“Suppose my daughter has to stay in prison for a long time and there comes a time when she can’t see me. I’m getting older, maybe I won’t be able to see her. “
Mahavir Singh Narwal had said so in November last year, his voice exploding.
When a fierce second wave of coronavirus pandemic erupted in India earlier this year, the 71-year-old retired teacher was unable to meet his only daughter Natasha, one of India’s many political prey.
Narwal died on Sunday, awaiting his daughter’s release from a prison in the capital of New Delhi, after contracting COVID-19 and being admitted to Haryana Northeast Hospital.
As her father’s condition deteriorated at the hospital, Natasha filed a bail application to request release to care for her ailing father. But it was too late.
A day after Narwal’s death, the court granted the 32-year-old activist a three-week provisional bail, calling it “imperative”, to allow her father to be cremated.
– Charmy Harikrishnan charm ഹരികൃഷ്ണൻ (charmyh) May 11, 2021
Natasha, 32, is among dozens of activists jailed last year under the Illegal Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), a strict anti-terrorism law that allows detention for up to 180 days without charges, despite the outrage of advocacy groups and international organizations.
Activists are accused of a “conspiracy” to create religious riots in Delhi after organizing protests against the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) passed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government in 2019.
At least 50 people, mostly Muslims, died in violence for a few days during protests against the CAA in the northeast of the capital in February last year.
Hundreds of people, including university students, rights activists, academics and journalists, were arrested while the Hindu nationalist government halted dissent across the country, even when a deadly pandemic raged.
There is no doubt that this is the darkest hour of the journey of the Republic of India. Democracy has never been so fragile.
Fearing an outbreak of the viral disease in overcrowded prisons, activists and human rights groups have called for the release of political prisoners in India, some of whom are between 70 and 80 years old and therefore vulnerable to the infection.
But most of his requests have been unpublished, with rare exceptions only when the prisoner condition became critical.
“India treats its underground political prisoners as terrorists and insurgents,” prominent social activist Harsh Mander told Al Jazeera.
“They should have received bail for security reasons and from other prisoners and staff. Instead, the government has made new arrests.”
The continued imprisonment of activists has taken them away from the deaths and sufferings of their relatives, often eliminating the last moments of mourning and closure.
In a statement, Pinjra Tod, the women’s collective with which Natasha is associated, said, even after her provisional release, that “she cannot rejoice.”
“The father who is going to cremate was tired by this time: when he would come out of prison and enter the heat of his arms, not to the horror of his cold body,” the collective said in a statement.
“Deaf system to our cries of pain”
On May 3, Hany Babu, a jailed academic and staunch anti-caste activist, complained of an acute eye infection that has caused a gradual loss of his vision, his wife Jenni Rowena said.
The 55-year-old professor at Delhi University was arrested in July last year by India’s leading investigative agency for his alleged role in the Bhima-Koregaon violence.
The case concerns clashes that erupted between Dalits (formerly called “untouchables”) and Hindu right-wing groups in the Bhima-Koregaon villages of the western state of Maharashtra on 31 December 2017.
The National Research Agency of India (NIA) accused several activists and academics – including Babu, Gautam Navlakha, Father Stan Swamy, Sudha Bharadwaj, Anand Teltumbde and Varavara Rao, among others – of having links. with far-left Maoist rebels and conspiring against governments, including “plotting the assassination” of the Indian prime minister.
Most of these prisoners are elderly activists who have been denied bail in the midst of the pandemic. His continued arrests have led to serious health complications.
“[The infection] it has compromised vital organs and poses a significant threat to her life if it spreads to the brain, ”Babu’s wife Rowena told Al Jazeera.
Although Babu’s lawyers wrote to Tajola prison officials in Maharashtra, where he is detained, he was not taken to hospital. Instead, they took him to a local eye specialist, who prescribed antibacterial medication and asked him to return in two days.
But he was not taken away, his family told Al Jazeera.
Tajola Prison has 3,500 inmates against 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 overcrowded prisons in India lack basic sanitation facilities.
Rowen said Babu has been deprived of access to clean water to wash his eyes in prison. “He is forced to dress his eyes in dirty towels,” he told Al Jazeera.
Other inmates have also reported inhumane treatment and denial of medical care.
Swamy, 84, suffers from Parkinson’s disease. He was denied a sip of straw. Navlakha was denied the shows. Tembule, 72, has asthma.
“The idea of getting Hany to call for both basic and essential health services is heartbreaking,” says Rowena, who has been living her anxious days since the devastating second wave of COVID-19 began.
“We are facing an insensitive and opaque system that is deaf to our cries of pain,” he told Al Jazeera.
‘The darkest hour in the journey of the Republic of India’
On Tuesday, United Against Hate, a civil society initiative, organized an online event with the families of jailed activists, who have written to the Maharashtra government to ask for a provisional bail, citing cases of coronavirus detected among inmates and officials in the prisons.
“Many of the underground detainees are over 60 years old, have comorbidities and are susceptible to rapid deterioration of health in case of COVID-19 infection,” the letter said.
“We are increasingly concerned about the medical care that would be available to inmates should they have the deadly disease.”
Activist Mander told Al Jazeera that the UAPA “is like a blank check, reserving anyone under anything.”
“All dissent is baptized as an act of conspiracy to rebel or wage war against India. No reasons are given and the government keeps these ideas imprisoned indefinitely.
The United Nations has called on governments to reduce their prison population whenever possible due to the pandemic.
“Unfortunately, the Indian government has not yet released journalists, human rights activists or peaceful critics accused of false charges, including those of sedition and terrorism that make the bail harsh,” Al Jazeera Meenakshi Ganguly, director, told Al Jazeera of Human Rights Watch South Asia.
Ganguly said the Indian government, through the use of laws like UAPA or sedition, is turning “the process into a punishment”.
“The use of these laws here is disproportionate and illegal,” he said, demanding that “defenders of human rights and freedom of expression” and “all persons detained for peaceful protests” should be released. “.
Mander said India’s decline towards autocracy has accelerated under a Hindu nationalist government.
“There is no doubt that this is the darkest hour of the Indian republic’s journey. Democracy has never been so fragile, ”he said. “It is clear that there is an agenda for India’s transformation into a country very different from what was promised in the constitution.”