“Achha, woh mujhe ab phone rakhne ko keh rahe hai, chalta hu, khuda hafiz” (Ok, they are asking me to end the call, I’m leaving, khuda hafiz).
These were the last words Ali Sher would hear from his 23-year-old son Dilsher, an undertrial prisoner in Tihar’s Jail No 3.
Ali couldn’t even say Khuda Hafiz in return before the call abruptly ended, but that barely bothered him. He was supposed to meet his son in two days as the Delhi High Court was set to hear his bail application.
“I thought I’ll talk to him soon enough, and that too in person,” Ali said while revisiting that 5-minute-long telephone call. “We all knew he’ll get bail as all the co-accused in his case were already out on bail,” he continued in his deep voice.
But Dilsher couldn’t make it to his bail hearing, and Ali never got the chance to say Khuda Hafiz to his son ever again. Just two days before the hearing, on 31 November 2020, Ali (56) got a call from his wife, Shahnaz (49). She had just been told that their son had been murdered inside the jail.
‘They Refused to Call Him By His Name’
Ali was in his office, a small business on travel buses, when his wife called at around 11 am, telling him about their son’s unfortunate fate, her voice faint with shock and grief. Two police officers had come to their home in Jahangirpuri with just one message – “your son has been murdered”, nothing more or less.
Desperate for answers, the couple rushed across Delhi to Tihar. It takes around 75 minutes during morning traffic to reach the Tihar prison complex from Jahangirpuri, a journey Ali felt was the longest and hardest of his life. He didn’t know where to go, or whom to ask, so he simply started screaming before the security guard:
Escorted to a waiting room, it was another five hours before Ali and Shahnaz were finally summoned by the Magistrate in jail. During those five hours, no one reached out, offered any help, or even looked at them. In the Magistrate’s room too, they got no answers to their many questions. Ali was just made to sign on a paper, which he says he did without knowing what was written on it.
"“The Magistrate just told us that your son was murdered in the morning. But we already knew that! We didn’t wait 5 hours just to be told this! We wanted to know how it happened, who killed our son. We wanted to see his body. The Magistrate told us nothing. Instead, she asked us whether we could tell her who killed Dilsher! Imagine!”" -
After another hour of waiting, someone from the cleaning staff informed Ali that a van had left Tihar in the afternoon for Deen Dyal Upadhyaya Hospital, and that it might have been carrying his son. The couple rushed to DDU Hospital and inquired about their son. Again, they were kept in the waiting area. After 45 minutes, ‘someone from the hospital’ told them that they would get their son’s body the next day, after the post mortem.
The night of 31 November lasted well into the next day for Ali’s household. At 3 pm on 1 December, Ali was called to DDU Hospital to collect his son’s body. This time, the journey from Jahangirpuri to DDU Hospital didn’t seem long enough to the mourning couple, they hoped for it to never end. There was no rush to arrive this time, no restlessness, just silence. Ali said:
"“I was numb, I wanted to cry but I couldn’t. I don’t understand why they kept on calling him ‘a body’; I was constantly saying where’s Dilsher, I want to see Dilsher, but they refused to call him by his name, they kept saying please collect the ‘body’. I don’t know why they did that.”" -
48 hours had passed, and Ali still hadn't got any crucial details from the jail authorities. How could someone just kill his son in a high-security prison? Where were the security guards and wardens? Why didn’t anyone protect him? These questions kept haunting him, and no one cared to answer. It was only when Dilsher’s lawyer, Anwar Khan, appeared before the Magistrate in Rohini court on December 02 for Dilsher’s trial, that more details of his murder were revealed to the family.
‘Were They Waiting for My Son to Die?’
Tihar Jail’s status report on Dilsher’s murder described his death in numbers – died at 7 am, 11 stab wounds, 2 lacerated wounds, spent 17 months in custody. He was killed by a group of 7 men, who attacked him when he was asleep. However, a closer look at the document reveals something more concerning – the jail staff informing the jail hospital that Dilsher had an “alleged history of facing physical assault in his ward”.
Ali Sher says this detail confirms a fear that his son had shared in calls from Tihar. He claims that Dilsher knew he was in imminent danger. He says even the jail staff was aware but turned a blind eye. He said:
"During our last call, Dilsher said, ‘Abba they’re threatening me, they’re demanding 25,000 in cash! They are Naushad’s men, he’s after me’. I told him to inform the jail authorities, and that if nothing happens, I’ll send the money... A whole gang was operating in the jail, they were colluding with the wardens also. Drugs, alcohol, mobile phones were coming inside the jail, how come they didn’t know? Were they waiting for my son to die? Maybe they wanted him to die." -
Ali firmly believes that his son was set up by the jail staff. He thinks that the staff is equally, if not more, complicit in Dilsher’s killing.
'Things Were Missing From His Luggage’
“How can someone commit murder in broad daylight in a high-security prison?” Ali keeps asking. To support his claim about the jail staff's complicity, Ali lists actions taken by the staff after the crime, which he feels were suspect.
First, Ali says jail authorities refused to produce CCTV footage of the incident, claiming that the cameras weren’t operating at that time. Second, the FIR states Dilsher’s assailants were intoxicated while attacking him, which only exposes how the jail staff allowed access to weapons, drugs and alcohol inside Tihar.
Ali also claims that the police have not mentioned the “kingpin” of the gang – Naushad – in the FIR. He said Naushad committed multiple robberies which got him a long sentence, but he used his clout to initiate a prison gang. Naushad, Ali further said, had jumped parole, but continued to manage a gang inside the prison from the outside. Ali believes that excluding Naushad’s name from Dilsher's murder FIR, reeks of a cover-up and of collusion by certain jail staffers.
When I went to collect Dilsher’s belongings, many things were missing from his luggage. The staff must’ve picked his branded shoes and sweaters, to sell them. When I asked about the missing items, they said they’ll find them and deliver them to my place. But that delivery never arrived!
Ali’s lawyer, Anwar Khan, says staff collusion in instances of violence between inmates, as well as custodial torture, is common in Tihar. He also says that the denial of CCTV footage is a common response when fingers are pointed at jail staff negligence. This is Anwar Khan’s third case in 4 years where credible allegations have been made against Tihar’s jail staff in cases of custodial violence.
Khan has supported Ali Sher and Shahnaz, by taking up the challenge of ensuring justice to Dilsher and compensation to his family. He has written to the National Human Rights Commission, to Director General (Prisons), to Delhi's Police Commissioner and Lieutenant Governor, asking them to intervene in the mater. But these efforts have proved futile. Days have gone by, Khan's letters are probably lost somewhere in departmental red tape.
As per the guidelines of the National Human Rights Commission, the magisterial inquest in cases of custodial deaths must be completed within 2 months. In the present matter, 3 months are coming to a close but the inquest report is nowhere to be seen.
Delay in inquest proceedings casts serious aspersions in the credibility of the inquest proceedings. The rationale behind putting a timeline to the procedure was to prevent loss of evidence, ensure a fair and impartial inquiry, and a timely grant of compensation to Dilsher's family.
In Dilsher’ case, where the family vehemently attributes “recklessness” and “gross negligence” to the jail authorities, Khan believes flouting the legal provisions for an inquest should be dealt with severely, or at least, accorded the criticism that it deserves.
‘We Need to Get Him Justice’
“How would you feel when you lose your child in his prime?” Ali responded to a question inquiring about his feelings, his emotions.
"“Not a day goes by when either his mother or his sister are not crying. Sometimes they just break into tears out of nowhere. I don’t remember the last time we had a proper meal, or just simply laughed. Nothing can be normal now, but we can’t stop. We need to get him justice.”" -
Ali Sher has to put a strong face in front of his family. He believes that he doesn’t have the privilege to embrace his grief, to cry. “If I cry in front of my family, they’ll break,” he said. Ali is slowly trying to get back to his multiple odd jobs and a small travel bus business. He thinks going to work will keep his mind occupied, more importantly, distracted from the sheer feeling of defeat that comes from “not saving his son”.
After getting no help from anywhere, Ali Sher has finally moved a petition before the Delhi High Court. In his plea, Ali has claimed that he was “kept in the dark for a long time with respect to the facts of the case and the circumstances leading to death of his son, who was an undertrial prisoner in Tihar Jail”. Citing the gross negligence of the jail authorities, Ali has claimed compensation of 5 crores. The single bench of Justice Prathiba M Singh will hear the matter on 5 March.
. Read more on Law by The Quint. Dilsher, 23, Undertrial, Murdered in Tihar Jail – Who Killed Him?BPF Snaps Ties with BJP in Assam, Joins ‘Mahagathbandhan’ . Read more on Law by The Quint.