Tales from Tihar

It was in the early nineties when Kiran Bedi took over the reins of Tihar. She put together a team of psychiatrists and psychologists for violence management. Ward number 33, jail number 7(numbers altered), inside Tihar was the most violent ward. Amongst other notorious activities, the primary metric assigned to the team was to reduce the number of electric bulbs broken in the ward. Initially, the number was once in 2 days - it would serve as a good proxy on the conflicts and behavior of the prisoners.

The in-house leader of the prisoners was named Jatthedaar, he was a terrorist with a life sentence. He was also the head of the kitchen and the main ward of the prison which is called the “chakkar”, in the nerve center.

The violence management program was started with Jatthedaar, it was a rage reduction exercise and that really became a scene with 200 people watching him do it, he’d lose control and had to be restrained.

With time on one of the visits, he comes to the counselor and speaks “sir maine apna khana khud hi garam karke kha liya”(I have warmed my own food). This sounded fairly natural but then the Jatthedaar explained that it was the exclusive duty of a prisoner to keep his food warm, and if the food was not served hot the prisoner would get beaten black and blue.

He now used to feel calmer when his food had gone cold, he did not beat up the person. Jatthedaar acknowledged “sir mere andar jo hai na, bahut junoon tha magar maine kuchh nahin kiya, maine chupchap apna khana garam kar liya aur kha liya. Sab ko lage ki Jatthedaar tenu ki ho gaya hai?

Main itna gussa nahi feel karta hun jaise pahle feel karta tha, koi bhi mera kuch karta main do thapad lagata tha lekin ab maine maarna band kar diya hai.”

(I used to be very enraged, even on slight misbehavior I’d slap prisoners, but the intensity of anger has subsided. My fellow prisoners are surprised by the change in me.)

Jatthedaar was an interesting case study and would serve as an example for fellow prisoners. He then joined the team as co-staff and once the psychologists would end their lecture, he’d start explaining the same thing to the inmates in the common lingo.

The violence in Tihar went down significantly, almost by 20% in the next three months. Jatthedaar took it as a personal call, which was once his issue suddenly became the issue of the prisoners and they did not want to become violent. For the three years that the team worked, there was a significant reduction in Tihar and it is still talked about.

This was one of the cases Dr. Mitra narrated to us during his interview. Dr. Rajat Mitra holds a Ph.D. in clinical psychology and has over three decades of experience working in grief counseling, workplace harassment, sexual assault, and human trafficking.

He’s also a published author. One such fiction book is The Infidel Next Door. The chief protagonist of the book is a Hindu priest who doesn’t run away when Islamic militants attack his temple. He tells himself that he has a relationship with his deities and his temple and he cannot leave them.

Q: What intrigued you to join the practice?

In the early 80s, one of my friend’s parents used to run a rehabilitation center for young mentally ill young people. I would visit him, very often and sit and chat with the kids. I found that they were slowly changing and developing. I used to be a volunteer to take them to the town to have ice cream, a cup of coffee, or I would take them for a movie.

I saw people who are mentally disturbed, they got well and it intrigued me. I come from a background, my family was literature people and I would have probably gone in that field myself or something similar. This completely took a turn and I decided to become a psychotherapist.

Q: What are the kind of problems that you have seen evolving with time?

The 80s, were very much, the decade when the environment played a major role like we thought that it is responsible for many of your issues, you have to work with your environment.

As the 90s arrived Genetics, and Biology became stronger in terms of theoretical models we use. Now it is somewhere towards the middle, we have different issues. I recall there was a lot of focus on mental illness, psychosis, schizophrenia, aids, and other issues which came about.

The 2000s were marked by children’s issues, child sexual abuse, focus on gender, the trauma that women go through, women issues were discounted earlier, it came about how much women suffered.

For instance, when we started our work, there was very little awareness in police circles about the trauma that women go through or of child sexual abuse, but today it has sunk in.

There is also a focus on transgenerational trauma, carrying trauma passed on to us by fathers, fore-fathers which gets transmitted from generation to generation, there is much more today about the genocide that was completely absent 20 years ago 30 years ago, so you have the Armenian genocide, the holocaust, the Rwandan genocide.

There has been a shift in the present times, as we see, it is covid and covid related issues and it will be like that for the coming 5-10 years, it will be dominated by pandemics and other epidemic related issues, the way they are changing our fundamental identity.

It has replaced actually a lot of other issues suddenly and many clinics, hospitals, and rehabilitation centers today are changing to Tele counseling, talking on the laptop, and having a session like I have had many sessions with people on the laptop and it is not the same because you don’t form the same connection, the same bond which is the foundation of psychotherapy and counseling but we cannot help it so that is why there is digital counseling.


Q: Let’s talk about grief. Why and When does one need grief counseling?

A: I think anytime is a good time, first of all, it is important not to see grief as a problem, grief is something that follows loss, there is a loss in your life, automatically start, grief is not a problem. It can be the loss of a friend, loss of a relative, of finances, or a pet, it can be any kind of loss.

In older society grief was seen as something natural, so if you died, you died with your whole family holding hands with them, but how do you die today, sterilized in an alien environment, in a hospital most of the people spend the last moments, one feels alienated during the grieving process.

We should take tears as something natural, grief is not a problem, for example, we see a person crying in front of us, what is a first reaction? Don’t cry right, now the thing is that crying is making us uncomfortable, what we need to say is that finish your crying, finish your grief because it may take half an hour, 1 hour, 2 hours but then it will be over, right?

So you finish your grief, most people interrupt the grief of the person and it stays inspired and does not go out even for years.

Grief is not something you need to be afraid of or be frightened of. Our society has been alienated by itself, it sees grief as something strange, as a problem, as something to be avoided, no, absolutely not, we should not do that.

Q: What are the basic principles of grief counseling?

A: I think the basic principle is to say that grief is something finite, it will be over because when most people are grieving, they believe that it is something that is going to be there forever.

The second thing is that most of us deal with grief like the way a child deals with a broken toy, how does a child deal with a broken toy? It will only be happy if the toy is replaced and the toys made whole again, the child will not understand that the toy cannot be made whole again, it will be a new toy, the same way the second stage of grief is a state where most of us are not taught to pass through that stage of grief, many adults deal with grief in the same way, they want the lost object to be replaced by some miracle or magic, become whole again and so the grief comes because of that unrealistic believe.

Once you understand that it is not going to happen, you feel that it is a natural thing, then somewhere your grief empties itself out.

The third thing is the stages of grief and which stage you are going through right now and the time will come when you will go through all the stages and finish grieving and you can be reborn again.

It is important to know that you cannot reborn until you grieve. For example, parents who have adopted children pretty often have not dealt with the grief of not having a biological child so they are unable to bond with the adopted child and the child feels it by the time the child comes away age, becomes a teenager, they feel that something is missing in their relationship and that is the time they start searching for the biological parents and it is a phenomenon that has been seen, again and again, it is not because something is missing in the parenting, it was because the parents did not finish their grief, once they finish their grief only then should they adopt that children not otherwise, so that is what we teach in grief counseling, grief therapy to parents who are looking for adopting children.

Q: What is the difference between normal therapy and grief counseling is it the same or how does it differ?

A: Grief therapy is to do always with the loss, in normal counseling there may or may not be a loss, I am not getting along with my girlfriend or boyfriend, my parents don’t care for me, there may not be a specific loss that the person is dealing with or is an issue for that person, grief counseling begins with the loss and ending with how to work through it.

Q: While each person’s case is different, what is the average number of sessions it needs to take to understand and acknowledge the grieving process?

A: I think to go through the process by and large takes 3 to 6 months, it is very important to know that you will not forget, your memories will remain but they will not have power over you, so you will still have memories but you can treasure them, you can be enriched by the fact that you had that learning experience.

I had a patient, he was driving with his fiancee in a motorcycle and they had an accident and she died, and he was traumatized, he blamed himself because they were, you know they had rebelled against their families to marry particularly she, he felt absolute that he was responsible for her death which is very normal to feel when one person in a relationship dies, you feel that you have guilt as to why you are surviving. He came to me, and said I have decided to live my life in her memory, I said yes, it is ok, I perfectly respect your choice, he grieved, he cried, he shared the anger, he said stories and then he called me one day which was very unusual because clients usually don’t call up and he said can I talk to you for 2 minutes.

He said I was driving and suddenly I was in this forested area, I suddenly felt alive, I grieved so much with you, I felt that somewhere I have stopped suffering her memories do not cause any more pain to me. He is going to live in her memories but he does not wallow in them, he is alive and he is happy, so that is what grief counseling does to you. It makes you feel alive and happy. You can be reborn again, you can be reborn with life.

Q: After one is done grieving one can cherish past memories but it stops causing trauma, negative thoughts, emotions, and anxiety. How do you start the healthy grieving process?

A: By talking about what grief is and isn’t, it is a sequence it is a series of stages that you will go through, it is finite and one day it will come to an end and you can be reborn and start your life again, life will not be the same so it is not that you go back to where you were but you can go back to a new point from which you can start your life journey again.


Q: An organizational setup is where a person with more experience( and skills) is assigned a team to carry out specific functions. There are times the person one up in hierarchy leverages his position to exploit the relatively insignificant peers - the form could be many. Tell us about workplace psychology.

A: I think it can be a wide range of harassment like you said. We are spending a large part of our life at work. Despite best possible efforts our problems, behavior, culture, biases, habits, and unmet desires reflect at the workplace.

It is also about the person-position fit. For example, if I am a very assertive person and I have taken a job it requires me to sit at my desk the whole day, then perhaps I have taken the wrong job. If I am a people-oriented person and I am working in a place that I can hardly interact with people, what kind of people do I deal with, all those things, do make a difference.

Common things are jealousy and/or envy. There is nothing wrong with feeling jealous, jealousy can occur when we see a threat to our self, a threat to what we have, something we value, we feel it will be taken away so you will be jealous, envy is when you see someone who is doing better than you, there will be people who can do better, and there will be people who will be worst than you.

We need to find out what is that, which makes me stable and happy. I am a professor, I teach, many of my colleagues, they are much younger than me, they are their digitally savvy, does that make me envious that they are so better than me, I tell myself that is their strong point, I ask them to help, I have my wisdom of 40 years which they value, should they feel jealous of my wisdom or the experience that I have, they should learn from it, so it can be a give and take situation.

Many of us are actually in the wrong place, at the wrong work, they are there because of allurement and not because our heart says that this is what really makes me alive.

Workplace psychology shows the highest need in people is to belong more than the salary or the pay package, what makes people stay in a job or want to continue is when they get a sense of belongingness. Don’t ever consider yourself stuck into something because life is very short, many opportunities would come and pass by.

Most common problems can be resolved when

  • we choose the right environment and place.

  • the right position where we fit.

  • Ask yourself if you are getting that sense of belongingness, if not then try elsewhere, there is always a better choice for you.

Q: There are processes in organizations on how to deal with harassment, but entirely within yourself what is that you should be doing psychologically? How do you deal with workplace harassment?

A: Obviously externally it has to be recorded in detail, record the time, event, what happened? What did the person do? The second thing that you need to do is to be assertive and not be silent about it because if you are silent then your perpetrator gets the message that I can go ahead and get away with it, do not allow that it will only increase, so tell him that you’re worth that this is not acceptable, this is my boundary I’m sorry I am not taking it, do that the first time itself, don’t think that is the first time and it will not take place the second time, remember one thing that you feel violated, it’s enough.

You need to trust yourself, for example, in most of the sexual harassment cases that I have seen, women tell me that they were not sure if it was harassment or not, they were not sure about what the man was doing what his intention was and I say stop doubting yourself, it was harassment, he harassed you, you felt it. Trust your intuition, you are not making up stories, so that is what I tell the people who come to me.

To summarise :

  • Record the events in detail.

  • Reproduce the same to the authorities.

  • Acknowledge your self-worth and set boundaries.

  • Stay assertive, if you are benign the exploiter will keep on taking advantage.

  • Stop doubting yourself and trust your intuition.

Q: Suppose now the harassment is already in place, either the individual reports it or the individual may not muster the courage and gather ample evidence to report. The result - they keep it within themselves, and the emotion goes undealt, what are the long-term psychological effects of harassment if it is left untreated?

A: I think you go into depression, you feel that you have contributed towards it, you blame yourself for somewhere causing it, you become victimized, all those things take place if you remain quiet, know sometimes what may happen is that you can decide to leave, you can decide to go ahead and not be a victim, always make a choice, say that it is not acceptable to me if you don’t say that and continue to suffer then you are making yourself into a victim, don’t do that.

Q: Let us take the case when someone has gone through harassment, he or she has been quiet about it, in terms of self-treatment, is there anything that the person can do about it in terms of writing, or journaling so that the dark memory doesn’t haunt him or her again?

A: I think the important thing is to turn the memory around, and the best way to do that is perhaps to talk it over with a professional who can help you with that.

Many people don’t do that, they become victims, they stay victims, it breaks them in the performance and the way they see the world, all that gets affected so don’t allow yourself to go through this.

Today you have counselors in almost every city, take help of that, there are YouTube videos of how people who have gone through it and they talk about it, how they dealt with it.

Listen to the stories of survivors, as long as you are doing something about it, you do not feel being the victim, but the moment you become passive and stop doing something about it, the problem will start.

Q: The other side of the window and I am sure you have come across all this where a person is wrongly accused of harassment, how do you handle that situation?

A: The thing is that it is not easy, whenever someone is wrongly accused of something, what is called a false accusation, you would get traumatized, you will get affected. It is important to take help from a psychologist, tell yourself that it is not true and you will get over it, even if people around you believe otherwise, tell yourself that this is a false accusation.

They can refuse to be on your side, you may even lose jobs, you may even lose your reputation, but internally you know you are right and nothing can change it. You will derive strength from the truth. There is nothing more powerful than truth.

I have seen many people with false accusations against them, they have lost but they have continued and have come out stronger and more resilient than before, know that you are not alone, many people go through that, 20%, of sexual assault allegations, are false, the rest 80% are true.

If you remain true to yourself, you will be much stronger, it will take time, it will be a harrowing time for you and people go through it but they have the strength to come out is it.

General Topics

Q: Let’s come to your book. Considering Indian culture, beyond Good and Bad, how does belief perseverance affect the psychology of a growing child?

A : I think it becomes his or her identity, for example, what you are made to believe as children, it becomes your identity.

Three things make identity

  • Who am I? (what you believe who you are)

  • What are people? (what you believe the other people to be)

  • What is my relationship to that?.

Your relationship to people is the domain of belief, it becomes your identity and that is the identity you live with, saying that this is true.

With passage of time you take things as fact and forget that this was a learned behavior. You were raised to believe yourself and others in a particular manner and that is something that can be changed, and if that is change then you can change as well.

Q: When it comes to belief, do you consider belief a choice or a bias, and can one consciously choose to change their bias?

A: Belief is a reaction to some kind of evidence, it’s your own reaction, you see something you have a belief that you form and of course it’s a form of conscience. But yes we can examine our beliefs and change them with the help of therapy.

We see people undergoing therapy in many ways to change their beliefs about themselves, what they had thought for a while, or what they thought their parents to be and how they can change that.

The dominion of belief is something that you can change even though it may not be easier at times but yes people can change their belief.

Q: Can you throw some light on the impact of cultural bias on counselors and how it affects their practice?

A: Ok, you are talking about psychologist’s biases and how they affect adolescence, so if you have your biases, they are going to affect your work and one thing that you will find hard to do is separate the person from the behavior.

If a person behaves in a particular way, I need to separate behavior from the person, like let’s take for example someone who is a very violent person, was acting violently, the two are very different, not everybody is violent, you need to see the behavior, the same is with adolescence, I need to see the behavior of the adolescent, therapy can only be successful when we can do that, and it is easier said than done but it is a very difficult thing to do to separate a person from the behavior.

Let’s take an example, I did research with pedophiles in prison, working with pedophiles can be a very difficult issue, you feel a lot of emotions within you, you feel disgusted, many of these pedophiles are those who have committed serious crimes like homicide.

Someone has abused children or his wife, how do you empathize with such a person?

You say that I will see his behavior differently and be able to relate, until and unless you train yourself for that, your biases will show true.

I asked in my class what is unconditional positive regard, all the students answered - it is something that you are supposed to show if you are a psychologist. I said by saying that you are making it conditional like if I am a psychologist I have to do it, one of the students said unconditional positive regard is something you show despite being a psychologist or not, whether you are having a session no not, you have a regarded for a person, you have a regard for the fundamental worth of the person, you will separate the behavior and the person, so the bias actually comes from there, most psychologists have to do that or are not able to separate, that should be taught, not just psychologist but everyone should be taught.

I must be able to see people in terms of behavior only then change can take place not otherwise.

Q: Cognitive bias and decision making, what is your broad view on the subject?

A: It is a very vast question, decision making is something that should involve all three areas that are ethics, compassion, rationality, and also it should be fun.

People resist rationality because the child within them resists, they fail to discriminate between short-term and long-term loss, and thier bias plays an important role in it.

The other day somebody was talking to me and she said, “I am scared of the unknown so therefore I cannot make a decision.”

I said, “Are you really scared of the unknown or are you scared of letting go of the known?” (and she was stumped)

She said, “I think you are right. I feel scared of letting go of the known.”

I said, “There is nothing such as being scared of the unknown” - that addresses the rationality part.

The other two aspects in decision-making involve compassion and ethics.

Look around who needs your compassion? Who needs your ethics?

Integrate all that and go for decision-making. I think that by and large answers your question.

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