Many of the underage prisoners are over 60 years of age
Ground Report | New Delhi: Suppose that my daughter has to be in prison for a very long time and there are times when she cannot see me. I’m getting old, maybe I won’t be able to see it.” Mahavir Singh Narwal said this in November last year, his voice hoarse.
When the second wave of the vicious coronavirus pandemic erupted in India earlier this year, the 71-year-old retired professor was unable to meet her only daughter Natasha, one of India’s many political prisoners.
Narwal died on Sunday – awaiting her daughter’s release from prison in the capital New Delhi – after he contracted COVID-19 and was hospitalized in northern Haryana state.
When her father’s condition worsens at the hospital, Natasha filed a bail plea seeking release to look after her ailing father.
The day after Narwal’s death, the court granted the 32-year-old activist a temporary three-week bail, calling it a “must”, to allow her to cremate her father.
Natasha, 32, was among dozens of activists jailed last year under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), a strict anti-terror law that allows detention of up to 180 days without charge, despite outrage by the group human rights and international organizations.
Activists are accused of “conspiracy” to create religious unrest in Delhi after they organized protests against the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) passed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government in 2019.
Hundreds of people, including students, rights activists, academics and journalists, were arrested as the Hindu nationalist government suppressed dissent across the country, even as a deadly pandemic raged.
This will undoubtedly be the darkest time in the course of the Indian republic. Democracy has never been this fragile.
India treats underground political prisoners as terrorists
Fearing an outbreak of a viral disease in overcrowded prisons, activists and rights groups have demanded the release of Indian political prisoners, some of whom are in their 70s and 80s and therefore vulnerable to infection.
“India treats its underground political prisoners as terrorists and insurgents,” prominent social activist Harsh Mander told Al Jazeera.
“They should be given guarantees for their safety, and for other prisoners and staff. Instead, the government has made new arrests.”
The continued detention of activists has kept them away from the death and suffering of their relatives, often removing last moments of grief and closure.
In a statement, Pinjra Tod, a women’s group linked to Natasha, said even after being released on temporary bail, “one cannot rejoice.”
‘Deaf system to our pain cries’
On May 3, Hany Babu, an imprisoned academic and avid anti-caste activist, complained of an acute eye infection that caused gradual loss of his vision, her wife Jenny Rowena said.
The 55-year-old professor at Delhi University was arrested in July last year by India’s top investigative agency for his alleged role in the Bhima-Koregaon violence.
National Investigative Agency (NIA) has accused several activists and academics – including Babu, Gautam Navlakha, Pastor Stan Swamy, Sudha Bharadwaj, Anand Teltumbde, and Varavara Rao, among others – of links to extreme left Maoist rebels and of conspiring against the government, including ” planning the assassination of “the prime minister of India.
Most of these prisoners are elderly activists who have been denied bail amid the pandemic. Their continued detention has resulted in serious health complications.
“[The infection] has harmed vital organs and poses a significant threat to his life if it spreads to the brain,” Babu’s wife, Rowena, told Al Jazeera.
Taloja prison has 3,500 prisoners out of the recommended capacity of 2,124. On May 7, a 22-year-old underground prisoner died of COVID-19 in prison while another was in hospital. Most of the overcrowded prisons across India lack basic health care facilities.
Rowena said Babu had been deprived of access to clean water to wash his eyes in prison. “She was forced to wrap a dirty towel over her eyes,” she told Al Jazeera.
‘Darkest hour of the journey of the Indian republic’
On Tuesday, United Against Hate, a civil society initiative, organized an online event with the families of the jailed activists, who have written to the Maharashtra government asking for temporary bail, citing cases of the coronavirus detected among inmates and prison staff.
“Many of the underage prisoners are over 60 years of age, with comorbidities and are prone to rapid deterioration in health in the event of a COVID-19 infection,” the letter said.
“We are increasingly concerned about the medical assistance that will be available to prisoners if they contract a deadly disease.”
Activist Mander told Al Jazeera that UAPA was “like a blank check, ordering anyone with anything”.
“All of these differences of opinion were dubbed an act of conspiracy to rebellion or war against India. The reasons are not conveyed and the government continues to imprison these ideas. “
The United Nations has called on governments to reduce their prison population wherever possible due to the pandemic.
“Unfortunately, the Indian government has not released journalists, human rights activists or peaceful critics who have been detained on false charges including sedition and terrorism that make guarantees difficult,” Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director of Human Rights Watch, told Al Jazeera.
Ganguly said the Indian government, using laws such as UAPA or sedition, made “the process punitive”.
“The use of this law here is disproportionate and unlawful,” he said, demanding that “defenders of human rights and free speech” and “all those detained for peaceful protest” be released.
Mander said India’s decline into an autocracy had accelerated under Hindu nationalist rule.
“There is no doubt that this is the darkest time in the course of the Indian republic. Democracy has never been this fragile, ”he said. “There is clearly an agenda to turn India into a country very different from what was promised in the constitution.”