Jyoti Punwani


From the shadows of dissent

Susan Abraham with husband Vernon Gonsalves, an accused in the Bhima Koregaon case, and son Sagar, in May 2017By Jyoti Punwani

On Friday morning, the Bombay High Court rejected the parole application of GN Saibaba, the Delhi University professor undergoing a life sentence in Nagpur jail since 2017 for “Maoist links”. His wife Vasantha Kumari’s first thought was how she would break this news to his mother, in hospital for cancer, the woman who’d taught him to be selfsufficient as a polio-afflicted child who had to crawl to school.

The second thought was about having to inform the media of this latest setback and hope they would highlight once more the precarious condition of the 53-year-old, a 90 per cent handicapped prisoner, who needs urgent medical help.

Saibaba’s case has been taken up by the UN. There’s also a ‘Committee for the Defence and Release’ of the wellknown dissident. But finally, it is Vasantha Kumari who’s been holding the fort. Her husband’s first brush with the police was in 2013, so she is now a pro at interacting with the media. Nevertheless, the homemaker, who made it possible for her wheelchairbound husband to have a successful teaching career, broke down over the phone when asked how she’s coping.

From the shadows of dissent

Koel Sen with Shoma, who was arrested in Bhima Koregaon case
The same question elicited an almost-identical response from another woman, far away from Vasantha, but intimately connected to her. Forty six-year-old Minal Gadling’s world came crashing down on June 5, 2018, when her husband Surendra Gadling — Saibaba’s lawyer — was arrested for his alleged role in the January 1, 2018 Bhima Koregaon violence.

“Of course, I feel depressed,” says Gadling, referring to the denial of bail to her husband and the fear of the coronavirus affecting the 52-year-old in Taloja Jail. Gadling has high BP and had to undergo an angiography in prison. “But if I succumb to this feeling, how will I help my two children and mother-in-law cope?”

During the freedom struggle, many women took over the mantle of resistance when their husbands were arrested. A similar thing is happening today. Women are waging an endless battle to free family members arrested under the most stringent of laws.

Susan Abraham shot off an angry letter last week to the Mumbai Police Commissioner and the Chief Justice of the Bombay High Court after Crime Branch officials visited her home ostensibly to inquire about her imprisoned husband’s whereabouts, and recorded her son’s statement.

From the shadows of dissent

(L) Lawyer-activist Sudha Bhardwaj with daughter Maaysha Nehra; Vasantha Kumari, wife of DU professsor GN Saibaba, who is currently behind bars
For Abraham, this kind of swift and angry response against the authorities is not new. For one, she is herself a human rights activist. Secondly, this is her second fight for husband Vernon Gonsalves. For the six years that he was in jail from 2007, on charges of being a Naxalite, Abraham had to struggle on various fronts: help his lawyers; counter the police version appearing in the media; help her aged parents and mother-in-law deal with the blow; and most importantly, protect her then 13-year-old son from the repercussions of the arrest.

Today, it’s her son who protects her, says Abraham. While her parents are no longer alive — “they wouldn’t have survived this trauma a second time” — Vernon’s mother, now 98, misses the care he would lavish on her. Incidentally, when a young Vernon had just started on a corporate career, it was his mother who had prodded him to work for the poor.

Abraham fears that the humungous nature of this new case linking nine activists with the Bhima Koregaon violence, in which the chargesheets run into almost 10,000 pages, means an unending trial. “All the more reason that the accused need to be out on bail,” she says. When Mirror spoke to the 61-year-old, she was in the midst of consulting lawyers about fresh bail petitions to be filed, given the outbreak of Covid-19 in Byculla Jail.

Being a lawyer helps. “Fortunately, lawyers have no retirement age,” she says. “I can carry on with my practice and maintain a sense of balance, else the trauma would have overwhelmed me.’’

Women without such a background were indeed overwhelmed when the arrests took place. Maaysha Nehra couldn’t stop weeping for weeks after her mother lawyer Sudha Bhardwaj was arrested in October 2018. “I still cry,” she says. “I can’t stop, and I don’t want to, because it’s good to cry. It won’t make you weak. It makes you strong, it makes you rise again, and after some time I start handling things better.”

The arrest prompted Nehra to write moving articles on her relationship with her mother, which spoke of her childhood resentment at her mother’s preoccupation with helping the poor. Today, the 22-year-old psychology student manages her own life, having learnt to live without “friends” who suddenly turned distant after her mother’s arrest.

From the shadows of dissent

Minal Gadling with husband Surendra
“You have to battle your own trauma; nobody can help with that,’’ she says, while gratefully acknowledging the support given by her mother’s friends and the Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha, the organisation her mother devoted her life to. “Yeah, I’m all grown up now,” she laughs. “But I’m waiting to be a baby again when my mother comes back.”

Minal Gadling admits it took her very long to come out of the shock of her husband’s arrest. “Never had we imagined this,” she says. But within four months, she was addressing a public meeting in Mumbai, held in solidarity with the Bhima Koregaon accused.

This new role has been difficult. “I was a housewife,” explains Gadling. “I didn’t interact much with outsiders.” Now, apart from having to deal with the media, Gadling has had to step out to earn too. Sometimes she wishes her husband had stuck to his plans of working in the railways, so she could have led a “normal” life. But then she remembers why he became a lawyer: “To pay back his debt to the man who has been his inspiration — Babasaheb Ambedkar. From him he learnt that a worthwhile life is one spent in helping others.”

Iltija Mufti describes herself as a very private person who hates being on camera. Yet, there’s hardly a media platform, national or international, where the 32-year-old daughter of former Jammu and Kashmir CM Mehbooba Mufti, who continues to be in detention, has not voiced her strong opposition to the central government, and not just for its actions in Kashmir. “It was a baptism by fire. I could not stay silent and hope others would speak up. If you have a tongue, you must use it. It’s not like an appendix, which has no function. What more could they do? They had already taken away my mother.”

Iltija had been warned that her mother would be booked under PSA if she continued to speak up, and that did happen. There wasn’t much support for her; indeed, she was subjected to vicious trolling. None of that deterred her. The failure of the judiciary to check the arbitrary and often unconstitutional acts of the government, and the double standards so blatantly at work, which have resulted in Hindutva terror accused and lawyers being given bail, have pushed these women to despair.

“I’m tired of writing,’’ says Koel, daughter of Prof Shoma Sen, another of the Bhima Koregaon accused. The 33-year old filmmaker has written her heart out to highlight the absurdity of the charges against her mother, who was arrested just before she was to retire as head of Nagpur University’s English department; she’s been in the thick of campaigns to release the Bhima Koregaon accused. “Writing repeatedly has drained me mentally,” she says. “More people need to talk about these arrests. How long will we, family members, keep crying for their release!”

Koel’s Facebook descriptions of her meetings with her mother in court and jail have moved many. She admits to putting up a brave face whenever she meets Shoma. “She’s the one in jail after all. I have my friends with whom I can share my feelings after I meet her.”

One factor these young women have had to deal with, which men their age would not have faced, is what Iltija calls their “infantilisation”. Iltija angrily recalls a comment made by a woman panelist on a TV show: “‘Yeh to bacchi hai, she’s missing her mother’. And this when I have always spoken up, not just about my mother, but also about the repression of all dissenters.’’

courtesy Mumbai Mirror