Political Prisoners – VII

One police investigation after another links in a chain of grotesque resemblances, like an image bounced along by distorting funhouse mirrors. Preposterous charges increasingly override evidence. Investigators no longer appear independent or professional, but venal careerists who jump to do the bidding of the government. Hindutva’s new state order is premised on wilting public institutions. What are the ethical and constitutional bearings of this system? What exists to distinguish it from inhumanutva?

  • At 8 pm, Thursday, October 8, a national intelligence agency (NIA) team appeared at Stan Swamy’s room in the Bagaicha Social Centre, Ranchi, and arrested him. On October 9, the special NIA court in Mumbai remanded him in judicial custody till October 23. With this, the 83-year-old Jesuit priest and rights activist became the sixteenth person to be detained in the “Bhima Koregaon” case. The same day, the NIA filed a supplementary charge sheet accusing seven of the arrested figures of having ties to the banned CPI (M).

    A quick review: the Pune police had filed the first charge sheet in the case on November 15, 2018, nearly 150 days after the arrest of five “detenues”. In 5160 rambling pages, it accused Surendra Gadling, Rona Wilson, Shoma Sen, Mahesh Raut and Sudhir Dhawale—along with five maoists at large, named Manglu, Deepu, Kisan, Navin and Milind Teltumbde—of conspiring to overthrow India’s government, assassinate Narendra Modi and form a nationwide “anti-fascist” front, among other plans. A second charge sheet followed, filed by the Pune police on February 21, 2019. The previous week, a supreme court bench led by Ranjan Gogoi had granted the police a helpful extension after it overshot the UAPA’s stipulated window of 90 days to press charges. The second charge sheet was a rushed job, completed with just two days to spare before the “detenues” had to be set free—which may explain its modest length, at 1837 pages. It indicted Varavara Rao, Sudha Bharadwaj, Arun Ferreira and Vernon Gonsalves, while also charging Ganapathy, former secretary of the CPI (M). 

    Now comes the third charge sheet, of October 9, 2020. This is the first one filed by the NIA since replacing the Pune police nine months ago, on the orders of the home ministry. Its 10000-plus pages dwarf both the earlier charge sheets taken together, though well short of the 17000-page mark that the Delhi police recently hit in the “Delhi riots” case. This time, Anand Teltumbde, Gautam Navlakha, Hany Babu, Ramesh Gaichor, Sagar Gorkhe, Jyoti Jagtap and Stan Swamy are the prisoners charged, while Milind Teltumbde makes his second appearance as a wanted figure (a bounty was set on him the next day). It is significant that maoists at large figure in each of the three charge sheets, a trompe l’oeil effect that conflates the work of the sixteen rights activists with the underground movement. In a video message of October 6 (transcript here) Stan Swamy explains why the NIA sought to portray his involvement with the Persecuted Prisoners Solidarity Committee as a front for maoism.

    A measure of the state's insolent power: every one of the sixteen imprisoned  activists has worked, whether as a lawyer, writer or member of a solidarity group, for the rights of undertrial prisoners. Several—Arun Ferreira, Vernon Gonsalves, Sudhir Dhawale, Ramesh Gaichor and Sagar Gorkhe—have lost years of their lives to a previous stretch of wrongful imprisonment.

  • Both Anand Teltumbde and Gautam Navlakha have already spent over 180 days in prison and, as we reported earlier, had filed cases against their continued detention without charges. Now that the charge sheet has been filed, this abuse of their rights may not find redress or even draw notice, to judge from the treatment received by the others.

    In a departure from the “Bhima Koregaon” script, the NIA’s charge sheet links Gautam Navlakha to Pakistan’s inter-services intelligence (ISI). Since he has been a vocal defender of human rights in Kashmir, the derivation isn’t hard to trace: a product of the same logic that regards advocates of adivasi and dalit rights as maoist insurgents.

  • Varavara Rao’s daughter, P Pavana, said on Saturday, October 10, that there is no medically trained person looking after her father in the Taloja prison. Instead, fellow prisoners Arun Ferreira and Vernon Gonsalves have been assisting him in the hospital ward. The 79 year-old poet was under house arrest from August to November 2018, then kept at the Yerawada jail till February 2020, shifted to Taloja thereafter, moved into hospital in July this year—when he tested positive for Covid after being gravely ill for several months—and was discharged back into prison on August 26, to await trial.

    A spot of cheer: translations from his poetry will be released in 2021 under the Penguin Vintage imprint, in a volume titled Varavara Rao: India’s Revolutionary Poet, edited by Meena Kandasamy and N. Venugopal.

  • October 13 marks a month since Umar Khalid’s arrest in the “Delhi riots” case. So far, the investigation has been as murky as the Delhi police’s conduct during the pogrom. The charge sheet against Khalid lists a “disclosure statement” by Khalid Saifi, a businessman arrested for participating in the anti-CAA protests. The statement makes a bizarre claim about Khalid and Saifi undertaking a “Ghazwa-e Hind” together. Loosely translated, the phrase means a religious battle or raid against India. Since Khalid is well known for his atheism, the charge is laughable. Besides, a disclosure statement isn’t admissible as evidence in court and Saifi’s lawyer revealed that his client was beaten in police custody. Yet, once prejudice assumes the dignity of investigative procedure, the comical has a way of becoming sinister.

  •  It is a rare caste atrocity that makes headlines in India, as Hathras did. The gangrape, mutilation and spinal injury inflicted on a 19 year old dalit woman on September 14, led to her death on September 28. As the media published details of the administration’s blatant caste bias, the UP government reacted with fury, repression and desperate lies to change the narrative. From accusing Amnesty International of fanning caste tensions in Hathras, to filing 19 FIRs alleging everything from sedition to an international conspiracy to defame Adityanath, the state has moved from covering up the crime to attacking those who seek to uncover it. Among its reflexive devices is Islamophobia. On October 5, journalist Siddique Kappan, on his way to Hathras to report the story, was arrested along with three companions: research scholars Atiq-ur Rehman and Masood Ahmed, and their driver Alam. On October 7, they were sent to 14-day judicial custody on the charge of being members of the Popular Front of India (PFI)—an organisation that has long been in the crosshairs of the government, especially since the anti-CAA protests. The attempt is to conjure a Muslim conspiracy, as was done after the Delhi pogrom. Failing that, a maoist one as with Bhima Koregaon. On Sunday, October 11, Rajkumari Bansal, a forensic specialist from Jabalpur who had recently visited Hathras in support of the dalit family, was accused of being a naxalite. Since she took leave from work to visit Hathras, the government medical college where she is employed has asked her to explain this unaccountable solidarity with the oppressed.

  •  October 15 will mark four years since the “disappearance” of Kashmiri student Najeeb Ahmed after being assaulted by members of the ABVP on the JNU campus. The CBI has satisfied itself that there are no leads in the case. Of course, the entire state of Jammu and Kashmir has since disappeared off the map, and other individual disappearances continue. On October 9, NDTV India covered several such cases. Three workers killed as terrorists by the security forces on July 18, who, as the government admitted on October 8, were law-abiding civilians going about their daily lives. Haziq, a 14 year-old physically-challenged schoolboy who was shot dead “by accident” in the aftermath of firing between militants and the security forces, and whose body was not handed back to his family but buried in an unmarked grave far from his village—due to strict Covid rules, you see? Also Irfan Ahmed Dar, a 24 year-old shopkeeper from Sopore who died in police custody and whose body was found abandoned in a stone quarry.