Amnesty International India
8 April 2020
The last time I met my mother – Professor Shoma Sen, was on 29 February 2020 at the Byculla District Jail in Mumbai for 15 minutes. All meetings at the jail have been cancelled in the wake of the nation-wide lockdown announced from 25 March 2020. On Sunday, 5 April 2020, many heeded the Prime Minister’s call to light candles and show solidarity against the novel coronavirus. Meanwhile, some of us, families of the Bhima Koregaon arrestees, remained in the dark about the future of our loved ones.
The Supreme Court on 23 March 2020 directed all states and union territories to set up high-level committees to determine the class of prisoners who could be released on parole for four to six weeks. This was done keeping in mind overcrowding in prisons that could put prisoners and others at a higher risk of contracting the novel coronavirus.
Koel Sen with her mother Shoma Sen
Shortly thereafter, the Maharashtra government constituted a High Powered Committee on 24 March 2020 headed by the Chairman of the Maharashtra State Legal Services Authority. In a meeting on March 25, guidelines for release of the prisoners were framed by the Committee. The Committee directed prisoners (both undertrial and convicts) who are sentenced or accused of offences punishable with 7 years or less, to be released on temporary bail or parole.
Thereafter, the State Home Ministry notified the release of 11,000 inmates from prisons across the state for 45 days on emergency parole. However, this High Powered Committee had made “a rather artificial distinction” between prisoners who are accused of offences under the Indian Penal Code and those accused under special legislations such as the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), which the nine Bhima Koregaon activists have been charged under. Because of this unreasonable classification drawn by the Committee, only about a thousand prisoners have been released till date.
With our lawyers, working day and night for their release, they have been allowed to call their families from jail – but only for two minutes! The phone call is made using only one mobile phone that is ‘shared’ by 3,000 prisoners.
Each inmate is allowed exactly two minutes to talk, and the phone gets disconnected automatically after two minutes.
I haven’t even received that two-minute phone call from my mother yet. This situation is not only frustrating, but also quite frightening, considering the COVID-19 pandemic, for family members of the nine Bhima Koregaon activists who are currently in jail. My 61-years old mother suffers from anxiety, hypertension, glaucoma, arthritis and low immunity. Varavara Rao, a Telugu poet in jail for the same case, is 79-years-old and suffers from respiratory problems and piles. His condition worsens with every passing day.
On 30 March 2020, two bail applications were filed for my mother and Varavara Rao. The National Investigation Agency’s Special Court that heard their bail pleas for release on medical grounds due to the COVID-19 risk brushed aside these facts claiming that the conditions for them inside prison do not change much. They were denied interim-bail.
The pandemic is spreading quickly in America’s jails and prisons right now. The United States of America, a developed nation with advanced healthcare facilities is struggling to deal with this issue. Have we even considered, what would happen if the virus spreads inside Indian jails? Forget sanitizers and masks, these undertrial activists who are lodged in Taloja and Byculla jails only get two buckets of water for each cell that is crowded with at least 30 inmates! Even washing hands repeatedly, as is advised by health authorities, is not possible.
The novel coronavirus pandemic is being fought vigorously throughout India. State Governments are gearing up steadily, but the general public still remains in the dark about any concrete plan of action from the government, in case the numbers start growing exponentially.
If people like us get infected, we can still access hospitals. But what if this pandemic spreads inside our over-crowded jails with no hygiene standards followed and lack of space to practice social distancing?
When those of us who are in the comforts of our homes and close to our loved ones, are battling anxieties and confusion about our future amidst the lockdown, one can only imagine the mental health condition of our family members inside prisons.
We urge the Government of Maharashtra to intervene in this case as these jails fall under the state government’s jurisdiction. Every life must be protected during this time and any inaction on the state’s part would be irresponsible.
These arrestees are well-known members of the civil society. They have homes and families that depend on them. They are just as likely, if not more, to follow the same conditions laid out for bail or parole as any other prisoner. They certainly deserve the same empathy from our judicial system.
Who are the Bhima Koregaon 9?
In 2018, nine prominent activists were arrested by the Pune police for alleged involvement in the violence that erupted between Dalits and Hindu Nationalists in January 2018 in Bhima Koregaon, Maharashtra. The government claims they are ‘anti-nationals’ working against the country. However in the opinion of communities, they are hailed as brave activists, committed to the cause of the poorest and most marginalised communities in the country, like Dalits & Adivasis.
Special NIA judge RR Bhosale observed while rejecting the bail pleas that the charges against the accused under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) are serious and the UAPA was not covered under the government notification for release of prisoners.
About the author: Koel Sen is the daughter of activist Shoma Sen.