Political Prisoners- I

When people committed to the defence of constitutional values and civil rights are routinely charged with sedition, terrorism and assassination plots, when they come to be incarcerated in growing numbers, exposed to deliberate cruelty and neglect amid a pandemic—the crisis should be a matter of national concern. Through this newsletter, we update you on the latest developments in individual cases. 


  • Sudha Bharadwaj, who suffers from diabetes and ischemic heart disease, had her interim bail plea rejected by the NIA court on July 28. The NIA’s application against her plea, dated July 1, states: “Ms Bharadwaj under the garb of current situation on the account global pandemic COVID-19, is trying to take an undue benefit of the aforesaid situation in seeking bail on the grounds mentioned in her application.” (Sic erat scriptum indeed, four times over.) Six days earlier, Varavara Rao’s bail application had been opposed in the same stock phrases, after he was found to be Covid-infected: he “under the garb of current situation on account of global pandemic and his old age is trying to take undue benefit.” And the 79-year-old’s bid “to take undue benefit” of his life-threatening condition was summarily quashed.

    The Print notes (July 30, here) that Sudha Bharadwaj’s application for bail on medical grounds had been filed before the Bombay high court on June 10. Listed for a hearing nine times in the next seven weeks, it was not heard on five of these occasions because the court’s working day ended before the matter could come up.

    Shoma Sen’s bail application, also on medical grounds, had been rejected on March 31 by the special NIA judge, D.E. Kothalikar. Thus, Sen remains, along with Sudha Bharadwaj, an inmate of the Byculla Jail. On August 1, the former head of the department of English at Nagpur University turned 63, making this her third birthday spent in prison since her arrest on June 6, 2018. 

  • The Maharashtra government submitted the Covid test results of Anand Teltumbde and Mahesh Raut to the Bombay high court on August 3, almost three weeks after Varavara Rao had tested positive for the virus on July 16. Scroll reports (August 8, here) that Raut’s result came back negative, while Teltumbde’s revealed he had developed antibodies—implying that he was infected earlier. Raut’s lawyer, Vijay Hiremath, pointed out on August 5 that the medical reports show exactly the same findings for Teltumbde and Raut’s vital health parameters: “How can the weight, height, blood pressure, pulse, oxygen levels, everything be identical for two different persons?” The court has sought an explanation from the government.

    Getting themselves tested was a trial in its own right, quite literally so, as Anand Teltumbde and Vernon Gonsalves had to move the Bombay high court in order to be tested. Gonsalves’ negative test result was announced on July 19, with the government claiming ten days later that Teltumbde’s result was still awaited.

    The male undertrials in the “Bhima-Koregaon case” are being held in the Taloja Central Jail, where the number of prisoners stands at 2,201, well in excess of the prison’s official capacity of 2,124. On March 23, when there were a mere 415 confirmed Covid cases in the country, the supreme court had ordered the decongestion of prisons.

  • Having arrested DU professor Hany Babu on July 28, the NIA raided his home in Noida on August 2. Sabrang reports that 12 NIA personnel were part of the raid, which took place in the early hours of Sunday, in the presence of Hany Babu’s wife and the couple’s daughter, a minor. It may be recalled that their house had been raided earlier, in September 2019, when the professor’s laptops, mobile and pen drives were confiscated, and his email accounts locked. 

    Writing for Newsclick (July 31, here) Sauradeep Roy introduces readers to this caring and gentle teacher, a man generous with his time, whose interests equally embrace technical, political and ethical matters, and whose presence was a big draw for students in a depleted and demoralised university. 

  • Both Hany Babu and Rona Wilson had worked actively to secure the release of academic G.N. Saibaba—arrested in 2014 and sentenced to a life term in 2017, for alleged links with Maoists. On July 16, the day of Varavara Rao’s Covid-positive result, The Hindu reported on an uncontrolled outbreak of the disease at the Nagpur Central Jail, where Saibaba is held. Eight days earlier, the first of the 20 prisoners lodged in the infamous Anda cell—where he is incarcerated—had tested positive for the virus.

    Saibaba’s mother passed away on August 1, four days after he was denied bail to visit her. His lawyer, Akash Sorde, had attempted to arrange a video call between them: “We tried to contact Anupkumar Kumre, the superintendent of the Nagpur Central Prison, where Saibaba is lodged, so that his mother could see him as her last wish. But there was no response to the calls.” He was also refused permission to attend the post-funeral ceremonies because, as Anupkumar Kumre put it to the media, “He is a different kind of inmate.”

  • The number of this “different kind of inmate”, i.e., people who are owed no consideration of their rights, is on a steady increase. August 10 marks 80 days since the arrest of student activists Devangana Kalita and Natasha Narwal, on a range of lurid charges, including sedition, murder and terrorism. Writing in Article 14, Danish Raza takes us back to the early days of Pinjra Tod, connecting us with the madcap energy, spontaneity, scholarship and passion for justice that drive the two feminists and their wide circle of friends. “They are missing but not absent,” in the words of their flatmate, Vikramaditya Sahai.

  • In December 2019, RTI activist, peasant leader and anti-CAA protester Akhil Gogoi became one of the first victims of the amended UAPA, which permits the government to designate a person as a terrorist before any charges are proved against them in court. On August 7, the NIA special court rejected his bail plea in the case, which means his incarceration as an undertrial continues past its 240th day. On July 11, Gogoi had tested positive for Covid-19.

  •  Dr Kafeel Khan’s troubles began in August 2017, when he received public praise for his work at the BRD hospital of Gorakhpur, at a time when UP CM and elected leader of the constituency, Adityanath, was drawing flak for the abysmal upkeep of medical facilities during a massive outbreak of pediatric encephalitis. Framed on charges from rape to running a private practice, Khan was arrested the same year, dismissed from his post, and has spent much of the subsequent years going in and out of jail, hunted by the UP government. Now imprisoned for the fourth time, for his opposition to the CAA—in particular for critical remarks against one “Mota bhai […] who does not believe in constitutional values”—and booked under the National Security Act, Khan is held in the Mathura Jail, in conditions he has described as “hellish”, while the Allahabad high court has given the central and state governments till August 19 to file their response to a petition challenging his arrest.

  • August 5, the day Narendra Modi and Adityanath were among the select crowd of 175 invitees at Ayodhya’s Ram temple ceremony, was also the first anniversary of the Modi government’s unilateral withdrawal of political rights from Kashmir. Eight million hostages is a staggering number, but one that has received little notice within India. In Amit Shah’s view, “Article 370 did not allow democracy in J&K.” Introducing real democracy has involved the detention of every living chief minister of the erstwhile state, one of the longest Internet shutdowns in global history, the deployment of 30,000 additional troops in the valley, the neglect of over 600 habeas corpus petitions by the judiciary, and economic ruin for the region. It is beyond the scope of this newsletter, or perhaps even a single book, to convey the scale of the calamity, but Reporters sans frontières ran a report (August 5) on what the information blackout did to both citizens and journalists. And here is Arundhati Roy’s incisive reading of the bigotry, brinkmanship and reckless cruelty afoot. Skye Arundhati Thomas’s blog for the LRB mentions the post-Covid refinements of torture—arbitrary stop and search conducted without PPE—innovated by the security forces.