“Suppose my daughter has to stay in jail for a really long time and there comes a time when she is not able to see me. I am growing old, maybe I won’t get to see her.”
Mahavir Singh Narwal had said this in November last year, his voice cracking.
As a ferocious second wave of the coronavirus pandemic erupted in India earlier this year, the 71-year-old retired professor could not meet his only daughter Natasha, one of India’s numerous political prisoners.
Narwal died on Sunday – awaiting his daughter’s release from a jail in capital New Delhi – after he contracted COVID-19 and was hospitalised in the northern Haryana state.
As her father’s condition deteriorated in hospital, Natasha filed a bail plea seeking release to look after 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 “imperative”, to allow her to cremate her father.
— Charmy Harikrishnan ചാമി ഹരികൃഷ്ണൻ (@charmyh) May 11, 2021
Natasha, 32, is among dozens of activists jailed last year under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), a stringent anti-terror law that allows detention for up to 180 days without charges, despite outrage by rights groups and international organisations.
The activists are accused of a “conspiracy” to create religious riots in Delhi after they organised protests against the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) passed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government in 2019.
At least 50 people, most of them Muslims, were killed in days-long violence during the anti-CAA protests in the northeastern part of the capital in February last year.
Hundreds of people, including university students, rights activists, academics and journalists, were arrested as the Hindu nationalist government clamped down on dissent across the country, even as a deadly pandemic raged.
There is no doubt this is the darkest hour in the journey of the Indian republic. Democracy has never been this fragile.
Fearing an outbreak of the viral disease in overcrowded prisons, activists and rights groups have been demanding the release of India’s political prisoners, some of whom are in their 70s and 80s and therefore vulnerable to infection.
But most of their pleas have gone unheard, with rare exceptions made only when the condition of a prisoner turned critical.
“India treats its undertrial political prisoners as terrorists and insurrectionists,” prominent social activist Harsh Mander told Al Jazeera.
“They should have been given bail for the sake of their safety, and of other prisoners and the staff. Instead, the government has made new arrests.”
The continued incarceration of the activists has distanced them from the deaths and sufferings of their relatives, often taking away the final moments of grief and closure.
In a statement, Pinjra Tod, the women’s collective Natasha is associated with, said even after her release on interim bail, “one cannot rejoice.”
“The father who she is going to cremate wearied himself for this moment: when she would walk out of jail and into the warmth of his arms, not the horror of his cold body,” the collective said in a statement.
‘System deaf to our cries of pain’
On May 3, Hany Babu, a jailed academic and staunch anti-caste activist, complained of an acute eye infection which has led to a gradual loss of his vision, his wife Jenni Rowena said.
The 55-year-old professor at the University of Delhi was arrested in July last year by India’s premier investigation agency for his alleged role in the Bhima-Koregaon violence.
The case refers to clashes that erupted between Dalits – formerly referred to as “the untouchables” – and Hindu right-wing groups in Bhima-Koregaon villages in the western state of Maharashtra on December 31, 2017.
India’s National Investigation Agency (NIA) 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 the extreme-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 amidst the pandemic. Their continuous 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,” Babu’s wife Rowena told Al Jazeera.
Despite Babu’s lawyers writing to officials at Tajola jail in Maharashtra, where he is held, he was not taken to the hospital. Instead, he was taken to a local eye specialist, who prescribed anti-bacterial medicines and asked him to return in two days.
But he was not taken back, his family told Al Jazeera.
Tajola prison has 3,500 prisoners against the recommended capacity of 2,124. On May 7, a 22-year-old undertrial prisoner died of COVID-19 in the jail while another is in hospital. Most of the overcrowded jails across India lack basic healthcare facilities.
Rowen said Babu has been deprived of access to clean water to wash his eyes in the prison. “He is forced to dress his eyes with soiled towels,” she told Al Jazeera.
Other prisoners have also alleged inhuman treatment and denial of medical attention.
Swamy, 84, suffers from Parkinson’s disease. He was denied a straw sipper. Navlakha was denied spectacles. Tembule, 72, has asthma.
“The thought of having Hany beg for as basic as essential health services is heart-wrenching,” says Rowena, who has been spending her days in anxiety since the devastating second COVID-19 wave began.
“We are dealing with a callous and opaque system which is deaf to our cries of pain,” she told Al Jazeera.
‘Darkest hour in journey of Indian republic’
On Tuesday, United Against Hate, a civil society initiative, organised an online event with the families of jailed activists, who have written to the Maharashtra government seeking interim bail, citing coronavirus cases detected among inmates and staffers in the jails.
“Many of the undertrial detainees are over 60 years, with comorbidities and are susceptible to rapid deterioration of health in the event of COVID-19 infection,” said the letter.
“We are increasingly worried about the medical assistance that would be available to the prison inmates should they contract the deadly disease.”
Activist Mander told Al Jazeera the UAPA “is like a blank cheque, booking anybody under anything”.
“All the dissent is dubbed as an act of conspiracy of insurrection or waging a war against India. Grounds are not conveyed and the government keeps these ideas imprisoned indefinitely.”
The United Nations has called on governments to reduce their prison population wherever possible due to the pandemic.
“Unfortunately, the Indian government is yet to release journalists, human rights activists or peaceful critics held on bogus charges including those of sedition and terrorism which make bail hard,” Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director of Human Rights Watch, told Al Jazeera.
Ganguly said the Indian government, by using laws such as the UAPA or sedition, is making “the process a punishment”.
“The use of these laws here are disproportionate and unlawful,” she said, demanding that the “defenders of human rights and freedom of speech” and “all people held for peaceful protests” must be released.
Mander said India’s descent into autocracy has hastened 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 this fragile,” he said. “There is clearly an agenda of transforming India into a very different country than that was promised in the constitution.”