POSTED ON MAY 26, 2021
On 5 October 2020, the Uttar Pradesh police arrested the freelance journalist Siddique Kappan while he was on his way to report on the brutal gang-rape of a Dalit woman near the city of Hathras in Uttar Pradesh. He was booked for sedition and offences under the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. On 15 February, the Supreme Court granted him five days of bail to meet his ailing mother, but he was not allowed to speak to the media. In recent months, Siddique’s health condition has been deteriorating, and on 21 April, he tested positive for COVID-19. That same day Kappan was taken to KM Medical College in Mathura for treatment, where he was kept chained to a bed and not allowed to use the toilet. On 29 April, the Supreme Court ordered that Siddique be transferred to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in Delhi, where he was admitted the next day. The same day, Raihana Kappan, his wife, arrived in Delhi but was not allowed to meet her husband. On the night of 6 May, the Uttar Pradesh police took Siddique back to Mathura jail, without informing his family or his lawyer. At the time of publishing, the condition of Siddique’s health remained unclear.
NABEELA PANIYATH AND SHAHID TANTRAY
On 7 May, Nabeela Paniyath, a multimedia editor at The Caravan, and Shahid Tantray, a multimedia reporter at The Caravan, spoke to Raihana about Siddique’s condition, the struggles her family has had to go through during his incarceration, and its fight for his release.
Nabeela Paniyath: When did you arrive in Delhi? Why did you need to come here?
Raihana Kappan: I reached here on the first [of May]. The Supreme Court had ordered to move my husband to AIIMS for treatment as he had fallen sick. The court had said that his family can visit. The Supreme Court was also informed that he had tested negative for COVID. So, I thought it was possible to meet him and take care of him.
As soon as I arrived on 1 May, I tried to meet him, but I wasn’t allowed to. The visiting time at AIIMS is between 4 and 6 pm. The evening of 2 May, my son, a friend of ours and I went to AIIMS to meet him. We could not get past the door of the ward, there were policemen outside the entrance. We told the police that we are Siddique’s wife and son, and that we just wanted to see him once. They denied us entry.
After a lot of pleading, they asked us for our ID cards. I had our Aadhar card with us. They took photographs of it and took it to the police inside the ward. When they asked for permission from the police inside, it was denied again. They returned and informed us that we can’t meet him. We pleaded with them for almost two and a half hours, that we just needed to see him and talk to him for a brief time, and we’ll leave. They told us it was not possible, and asked us to leave.
NP: What was Siddique’s health status at the time of his discharge? How did you come to know that he was taken back?
RK: [On the night of 6 May] I came to know, not officially, but through someone else, that he was discharged. There was no information on where he was taken, we only knew that he was discharged. Then a few journalists confirmed that he had been taken away from AIIMS. I called AIIMS and the superintendent informed me that he was taken, and that he had reached his destination at 1.30 am. Later, [on the morning of 7 May] Siddique called me and said that he was brought there at 1.30 am in the night, and he has been put in a room with no bathroom. He had called me at 11 in the morning, they had allowed him to call. He told me he was to be put in isolation for 14 days in Mathura jail.
NP: How was his health during his incarceration?
RK: Siddique fasts twice a week. And now it is the month of Ramadan. Before Ramadan, he caught a fever. He had told me when he called that he is in pain and it’s unbearable. Then, we did not know that it was COVID. After around 12 or 15 days, when he called me, he told me he is really ill with pain. I asked him to stop fasting. He said it doesn’t matter if he doesn’t fast because there’s no food. He said even the water is not clean.
That night around 3 in the morning, he got up to go to the bathroom, which is located in the hall. He was waiting outside the bathroom as there was someone in there. It was then that he fainted. When he fell unconscious, there were people around. He got injuries on his jaw and nose. I do not know the complete details of his injuries even now. They took him to the hospital in the jail, and there he tested positive for COVID. He was taken that morning to KM Medical College in Mathura. It was his lawyer who called me up at 8 in the morning and informed that Siddique has tested positive. He downplayed the situation so as to not give me a fright. After this, there was no information about what was happening inside the medical college. I called up the Kerala Union of Working Journalists, who asked the local journalists to fetch information from the medical college.
NP: How did you come to know that he was chained to the bed? What was your reaction to this news?
RK: [On 24 April] I got a call from Siddique. It was a stranger’s phone that he got hold of somehow. He spoke to me only for two minutes. He didn’t know that I knew about his latest condition. So, he told me that that he fainted, and that he was tested positive and brought to the hospital. He said he can’t eat, as he is in pain, due to injuries on his face. He wanted to use the toilet, but they had chained him to the bed. “I haven’t gone to the toilet for this many days,” he said. “They are not unfastening my chains. There is a bottle to urinate in. I need to go to the toilet.”
This conversation was happening three days after they had taken him to the medical college. I was in such a shock. He told me these things and cut the call. He was barely able to speak. “Ask them to somehow take me back to the jail, it is better than this. At least I can go to the bathroom and there will be no chains,” he said. I called the lawyer and told him about this.
The lawyer then again prepared a letter to the Supreme Court informing it of this and asking the court to move him to AIIMS or to Kerala. I also called all the MPs and let them know of the situation. Eleven MPs wrote letters to the Supreme Court judges, highlighting the violation of human rights. The journalists had also called me then, as soon as they got to know that he was hospitalised. The [Kerala] chief minister intervened in it. He had not intervened so far, but when he heard about the violation, he wrote a letter to the UP chief minister Yogi Adityanath. So, the Supreme Court took it seriously.
Shahid Tantray: How supportive has the Kerala government been?
RK: The Kerala government had initially provided no support. It is unknown as to why the support was absent. The chief minister had not given a reason for this. It was when the CM got to know about my husband being in chains that he intervened, for the first time. Until then, we had requested him many times to take some action. I had gone to collectorate, written letters. I had received a reply from the DGP, which said that as it was outside the jurisdiction of Kerala, the powers and right to intervene was very limited. Yes, there would be limitations. But at least now when the situation got very critical, he intervened, and I am grateful for that.
NP: When he was out on interim bail for five days in February 2021, what did he talk about? Did he tell you about the conditions in jail?
RK: Yes. In the initial days of the arrest, for more than a month, we had no clue about his whereabouts. We didn’t even know if he was alive. He had talked about those days, when he was locked inside a school building with around five hundred other people. Some object was placed to urinate in, to go to the toilet, the police asked them to simply stop going, until the authorities came. These people were treated like animals. There was no choice but to survive it. He survived. It was later that the Supreme Court intervened. They had been locked up in the school building saying it was quarantine. After they were moved to Mathura jail, he was relieved from this mental torture.
NP: A lot of people are vocal about your husband’s case. But some are hesitant because of the allegations that he is linked to the Popular Front of India—an Islamic youth organisation. Why do you think these allegations came up and what do you think about them?
RK: It is true that the allegations around Popular Front is one reason why many have hesitated to be involved in this issue. My husband is not a member of the Popular Front. He had initially worked in Tejas [a newspaper run by the PFI] from 2011 till it shut down in 2018. There are many who worked in it, and not all of them are with the Popular Front, right?
When he was going to Hathras, he was travelling with a member of the Popular Front. There were two of them. One was a student from Jamia associated with Campus Front [a student organisation] and the other a Popular Front member. Now why did he travel with them? He had asked everybody to call him in case anyone is leaving for Hathras. He is currently working in Azhimukham [a Malayalam news website], which doesn’t have its own vehicles for commuting. It was also a financially difficult time for him. So going along with two-three others would mean shared expenses.
The next concern was language in Hathras. He only knows the Hindi that he had studied till tenth grade and what he later picked up from his time in Delhi. But the language of the village would be different, he needed someone who could translate. The companions were from UP, and one of them was his friend from Tejas. As my husband has worked here for nine years, he has many friends here, not only from Popular Front, but also from the BJP, the RSS, the Congress, the CPI-M, and of course other journalists. He had good relations with all of them. I think this was more of a warning for others. The government was saying any issue in UP should be left alone, and no one should dare enter its borders to report. If one enters, this will be the fate.
NP: Is the Popular Front helping you with his case in any way?
RK: No, they have no role in this. They are dealing with cases against their own members. This case is supported by journalists, not the Popular Front. The journalists’ union from Kerala is conducting the case and it is they who appointed the lawyer. They are the ones who are helping us.
ST: Do you think he was targeted because he is Muslim?
RK: Yes, there is that angle to this too. He is Muslim, not to generalise, but this turn of events was dictated by the fact that he was a Muslim. He could easily be labelled as a member of the Popular Front. No matter how much we say he’s not, or that there’s no evidence, they desperately wanted to stamp him with that label. That was their aim.
ST: There are two portraits of Siddique Kappan right now. One, the journalist who was trying to do his job. The other, the Popular Front member who is associated with extremism or seditious activity. What do you wish to tell the world that is divided on these lines?
RK: I ignore the other image. Even the people who are keeping him in detention know that Siddique Kappan is innocent, that he has done nothing. He was made a victim, a prey. The people who support this stance are not going to change their position. No matter how many times we tell them of his innocence, they won’t change their stance. It is only a waste of our time. Siddique Kappan is a journalist, and I’m really proud of that. Sometimes I get really down, but then my children tell me, “Uppachi, he has done nothing wrong. There hasn’t been a single unnecessary issue in our hometown, or during the nine years he spent in Delhi. Not even a single petty case. How can a person like this suddenly become a terrorist?”
ST: With the pandemic raging, what is your biggest fear regarding Siddique?
RK: I am not only afraid of corona, more than that I fear for his life. He is in UP—they have done so much to a person who has done nothing wrong. They won’t hesitate to do anything they want to him. So, I’m really scared, I feel like his life is under threat.
NP: Even before Hathras and his arrest, you mentioned he interviewed GN Saibaba. He was interested in India’s political environment and empathetic towards the causes of the undertrial prisoners in India. Has he shared any memory about those times?
RK: When GN Saibaba got arrested, like you are interviewing me right now, he had interviewed Saibaba’s wife. He had told me that they had arrested a man who needed three people’s help to stand up. He said that he couldn’t bear to listen to Saibaba’s wife describing this. When he had shared all of this with me, I had never imagined that I, too, would be in a similar situation to her.
NP: Has he shared any of his aspirations with you, that he wished to fulfill as a journalist? Something like a dream, the kind of stories he wanted to do?
RK: He had many dreams. No matter what, he wanted to be a journalist with freedom. He wanted to write truths. He didn’t want to keep truth aside, or bring in modifications to it. That angered him. He wanted to state only the truth, and he would take any risk to publish the truth. He would set out to observe and study a situation, and then write about it. He never targeted a single party or person, he stood unbiased with respect to any party be it good or bad.
NP: The COVID-19 situation in Delhi has been dire. Why did you take the risk of coming all this way? How is the situation at home?
RK: I left my daughter, who is eight years old, and my son at home. I have brought my elder son along. Siddique’s mother is in a very serious condition. She has to have a tube in her nose and lies down on a water bed. My daughter cries all day, she is really scared of losing me too. For the past seven months, we’ve entirely been caught in this issue, so she is really scared. I have left them all and come here to meet him. And yet I haven’t seen him. I wanted to give him courage. He would feel a bit relieved if he sees me, right? That’s why I took the risk.
NP: Your daughter video-calls you often. What does she say about everything that is happening?
RK: Initially, she cried miserably every day. This has been going on for seven months. Initially we had our hopes high for every hearing, that he would be released. They are children who are unaware of the case, arrest and all these things, right? They don’t know anything. Gradually, they understood the process. After every hearing when he is not released, she cries. She gets angry too, asking, “Why isn’t uppa home? It was told that this time he’d be back.” Now they are more mature. They pray, they are sad. They cry when they get to speak on the phone. Their father too gets really sad when he hears their voice.
NP: Do you have permission to speak to him daily over the phone?
RK: The lawyer spoke to the jail superintendent today. We sent a letter requesting that I be allowed to meet him in Uttar Pradesh. I have not seen him even once since the arrest. The superintendent now replied saying that he is COVID positive and in isolation, so no one is allowed to meet him. The superintendent said that they’ll take care of him.
ST: You came all the way to Delhi, hoping to meet him, and you couldn’t. How is your current mental state? How do you feel about the court’s actions?
RK: The court has stood in our favour. It said that I am his wife, we would both have relief and peace if we could meet. The court understood that. But it wasn’t specifically mentioned in the order. If they had mentioned it, we would have already met. What can I say about how I feel? What do I say? I have stayed for these many days and couldn’t see him. I am tense. I think I’ll have to go back home. If I hadn’t come at all, I’m sure I would have felt even worse, constantly wondering if I might have been able to meet him.
NP: You are here with no political power or contacts. And you as a woman, have come all the way to Delhi in such a threatening scenario. Where do you find the strength to keep fighting?
RK: Maybe it’s because of his prayers that I could be this brave. I have truth with me, and I should not be afraid. I am not scared to speak when I have the truth by my side. I don’t have second thoughts in asking for help or explaining the situation, as I have truth with me. I am not asking anyone to save me by lying, right? I’m proud of my husband, I have no doubts on talking about him to anyone. I’m only proud of him.
ST: Do you feel like the road to justice is too long?
RK: I am aware that it is for justice. But yes, I have also seen the cases of many others whose trial is never ending, it keeps going on and on. In some cases, it has taken ten years to prove innocence and for the person to be freed. The fear of such a possibility is not small. At times, I collapse mentally, and then I regain strength and get up. I remind myself that I can’t fall back, I must fight.
But yes, analysing the whole situation, one can’t help but feel fear. The charge sheet itself is 5,500 pages long. Even if you write a story starting from one’s birth, from the mother’s womb, it wouldn’t be 5,500 pages long. They have fabricated many things. Only 45 pages were made available to us, even to the lawyer. No one has seen the full charge sheet, not even the court. In these 45 pages, there is nothing substantial. There are a lot of cooked up stories, but nothing in these 45 pages can actually trap Siddique.
ST: This is the holy month of Ramadan. What have been your prayers during this month? What do you want as a gift for Eid?
RK: My prayers since this issue started were for his release, and that God protects his courage to go on. To protect my strength and courage, too. Siddique must be praying for the same, so that I remain strong. His mind shouldn’t quiver. His physical health has crashed, he has diabetes, and he barely gets enough food. I am scared for his immunity. It is with God’s grace that he is okay even without proper meals. To give him back to me and my family is the only gift I want for Eid. If the court gives me that gift, I’d want nothing else from this world.
This interview has been edited and condensed.