“Suppose my daughter has to be in jail for a very long time and there comes a time when she can’t see me. I’m getting old, maybe I won’t be able to see her.
Mahavir Singh Narwal had said this in November of last year, his voice breaking.
As a fierce second wave of the coronavirus pandemic erupted in India earlier this year, the 71-year-old retired professor was unable to meet his only daughter Natasha, one of India’s many political prisoners.
Narwal died on Sunday – awaiting the release of his daughter from a prison in the capital New Delhi – after contracting COVID-19 and hospitalized in northern Haryana state.
As her father’s condition deteriorated in hospital, Natasha filed for bail 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 interim bail, calling it “mandatory”, to allow him to cremate his father.
– Charmy Harikrishnan ചാമി 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 charge, despite outrage from rights groups and international organizations.
Activists are accused of “conspiring” to create religious riots in Delhi after staging protests against the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) passed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government in 2019.
At least 50 people, mostly Muslims, were killed in days of violence during anti-CAA protests in the capital’s northeast in February last year.
Hundreds of people, including college students, rights activists, academics and journalists, have been arrested as the Hindu nationalist government clamped down on dissent across the country, even as a deadly pandemic raged.
There is no doubt that this is the darkest hour in the journey of the Indian Republic. Democracy has never been so fragile.
Fearing an outbreak of the viral disease in overcrowded prisons, activists and rights groups have demanded the release of Indian political prisoners, some of whom are between 70 and 80 years old and therefore vulnerable to infection.
But most of their appeals went unanswered, with rare exceptions only when a prisoner’s condition became critical.
“India treats its political prisoners on trial like terrorists and insurgents,” prominent social activist Harsh Mander told Al Jazeera.
“They should have been released on bail for their safety, that of other prisoners and staff. Instead, the government made more arrests. “
The continued incarceration of activists has kept them away from the deaths and suffering of their loved ones, often taking away the last moments of grief and closure.
In a statement, Pinjra Tod, the women’s collective with which Natasha is associated, said even after her release on bail, “we can’t be happy.”
“The father she is going to cremate got tired for this moment: when she got out of prison and in the warmth of her arms, not the horror of her cold body,” the collective said in a statement.
‘System deaf to our cries of pain’
On May 3, Hany Babu, an imprisoned scholar and staunch anti-caste activist, complained of an acute eye infection which led to progressive loss of his vision, his wife Jenni Rowena said.
The 55-year-old Delhi University professor was arrested in July last year by India’s premier investigative agency for his alleged role in the Bhima-Koregaon violence.
The case refers to clashes that erupted between Dalits – formerly known as “the untouchables” – and right-wing Hindu groups in the villages of Bhima-Koregaon, in the western state of Maharashtra, on December 31, 2017.
India’s National Investigation Agency (NIA) has 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 the government, including “plotting the assassination” of the Indian prime minister.
Most of these prisoners are elderly activists who have been denied bail amid the pandemic. Their continued detentions have resulted in serious health complications.
“[The infection] has compromised vital organs and poses a significant threat to his life if it spreads to the brain, ”Rowena, Babu’s wife, told Al Jazeera.
Although Babu’s lawyers wrote to officials at Tajola Prison in Maharashtra, where he is being held, he was not taken to hospital. Instead, he was taken to a local ophthalmologist, who prescribed him antibacterial medication and asked him to return in two days.
But it was not picked up, his family told Al Jazeera.
Tajola prison has 3,500 inmates against the recommended capacity of 2,124 people. On May 7, a 22-year-old prisoner died of COVID-19 in prison while another is in hospital. Most overcrowded prisons across India lack basic health care facilities.
Rowen said Babu was denied access to clean drinking water to wash his eyes in the prison. “He is forced to dress his eyes with dirty towels,” she told Al Jazeera.
Other prisoners also alleged inhuman treatment and denial of medical treatment.
Swamy, 84, suffers from Parkinson’s disease. He was denied a sip of straw. Navlakha was refused glasses. Tembule, 72, suffers from asthma.
“The idea of asking Hany to ask for basic as well as essential health services is heartbreaking,” says Rowena, who has spent her days in anxiety since the onset of the devastating second wave of COVID-19.
“We are dealing with a callous and opaque system that is deaf to our cries of pain,” she told Al Jazeera.
“ The darkest hour in the journey of the Indian republic ”
On Tuesday, United Against Hate, a civil society initiative, hosted an online event with the families of jailed activists, who wrote to the Maharashtra government to seek interim bail, citing cases of the coronavirus detected among detainees and prison staff.
“Many of the inmates on trial are over 60, have co-morbidities and are likely to deteriorate quickly if infected with COVID-19,” the letter said.
“We are increasingly concerned about the medical assistance that would be available to detainees if they contract the fatal disease.”
Activist Mander told Al Jazeera that UAPA “is like a blank check, book anyone under anything.”
“All dissent is characterized as an act of conspiracy of insurgency or war against India. The reasons are not disclosed and the government keeps these ideas imprisoned indefinitely. “
The United Nations has called on governments to reduce their prison populations as much as possible due to the pandemic.
“Unfortunately, the Indian government has yet to release journalists, human rights activists or peaceful critics detained on false charges including sedition and terrorism which make bail difficult,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, director from Human Rights Watch for South Asia, to Al Jazeera.
Ganguly said the Indian government, using laws such as UAPA or sedition, makes “the process a punishment.”
“The use of these laws here is disproportionate and illegal,” she said, demanding that “defenders of human rights and freedom of expression” and “all those detained for peaceful protests Be released.
Mander said India’s descent into autocracy accelerated under a Hindu nationalist government.
“There is no doubt that this is the darkest hour in the journey of the Indian Republic. Democracy has never been so fragile, ”he said. “There is clearly an agenda to transform India into a very different country than promised in the constitution.”