India: Covid anguish fuels calls to release human rights activists from jails | India


An ashen-faced Natasha Narwal emerged on bail from Delhi’s notorious Tihar jail on Monday evening. It was the freedom one of India’s most prominent feminist activists had spent a year fighting for, but this was an exit steeped only in sadness; it had come 24 hours too late.

A day earlier, Natasha’s 71-year-old father, Dr Mahavir Narwal, had died of Covid-19, alone in a hospital intensive care unit in the city of Rohtak – another victim of the devastating second wave that has swept India in recent weeks. So far the country has registered over 20m cases and more than a quarter of a million deaths, though most experts believe the true toll to be far higher.

“I hope I get to see her before I die,” Mahavir had said to a journalist six months earlier. “After all, I’m getting old.” Yet last week, as his condition deteriorated, he was not even been allowed to make a final phone call to his imprisoned daughter.

Natasha, the co-founder of the student feminist group Pinjra Tod, was among the human rights activists arrested last year for participating in protests against the government’s citizenship amendment act (CAA). The new citizenship law, which was passed by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) government led by the prime minister, Narendra Modi, in December 2019, was widely decried as unconstitutional and discriminatory towards Muslims.

Like hundreds of citizens and members of Indian civil society picked up in the sweeping crackdown against anti-CAA protesters, Natasha was accused of inciting violence. The law she and other activists were charged under, a draconian terrorism law known as the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), ensured they could be held in jail and denied bail for the past 12 months in the name of national security.

Lawyers say there is no evidence for the charges and rights groups have called the arrests politically motivated and an example of the BJP government’s intolerance of democratic dissent.

When Mahavir’s condition from coronavirus become critical last Friday, Natasha’s lawyers moved for immediate emergency bail in order to see her father. However, the court decided to postpone their decision to three days later. Two days later, Mahavir died.

“It is an example of the insensitivity and cruelty of the state against human rights activists,” said Apoorvanand, an outspoken professor at Delhi university who knew both Natasha and Mahavir. “They knew the urgency – that some in this condition with Covid can die within the hour. It’s effectively a punishment for someone who hasn’t even been put on trial yet and such a travesty of justice.”

On Monday, Natasha was granted three-week interim bail in order to cremate her father, as there was no one else able to perform the last rites. Pinjra Tod said justice arrived so late it had been “denied forever”.

“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,” Pinjra Tod said.

As the deadly Covid-19 second wave has engulfed India, and ripped like wildfire through its overcrowded, under-resourced prisons, there have been growing calls for those deemed political prisoners – the activists arrested as part of Modi’s vicious crackdown on dissent – to be granted the bail they have been repeatedly denied.

The impact of the pandemic on prisoners kept in jail on grounds many believe to be politically motivated has already been severe. Siddique Kappan, a Muslim journalist charged under UAPA after he was arrested last October while travelling to report on a rape incident in Uttar Pradesh, was infected with Covid-19 in jail in April. Kappan, who has diabetes, was eventually taken to hospital after collapsing, where he was kept handcuffed to a hospital bed for four days and not allowed to go to the bathroom, forced instead to urinate into a bottle. He was later discharged back to prison, still Covid-19 positive and suffering symptoms.

Natasha Narwal (centre, in PPE coveralls), released from Tihar jail on interim bail.
Natasha Narwal (centre, in PPE coveralls), released from Tihar jail on interim bail. Photograph: Getty

Several anti-CAA activists, including Umar Khalid and Khalid Saifi, who are both in jail under UAPA pending trial, have also caught Covid in prison but, according to their families, been denied proper treatment.

Saifi, one of the founders of the activist group United Against Hate, has been in Delhi’s Mandoli jail since his arrest in February 2020. He developed coronavirus symptoms more than 20 days ago but no tests were being done because he said prison officers were worried it would “cause trouble”. After his lawyers raised his case in court, Saifi was finally given a test and expired paracetamol.

“Khalid called me in a bad state after he heard about Natasha’s father,” said Nargis Saifi. “He is really worried about his own mother, who is 80, and kept saying, ‘If someone in my family dies, if my mother dies, or you die, then I would never have been able to see you again.’”

The Ministry of Home Affairs did not respond to requests for comment.

Apoorvanand described Natasha’s ordeal as “particularly heartbreaking”. Her mother died when she was 13 so Mahavir had raised his only daughter and her brother Akash as a single parent, in a household imbued with the same progressive values that had shaped his life.

Mahavir was, according to Meera Sanghamitra, an Indian human rights activist, “very proud” of Natasha’s activism, first as a co-founder of Pinjra Tod, a collective fighting for better rights and protection of women on university campuses, and then of her support to the peaceful women-led protests in Delhi opposing CAA.

“Their relationship was so beautiful; they weren’t just father and daughter, they were allies,” said Sanghamitra.



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