Co-Written by Akshat Jain and Evita Das

Cover Artwork by – Mir Suhail Qadri

Sharjeel’s family has not heard from him since 11 March and he can’t even speak to his lawyer. Incarcerated in Guwahati, he is being denied these human rights apparently due to the exigencies of the virus and the need for isolation. Have we suspended all rights and freedoms in this country on the pretext of fighting covid-19? It certainly would seem so. One can only wonder if the selective lockdown also will be used in this manner to target specific communities.

To deal with the unprepared-for exigency of Covid-19, the Supreme Court ordered all states to decongest their prisons to reduce the spread of the disease ‘Each state shall constitute a high powered committee, it will determine which class of prisoners can be released on parole or interim bail for such period as may be appropriate,’ said the order by Chief Justice of India S.A Bobde.

Overcrowding of prisons is a general problem in India that is merely being exposed during the Covid-19 crisis. According to the India Justice Report 2019, the nationwide prison occupancy rate stood at 114 per cent at the end of 2016. Moreover, India’s prisons are understaffed by at least 33 per cent, further compromising the ability of the prison system to deal with something like Covid-19. According to Dr KK Aggarwal, cardiologist and president of the Heart Care Foundation of India, ‘Now at a time when social distancing is the key to breaking the chain of infections, this kind of overflowing occupancy in prisons is a matter of grave concern. Sanitation facilities in prisons are horrible’.

Much of this overcrowding is due to the presence of under-trials—people in custody awaiting investigation, inquiry or trial—who constitute nearly 68 per cent of all prison inmates. For every convict, India has two under-trials in its jails. The Delhi High Court on Thursday gave a reprieve specifically to under-trial prisoners. It stated that it would be ‘doing away with the condition of furnishing surety bond and instead, allowing the under-trial prisoners to be released on their furnishing personal bond to the satisfaction of Superintendant of Jail’.

While it took them a pandemic to think about the continuing tragedy of extended prison stays for under-trials, it has become clear that political detainees are not only to continue languishing in prisons but new ones are to be sent to prisons as well. It would have seemed that aged people would be let out of prisons first as they are the ones most at risk from the virus. But the Supreme Court, in what seems like a direct contradiction of its own order, has rejected the review petition of Prof. Anand Teltumbde (age around 65) and Gautam Navlakha (age around 70) and given them one week (till 14 April) to surrender before the Bombay High Court stating, ‘we make it clear that there shall not be any further extension of time’. It is difficult to understand what form of logic the Supreme Court follows even if it is easy to understand that the only law they follow is the law of the Hindu scriptures in which minorities not only have no right to speak for themselves but also have no right to be spoken for by someone else sympathetic to their cause.

More than 50% of the prisoners in India belong to the Scheduled Caste, Scheduled Tribe and Muslim communities. While the total percentage of Muslims, Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in the overall Indian population is less than 40%. The attitude of the Supreme Court towards minorities is well represented by the reaction of former CJI Gogoi to a petition for freedom of movement by a Kashmiri­—why do you want to move around? it is cold in Srinagar!—and the reaction of CJI Bobde to a petition on the rights of migrant workers during the ‘lockdown’—why do workers need wages when meals are being provided by the govt?  What Angela Davis says about white America is equally if not more true of Hindu India, ‘We thus think about imprisonment as a fate reserved for others, a fate reserved for the “evildoers,” to use a term recently popularized by George W. Bush. Because of the persistent power of racism, “criminals” and “evildoers” are, in the collective imagination, fantasized as people of colour. The prison therefore functions ideologically as an abstract site into which undesirables are deposited, relieving us of the responsibility of thinking about the real issues afflicting those communities from which prisoners are drawn in such disproportionate numbers.’

The case against Teltumbde and Navlakha is part of the larger vilification and criminalization of activists and scholars who work for the rights of Dalits and Adivasis in India. The Pune police had already arrested activists Surendra Gadling, Mahesh Raut, Rona Wilson, Sudhir Dhawale, Varavara Rao, Arun Ferreira, Sudha Bharadwaj, Shoma Sen and Vernon Gonsalves in June and August 2018 for allegedly delivering inflammatory speeches at the Elgaar Parishad Conclave in Pune on 31 December 2017. The speeches, the police claimed, were directly responsible for the violence which happened at Bhima-Koregaon the next day at the 200th commemoration of Dalit-British victory over the Brahminical Peshwas. The police also claimed the human rights activists had Maoist links which made them into ‘an anti-fascist front’. While the nine of them have since then been in prison, the proud fascists Milind Ekbote and Sambhaji Bhide were released after a brief and largely tokenistic arrest even though reports claim they were the ones actually responsible for the violence at Bhima Koregaon that year.

This commemoration by Dalits at Bhima-Koregaon is an especially painful thorn in the mythology of the Indian nation according to which the Peshwas are ‘Indian’ heroes and British necessarily ‘anti-Indian’. The commemoration proves that a large chunk of the Indian population preferred the ‘foreign’ British to the ‘native’ Peshwas. It questions the credentials of India’s hegemonic Hindu nationalism which claims that all the people residing on the Indian subcontinent (except the Muslims) hated the British first and foremost.

Through the commemoration of the battle, the Dalits claim a different identity than the one that the upper-castes allow them. The Dalits assert that they have never been with the Brahmins and will never be as long as Brahmins remain Brahminical. That obviously does not sit well with the upper-caste. From Gandhi throwing tantrums against separate electorates, and forcing Ambedkar to sign the Poona Pact which irreparably hurt the political assertion of the untouchables, to arresting articulate and assertive Dalits under false charges, Hindu nationalism and the Hindu state relentlessly try to keep the Dalits under their regime of wanton oppression.

The Adivasis have fared no better in post-British India. From the very beginning, under the banner of socialism, the Nehruvian state snatched their lands and reduced them to pauperism. Maoism and Naxalism were direct challenges to the Indian state that was effectively killing them and their culture in the name of development. After socialism dissipated, the state left its army as a sort of private militia for the industrialists who were taking over the task of ‘development’ from the state. Now, whoever works for the rights of Adivasis is treated as a national-threat and killed, arrested or both.

A few weeks after the BJP lost power in Maharashtra, the Centre took the case from the Pune Police and handed it to the NIA, which included the names of Teltumbde and Navlakha along with the original nine in its FIR. It is difficult to understand why the NIA has suddenly been given the case when the state government did not ask for the transfer and initially opposed it. The Maharashtra Home Minister even said that the ‘Centre’s Decision to hand Bhima Koregaon to NIA (was) Unconstitutional’.

While Teltumbde’s crime is to be a thinking Dalit (an existential impossibility according to Hinduism), Navlakha’s crime is to speak for the rights of Adivasis, a crime against the new-age gospel of economic development. No evidence has been found which suggests the two men, or indeed any of the other activists, incited even a modicum of violence. The lack of evidence against the two intellectuals can be deduced from Justice D.Y.Chandrachud’s dissenting judgment in the bail hearings. Further, a report in the Caravan claims that the Pune Police actively tampered with the evidence.  Even though the case against them rests on very flimsy grounds and will in all likelihood result in their acquittal after a needlessly long legal battle, they are being asked to go to prison at a time like this when being imprisoned presents such immense danger to their lives.

It seems that the crime for which they are being punished doesn’t have to do with any evidence of inciting violence, it is enough that they read books, write books, produce reports and conduct fact-finding studies that challenge the official narratives of the fact-blind state (according to Hindu law, facts are an illusion and the only thing that matters is the public conscience of the nation which resides in the gut of whoever happens to be the CJI of the Supreme Court at that moment). As Anand Teltumbde himself wrote on 30 June 2018 in the Economic and Political Weekly, ‘Every thinking Indian is a potential ‘urban Maoist’; it is just the mercy of the police that such Indians are not all under arrest’.

Speaking of people who are legally (according to Hindu law) disbarred from thinking in India, we cannot forget the Muslims. In fact, the program at Bhima Koregaon, which has been happening since the 1990s, was targeted so vehemently this year because a broad unity between Dalits, Adivasis and Muslims was emerging there. The three communities have no choice but to come together as they are being targeted by a common enemy, the Caste Hindu.

The attitude of Hindu India towards Indian Muslims has been well demonstrated by the virulent attacks on Muslims during the Covid-19 crisis. Not only has the Tablighi Jamat and the Muslim community been falsely blamed for increasing the severity of the crisis, they have been targets of a well-coordinated fake news campaign (proved herehere and here) the sole aim of which seems to have been whipping up as much hatred against them as possible. The consequences of painting the Muslims as willingly jeopardizing the health of the nation are many and far-ranging. This tweet by Hilal Ahmad, associate professor at Centre for Study of Developing Societies, sums up the atmosphere that has been created: If the communal propaganda on corona virus continues like this we might see HINDU WATER and MUSLIM WATER shops at every railway station VERY SOON! 

In an article titled—Covid an excuse to push Indian Muslims out of informal sector jobs. Apartheid the next step—the author states that: What Muslims are effectively facing now is a new form of concerted, deliberate economic marginalisation through blatant lies linking the community to the virus. In Haldwani, Muslim fruit sellers, unlike their Hindu counterparts, were forced to shut their shops by a group of people. A social media video appeared to show a Resident Welfare Association agreeing to ban Muslim vendors and workers from their gated society. In a village in Mangalore, posters came up stating that ‘no Muslim trader is allowed into the village till the coronavirus has completely gone away. Signed: All Hindus, Kolya’. Several Muslim truck drivers were beaten up by a mob in Arunachal Pradesh. Among the many rumours about Muslims floating around, one was not to accept any cash from Muslims.

It is no secret that Muslims are specifically targeted by the Indian state, with multiple Muslim student groups having even been banned as terrorist organizations. The Sachar Committee had pointed out that Muslims account for 10.6% of the general population in Maharashtra, yet they comprise 32.4% of the prison population in the state. In Gujarat, where Muslims account for 9.06% of the populace, they accounted for 25% of all prison inmates

The anti-CAA/NRC protests in India saw the participation of people from all faiths and communities. But, nearly all who have been killed or detained are Muslims. Dr. Kafeel Khan, Meeran Haider, Khalid Saifi, Chingiz Khan, Safura Jargar and Sharjeel Imam are just some of the Muslims who have been incarcerated on fabricated charges under draconian laws like NSA and UAPA. Their heinous crime was giving speeches. Sharjeel’s case is emblematic. He delivered a speech in AMU (transcript here) that delved more into the history of Muslims in India than anything else. He asked the Muslims in India to unite as a community in order to fight for their civil, political and economic rights.

The masses are not on the streets against CAA/NRC. People have the misunderstanding that the masses are on the streets against CAA or to save the constitution or the country. Let alone the country, if Muslims can save themselves, that would be a big thing, because if they save themselves, they will automatically save the country, and if we can’t save ourselves, then even this country will be destroyed. If Muslims are not able to respond in an organized manner, there will be an unorganized response, and if the Muslims respond in an unorganized manner, then the country will not survive, we all know this very well. If Muslims organize themselves, they will be able to save the country, we have that much ability. The masses are on the streets in fourth gear, so we also have to get into fourth gear. More than sensitization on campuses, we have to focus on the sensitization of the masses. If we are talking about NRC or CAA, then we can use the occasion to tell them about the entire history of citizenship in India, about the enemy property act, how people were sent back, how people were killed, about the Nellie Massacre, we should tell them the entire history. 

A small portion of the speech was selected, misrepresented and vilified. His call for chakka jam mysteriously transformed into a call for dividing the nation, for which he was charged with sedition and arrested. FIRs were filed against him in as many as six different states and union territories. He was labelled as an Islamic fanatic by the media and there were even failed attempts to link him with organizations like the Popular Front of India (PFI). He is still in prison with no talk of letting him out even though the charges against him are not one step closer to being proven. Why such a paranoid response to a simple speech inside a university campus by a PhD scholar? Because India is not ready to treat a thinking Muslim as anything short of a national threat. As this piece arguing that India cannot allow for ‘critical Muslims’tells us:

Sharjeel spoke not merely of being Muslim, but also about Islam as a critical Muslim- which is what has unsettled many. It is important to stand by Sharjeel not merely because of his identity or because sedition is a colonial law or as a principle of constitutionality and freedom of expression. It is important to stand by him, for his intellect, his political conviction and his erudite critique of Indian fascism that has now redefined democracy, constitutionality and secularism.

To reiterate, while non-political under-trials are being let out of prisons in order to decongest them, ‘the politicals’ are not only being kept incarcerated on flimsy and fabricated charges but are also being actively arrested on equally flimsy and fabricated charges. It is clear that the Indian state is more afraid of the political assertion of minorities than of criminals. It is also clear that the real crime in India is not to murder and steal but to think.

There has rightly been a strong response from both national and international human rights activists condemning the SC order against Teltumbde and Navlakha which is a ‘virtual death warrant for them’ given their age and the condition of India’s prisons during Covid-19. We also want to bring attention to the less publicized cases of the ‘critical Muslims’ like Sharjeel Imam who need our support as much as the veteran activists. Does the government plan to kill them inside the prison as well, blaming it on Covid-19, or does it plan to act decently and humanely for once and release them? We hope it is the latter even though we fear that the government is only capable of the former.

Akshat Jain is a writer currently residing in India. He uses the debate methodology of Syādvāda to piss people off. Like a good Syādvādist, he claims that all his claims fall within the ambit of falsifiability.

Evita Das is an urban researcher who works on issues of caste and housing. She’s also associated with the National Alliance for People’s Movement and National Coalition for Inclusive and Sustainable Urbanization.



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