer who would cross question the prosecution witnesses in court. In jail, as the charges of cheating and conspiracy were common to all of the accused, they divided the papers and prepared together. The CBI alleged that they all knew each other and conspired to loot the country together, but this close proximity brought about a different kind of bonding. For instance, Vinod Goenka and Shahid Balwa’s hotel Grand Hyatt in Goa has become a kind of second home for the other accused. That’s where R.K. Chandolia can often be found when the court is not in session. When Goenka comes to Delhi, he has stopped staying at hotels and only stays with Sanjay Chandra. And when Goenka’s father died in Mumbai in August 2016, all the other accused including A. Raja rushed to be with him.
Maybe the loyalty or kindness that is shown in jail matters much more than anything of its kind in the outside world. That’s why some of the orderlies or inmates who help VIP undertrials like Raja have now become permanently attached to them. Raja and the others helped ten people get bail just by writing applications to court. People like Sudhir had been forgotten and had been in jail for years without even a charge sheet in his case. After being freed, Sudhir started working for Shahid Balwa and his wife now works as a cook in Raja’s house.
‘I know that tomorrow if my daughter, Mayuri, needs any kind of help there are these friends who will do everything in their power to help.’ It’s a bond that formed over the 15 months he spent inside jail, but as Raja himself admits, it wasn’t a regular jail life.
THE JAILED MINISTER
If the Supreme Court forced the CBI to arrest Raja, then they were also the reason he had a comfortable life inside, although it was totally unintended. The top court wanted a thorough investigation and they wanted it done as soon as possible. So, in a regular case one would see court hearings every 15 days, at best. But in the 2G case, there were daily hearings, and this provided unlimited advantages.
For instance, it meant that they were out of the drudgery, the sheer nothingness of jail life that drives so many into depression and addiction to some kind of narcotics. For the 2G accused, every morning a special Tata vehicle would take them to court at 8.30 a.m. Once they reached Patiala House courts, they would have to bear the lockup, but soon the courtroom of O.P. Saini with its air-conditioned coolness would welcome them. They would then spend the entire day, some with their wives and families attending court proceedings, and some extra time till 4.30 p.m. or so and then go back to jail for the rest of the evening. ‘It was only public holidays and the weekends that we would experience jail life, otherwise there was nothing to it.’
They had also moved an application which allowed them to eat food that their families brought from home in the court complex. This meant that unlike other inmates, they had access to non-vegetarian food, too. There were hiccups though, and Raja loves telling this one story when a new sub-inspector came into Patiala House courts. Now, for whatever reason, the new cop in town wasn’t very impressed with the airs of all his high-profile inmates in the court lockup, and he said that he couldn’t allow them to eat the food that their families had brought for them.
‘It created a major outrage and we all protested, but that inspector didn’t budge from his position at all. So everyone went without lunch and all these rich people, they all experienced for the very first time what real hunger was.’ Raja couldn’t stop chuckling, ‘As a politician, we go to different places so are used to everything. But for one day, these people felt what it was like to go hungry. Their families were very upset.’ Of course, unlike the daily pangs of hunger that many in jails endure, the group of dozen-odd 2G accused found a solution the very next day. The jailer sent a message to the court lockup that they must not be stopped from eating their home food and the special status was restored again.
Excerpted with the permission of Roli Books from the book Behind Bars: Prison Tales of India’s Most Famous” by Sunetra Choudhury.
You can buy the book here