“The very thought of him having to plead with the prison authorities for a basic service like clean water to wash out his swollen eye still gives me panic attacks,” says Jenny Rowena, wife of Hany Babu.
Babu, a 55-year-old Delhi University professor, is among many political prisoners who have been detained after being charged under India’s draconian law, the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA). His family released a statement to the press which mentions Babu’s severe eye infection, which could damage his vital organs.
It was only after repeated appeals from Babu’s family that the court allowed him to get proper medical treatment and tests at a private hospital, the cost of which will be borne by his family.
It is a glimpse into the conditions India’s state apparatus forces people to endure when it comes to filling overcrowded prisons, in violation of basic civil and legal rights, as the situation plagues to the pandemic is further deteriorating. The situation has worsened due to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s use of a 54-year-old draconian law.
India’s National Investigation Agency (NIA) had arrested Babu in a case called “the Bhima Koregaon case”. Bhima Koregaon is a village in the state of Maharashtra in western India. The NIA alleged that several activists gave inflammatory speeches, prompting clashes on January 1, 2018 between Dalits and Hindu right-wing groups.
Many other activists and scholars, including Anand Teltumbde, Sudha Bhardwaj, Father Stan Swamy, Gautam Navlakha and others, most of whom are 50 or older, have been arrested in the same case and continue to languish in prison. They have been denied proper medical treatment, even though they are suffering from illnesses.
For example, Father Stan Swamy, 84, a tribal rights activist, has Parkinson’s disease. He told the court during a May 21 hearing that in the last eight months he has been detained, his health has deteriorated.
“When I came here, I could eat, read, bathe on my own,” Swamy testified. “Now I have to depend on others even for food.”
The family of Sudha Bhardwaj, a 60-year-old activist lawyer, approached the court for access to her medical records. She suffers from diabetes, hypertension and several other health problems. Meanwhile, others like writer and activist Anand Teltumbde suffer from asthma.
Another political prisoner, GN Saibaba, 53, a former professor at Delhi University, continues to live in similar conditions. He is 90% disabled and also tested positive for COVID-19 in February. His daughter, Manjeera, says that although he has recovered, Saibaba is weak. She says that despite several letters to prison authorities and the Home Ministry, which oversees India’s internal security and internal affairs, no help has been forthcoming.
“He is 90% disabled and cannot work alone. He needs help with his daily activities. Whether it’s brushing his teeth, getting out of bed, going to the bathroom, he needs help with everything,” says Manjeera. “But there is no help.”
She also alleges that although she knew the comorbidities could be life-threatening for a patient infected with COVID-19, he did not receive proper medical attention after testing positive. The family had no choice but to hire a courier service to transport him life-saving medicines and supplements.
A medical facility is attached to each prison. However, Manjeera said they were not prepared to deal with the detainees.
“The prison hospital, there is no hospital. It’s like a small barracks: one bed and that’s it,” she explained. “There is no one to take care of you.”
Meanwhile, Saibaba, who was arrested in 2014, is serving a life sentence for his alleged ties to the outlawed Communist Party of India (Maoist).
All of these political prisoners, housed in multiple jails across India, continue to live in devastating conditions as the coronavirus wreaks havoc across the country.
Deploy draconian law during containment
An important mechanism used by the Indian state to prevent the release of political prisoners is the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA). The law – enacted in 1967 – reverses “innocent until proven guilty” to “guilty until proven guilty”. The ruling BJP amended the UAPA in July 2019 to designate an individual as a terrorist without trial. Previous versions of the law only allowed groups to be designated as terrorists.
In presenting the amendment, Home Minister Amit Shah said individuals should be prosecuted under the law for participating in an act of terrorism, for helping to prepare such an act and for raising funds or disseminated information to aid terrorism.
“Sir, guns do not give rise to terrorism, the root of terrorism is the propaganda that is made to spread it, the frenzy that spreads,” Shah told the Indian Parliament in 2019. “What if all these individuals are designated as terrorists, I think no member should have any objections.
This anti-terrorism law allows the detention of the accused without charge for up to 180 days.
“UAPA is something that, with its amendments, is designed to detain people indefinitely,” as noted social activist and author Harsh Mander points out. “This can be understood from the fact that no indictment has been filed in the Bhima Koregaon and Delhi riots case, and yet people are being held indefinitely.”
In December 2019, as the Indian government passed the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), protests erupted across the country. However, following the protests, riots broke out in various parts of northeast Delhi in February 2021, after which several activists – many of whom were from marginalized minority communities – were arrested under the UAPA.
Mander alleges that the BJP-led government used a medical emergency to keep political prisoners inside the jail without access to lawyers and proper health facilities.
“Although the amendments to UAPA were made by previous governments, the current ruling party has used them to a greater extent and as a weapon against dissent,” Mander said.
He also claimed that the courts had failed to protect the rights of subtrials (people detained while awaiting trial) and prisoners.
“The courts should have opposed it and issued guidelines regarding the release of subtrials and the decongestion of prisons,” Mander added. “They should have taken a sympathetic and humane view of political prisoners.”
Overcrowding in Indian prisons is not a new phenomenon. Currently, 44 million cases are pending in Indian courts, and this number continues to increase. The slow pace overloads the prisons, as sub-trials are kept on hold.
Overcrowded Indian prisons
In a National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) report published in 2019, 478,600 prisoners are housed in Indian jails, despite having a capacity of only 403,700 inmates.
This means that Indian prisons have a capacity of 118.5%. In addition, approximately 68% of detainees are remand prisoners, not convicted prisoners.
As the coronavirus has spread across the country in 2020 and beyond, overcrowded prisons have become a hotbed of infection. On April 28, the Delhi High Court, while hearing a request for the release of detainees, asked the authorities concerned to come up with a plan to decongest the prisons. On May 7, the Indian Supreme Court also directed states protect prisoners’ right to life and provide them with appropriate medical care during this pandemic. It ordered states to release on bail subtrials on non-serious charges and those convicted of similar charges on parole.
Last year, when the pandemic hit, nearly 42,000 prisoners were initially released. But later, with a drop in the number of cases, many were sent back to prisons by order of the Supreme Court.
With the classification of legal services as “non-essential”, but the construction of the 2.8 billion dollars (USD) Central Vista Redevelopment Project in New Delhi deemed “essential”, the priority of the BJP government is obvious. Yet the lives of political prisoners hang in the balance as they are denied bail and struggle to access basic amenities and medical care behind bars.
Rishabh Jain is a journalist who writes on Indian politics and India’s central issues. He is based in New Delhi.