Political Prisoners – III

Towards the end of his essay “Fellow Prisoners” John Berger writes: “The word ‘we’, when printed or pronounced on screens, or broadcast, has become suspect, for it is continually used by those with power, in the demagogic claim that they are also speaking for those who are denied power. So, let us talk of ourselves as ‘they’. They are living in a prison.” (The essay, read aloud by Berger, is here.) To look at India’s political prisoners today is to recognise that a mere flick of a lever, a mechanical switch of points, will deliver any of “us” into the condition of being “them”. As Anand Teltumbde wrote in his “Open Letter to the People of India, on the Eve of My Arrest”: “I earnestly hope that you will speak out before your turn comes.”


  • The Bombay high court on Friday, August 28, dismissed Sudha Bharadwaj’s bail plea. Finding her appeal on medical grounds “devoid of merits”, the two-judge bench of R D Dhanuka and V G Bisht based its ruling on a prison department report certifying her condition as “stable and satisfactory”. An earlier jail medical report, of July 23, had diagnosed Bharadwaj with ischemic heart disease. The health crisis was “clearly triggered by the stress” of being held in prison, says her daughter, Maaysha, as Bharadwaj had “never had any heart-related complaints before” her arrest in 2018. 

    Smita Gupta writes in The Wire that it is obvious “why it was so important for the state to cling to this myth of Bharadwaj being a Maoist. That’s the only way they can lock away someone they fear even more—a democratic rights defender working within the purview of the law.” Gupta recounts the story of a decades-long friendship that endured as they moved into different occupations: she to an academic career and Bharadwaj towards activism for rights. After voluntarily renouncing her American citizenship, the young Sudha went from work on rural education to activism with the Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha, and came to believe that workers’ rights and those of adivasis are not separate causes but must develop a common front of sangharsh and nirman (struggle and construction). She has now spent nearly two years in jail, awaiting trial.

    Writing in Article 14, Chitrangada Choudhury retraces the arc of Bharadwaj’s work over the years, in vivid instances: how she used the law to restore land to a dispossessed individual in Milupara, to fight a 16-year-long case for the rights of cement factory workers in Durg, or seek justice for survivors of gang rape in Dantewada—where she saw her clients eventually lose heart before an indifferent court and hostile administration. These are people whose rights, causes and voice have grown more vulnerable, as if placed under arrest, along with the advocate who is Sudha didi to them. Also under arrest are the principles of the rule of law—since protection from injustice is meant to stand at their core. The UAPA, under which Bharadwaj is being held, has dispensed with evidence as a precondition of imprisonment: merely being charged is sufficient ground for a citizen to be deprived of her freedom.

  • Sudha Bharadwaj remains in the Byculla women’s jail, and on August 28 Varavara Rao was deemed fit for return to the Taloja jail. Having been under treatment for Covid-19, contracted in prison, and ill since early summer, Rao is back to the hardship of prison life, back to the limbo of waiting to be put on trial. Irish writer Gabriel Rosenstock sent a poem, “Flowers for Varavara Rao”, to Kashmiri artist Masood Hussain. The poem and Hussain’s short film based on it may be found here, on The Wire (August 26). 
  • Over 250 current and former students of jailed DU professor Hany Babu have written him letters of solidarity and support on his 54th birthday. The heartwarming letters bear witness to the many ways he helped his students find their feet, especially those who might otherwise have felt daunted or overlooked at the university. Babu remains in custody in Mumbai, since his sudden arrest last month. An inspiring teacher by all accounts, but unlikely to be applauded on Teachers’ Day, not if Narendra Modi decides to take the rostrum yet again.
  • Someone who did receive official recognition, with a Distinguished Teacher’s Award from the president of India in 2009, is Rakesh Ranjan. An associate professor of economics at the Shri Ram College of Commerce, Ranjan was called in for questioning by the NIA on August 14. He had been vocal in criticising Babu’s arrest and supporting the students who protested against it. P K Vijayan, who teaches literature at Hindu College, was also interrogated. He described the experience as extremely stressful, not just to him but his family, adding, “Are you asking me if I’ll shut up? No, not at all. If everybody starts shutting up then there will be nothing to live for in this country.”
  • Following her arrest in June 2018, Shoma Sen was promptly suspended by Nagpur University, weeks before she was due to retire as the head of its department of literature. She was, in her daughter Koel’s words, “the breadwinner of our family”. The suspension from work, as Koel explains, was not even legal, since it was based on an obscure rule that applies to civil servants, not to academics at a university. But political persecution licenses opportunistic harassment of many kinds. With Sen in jail, Nagpur University saw no reason not to put the boot in, and withheld all her payments for the next two years—even gratuity and provident fund dues. On August 16, the university was ordered by the Nagpur bench of the Bombay high court to deposit five lakh rupees from the outstanding amount into Sen’s bank account. When this was not done by August 28, the bench gave the university and the Maharashtra government a week to pay Sen five lakh rupees, each. The bench also overruled the university's plea to be allowed to deposit the sum with the court instead of directly into Sen’s account. The money they owe is rightfully hers, owed to her, by them.
  • The NIA summoned three lawyers to present themselves at its Mumbai office on August 28, to answer questions in connection with the “Elgaar Parishad” case. Nihalsingh Rathod had worked as a junior lawyer to Surendra Gadling, before representing him and the other accused in this matter. An Ambedkarite activist who has focused on securing socio-political rights to nomadic and denotified-tribe communities in Maharashtra, he is also one of the hundred-plus journalists and human rights activists in India whose phones were hacked using Pegasus spyware, as revealed by The Citizen Lab last year. In other words, he is a man to whom the government owes a lot of explanations, and therefore a prime target. The second lawyer, Viplav Teltumbde, is a nephew of Anand Teltumbde’s; while the third lawyer prefers not to have his identity disclosed for now.
  • Is it heartening news that members of the Tablighi Jamaat are finally being released from police custody, or is it a scandal that they could be detained this long on flagrantly vindictive charges? Do we applaud Bloomsbury India’s decision to withdraw Delhi Riots 2020: The Untold Story, or worry that such a volume was judged to have met this firm’s editorial standards in the first place? Given the communal environment, averting the very worst outcome can look like success these days. It is welcome news that Sudarshan TV was unable to telecast its threatened show on a “UPSC jehad” by Muslims; but the pack attacks continue unabated. The Hindu Janajagruti Samiti hosted a web seminar on the theme of whether Narendra Dabholkar—assassinated for his work as a rationalist and social activist in 2013—wasn’t in fact an “urban naxal”. Among those invited to air their views on the subject was the national spokesperson of the Sanatan Sanstha. The term “urban naxal” means about as much as “UPSC jehad” and need not detain us; the calculated effrontery of the gesture was its real point, signalling absolute impunity.
  • The Allahabad high court was asked by the supreme court to decide Dr Kafeel Khan’s case by August 26. That date has come and gone. On August 24, the high court adjourned proceedings in the case till the 27th. Meanwhile, a home department order of the UP government, dated August 4, extended Khan’s detention till November, using the national security act (NSA). 
  • Sharjeel Imam, brought to Delhi from Assam, was arrested again (without ever being released). The new arrest was made on the basis of UAPA charges ostensibly concerning the violence that broke out in Northeast Delhi at the end of February—a month after Imam had been arrested in Bihar. In the past seven months, he has moved from the custody of the Bihar police to the Guwahati jail—where he contracted Covid—and is now in the custody of the Delhi police, a force charged with complicity in the very violence that he is accused of. Booked under FIRs filed in at least five states, Imam has appealed to the supreme court to have the various cases against him clubbed and tried together.
  • Kashmiri journalist Aasif Sultan has completed two years in prison since his arrest on vague charges of “harbouring terrorists” and “hatching a criminal conspiracy”. It goes without saying that the UAPA has been invoked against him. Whilst behind bars in 2019, he was named for the Press Freedom Award of the American National Press Club. Qazi Shibli, a journalist who spoke of Sultan’s condition to Reporters Without Borders, was himself recently detained for a second time. Here is Qazi Zaid’s report on Shibli’s previous stay in prison, where he was held for nine months without trial. India is once again in the bottom quarter of the RSF’s rankings for press freedom in 2020, placed 142 out of 180 countries.