Political Prisoners – V

Between Teachers’ Day and Children’s Day falls a brand-new national occasion, introduced by popular acclaim. In the wake of our first National Unemployment Day, it is worth noting that jobs have vanished apace with human rights, the federal structure, autonomous institutions, and due process of law. Two days before Unemployment Day came International Democracy Day, on September 15. Feminism in India marked the event with a fitting series of posters on unconstitutional arrests and political prisoners.

Image courtesy Comintern

● The Delhi police’s abetment of and participation in the anti-Muslim pogrom of February is a matter of public record, corroborated by Amnesty International and a range of domestic media sources, besides multiple eyewitness accounts and videos. The police’s criminal behaviour at the time of the violence—preventing medical ambulances from taking the injured to hospital, ignoring calls for help from Muslims, committing hate crimes against injured Muslims and standing by to facilitate their attackers—has since graduated to a lawless investigation (watch journalist Pamela Philipose dissect it, on September 16, at the Press Club of India). The NIA’s September 13 arrest of Umar Khalid marks yet another downturn in a continuing story of institutional disgrace. For a summary of the framing of Khalid watch this video from Karwan e Mohabbat.

● The parallels between the “Bhima Koregaon” and the “Delhi riots” cases go beyond the two misnomers in official use. They reveal what has become of the investigative process and criminal justice system in our country. The pattern is worth noting, for it tells us much about who gets picked on for punishment, and how, and why (as also who is let off, and how and why). In both cases, the original victims of violence—dalits and Muslims—have been studiously ignored in the investigation. Those widely accused of instigating the violence are members of the Sangh parivar, who remain free. Massive chargesheets—of over 5000 and 17000 pages—have been compiled against people with eminently non-violent records. The UAPA has been used liberally to strip them of their rights, including the presumption of innocence. The investigation has strayed so far from the crime that it is impossible to say what is being investigated anymore. Despite the repeated public exposure of false charges and illegal behaviour by the investigative agencies, the cases grind on. 

● Admittedly, evidence and due process count for little in India these days. The amended UAPA of 2019 licenses the government to designate any person a terrorist before the charge is proved against them in court. In effect, a citizen’s reputation is a sitting duck to the government’s malice, and the principle of “innocent until proven guilty” is defunct. We should not look to “Western” ideas of human rights, counsels Home Minister Amit Shah. Among those charged under the rejigged UAPA are ten young men, cricketers from Shopian, Kashmir, whose jerseys were deemed objectionable enough to land them in prison on September 1. In July, student environmentalists who formed the digital campaign, Fridays for Future India, were charged under the UAPA when they questioned the environment ministry’s draft policy on “environment impact assessment for 2020”. Fortunately for the students, the charge was declared a “misunderstanding” and withdrawn swiftly on the heels of public outrage. No such luck for Masrat Zahra, the Kashmiri photojournalist who won two international awards this year. She was booked under the UAPA in April for her Facebook posts, which included a photograph captioned “Kashmiri Shiite Muslims seen carrying a picture of Hizbul Mujahideen commander shaheed Burhan Wani”. The caption was her crime. 

● Devangana Kalita was granted bail by the Delhi high court on September 1, as the police had failed to submit any evidence against her; but was not released from jail as she is being held under the UAPA (against which her bail application had been rejected on August 28). On September 18, Natasha Narwal came in for the same treatment, granted bail in one case but kept in detention on another UAPA charge.

● On September 24, Sudha Bharadwaj was advised by a supreme court bench of justices U U Lalit and Ajay Rastogi to apply again for bail as she has a “good case on merits”. The bench made this observation while rejecting her application for bail on medical grounds—for a heart condition she has developed in prison. In the Bombay high court, on September 9, Anand Teltumbde challenged his continued arrest, on the ground that while he had completed 90 days in detention on July 12, the NIA had failed to complete its investigation of him. Thus, the extension of his arrest ordered by the NIA court falls foul of the UAPA’s own stipulations. Gautam Navlakha has also sought statutory or default bail on the same basis. Meanwhile, Surendra Gadling, who lost his mother to Covid in August, had sought temporary bail in order to be with his family for a few days. However, on September 5, the NIA opposed his bail, objecting that his mother’s death certificate had not yet been filed. On September 20, after 10 days spent under interrogation in NIA custody, Ramesh Gaichor, Sagar Gorkhe and Jyoti Jagtap of the Kabir Kala Manch were remanded to judicial custody till October 3.

● On September 16, the centre informed the rajya sabha that a total of 3005 cases had been registered under the UAPA in the years 2016–18, with 3974 arrests. However, only 821 chargesheets had been filed in these three years. What’s more, for 2017 and 2018, the number of chargsheets filed within one to two years of arrest stood at a mere 92 and 52, respectively; chargesheets filed beyond two years after arrest at 31 and 10. It becomes clear that the seriousness of UAPA charges is in the toll they take on victims, and not reflected in the seriousness of the investigation.

● The rites of inequality and injustice celebrated with India’s Covid lockdown have a direct correlate in the country’s prison population. The national crime records bureau (NCRB) report for 2019 repeats the damning statistics that have become a regular feature of our national life. Dalits make up 21.7 per cent of all convicts, and 21 per cent of undertrial prisoners; their share of the national population is 16.6 per cent. Adivasis are 13.6 per cent of the convict population, 10.5 per cent of detained undertrials, while being 8.6 per cent of the population. With a population share of 14.2 per cent, Muslims form 16.6 per cent of all convicts and 18.7 per cent of undertrial prisoners.

● The blameworthiness of Indian Muslims has been a familiar theme in these past six years, raised every time Hindu public opinion needed stoking and consolidation. Proceeding from broad campaigns against “love jihad” and beef eating, it now proves useful to blame Muslims for any crisis at hand. The orchestrated panic over “Corona Jihad” successfully disguised the government’s lack of a healthcare strategy, revealing in its place an evil design by Muslims. In much the same way, Sudarshan TV’s proposed series on a “UPSC Jihad” recasts job scarcity as a conspiracy by Muslims against deserving Hindu youth and India’s integrity. The series may be on hold, but Islamophobia isn’t. On September 14, a day after Umar Khalid’s arrest, Deepak Chaurasia hosted a show on News Nation, where he opined that the “mastermind” Khalid should have been arrested much sooner, in February. The host sat calmly, wearing an attentive, digestive look, as one of his guests proposed a ban on the Quran, while another wondered why people become Muslims and why such troublemakers should not receive “sarvajanik maut”—collective death penalty is the politest translation we could come up with, although the phrase arguably runs to genocide as well.