Political Prisoners – II

Continuing with this series, we see that “political prisoners” covers not just people in jail for their beliefs, but even those outside, picked on and punished through campaigns of harassment. The entire polity can begin to resemble a vast prison when the State is either an active agent of persecution or an abettor of violence, with the law no longer a guarantee of freedom but an instrument of vendetta and repression.

  • On August 8, Anindya Sen, assistant professor at Assam University in Silchar, was booked as an offender, his crime a joke posted on his Facebook wall on August 5. The joke makes a tacit allusion to the Ayodhya ceremonies of the same day, as a man and woman shake their heads together at the public celebration of a man who had cast away his wife. But the couple discover they have been talking at cross-purposes: while she meant Ramchandra, he was speaking of “you know who”. For this, Sen has been booked under charges of obscenity, defamation, and malice intended to outrage religious sentiment—under Section 295A, the last charge is non-bailable. “[The Ramayana] has many versions,” said Sen. “At different points Ram has been criticised. I am not the first one to point out the criticism.” Sen’s point was lost on the complainant, Rohit Chanda, a member of the ABVP who also describes himself as an RSS swayamsevak. Chanda was in the news earlier this year with his police complaint against Souradeep Sengupta, a guest lecturer at Silchar’s Gurcharan College. Here again, Chanda’s complaint was over a Facebook post, in which Sengupta had described hindutva as a cancer. Chanda read this as an attack on “sanatan dharma”. Sengupta was remanded to judicial custody for three days, and is now in the precarious position of being out on bail.

    The common elements of these stories are the Bengali surnames of the victims, the red flag of their status as academics, the relentless patrolling of Facebook—all of which have lately grown more conspicuous in Assam. In 2019, Papri Banerjee, assistant professor of English at a commerce college in Guwahati, was booked for a Facebook post critical of the Indian security forces in Kashmir. The result: “Continuous rape, lynch and death threats in my inbox,” she reported. This was after she had already been suspended from work for the “offence”. 

  • Incidentally, in July 2019, at a public function attended by Smriti Irani and joint general secretary of the RSS, Manmohan Vaidya, a Facebook group calling itself “Clean the Nation” was felicitated for targeting over 50 individuals who had posted anti-government comments on social media. Ankit Jain, one of the administrators of Clean the Nation, counts PM Modi among his Twitter followers. The event where Clean the Nation was honoured was the Narad Samman Awards for excellence in journalism, held at IIC Delhi. Such cleaning crews and their political patrons enjoy special leeway on Facebook—their happy hunting ground. As the Wall Street Journal revealed on August 14, senior executives at Facebook had opposed applying hate speech rules to the posts of four BJP leaders, arguing that such a move would hurt Facebook’s interests in India. In the run-up to the 2019 general election, Facebook had publicised the details of misinformation spread by opposition parties, while remaining tight-lipped about the volume of the BJP’s similar transgressions.
  • Delhi University professor Hany Babu, arrested on July 28 and moved to the Mumbai Central Jail, had his time in judicial custody extended till August 21. “I don’t think we have ever had real independence in this country. We have always been under some kind of oppression,” said his wife and fellow academic, Jenny Rowena, speaking to Huffpost. She and her daughter were alone in the house when a 10-member team from the NIA raided it four days after Babu’s arrest. Rowena speaks of the uphill struggle it has been for her and Babu, as OBC scholars starting their careers in a hostile university of the post-Mandal years.
  • The Bhima-Koregaon case, aka the Elgaar Parishad case, or the urban naxal case, or the plot to assassinate Modi, has been an investigative mess by any reckoning. But Vikram Khalate, the superintendent of police, NIA, who heads this investigation, was awarded the “union home minister’s medal for excellence in investigation” for 2020. Among those with whom he shares this distinction is Rajesh Deo, whom the election commission had barred from election duty earlier this year, after he was found trying to smear the Aam Aadmi Party with false charges. Such is the home ministry’s faith in Deo’s professionalism that he now leads the special investigating team looking into cases of communal violence in North-East Delhi in February. A day before the decoration of these officers was announced, a team of journalists from The Caravan was attacked by a mob in North-East Delhi. The three journalists were beaten, subjected to communal slurs and sexually assaulted, following which the Bhajanpura police station refused to file an FIR based on their written complaint.
  • It is 135 days since April 9, when Gulfisha Fatima was sent to Tihar jail, on charges including those under the UAPA and the Arms Act. As she got bail in one matter, she would discover new charges against her in another. Gulfisha, a 28-year-old with an MBA degree and a love of Mir Taqi Mir, used to attend the protests at Seelampur. “Baaji told us that she wanted to take a stand,” said her younger brother to Huffpost. “They were there fighting for the Constitution, and the Constitution gives them the right to be heard.” As Fatima’s case wound on, the Delhi police on July 13 submitted an affidavit to the Delhi high court, ruling out any investigation of Kapil Mishra and Anurag Thakur, against whom it is yet to file an FIR. The police also informed a district court on July 24, that “efforts were on” to identify its men caught on video four months earlier abusing and attacking Muslim men.
  • The national federation for Indian women’s fact-finding report into the role of the Delhi police at Jamia Millia Islamia on February 10 reveals that 70–80 people between the ages of 15 and 60 suffered violence, and the police had sexually assaulted 45 men and women. The federation, led by Aruna Roy, has demanded a judicial inquiry and a white paper by the union home ministry.
  • On August 12, the supreme court directed the Allahabad high court to dispose of Dr Kafeel Khan’s habeas corpus petition, ideally within 15 days. The high court has since adjourned its hearing in the case till August 24. It is worth noting that Khan was granted bail by the high court on February 10, but was not released. He has now spent nearly 490 days in jail. In this period, his younger brother was shot at by unidentified assailants, his older brother harassed by investigating agencies to the point where his business was nearly ruined; this while two other doctors who had been suspended from the BRD hospital of Gorakhpur at the same time as Khan have been reinstated.