Indian activists languish in jail despite soaring Covid rates

Original article here.

In India’s season of bottomless grief, Natasha Narwal’s final rites for her widowed father were among the most poignant.

A PhD student at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, Narwal was arrested last year under tough anti-terrorism laws for involvement in protests against controversial new citizenship rules. Her bail petitions were denied until May 10, the day after her 71-year-old father died of Covid-19. With his body lying unclaimed in hospital, and her brother ill with the virus, Narwal was allowed to go home for three weeks.

The image of Narwal lighting the pyre of her father — who had expressed support for her activism — was a potent reminder of India’s forgotten political prisoners, now languishing behind bars without trial as Covid rips through the population.

The recent arrest of young environmentalist Disha Ravi for alleged sedition for collaborating with Swedish activist Greta Thunberg to organise non-violent protests against controversial new Indian farm laws, vividly displayed New Delhi’s tough response to political dissent. Ravi, 22, was granted bail after nine days, thanks to a global outcry. But many other activists — human rights lawyers, professors and students — remain incarcerated under a harsh national security law that strips away basic due process, even as they await trial.

As India’s Covid-19 infections have surged recently, the authorities have released prisoners who pose no threat from overcrowded jails. But most dissidents are held under the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, which lawyers say removes the presumption of innocence until proven guilty and the right to bail. As a result, their bail pleas have been repeatedly rebuffed.

“These people have not been proven guilty — there has not been any evidence presented to suggest they are a threat to public security,” says Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director of Human Rights Watch. “Yet because they are being held under these draconian laws, they are not being released.”

India is currently holding two batches of activists under the UAPA — which was previously used to prosecute the surviving perpetrator of the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks.

The first are prominent advocates for marginalised communities, including indigenous tribes and Dalits, who are at the bottom of Hinduism’s caste order. New Delhi has accused them of instigating violence and supporting armed Maoist insurgents. Their arrests began in 2018, after Hindu nationalists clashed violently with thousands of Dalits at the commemoration of a historic battle that Dalits, formerly known as untouchables, view as a victory over their oppressors.

Among those arrested are Sudha Bharadwaj, 60, a human rights lawyer and National Law University professor; Stan Swamy, 84, a Jesuit priest afflicted with Parkinson’s; and Anand Teltumbde, 70, a Dalit academic married to the granddaughter of Bhim Rao Ambedkar, author of India’s liberal Constitution.

The second group are university students — mostly Muslims — who spoke out last year at large protests against controversial new citizenship rules seen as discriminating against Muslims. Prosecutors claim the students orchestrated deadly communal riots in Delhi in a conspiracy to embarrass the government.

The incarcerated activists face grim prospects, if the fate of Kanchan Nanaware is any indicator. Arrested under UAPA in 2014 for alleged involvement in a Maoist insurgency, she was incarcerated for six years and died in prison in January, aged 38, without ever being tried.

Apoorvanand, a Delhi University Hindi professor and vocal critic of the Modi government who uses only one name, says the use of anti-terror laws against student protesters is a grim public warning.

“A message is being conveyed . . . if you dare to protest, this is what we are going to do: we will ensure that you rot in the jails,” he tells me. “These are young people full of idealism . . . they think about their society, the less fortunate. If they have to pay such a price for their idealism, and if society keeps watching silently, I don’t know what kind of society we will become.”

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