The concerns expressed by a Supreme Court Bench on November 9 regarding the health of an elderly political prisoner Gautam Navlakha have been widely appreciated in the country. Justice Hrishikesh Roy found it disturbing that hardly any progress had been made since the charge-sheet against him was filed in October 2020 ( over two years ago). Justice K.M. Joseph stated, “ He is a 70 year old man. He is not in the best of health. We don’t know how long he will live.”
This brings back memories of the arrest and death in the course of imprisonment of Fr. Stan Swamy which was widely condemned not just in India but all over the world. As his health had deteriorated there were pleas from all over the world for his release but these were ignored and ultimately the 84 year old Jesuit priest, very highly respected for his long-term and passionate advocacy of human rights and rights of tribal communities died. This is very widely regarded to have been in a big tragedy which could have been easily avoided and this also led to the entirely avoidable tarnishing of the human rights records of India internationally.
Since then disturbing news of the deteriorating health of several political activists, including senior human rights activists, who are in prison has been appearing from time to time. These should not be neglected. As noted in the context of Gautam Navlakha by the respected Supreme Court judge quoted above, several such cases have been languishing for a long time without much progress having been made, with terrible consequences for elderly political prisoners suffering from health problems.
Hence there is a pressing need for quick and fair trial. The tendency to add false charges arbitrarily must be avoided. A balanced view must be taken. India is aspiring today for a very prominent role in international affairs. There is much talk of India playing a major peacemaking role in resolving the Ukraine conflict. This would help to raise India’s international stature to new heights. At this stage nothing should be done which will tarnish the human records of India internationally in the way that the serious mishandling of the case of Fr. Stan Swamy did. On the contrary, some major overdue improvements in the human rights record at this juncture would go very well with India’s role as a peacemaker in international affairs.
In this context a good beginning can be made with the pending case of Gautam Navlakha. The Supreme Court is already favorably considering his pleas for moving him to a state of house arrest. This is a good compromise position which should be acceptable to the government side. However this should be considered only as a beginning and this should be followed by other favorable actions to bring justice to political prisoners, including several unknown lawyers, writers, academics but also even higher numbers of grassroots activists whose names may not even have figured yet in human rights debates.
Gautam Navlakha had earlier served as a senior member of the editorial team of a very prestigious, internationally respected journal, Economic and Political Weekly. He struggled to bring out and then continue a Hindi journal Saanchaa which could play a similar role of advancing justice based concerns in Hindi. He was for years an active member of a human rights organization which was earlier headed by a senior and highly respected Supreme Court lawyer.
In the interesting debate that took place in the Supreme Court of India on November 9 while hearing the case of Gautam Navlakha, an important point made by Justice K.M. Joseph was that the biggest danger to the country comes from those indulging in high-level corruption. He gave an example of crores of rupees being spent to buy elected representatives. Those indulging in such big corruption are the biggest danger but “they go on merrily. They are moneybags and they can get away with it.”
In other words, the learned judge was telling the government to get its priorities right—Go after the really dangerous corrupt persons and forces and stop being unduly and unreasonably harsh on political prisoners. The government will do well to accept the advice of the learned judge. A god beginning will hopefully soon be made by moving Gautam Navlakha to house arrest.
Bharat Dogra is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include Planet in Peril, Protecting Earth for Children and A Day in 2071.