Political Prisoners – IV

Who is not a political prisoner when the collective life of a people is governed by walls and divides? Among the lesser-known classics of gay cinema is Will Gould’s The Wolves of Kromer (1998), based on a play of the same name by Charles Lambert. An allegorical fantasy, the story takes place in an English village that has come to believe it is beset by “wolves”: lawless creatures who threaten the god-fearing lives and cosy ways of regular folk. As the villagers band together to hunt the wolves, they thrill with a sense of mission. Except, there are no wolves out there that answer to the description of them current in the village. The villagers now resemble their mental portrait of the enemy, and it is their own dignity and freedoms that stand to be eliminated, not “wolves”.

  • On Monday, September 7, the NIA arrested Sagar Gorkhe and Ramesh Gaichor, Pune-based members of the Kabir Kala Manch. They had been interrogated for two days in July, around the time of Prof Hany Babu’s arrest (covered by us here and here). In a video made shortly before their own arrest, the two cultural activists revealed that the NIA had tried coercing them into giving statements incriminating the academics, lawyers and human rights defenders already imprisoned in connection with the “Elgaar Parishad case”. But Gorkhe and Gaichor did not give in to the pressure tactics: We are descendants of Ambedkar, not Savarkar, they said. 

    On December 31, 2017, both activists, along with Jyoti Jagtap and Deepak Dhengle, had presented a song adapted from Bertolt Brecht’s play, The Good Person of Szechuan (1943), at the Elgaar Parishad’s gathering held in Pune’s Shaniwarwada. Present in the audience was one Tushar Damgude, a Pune-based troll vocal in his support to violent hindutva figures, who came away disturbed and filed an FIR against the performers on January 8, 2018. (Yes, for that song and sundry quotations from Brecht.) Damgude’s FIR also named Sudhir Dhawale and Harshali Potdar of the Republican Panthers Caste Annihilation Movement. The Pune city police raided their homes on April 17 the same year. Gorkhe and Gaichor are now prisoners, booked under the anti-terror UAPA. Jyoti Jagtap was arrested the following day, September 8, by the Maharashtra anti-terrorism squad. Sudhir Dhawale has been in prison since June 2018.

  • On September 7, the NIA summoned scholar and activist K Satyanarayana for questioning, along with journalist M V Kurmanath, and Partho Sarathi Ray, associate professor at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research in Kolkata. Ray, required to present himself at the NIA’s Mumbai office on September 10, asked the agency to video conference with him instead. Satyanarayana happens to be the brother of M V Kurmanath and son-in-law of poet Varavara Rao—jailed and awaiting trial in the same case, for over two years. In fighting words addressed to his students, Satyanarayana spoke of his anti-Modi politics—entirely open, not conspiratorial—the relentless assault on his privacy these last two years, and of a government that has nothing to show for its time in office and is now hounding its critics. 

    Also Read: Political Prisoners I

    Not one of these three people summoned for questioning has any connection to either Bhima Koregaon or the Elgaar Parishad, but that holds true for most of those arrested in this case, and equally for the investigation. What the case is about is anyone’s guess. We can safely say that it is not an investigation of the violence against dalit visitors to Bhima Koregaon on January 1, 2018, or the savaging of dalit protesters, especially minors, that followed across Maharashtra. Nor is it an investigation of the Elgaar Parishad, a well-attended public event—and the second one of its kind—for which the two retired judges who organised and funded it have repeatedly claimed sole responsibility. As for the plot to assassinate Narendra Modi and violently overthrow India’s elected government, we haven’t heard of any investigative breakthroughs in that direction in the last two years, not since certain letters supposedly retrieved from the computers of Rona Wilson and Sudha Bharadwaj were found—by a sitting judge of the supreme court—to contain forms and usages typical of Marathi speakers, a language that neither Wilson nor Bharadwaj uses (but the Pune police does). The letters were taken from electronic devices confiscated before their hash value had been recorded, which means they are not evidence in any legally tenable sense. They were also leaked to the media, a fact more telling than any of the investigators’ findings. Moreover, the hard disk of Wilson’s computer was found infected with malware that enabled the remote planting of files. Is there a credible, evidence-based case somewhere behind all this murk?

  • In some situations the UAPA is superfluous. The stripping away of privacy, dignity, due process and the presumption of innocence is the very principle on which lynchings take place. On Sunday, September 6, Aftab Alam, a cab driver was lynched to death at Badalpur in Northeast Delhi, but the UP police refused to register it as a case of lynching. Shortly before he was killed, Alam had placed a silent call to his son in which several people are heard probing his religion and demanding that he shout Jai Shri Ram. On September 7, Sarwesh Diwakar was beaten to death by a mob on account of a rumour that he had “sold” his daughter—who had merely gone to live with a relative. Diwakar was a dalit and this was Mainpuri, UP, so he was held accountable to a crowd of busybodies who felt entitled to kill him.

  • Dr Kafeel Khan, granted bail by the Allahabad high court on September 1, was finally released at midnight, with the state government having delayed it to the last possible minute. It was feared that new charges might be slapped against him. But the battery of charges he already faces is a full spectrum, from the national security act (NSA) and the UAPA to the colourfully named UP control of goondas act (1970); perhaps the Constitution’s punitive scope was exhausted. Sharjeel Usmani, the anti-CAA activist released a day after Khan, was questioned during his imprisonment by the anti-terrorism squad (ATS), not the police; their questions related to none of the charges for which he was arrested on July 8, but rather his acquaintance with Kashmiris. He speaks (here) of how he kept his courage up, and that of his family; the overcrowded cell in which he was held; and how his release—as also Kafeel Khan’s—is not a cause for any special rejoicing. Both were arrested on blatantly unfair grounds and have lost a stretch of their lives to state cruelty. Usmani also reminds us that there remain others who have it far worse, such as Muhammed Zakaria, an undertrial prisoner since 2009, whose mother Biamma saw her 19-year-old son taken away by the Karnataka police and has been struggling to survive on no earnings ever since.

    Also Read: Poltical Prisoners III

  • Suvarna Salve, an activist with the Samta Kala Manch and anti-CAA-NRC protester, was served notice by the Mumbai police, demanding Rs 50 lakhs as surety of "good behaviour"; such sureties are usually required of habitual offenders, gangsters and the like. Salve was one of 31 people against whom FIRs were registered for participating in protests against the invasion of JNU by mobs of hooligans in January this year. Historian Maroona Murmu has written powerfully about her own culturally mixed background and of the reflexive spite and discrimination faced by adivasis in educational institutions. On September 3, Prof Murmu, was abused by a caste-Hindu student for speaking out against online examinations. Since then, she has been targeted by nearly 600 bhadralok trolls on Facebook. Their sneers and smears are the usual fatuous snipes about "quota" teachers, but what is alarming is that such a pack attack should take place at Jadavpur, supposedly a university.