Why you should care
Baba Khan managed to change things for the better, even from his jail cell.
Roy Varghese refused to be called by his name. Instead, he asked fellow inmates in ward No. 10 of India’s Jaipur Central Jail, where he was serving a 10-year sentence for drug trafficking, to call him Hitler Baba Khan. In his mind, he crusaded against enemies on the battlefield; in real life, he was struggling with schizophrenia.
Throughout Khan’s incarceration, beginning in 1992, his mental condition went untreated, with authorities ignoring him as the delusions grew stronger. Rather than being sent to a psychiatric facility within the state’s government-sponsored hospital, he ended up in solitary confinement, where his failing eyesight, also untreated, deteriorated further.
It’s a story that still inspires outrage today, referenced by prison reform activists hoping to improve the care of mentally ill prisoners in India. Because of Khan, trapped in a system that appeared indifferent to his suffering, the Rajasthan High Court judges, in 2009, directed periodic review committees to consult on cases involving mentally unstable prisoners and file regular mandatory status reports to the courts.
A mentally unstable person like him should have never been in prison in the first place, let alone solitary confinement.
Sugandha Shankar, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative
Sugandha Shankar, of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, worked on Khan’s case. She explains: “According to the law, mentally unstable prisoners should not be kept in jail at all and in fact are supposed to be sent to either psychiatric facilities or their closest relatives” once they’ve agreed to care for them. The law failed Khan and, Shankar adds, “[his] case made the courts realize that periodic review committees need to do a better job.”
There is a distinct lack of data on mentally unstable inmates in India’s prisons. Syed Rabiya and Vijaya Raghavan of the Schizophrenia Research Foundation, a nonprofit in Chennai, co-authored a paper corroborating this fact. “Prisoners are a minority whose mental health needs are usually neglected,” they write. “In comparison to the research done abroad, India has few studies published on this population, and hence, it becomes more important to focus on them.”
Khan was born in Thiruvalla, Kerala, on July 9, 1957, the eldest of 10 children. His sister says that he was a bright student but troubled, oftentimes getting into fights with other kids, playing truant at school and even, at age 13, running away from home. After getting drawn into the crime scene, he was convicted on Sept. 22, 1992, under India’s strict drug trafficking law, which carries a mandatory minimum of 10 years in prison. His sister thought he was dead.
In prison, Khan began to show signs of paranoid schizophrenia. But it would take nine years for prison officials to send him to a Jaipur psychiatric hospital for treatment. He was kept in the general ward around other patients, explains R.K. Saxena, former inspector general of prisons in Rajasthan and retired director of the Justice Mulla Committee, which was established in 1982 to help the government develop recommendations for prison reform. In 2003, Khan’s story took a tragic turn: “It was alleged by the hospital authorities that he killed two other patients there,” Saxena says. “They said he set them on fire.”
As Saxena points out, “it was never proven that Baba Khan committed the murders.” Still, the allegation was enough to get Khan removed from the hospital. He went before a court, which found him unfit to stand trial due to his mental illness. After that, he was returned to prison and placed in solitary confinement, in what Saxena says was a clear controversion of special provisions for those found to be of unsound mind.
Throughout the long years of his confinement, prison authorities believed Khan had no relatives who might take him in. In 10 years, nobody had visited him. It was only in 2005 that his sister — identified by the pseudonym Vinita in the press and on legal documents — discovered a postcard from Khan to their father, sent from Jaipur Central Jail. Her brother was alive, and she began working toward his release, aided by the efforts of Saxena and Shankar. Even then, it took years: On Jan. 25, 2011, Khan, with failing eyesight, was finally released to his sister’s care, to receive treatment at a mental health facility. He’d spent 18 years in prison.
“His case speaks of such apathy from officials,” says Shankar. “A mentally unstable person like him should have never been in prison in the first place, let alone solitary confinement.”
Khan died 15 months after his release.