A Turkish folktale, lately popular worldwide, relates that there was once—upon a time—a copse of trees that mistook an axe for a friend. “Look, it’s got a wooden handle!” cheered the trees. “The axe is one of us!” Pretty soon, those became famous last words. Variants of the plot are found in Hebrew and Kannada, Urdu and Greek, for when a folktale goes global we often discover it was global all along.
Never confuse form with function—the warning applies universally, today more than ever.
- In The Leaflet (October 25), Annie Domini asks how we can “accurately recapture the evil of a State that finds solidarity to be a crime”. She suggests we might make a start by not fooling ourselves, by ceasing to pretend that a flagrant abuse of rights can result from the law taking its just course. In speaking of political prisoners, “don’t say they have been unfairly incarcerated. Say the State has locked them up so that their truths don’t reach us. Use the active voice, because solidarity cannot be expressed in the passive voice anymore.” Last weekend, the 83 year-old Stan Swamy completed a month in prison, a grim milestone he was forced to mark by petitioning the NIA court to allow him the use of a straw and sipper at the Taloja jail. On November 8, Northeast Solidarity, a group made up largely of scholars, had to call off a planned march in support of Swamy at Guwahati, after the police refused them permission. Earlier that day, the police had allowed a march for Arnab Goswami’s release to go ahead.
As reported in our last newsletter, the supreme court sent back to the Bombay high court P. Hemalatha’s urgent plea for Varavara Rao’s bail on medical grounds. The high court was requested to hear the matter at the earliest, which it began to do two weeks later, on November 12. The upshot: Rao is to be examined again by doctors, to determine whether he needs to be moved to hospital, and the bench of justices A K Menon and S P Tavade will convene next on November 17. Meanwhile, Rao’s weight is down from 68 kg in 2017 to 50 kg now. Appearing for him, Indira Jaising submitted that his last medical report is from July 30, and there was a communication from Stan Swamy on November 11 that Rao’s condition is deteriorating. M S Satyanarayana Rao had earlier written to the national human rights commission, asking that medical care be arranged for Rao and G N Saibaba, but there have been no further developments here. Nor for Sudha Bharadwaj, who, on October 31, spent her third birthday as a pretrial prisoner, and who was advised by the supreme court, back in September, to make a fresh application for bail as she has “a good case on merits”.
On the other hand, we report nothing but forward movement in the Arnab Goswami case. A week after his November 4 arrest in Mumbai and less than 48 hours after the Bombay high court rejected his appeal for interim bail, the supreme court not only listed his petition for a hearing within hours of its being filed, but scheduled the hearing for the very next day. (All this while the court was on its Diwali recess.) By late night, November 11, Goswami was back in his studio and taking a victory lap.
- No victory laps for Siddique Kappan, the journalist arrested on October 5 while en route to Hathras, to report on the gang-rape and death of a dalit girl and the UP government’s brutal cover-up of the story. Remanded to 14-day judicial custody on October 7, Kappan and his companions’ detention was later extended to November 2 by a Mathura court—which also denied a request from the Kerala Union of Working Journalists to be allowed to meet him. He remains in prison. On October 6, the KUWJ had filed a habeas corpus petition for Kappan in the supreme court; it was scheduled for its first hearing six weeks later, on November 16.
The other three arrested with Kappan—Atiq-ur-Rahman (25), Masood Ahmed (26), and their driver, Alam (26)—had their detention extended on November 2. On November 10, the Mathura district and sessions court admitted a revision application against their continued police custody, but the next hearing is not till November 27. I.e., they remain in lock up.
- We mentioned three weeks ago that G N Saibaba was planning to begin a protest fast at the Nagpur central prison, on October 21. The following day, there were conflicting reports in the press, one claiming Saibaba called off his fast after being visited by the DIG (prisons) who had accepted all his demands, another saying it was his wife who had convinced him not to fast—reassuring news in either event. However, on November 9, Sabrang reported that Saibaba had refused all food for ten days and his family didn’t learn of it till November 6, when he revealed what he had just gone through, in a phone call to his wife, A S Vasantha Kumari. The jail authorities had simply blocked all information from getting out till they prevailed on him to end the fast. Don’t expect an investigation of the deceit or any heads to roll for this.
- Umar Khalid completes two months in prison on November 13. Yet another prisoner who needs to struggle for the most basic of his entitlements, it took a magistrate’s order on October 21 for him to receive a copy of the FIR, remand application and remand order which had formed the basis of his arrest five weeks earlier. On October 22, he complained to the court that his request for adequate security in prison was wilfully distorted by the police to keep him in solitary confinement-like conditions, not even allowed to step out of his cell. The next day, it took a further direction from the court for books and warm clothes to reach him. That was also the day Amitabh Rawat, the additional sessions judge, extended Umar Khalid and Sharjeel Imam’s judicial custody till November 20.
On November 6, the police announced that Delhi’s AAP government had given them the go-ahead to prosecute Khalid in the “Delhi riots conspiracy case”.
- Gulfisha Fatima, arrested on April 11, has now spent seven months in jail, much of this time awaiting the charge sheet against her, for which the police were granted an extension beyond the already generous 90-day allowance of the UAPA. In her bail application of October 12, Fatima stated that she had been in prison for 183 days. However, her plea was shot down on October 19, along with those of fellow prisoners Tasleem Ahmed and Saleem Khan, as the police had filed the charge sheet on September 16, even though this was done over two weeks after August 29, the expiry of the extension. In September, as reported by us earlier, Fatima had told the Karkardooma court that she was being harassed and subjected to communal slurs by the staff at Tihar jail. On November 6, Sabrang reported that the additional sessions judge, Amitabh Rawat, directed jail authorities to change the staff, while also noting that Fatima’s complaint was a matter of he-said-she-said, her version against that of the jail staff.
As for Asif Iqbal Tanha’s bail application, that too was rejected, as were those of most of the 21 students and activists arrested under FIR 59 of March 6. Tanha’s lawyer pointed out the changing stance of the police after their charge sheet against him was found to contain errors of fact, but Amitabh Rawat held (on October 26) that “conspiracy has to be read as whole and not piecemeal”, and that it “can be inferred by necessary implication”.
- The regime of pricks and kicks endured by Kashmir over the past year continues without let. The supreme court is yet to schedule hearings on the legality of the centre’s unilateral dissolution of Article 370 or the enormous abuse of human rights that followed. Meanwhile, the centre has cleared the wholesale replacement of existing land laws in Kashmir, to enable outsiders to purchase land in the erstwhile state. The supreme court’s judgement in the Babri Masjid case sets an ominous precedent here, since the court had found the destruction of the mosque a wrongful act, nevertheless awarding possession of the land to the destroyers. We see the same process in motion with the CAA-NRC, where the court is yet to start hearings on their legality, but detentions camps are coming up swiftly in various places; they may well be filled by other means, especially since the UN has embarrassed the Indian government by applying to be made a party to the anti-CAA suit, and several state governments have set their faces against the NRC.
To return to Kashmir, under the kicks column we enter the latest outrages: NIA raids on October 28 and 29, targeting a range of NGOs and press outfits. The office of Greater Kashmir was among these locations. On October 19, the government had sealed the office of Kashmir Times, two days after its editor, Anuradha Bhasin, appeared on an Al Jazeera show and spoke of the stifling of journalism during the year (and counting) of Kashmir’s lockdown. Newsclick’s interview with her may be watched here. “They can seal buildings, they can’t seal our hearts,” she told Sabrang.
To understand the accompanying pricks, notice the timing of the centre’s actions: the dismantling of the state took place exactly a week before Eid-ul-Fitr last year, while the alteration of land laws and the NIA raids happened just before Milad-un-Nabi this year. Or consider how Kashmir’s land and Kashmiri women have repeatedly been offered as plunder to voters in India, most recently during the Bihar election. Bigotry as a weapon of psychological warfare and an economic opportunity mirrors the logic of pogroms. How pricks and kicks work together is captured eloquently by Masood Hussain’s article “Mission Kashmir” (November 3, here), about the NIA’s raid on the Bait-ul-Hilal orphanage run by the Yateem Foundation.