Gautam Navlakha is a famed author, civil rights activists, human rights activist, journalist, an Editorial Consultant at the Economic and Political Weekly, probably the most internationally well known social sciences journal published out of India, the Convenor of the International People’s Tribunal on Human Rights and Justice in Kashmir and the Secretary of the People’s Union for Democratic Rights. He has been a vocal critic of the Government through his left-wing activism while working in Kashmir and Maoist regions in Chhattisgarh. He has worked for the cause of peace and friendship between India and Pakistan through the forum Pakistan India People’s Forum for Peace and Democracy.
Imagine such a distinguished scholar activist being likened to somebody synonymous with terrorism, Hafiz Sayeed. During a debate in the Rajya Sabha on the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Amendment Bill, 2019, which allows an individual to be labeled as a terrorist, former Congress home minister P. Chidambaram criticized this as monumental error and asked the government not to compare Hafiz Sayeed with activist Gautam Navlakh. Gautam Navlakha himself criticized the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act for being vague and opposed to Constitutional values.
In May 2011, Gautam Navlakha was refused entry at the Srinagar Airport and was compelled to return to Delhi by the Government of Jammu and Kashmir as they believed that his presence could cause a law-and-order problem in Kashmir. Later while addressing a press conference at Srinagar in December 2011 he stated that those in the government responsible for the disappeared persons in Jammu and Kashmir should be brought to book. It should be a matter of shame for any government that there is an organization by the name of Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons in J&K formed in1994. The number of disappeared persons since 1989 is put between 8,000 and 10,000.
In the 2018 Bhima Koregaon violence case, Gautam Navlakha was named an accused and his anticipatory bail pleas were rejected by the Supreme Court on 8 April 2020, under the UAPA. The Bhima Koregaon violence case was transferred by the Bharatiya Janata Party led union government from the Pune Police to the National Investigation Agency in January 2020. The wisdom of this move has been questioned as this was done after the BJP lost election in Maharashtra and Shiv Sena led government came to power and there was a possibility that the new government would take a fresh look at the Bhima Koregaon case through a Special Investigation Team. On 14 April 2020, Gautam surrendered before the NIA after the Supreme Court refused to extend his plea in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The NIA has accused Gautam Navlakha of having attended conferences in the United States organized by Pakistani Kashmiri separatist Syed Ghulam Nabi Fai, who was arrested by Federal Bureau of Investigation and sentenced to a two year term in 2011. US Attorney Neil H. MacBride had claimed in an affidavit that Gautam Navlakha was introduced by Fai to an Inter-Services Intelligence General for recruitment at the agency’s direction. Whereas these allegations remain to be substantiated, meeting people and attending conferences can itself not be considered a crime. NIA has not produced any concrete evidence of Gautam Navlakha having been engaged in any anti-national activity or committed an act of crime. Since Gautam was the only one among the Bhima Koregaon violence accused who worked extensively on the issue of Kashmir, NIA found it convenient to make him a scapegoat in a desperate attempt to demonstrate a link between the terrorists and Maoists. Gautam Navlakha has taken a brave position in support of right to self-determination for the people of J&K and has been made to pay a price for that. For a similar position taken by Advocate Prashant Bhushan during the anti-corruption movement led by Anna Hazare, he was thrashed by some right wing goons in his SC chamber.
NIA has alleged that Gautam Navlakha indulged in secret communications with banned Communist Party of India (Maoist) members and was assigned the task of mobilizing intellectuals against the government as well as to recruit cadres for guerrilla activities. According to NIA the violence at Bhima Koregaon was pre-planned. The fact of the matter is that the First Information Report filed on the day after the violence occurred on 1 January, 2018, was against two Hindutva activists Sambhaji Bhide and Milind Ekbote. It beats logic why should supporters of the Elgar Parishad, the banner under which the Bhima Koregaon event was organized by two distinguished retired Justices of Bombay High Court, B.G. Kolse-Patil and P.B. Sawant, disrupt their own event using violence? This is a classic example of how the BJP governments make accused out of victims or their supporters. The same pattern was repeated in anti-Citizenship Amendment Act and National Register for Citizens protests and violence in Delhi and Uttar Pradesh. The perpetrators or provocateurs of violence were allowed to roam free and peaceful protestors or victims were made the accused in FIRs.
Gautam is an ageing prisoner whose spectacles, without which he is almost helpless, were stolen in the Taloja Prison in Mumbai on 27 November even as he continues to suffer from several ailments like colonic polyposis, chronic gastritis and high blood pressure. His partner Sahba Hussain sent him a fresh pair of glasses in a parcel which was rejected by the prison authorities on 5 December. The bench of Justices S.S. Shinde and M.S. Karnik of the Bombay High Court remarked that providing essential items like spectacles to prisoners were ‘humane considerations,’ and added that it is high time to conduct a workshop for even jail authorities. This one incident points to the blatant violations of basic rights of prisoners in Indian jails and also informs us of the inhuman conditions in which they are kept.
Before being imprisoned Gautam Navlakha wrote about the UAPA, ‘Such Acts turn the normal jurisprudence upside down. No longer is it the axiom that a person is innocent unless proven guilty, in fact under such Acts an accused is guilty unless proven innocent. Draconian provisions of the UAPA are not accompanied by stricter procedures regarding evidence, especially electronic, considering the stringent punishment provided for under the Act; the procedures, which otherwise provide tighter rules regarding evidence, are instead made elastic. Under this double whammy, jail becomes the norm and bail an exception. In this Kafkaesque domain, process itself becomes the punishment.’