There is a fatal outbreak of viral diseases in overloaded prisons, some of whose inmates are in the vulnerable age group of 70-85 years. The United Nations has called on governments to reduce their prison population. But who’s listening?
I wouldn’t be too surprised if you haven’t heard of Siddique Kappan, a Delhi-based Malayali journalist, who was put into jail for just trying to report on the Hathras gang-rape. Another case, even more shocking: a woman was gangraped in the Araria district of Bihar and then prodded into confinement with two other women activists who helped her in July last year. Currently, there are a lot more than 478,600 prisoners in India, sealed away into desolate cells and, what’s more, a majority of them are being held unjustly. It wouldn’t be too fabulist to claim that they are in fact victims of a punitive justice system – a system that is by nature in the disfavour of those who are either poor, tribal, Muslim, Dalit or, most topically, a democratic dissenter.
Seventy percent of India’s prison-population is also indefinitely under-trial. Justice is being stifled under knolls of paperwork, seemingly running on the proverbial Bollywood truism of Tarikh-Pe-Tarikh. I think it was Nelson Mandela who once said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. It’s certainly true that a nation should ‘not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones’. As the axiomatic, roughed-up wisdom of a football coach points: a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. By those standards, India doesn’t seem to be faring well. With the disastrous wake of Coronavirus’ second-wave, prisons and death sentences are starting to mirror each other, becoming synonymous, and here’s why we need to talk about it.
Like any institutional structure, prisons are extensions of the pre-existing inequalities in society. According to a report by Times of India, people from marginalized sections are overrepresented in jails. They make up three-fourths of the total prison-population with 19.7% Muslims, 21.6% Dalits and 11.8% tribals. Yet many rich and – predictably – upper-caste individuals have gotten away with more than Zeus in Greek mythology; they have committed death-dealing rapes, large-scale thefts (Nirav Modi), roadside lynching and impulsive murders against those who are vulnerable and in minority, with little to no consequences. I distinctly recall how in college protests there was a clear-cut alliance between the police and students who were safeguarding the foothold of those already in power. It was palpable whose crimes went safely unremarked upon, and whose were herded out for penance. You couldn’t miss it.
The distinction of ‘political prisoner’ is a handy coinage that helps us to understand the inherent unjustifiability of specific arrests. This term suggests that a person (alternately, a prisoner) is being held on the unfair basis of having a political voice, one that often rises against the status quo and is thus chastened into jails. Amnesty International defines it as follows:
“AI uses the term “political prisoner” broadly. It does not use it, as some others do, to imply that all such prisoners have a special status or should be released. It uses the term only to define a category of prisoners for whom AI demands a fair and prompt trial. In AI’s usage, the term includes any prisoner whose case has a significant political element: whether the motivation of the prisoner’s acts, the acts in themselves, or the motivation of the authorities.”
I was directly moved to write this piece after hearing Natasha Narwal’s story. I had been reporting her case on Du Beat since she was arrested last year in May. She is a JNU student who has been imprisoned in relation to the Delhi riots case. She is also a founding member of Pinjra Tod (Break the Cage), a Delhi-based women’s collective that memorably opposed Maneka Gandhi’s endorsement of curfew timings for women’s hostels back in 2017. Last year, Natasha was arrested by Delhi Police’s Special Cell for participating in anti-Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) Chakka Jam protests near Jaffrabad metro station and is currently awaiting trial in Tihar Jail. After her mother passed away at thirteen, Natasha was raised by her father Mahavir Singh Narwal, a senior member of Communist Party of India and a retired agricultural scientist. He had a habit of rallying Safdar Hashmi’s slogan, “Aurtein uthi nahi to zulm badhta jaega. (If women don’t rise, the injustice will keep increasing)” and welded those sentiments to his daughter.
On May 3, Natasha’s father was hospitalized due to Covid-related health complications in Rohtak, Haryana. Being 71 years old, he knew he probably wouldn’t convalesce back to a healthy life and wanted to see his daughter one last time. Mr. Narwal was himself a detainee under Maintenance of Internal Security Act during Indira Gandhi’s Emergency and frequently maintained that jail was nothing to be scared of. Though, in a later interview, he said, with his morale quite faltering, “Suppose my daughter has to stay in jail for a really long time and there comes a time when she is not able to see me. I am growing old, maybe I won’t get to see her.”
Natasha’s initial application for interim bail to look after her sick father was not considered. On 10th May, a day after her father passed away, she was granted interim bail for 3 weeks on a personal bond of Rs. 50,000 and condition of maintaining silence on ‘sub-judice matters’. She cremated her father the next day in PPE overalls and saluted him as one would salute a comrade. Though she couldn’t see her father alive, Natasha’s story is still a stark anomaly in Indian justice system. Not everyone gets so lucky. G.N Saibaba, an elderly academic arrested in relation to Bhima Koregaon case and serving a life sentence in Nagpur, was not only denied bail to see his sick mother, but he wasn’t even allowed to have a final video call. When his mother finally died, the court refused to let him out on parole to carry out her funerary rites. Vernon Gonsalves, another professor who is awaiting trial in the Bhima Koregaon case, was so shockingly disconsolate that he didn’t even plead for bail after his mother’s death. It would add to the expense and paperwork that was already too much for him.
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“How little we know about lives of people who live in jail for years without trial and bail, without any visibility to the outside world?” one of the letters Natasha wrote in prison said. How little indeed. A despotic state is very adept at depersonalizing its political prisoners, dragging them through the mire as generalized threats coming from recognizably objectionable groups (Muslim, students, or ‘Westernised’ women, for example). They won’t give you names, or stories, or fine narrative details, much less tell you what goes on behind prison walls. What they do is take away our stories and thereby our humanness. Erin Gruwell, a high-school teacher who had revolutionary ideas about pedagogy, once said, “Writing is powerful. Whether it’s a little girl hiding from the Nazis in an attic, or Amnesty International writing letters on behalf of political prisoners, the power of telling stories is usually what causes change.” That’s what we can do to reclaim these people – who have been bereft of personhood and stamped out from civic life – into humanity again: simply relay their stories. As a first step, anyhow.
As we speak, there is a fatal outbreak of viral diseases in overcrowded prisons, some of whose inmates are in the vulnerable age group of 70-85 years. Many of them have comorbidities that can result in imminent deaths. The United Nations has called on governments to reduce their prison population wherever possible. But no one is listening. Hindustan Times has reported that Tihar is currently overburdened with approximately 20,000 inmates while it only has the sanctioned capacity of about 10,026. Many guiltless persons are currently stuck in prison (though guilt shouldn’t exactly be a factor to unnecessary deaths either). Hundreds of Kashmiri citizens were held under preventive detention for opposing the rescindment of Section 370 in August last year. With the second-wave of COVID-19, many of them have contracted the virus in jail and succumbed to avoidable deaths. Moreover, there is a large number of anti-CAA protestors – mostly, students – that were taken into custody and booked under the unforgiving Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) as the Coronavirus despoiled normalcy around the globe. How is that fair? People were pulled from the safety of their homes under farcical charges based on shaky, implausible evidence and plunged into constricted spaces in the middle of a global pandemic.
In a letter she wrote to her friend G.N. Saibaba in jail, the writer Arundhati Roy writes, ‘As Covid-19 lays siege to prison after prison in India, including yours, they know, that given your condition, a life sentence could so easily become a death sentence.’ A professor of Delhi University’s Ram Lal Anand College, G.N. Saibaba, in fact, is licensed for 90% disability. He is one of the famous Bhima Koregaon eleven – a group of academics that were tailored into culpability for allegedly machinating for an overthrow of the government. Hany Babu ,55, is another one of them. A staunch anti-caste activist currently held at Taloja jail in Maharashtra, he developed an acute eye infection leading to a steady loss of his vision. Despite his lawyer’s requests, he was never taken to a hospital. He was prescribed anti-bacterial medicine by a local eye specialist who also asked to return in two days, but he wasn’t taken back. Swamy, 84, suffers from Parkinson’s disease. He was denied a straw sipper. Navlakha was denied spectacles. Tembule, 72, has asthma. (Source: Al Jazeera Magazine) This group is perhaps most susceptible to dying preventable deaths.
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Assata Shakur, a formerly convicted member of the Black Liberation Army, laid bare in her autobiography: “People get used to anything. The less you think about your oppression, the more your tolerance for it grows. After a while, people just think oppression is the normal state of things. But to become free, you have to be acutely aware of being a slave.” The freedom of these political prisoners tells us a lot about the possible limitations – the subterfuge and bluffs – of our own. It affects our collective agency, and humanities, by an uncurving route. This is why their stories need to be passed on like modern day fables, their names unobscured and then rumbled over sleeping cities. Today – as I finish writing this on 23rd of May, 2021 – marks exactly a year since Natasha Narwal’s unwarranted arrest. The incendiary headlines have been smoothed into a murky silence, but hope resists. “I can also glimpse the moon from our barrack window. It’s caged in the grills but the moonlight is coming to us filtering through them,” Natasha had written to a friend from prison, “Before coming inside our ward to be locked, I managed to see some stars as well giving the moon some company. I don’t know when one will be able to see the night sky without these grills and bars. How long will or can the moon be caged, hum dekhenge.”
Feature Image Credits: Telegraph, India