From an escape that should have been impossible to an encounter that is being investigated for allegedly being improbable, MILIND GHATWAI & DIPANKAR GHOSE trace the eight hours of countless questions in Bhopal.
AT 2.30 am on October 31, it would have been seven hours since the time Amzad Ramzan Khan, Zakir Hussain, Sheikh Mehboob, Mohammad Saliq, Mujeeb Sheikh, Akeel Khilji, Khalid Ahmed and Majeed Nagori had the jail’s special Diwali meal and were locked in, two each to a cell in the B-Block of Bhopal Central Jail.
Seven hours to the last head-count.
The best prison in Madhya Pradesh, with ISO certification for its cleanliness and space, has two such head-counts every day. Once when the prisoners — both the undertrials and the convicts, kept separately — are taken out of their cells or barracks in the morning and when they retire for the night. The average day for a prisoner in Bhopal Central Jail begins with sunrise and ends with sunset. The timings vary as per season.
In their cells, where the SIMI inmates are kept separate from the other prisoners, the eight would have been allowed to keep bare essentials. As per R S Vijayvargiya, who retired as DIG, Jail (Law), in March, this would include one steel plate and one steel glass each, that they were required to wash themselves, besides three blankets, two bed sheets and one quilt during winters.
According to police, the eight SIMI accused used those possessions to make their escape. It was around 3 am that the rope ladder made of bedsheets and wood, allegedly also sourced from the jail premises, was noticed next to the wall, 25-30 feet high, that marks the first boundary of the jail. Investigators admit the number of bedsheets was at least twice the number the eight were entitled to.
On paper, that can’t happen.
The Madhya Pradesh Jail Manual, stretching to more than 600 pages, doesn’t leave any aspect of prison life undocumented — down to minute details of how inmates are supposed to relieve themselves to the amount of soil that should be used to dispose of their excreta. It talks of why Brahmins wear the janeyu (sacred thread), and the permissible length of beard for Muslim inmates (1 inch). It covers the dress code of warders as well as the diet to be given to “weakly prisoners and those losing weight in poor condition”.
The manual also has elaborate rules on where and how to keep the various keys, when to open and lock gates, details the entitlements of undertrials and convicts, and, importantly, talks about the additional sentence meant for those who escape from jail.
Besides, Madhya Pradesh Prison Rules, 1968, state that assistant superintendents of police must patrol a jail sometime between 10 pm and 5 am; a deputy superintendent of police must visit the jail at night once in three days, at a time when the assistant superintendent is present; while a superintendent must visit once a week between 10 pm and 5 am. The duration of the visit cannot be less than 20 minutes, and is required to be random so that personnel on night duty don’t anticipate the visits.
Apart from this, the prison guards must make rounds at frequent intervals at night. Convicts too are appointed as night watchmen and later promoted as overseers.
As part of his rounds, Head Constable Ramashankar Yadav passed by the cells where the alleged SIMI activists were lodged, around 2.30 am on the night of October 30-31. Police say it did not take long for the eight men, who had allegedly used duplicate keys to come out of their four cells, to overpower the 57-year-old reluctant guard, who was on the verge of retirement and who, citing his health condition and a bypass surgery, had requested that he be given less demanding duty.
Police say the men used sharpened plates as weapons to slit his throat and then gagged Chandan Ahirwar, the second guard who rushed there on hearing some noise. They did not assault Ahirwar, only warning him to keep quiet after stuffing his mouth with clothes and tying him up.
“I was helpless. I saw them leave one by one, but could do nothing. They threatened to kill me if I raised an alarm before they escaped,” Ahirwar was quoted by a local paper as saying.
Ahirwar’s walkie-talkie set kept getting “Khairiyat hai (Is everything okay)?” messages, but he says he was in no position to respond. Finally, when there was no response from his end for around 30 minutes, a guard posted outside the barracks rushed in and raised an alarm. Again, the jail manual makes weekly inspection of inmates’ belongings to ensure that prisoners don’t use these to escape or to attack others. Police say they don’t know how the eight managed to “sharpen” their plates.
The state prison rules, dealing specifically with possible escape attempts by inmates, further say that deputy jail superintendent and officers under him must ensure that ladders, ropes, bamboo poles, and other objects not be kept anywhere where they could be taken away by someone; and that central jails hold an ‘alarm parade’ every 15 days to raise a quick alert in case of a jailbreak.
Madhya Pradesh Home Minister Bhupendra Singh has said the prisoners must have hatched the conspiracy to escape at least a month earlier. He is certain they were helped by an “insider”. Vijayvargiya recalls that the last attempted jailbreak using a duplicate key at the Bhopal jail was in 1993. The jail holds 3,600 inmates, two and a half times times its capacity, and has around 160 guards.
With winter setting in, a regular day for prisoners at the Bhopal Central Jail begins around 7 am. The jail has two blocks, A and B, under one superintendent, two hospitals, two canteens, a gaushala, and industrial units.
Soon after they get up, the inmates are served tea and assemble for prayers, followed by yoga.
Breakfast is served between 7.30 am and 8 am, and the staple is poha, chana masala and dalia. The prisoners are allowed to get packed food such as namkeen only from their relatives at meeting time — which is once a week for undertrials and once a fortnight for convicts. If the food is not packed, the jail superintendent can use his discretion to clear it.
Lunch is served around 11-11.30 am. Post-lunch, the prisoners head for duties assigned to them, either to factories inside the jail premises or the agricultural fields nearby. They are back by 5 pm. Undertrials are assigned work only if they are willing. The maximum daily wage (for four hours of work) for a skilled worker in the factories is Rs 110 for both convicts and undertrials, while it is Rs 68 for unskilled labourers. Those working in the fields get Rs 68 for six hours of work. One-third of their earnings can be used for family, personal expenses and lawyers’ fees.
The eight undertrials, most of whom belonged to places far away from Bhopal, didn’t get many visitors. Dinner is served around 6 pm. Prisoners can carry it into their cells or barracks and eat later.
Undertrials, like the alleged SIMI accused who were wearing trousers and sneakers when shot, wear their own clothes, while the convicts have to wear jail uniform. Undertrials who can’t afford their clothes are also given jail uniform. All have to wash their own clothes.
The story of the adventure in the night of the eight SIMI undertrials, according to the police theory, began after they allegedly scaled the jail walls. From the outside, the wall is pink in colour, with five-foot increases in its height, from the central gate moving eastward. On the top, the surface seems smooth, with barbed wire or glass conspicuously absent.
The prisoners would have dropped into a small field, still within the jail premises. The grass is sparse, scattered and sunburnt, with two poles holding a volleyball net strung in between. Enclosing it all is a white fence, that has a large gap allowing access to a small internal gravel road that runs along the outer periphery of the jail.
The prisoners would have next run into a small, 3-foot-high wall, with what is a heavier version of a garden gate. The gate now stands permanently open, with the wall next to it showing damaged bricks, ostensibly from the gate being forced open. Finally, on this small outer wall is a one-foot barbed wire, broken at places. Did the wire prevent the prisoners from scaling this smaller wall, after tackling one 10 times higher, and instead forcing open the gate? This is one of the many unanswered questions.
On Thursday evening, when The Sunday Express visited the spot, no policeman manned the open gate, with curious visitors walking right up to the large pink wall that reportedly couldn’t contain the prisoners’ flight.
Outside the jail, an eight-lane road leads to the nearby main Bhopal city, and goes on further to Vidisha and Indore. Across the road is a small three-block residential colony on one side, and shrubbery that leads to fields beyond. Police officials say the escapees used a path that cuts through the fields at 2.30 am, heading towards the villages of Khejra Dev and Acharpura.
Between the jail and the spot of the alleged encounter lie two other villages, Abbas Nagar and Chandpur. One of the first reported “sightings”, in the early hours of October 31, was by Vinod Meena, a night guard posted at EPS School in Abbas Nagar. The Madhya Pradesh government has named Meena as among those it intends to reward for helping find the prisoners — a Rs 40 lakh award to be split among the ‘informants’.
Meena has since left the school. Despite repeated attempts, he refused to talk to The Sunday Express about what he saw, only saying he had “gone back to my village”, “wanted no reward” and “desired to be left alone”.
Naresh Pal, a 24-year-old farmer and kirana store owner in Chandpur, claims to have made the next “sighting”. This was the first by anyone in the Khejra Dev panchayat, near where the men were shot dead. Between Abbas Nagar and Chandpur is another wide, tarred “bypass road”, with dhabas every kilometre or so. On the Chandpur side, nascent real estate sites have sprouted between fields, but with very little construction activity.
The narrow Halali river flows through here in the direction of Khejra Dev village. The river has a steep embankment, and at its deepest, water rises up to chest level. Pal says he first saw the eight men at 7 am, at a distance of 500 metres, as he woke up and stepped out of his house. “I saw them walking along the fields and the Halali river,” he told The Sunday Express.
Pal times his field visits to electricity supply, which comes in six-hour spurts. It came in the morning that day, so he soon left for his fields. There, he says, he saw “three of them from much closer”. “They had rolled up their trousers, were carrying their shoes in their hands, and had crossed the Halali river. One of them had a bag, but I saw no weapons. The others must have been in the river . Since they were close, I raised a hand and said ‘Jai Shri Ram’, but they said nothing in return.”
Pal remembers another detail about the three men. “They didn’t have long beards like in their photos I saw later.”
Pal didn’t know about the jailbreak at the time, and thought the eight were either fishermen or locals gathered for an early morning game of cards. He says that when he returned home around 8 am to receive a supply jeep that had come to his kirana store and turned on the television, he realised what had happened. Hearing “terrorists” had escaped, Pal became suspicious. Since his phone was out of order, he spoke to another local, Gyan Singh, who then called up the Etkhedi police chowki.
Khejra Dev village, located closest to the rocks where the eight men were gunned down, is less than 2 km away through the fields as the crow flies. The rocks themselves fall under the Acharpura limits. Khejra Dev pradhan Mohan Singh Meena says he had a 7 am call from policemen alerting him that “dangerous terrorists” were on the loose, and to keep an eye out. With four villages, Khejra Dev, Bishan Khedi, Dobra and Chandpur, under his jurisdiction, Meena says he made calls to all villages, including to Jitmal Meena of Chandpur. Police also sent him photos of the eight undertrials on WhatsApp, he says.
Within a few hours, Mohan Meena says, he received a call that the men had been sighted in Chandpur, and a call was placed to the police. Between Chandpur and Khejra Dev are fields upon fields, some with crops with standing water, others dry. Meena and others rushed to where the eight men could be, over an undulating landscape with the now famous hillock.
After Halali in Chandpur, the eight men are said to have navigated the Doodhli and Bankediya Naala rivers. “We saw them crossing the third river. I shouted, asking them to stop, and this time they responded, asking us to step back. One was carrying a bag, and every one of them had a stick in their hands, but at that time, I saw no weapons. We gave chase till the beginning of the hillock, where they started climbing,” Meena says.
Then, the police arrived.
Khejra Dev has a population of around 600, mostly farmers, with a few travelling for work to the main Bhopal city, which is around 15 km away. Five days later, the conversation in the village and around is dominated by events of that day. Most villagers say they only went to the encounter site as they were out in the fields at that hour, again because of the timing of the electricity supply.
There are different versions about what happened after the police encircled the hill around 10.30 am. Some like Mohan Meena insist there was firing from both sides. Other villagers say they saw no firing from the side of the eight men, and only saw them throwing rocks and shouting abuses. Nearly everyone has a smart phone, and there are many recordings of that morning, some that would be played on loop on television channels for days.
Immediately after the firing ended, the villagers say, they streamed onto the rock themselves, and despite being restrained by the police, made their way right to the site. One of them appears to have captured on video a man lying prone being shot again.
The villagers admit many of them shot the videos, but since the police allegedly began going around the villages, seeking the videos and deleting them, each points to the other when asked about them. “We shot the incident because it was a once-in-a-lifetime event, but we didn’t know it would become this controversial,” one villager says.
At a press conference later that day, Bhopal IG Yogesh Chaudhary said a team of the Bhopal Police, Special Task Force and counter-terror group fired 46 rounds during the operation. He said the eight men had four small firearms and three sharp weapons, and had fired at the police and thrown stones at them. Chaudhary said three policemen, Narayan Singh, Mahendra Chouhan and Dinesh Khatri, were injured in the hour-long operation that ended around 11.30 am.
On Thursday evening, as the sun set, shadows climbed fast over the rocks now marked with numbers one to eight, each next to corresponding bloodstains, with a shawl and a bedsheet lying abandoned amidst them. The numbers were bunched close together, as if the men fell in a heap, without trying to escape when the firing started. Around was a white tape that said, ‘Crime Scene: Do Not Enter’. Next to it were etched other engravings, of another time and other visitors. Confessions of love.
Over at the jail, things are back to normal. At around 8 am, when it is time for prayer, the inmates will gather together to sing, like every day.The song: Ae maalik tere bande ham. The film: the 1957 classic Do Aankhe Baara Haath, about reformed prisoners.