The pretext of uprooting “pseudo-secularism”, “urban naxalism” and other bogeys—including novel takes on jihad—has become the government’s weapon of choice against secular rights, whether political equality, plurality, personal liberty or social justice. Encouraged to rage against their fellow citizens, large sections of the population fail to see that they are left with little to lose but their temper.
The connection between believing absurdities and committing atrocities was noted by Voltaire in the Eleventh Letter of his pamphlet, Questions on Miracles (1765–9): Truly, someone who can lead you into being absurd holds the power to make you unjust.
- On November 13, doctors at the Nanavati hospital conducted a 15-minute video consultation with Varavara Rao at the Taloja jail. Their one-page report declared him “fully conscious, alert, oriented”, and put his age at 45. It was “an eyewash,” in the words of Rao’s lawyer, Indira Jaising, who added that she had received the report via Whatsapp at 12.45 p.m., before a hearing scheduled for 3 p.m. On November 18, the Bombay high court’s two-judge bench of S S Shinde and Madhav J Jamdar noted, “ultimately the man is on almost deathbed”, and ordered his removal to the Nanavati hospital for two weeks. His family is permitted to visit him but Rao remains in NIA custody. Of her first meeting with her father in four months, P Pavana said that he was able to recognise his family but recalled nothing of the last time they had met. In addition to the urinary tract infection for which he is being treated, he has a fungal infection on his feet and knees. His test reports have not been shared with the family and the authorities at the Nanavati hospital have made no official statement on his health. The next hearing on his medical assessment and P Hemalatha’s bail petition is scheduled for December 3. Rao has spent 732 days in jail awaiting trial. Why shouldn’t the “Elgaar Parishad case” be viewed as a conspiracy to deprive him of his right to life, asks the People’s Union of Democratic Rights.
- Stan Swamy is waiting to learn from the NIA court on November 26 whether he may use a straw and sipper in jail. He had petitioned the court for this on November 7, but it would seem to be a tricky issue and we cannot rule out the possibility of further hearings. As reported by The Indian Express (November 17), the National Platform for the Rights of the Disabled (NPRD) wrote to the national human rights commission, pointing out that since Parkinson’s disease is recognised under the Disabilities Act, 2016, Swamy must be provided with assistive aids including straws and sippers. No response as yet from the NHRC. Swamy’s letter from jail, shared by John Dayal on November 14, contains no hint of blame or complaint but only appreciation for the other inmates at Taloja, requesting prayers for them.The adivasis of Jharkhand and Bihar should be remembered in the same prayers: on November 5, the NIA opened a new branch office in Ranchi. It is currently probing “14 cases of terror funding, maoist insurgency and human trafficking”. By clear implication, it is not probing the land banks scheme, forcible evictions, the mining mafia or the wholesale framing and incarceration of adivasi youth—these being Stan Swamy’s concerns, Cedric Prakash reminds us in Counterview (October 31). Concerns that were shared equally by Sudha Bharadwaj in Chhattisgarh, and Mahesh Raut in Maharashtra—indeed, the reason 300 gram sabhas of Gadchiroli passed a resolution in Raut’s support when he was arrested in 2018. Surabhi Agarwal and Sandeep Pandey (Counterview, November 7) recount the young scholar-activist’s struggle against daylight robbery by mining companies, the hard-won successes that would have brought him public esteem in another country but in India ensure that he is kept in jail.
- Neither government nor judiciary can bully its way out of the crisis of credibility that envelops both. In an interview given to Scroll (November 7), Christophe Jaffrelot expressed his continuing disbelief at seeing Anand Teltumbde in jail. The difference between the present regime and the Emergency, he added, is that the Emergency was recognised by everyone involved as provisional and an aberration, whereas today the character of the State is being altered permanently. Writing for the Observer Research Foundation (November 21), Niranjan Sahoo and Gibran Khan note the squeeze on rights put by the executive and judiciary working in tandem, especially through their use and interpretation of the UAPA. Sahoo and Khan recall the Sweden-based V-Dem Institute’s “Democracy Report for 2020” which highlights that India “has almost lost its status as a democracy”, and Michelle Bachelet’s more recent statement (October 20) decrying the government’s clampdown on civil society. Ranjona Banerji (National Herald, November 22) writes caustically of the supreme court’s concern for Arnab Goswami’s freedom when seven out of 10 prisoners in India are undertrials, one in every five is a Muslim and a major proportion are dalit or adivasi—textbook cases of systemic injustice. On November 12, India Legal reported that Saket Gokhale, an activist, has filed an RTI application seeking details on the backlog of interim bail applications with the supreme court and the average listing time they face.
All 16 pre-trial prisoners in the “Bhima Koregaon” case were given the judicial runaround these past two years, denied both anticipatory bail (commonly granted when the accused is not a flight risk) and default bail (when the investigating agencies fail to produce a charge sheet on time). Recently, the supreme court dismissed as out-of-turn Sudha Bharadwaj and Varavara Rao’s bail pleas, redirecting them to a lower court; yet, the Bombay high court was upbraided for taking the same line with Arnab Goswami, that he couldn’t bypass the sessions court.A few days later, on November 16, a supreme court bench of S A Bobde, A S Bopanna and V Ramasubramanian, hearing the matter of bail for journalist Siddique Kappan, made an oral remark to the effect that it might send the case back to the Allahabad high court, as it was not inclined to encourage an Article 32 petition. The article in question is the Right to Constitutional Remedies, to move the supreme court if fundamental rights are violated, an article of which B R Ambedkar had said, “If I was asked to name any particular Article of this Constitution as the most important—an Article without which this Constitution would be a nullity—I could not refer to any other Article except this one. It is the very soul of the Constitution and the very heart of it.”Pratap Bhanu Mehta (The Indian Express, November 18) terms the present period as one of judicial barbarism, marked by selective and arbitrary rulings, deference to the executive, a preoccupation with contempt proceedings, with enforcing submission rather than constitutional norms, and rulings so erratic and dependent on the whims of individual judges that due process has ceased to mean much. On the court’s wish to discourage citizens’ recourse to Article 32, Mehta wonders if S A Bobde didn’t inadvertently let the cat out of the bag. Thulasi K Raj writes in The Caravan (November issue) on how the supreme court evades the administration of justice. Of late, this has involved three strategies: the refusal to give orders by opting for an adjournment motion, deferring to the executive by asking it to decide on the validity of its own actions, and an unquestioning acceptance of the executive’s version of events.
Megha Katheria (The Leaflet, November 19) points to another fundamental right infringed with impunity under the watch of the courts. Access to medical care while in state custody comes under the Right to Health (Article 21), amply backed by jurisprudence and precedent. Yet, there are a mere 762 doctors among jail staff across the country, who attend to nearly half a million prisoners. Out of 3,320 official posts for medical staff (including pharmacists and lab technicians) only 1,960 are filled, according to the national crime records bureau report of 2019. If prisoners are made to jump through hoops in order to have their poor health attested, and given that there were 1,775 deaths in India’s prisons last year—are the courts not facilitating an egregious abuse of fundamental rights?
- On November 19, the parents of Natasha Narwal and Devangana Kalita spoke about their daughters at a public meeting in Delhi. It is now six months since the two activists were arrested. Writing in The Wire (November 23), Uma Chakravarti remembers Snehalata Reddy’s incarceration during the Emergency and admits to despair at the recurring failure of democracy, but also finds inspiration and strength seeing young women who believe in the future and will not give in.On November 21, Gulfisha Fatima was granted bail on a personal bond of Rs 30,000, along with “surety of a like amount”. However, she remains in jail on account of UAPA charges in another case, where she is accused of instigating an unlawful assembly that rioted and led to the death of a man. This case made its first appearance in June, when she had been in police custody for two months.On Sunday, November 22, the Delhi police filed an additional charge sheet of 930 pages against Umar Khalid, Sharjeel Imam and Faisal Khan, levelling UAPA charges, including criminal conspiracy, murder, cheating, attempt to murder, rioting and damage to public property. As with Gulfisha Fatima, Devangana Kalita and Natasha Narwal, Khalid is caught in a snarl of cases, arrested in one on September 13, another on October 1 (ceremonial, since he was already in prison). On November 23, he appealed in court that the extension of his remand in the second case was illegal as it was made without receiving a submission from his counsel. In response, the public prosecutor said that the extension of remand every 14 days happens not by law but precedent. If the investigating officer does not move an application, custody is automatically extended. The matter will be heard next on November 27