India decongests its jails to check coronavirus but political prisoners are still locked up

Prison break.
Prison break.
Image: AP Photo/Mustafa Quraishi
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Overcrowded Indian prisons have become hotbeds of coronavirus cases.

In March, India’s supreme court recognised this risk—total occupancy of India’s jails standing at 115% —and set down guidelines for releasing some prisoners on parole and bail. These relaxations, it recommended, should be extended to prisoners with sentences of up to seven years and undertrials in cases with a maximum sentence of seven years, among other criteria. Since then, over 27,000 such inmates have been released on bail or parole.

Yet, the courts have failed to notice the plight of several political and social activists, journalists, and lawyers just as the Covid-19 cases in India began to spike.

Global organisations such as Amnesty International India and International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) have highlighted the need to protect prisoners, especially women, amidst the pandemic.

Here are a few instances of such inmates facing charges of sedition and “unlawful activities,” most often on the flimsiest of reasons.

Safoora Zargar, student

The 27-year-old is an MPhil student at Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia University, which became the fountainhead of the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and anti-National Register of Citizens protests in the country that began in December 2019. Zargar, though, was arrested for her alleged role in the riots that ravaged parts of Delhi between Feb. 23 and 25, killing over 50. The police have alleged that she organised a blockade of a metro station in northeast Delhi on Feb. 22 and 23 against the police’s attempt to vacate the protest site, which eventually led to the violence. Zargar is in the second trimester of her pregnancy and locked in a cell at Delhi’s Tihar Jail.

Manish Sirohi, a man accused of supplying arms and ammunition, was named in the same first information report as Zargar’s but was allowed bail to prevent exposure from Covid-19. During his arrest, the police recovered five pistols and 20 cartridges from Sirohi, The Wire reported. Zargar, on the other hand, has no criminal background.

Kafeel Khan, doctor

Among the most stringent laws that the government can invoke is the National Security Act. Kafeel Khan, a paediatrician from Gorakhpur in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh was arrested on January 29 section 153-A for “promoting enmity between different groups on ground of religion”. The police alleged that Khan had delivered hate speeches during the anti-CAA protests at the Aligarh Muslim University. While the Allahabad high court granted him bail and ordered his release in February, he remained in custody at the Agra jail till the more overarching NSA was invoked.

On May 12, his detention was extended by at least three months, which can go up to six months, according to NDTV. Khan has been in the public eye since August 2017, when over 100 children died at the BRD Medical College in Gorakhpur, where he was employed, due to a shortage of oxygen cylinders. Khan had reportedly tried to save many of the victims. Yet, in an odd twist of events, he was soon accused of medical negligence and dereliction of duty and spent nine months in prison.

Two years later, in September 2019, Khan was cleared of all allegations and even commended.

Lawyer, writer, civil rights activist, Bhima-Koregaon riot

The 200-year commemoration of the Bhima Koregaon battle in January 2018 sparked violence between Dalits, members of a group of castes formerly deemed untouchable, and those of the Maratha community. In the resulting police crackdown, various scholars and human rights activists were arrested for suspected “Maoist links” and for having delivered inflammatory speeches that led to the riots. Yet, the more direct roles of right-wing leaders—some considered close to prime minister Narendra Modi—in instigating violence have been largely ignored by the police.

While some of these Dalit rights activists were put under house arrest, others, such as lawyer Sudha Bharadwaj, have been in jail since 2018. Others behind bars in the case include poet Varavara Rao, lawyer Surendra Gadling, activists Mahesh Raut and Shoma Sen, and Rona Wilson.

Anand Teltumbde, Dalit scholar and activist, was arrested on April 14 this year from Mumbai, along with activist and journalist Gautam Navlakha from Delhi. While Navlakha is 67, Teltumbde will turn 70 in July—both at an age considered vulnerable to coronavirus.

Strikingly, they were both held after the March supreme court directive to decongest prisons and despite the two self-surrendering and not being flight risks because of the lockdown.