Political Prisoners – VI

Is the legal process meant to serve justice or power? What’s the word for a situation where imprisonment begins well before any wrongdoing is established and the burden of proof shifts to the defendant? “Kafkaesque” would do, with an adjunct: we are also in a situation where known crimes are not prosecuted, the culprits are frequently lionised, their victims erased from the record. What remains of the distinction between crime and the law?

  • We reported last week on the supreme court’s rejection of Sudha Bharadwaj’s plea for bail on medical grounds. During her time in prison, she has developed ischemic heart disease; added to pre-existing arthritis and diabetes, her heart condition places the 58-year-old at particular risk of contracting Covid in prison. Bharadwaj’s lawyer, Vrinda Grover, reminded the supreme court of its own order to decongest prisons in view of the pandemic; yet, the three-judge bench—of U U Lalit, Vineet Saran and Ajay Rastogi—concurred with the Bombay high court’s earlier dismissal of her bail application.

    One of the hallmarks of political persecution is that the victim is isolated and must stand alone in insisting on her rights. Our first newsletter in this series had covered the multiple deferrals of Bharadwaj’s bail plea in the Bombay high court—on five occasions because the court’s working hours ended before the plea could be raised. On July 20, hearings on the matter had to be adjourned after the jail medical report was found to be illegible. The court’s decision against her, which finally arrived on August 28, was based on a single medical officer’s opinion that Bharadwaj’s “general health was stable and satisfactory”.

    In an open letter of September 25, her family points to the absurdity of one jail medical report (July 21) revealing her damaged heart and another a month later pronouncing her in satisfactory health. To say nothing of the absurdity of a human rights activist and lawyer imprisoned without a trial for over two years now.

  • Absurdities are thick on the ground. The 15 people arrested in the “Bhima Koregaon” case are all “activists being persecuted for their stellar work”, said R. Sathyanarayanan, lawyer for Anand Teltumbde, Surendra Gadling, Rona Wilson and Varavara Rao. Speaking to The Hindu (September 1), Sathyanarayanan pointed to the absence of evidence linking any of them to the banned CPI (Maoist), while the much-bandied slur “urban naxal” is neither a legal charge nor has any basis in fact. The man credited with coining the phrase, Vivek Agnihotri, had used it for the title of a book released by Smriti Irani in 2018. An urban naxal, if this is any help, is someone who is part of a “Breaking India nexus” of intellectuals and NGOs; it had a briefly popular spinoff in the “tukdé-tukdé gang”. 

    Speaking of breaking India, Agnihotri was in the news in April for tweeting that brahmins should be given a separate homeland of their own. Any Muslim or dalit who dared express such a thought would face a battery of UAPA charges and a long stretch of pre-trial imprisonment, but Agnihotri enjoys unrestricted freedom of expression and, on September 15, was even appointed a cultural representative of India on the ICCR. Newslaundry (September 22) reveals that he prepared himself for his new responsibilities by deleting a range of gender-abusive statements, including casual rape jokes, from his Twitter account. 

  • Anupama Katakam, writing in Frontline (print issue scheduled for October 9), recounts the history of the Kabir Kala Manch, founded in response to the Gujarat pogrom of 2002. Sagar Gorkhe was a founding member, Ramesh Gaichor joined in 2004, and Jyoti Jagtap—a forceful public speaker—in 2007. As with any organisation raising political awareness among dalit communities, the Manch has long been a target of government attacks. Gaichor and Gorkhe were imprisoned previously from 2013 to 2017, and are now back as “detenues”—officialese for the open-ended prison sentence served by people awaiting trial.
  • Several global organisations, including Human Rights Watch and the UN Human Rights Council, as also international media, have underlined the Delhi police’s complicity in the anti-Muslim pogrom of late February this year. On September 29, Amnesty International announced that it was compelled to halt operations in the country as it faced an “incessant witch-hunt” by the government—especially since speaking out against the violations of human rights and attacks on civil society in Kashmir and Delhi. Amnesty came to this decision after its bank accounts in the country were frozen, leaving the organisation unable to pay its workers.

    The government’s response to the growing international concern about human rights in India has been to grandstand on national sovereignty. Either the government does not see that its position only reinforces the case against it, or it is past caring. In recent years, the prerogative of “national sovereignty” has been exercised mostly through an expanded régime of surveillance and persecution, whether with the CAA-NRC and detention camps, the perversely named data protection bill, the evisceration of Kashmir’s constitutional status, or by invoking punitive laws against critics. Be it the national security act, the public safety act, sedition charges, section 144 or the UAPA—the government’s enthusiasm for the repressive provisions of the constitution is beyond doubt. 

  • “It was like a kidnapping. I was abducted, and a cloth wrapped over my face, by people who didn’t identify themselves,” said Sharjeel Usmani, describing the circumstances of his arrest. The Aligarh Muslim University student was among three others, Farhan Zuberi, Ravish Ali Khan and Amir Minto, to be released on bail in September. Asked how he was treated in jail, Usmani replied (The Wire, October 2), “As other Muslims are, with the same casual Islamophobia.” He spoke of pervasive anti-Muslim prejudice, from Bollywood films about Muslim terrorists on the jail television to a numberdaar (senior convict and virtual administrator) who regretted that he had not discovered Usmani’s case history in time to teach him a lesson.

    “If I hurt myself, the jail authorities will be responsible for it,” Gulfisha Fatima told Amitabh Rawat, the additional sessions judge, when she was produced in court through videoconferencing. The student activist, locked up in Tihar since February, on UAPA charges, reported continual harassment by the jail staff, from communal slurs to discriminatory treatment. (See the Sabrang article of September 23, here.

    Speaking to Newsclick (September 28), Natasha Narwal’s father, Mahavir Narwal, spoke of his daughter’s chaotic arrest by one police team even as another was questioning her. More chaos followed. Granted bail in court, she was arrested yet again by a new team; granted bail in that case, she was detained on still newer charges. “They did file quite a number of cases,” he dryly comments. Violence, the Arms Act, attempt to murder, carrying out murder, obstruction, you name it. When the charges wouldn’t stick, the UAPA was rolled out. The charges were the same ones discredited in court earlier, but this law enabled the police to override the absence of proof. 

    Consider the public resources expended on these non-cases and the persecutory zeal becomes clearer. Here's a factoid for perspective: on September 21, Ravi Shankar Prasad informed parliament that there are 5.1 million cases pending in the high courts, 34 million in the lower courts. Or consider this: on September 28, HuffPost reported that the police had allowed five months to elapse before requesting the Delhi metro for video footage from Jaffrabad. There were three separate investigations into the violence there, the anti-CAA protest was held in the vicinity of the station, the police have filed several FIRs against civil society figures, accusing them of violence, but did not care to collect video evidence before it was erased. Activists had moved the Delhi high court as early as February 25, asking that all footage be preserved, but police tardiness ensured it would be lost.

  • On September 15, the government informed parliament that, as of September 11, no one was under house arrest in Kashmir: a blatant lie, called out by a variety of political voices. Without going into why former chief minister and one-time BJP ally, Mahbooba Mufti, needed to be detained at all, the supreme court on September 28 admonished the government for her continued detention, saying it could "not last forever". With 30,000 additional troops in what was already the most densely militarised region of the world, all of Kashmir remains under severe physical restriction.