We are only as free as those we love

Shriya Mohan | Updated on August 14, 2020

Long live: Varavara Rao recovered from Covid-19 but isolation in prison took a toll on his health   -  PTI

For the families of political prisoners, daily life is an endless rigmarole of legal battles for the bail of their loved ones

* The pandemic and the resulting curfew on prison visits and postal delivery have exacerbated the isolation of political prisoners like GN Saibaba, Varavara Rao, Dr Kafeel Khan, Sudha Bharadwaj and others, cutting them off further from their families — the very people who are rooting for their innocence and freedom.

For Vasantha Kumari, time is measured in 15-day intervals, marked by the ring of her telephone. The call lasts only 10 minutes, but there’s a lot of turf to cover each time. So she runs over the points in her head as she clutches the phone and waits at the one spot in the house that has reliable network signal.

Love and longing: Vasantha Kumari waits by the phone every 15 days to talk to her husband, GN Saibaba, lodged in the Nagpur Central Prison from 2017   -  THE HINDU


When the phone rings, she answers in half a moment. On the other end is the feeble voice of her husband, GN Saibaba, who has been locked up in the anda cell of Nagpur Central Prison since 2017. A wheelchair user with 90 per cent disability, the English professor of Delhi University’s Ramlal Anand College had been in and out of prison since May 2014. But his current stint has been the longest, after the Gadchiroli sessions court sentenced him to life imprisonment in March 2017 for “waging war” against India. He was convicted under various sections of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) and section 120B of the Indian Penal Code for connections with the banned Revolutionary Democratic Front (RDF), an organisation allegedly affiliated to the Communist Party of India (Maoist). His family maintains that he has been targeted for being a fearless critic of the State’s development and human rights policies.


The pandemic and the resulting curfew on prison visits and postal delivery have exacerbated the isolation of political prisoners like him, cutting them off further from their families — the very people who are rooting for their innocence and freedom.

Love in silence

“I am Sai’s eyes and ears to the world outside. Those 10 minutes are all we have,” says Kumari. The monthly jaali mulaqat or window meeting at the prison are no longer possible now. It was also an occasion to exchange letters and books. And he would have access to newspapers, albeit with censored news items. All of it gave him a will to survive.

It even spurred poetry in his letter-writing. In 2017 he wrote:

Yes, my love

I like your scribbled letters...

They display the gestures

of your hands when you speak...

I defeat the purpose of the solitary confinement by drowning myself in your letters of love

But a virus has ripped apart this vital human contact since March.

Kumari, meanwhile, has left no stone unturned in fighting for her husband’s bail. She, along with senior advocate Mihir Desai, has written to the president, the National Human Rights Commission, Maharashtra chief minister Uddhav Thackeray, various UN bodies (including one on arbitrary detention) and mobilised local and international support. As a paraplegic, Saibaba is entitled to rights under the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which India has ratified. The UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners also pushes for prompt access to medical care in urgent cases. But Kumari says her pleas have fallen on deaf ears at the government level.

The hardest part, she says, is the helplessness with which she has been witnessing the indignity he has suffered at the hands of the authorities — being carried into prison like a sack of sand, refusal to fix his broken wheelchair, denial of a disabled-friendly Western toilet, forcing him to endure the pain and humiliation of being held up by his arms in order to be able to use the Indian toilet, and more.

“His health has deteriorated rapidly in the last two years,” Kumari says, listing several life-threatening complications including gall bladder stones, a cardiac condition, a growing tumour, weakening arm muscles and bouts of unconsciousness. At times prison guards have found him collapsed out of his wheelchair. He has no access to timely health check-ups and his medical reports are not being shared with his family, she alleges. The raging pandemic is an added threat. Nagpur prison alone reported nearly 300 positive cases. “Prisoners are captive victims for the virus,” Saibaba wrote in his last letter to her on July 19.

“He needs two people to assist him to move about. He needs help to even drink a glass of water. Does the government and judiciary really think he will run away if he is out on bail? They have given bail on health grounds to a terror-accused like Sadhvi Pragya, so why not Sai, who can’t move a limb?” Kumari demands to know, her anger palpable even through a patchy phone line.

On August 1, Saibaba’s mother passed away after battling cancer for years. Admitted for treatment at NIMS, Hyderabad, her last wish had been to see her son one final time. But the courts turned down his bail appeal.

“Mother, lose not your hope. I realised that jail is not death, it is my rebirth and I will return home to your lap that nurtured me with hope and courage,” he had written to her in November 2017.

Hope has been elusive for Kumari, who has been single-handedly parenting her daughter Manjira, now an MPhil student of literature.

“This is nothing but an indirect death sentence,” she says.

Stopping a fadeout

P Sahaja clearly recalls the day her father was arrested by the Pune police in November 2018. The noted activist, author and poet Varavara Rao, known to friends and followers by the initials VV, had been under house arrest since July, for his alleged instigation of riots at Bhima Koregaon in Maharashtra on January 2, 2018. When the police arrived at his door, Rao cheerfully invited them in, offered them hot cups of chai while engaging them in a friendly chat before excusing himself to go take a shower and tuck into a hearty meal. When he finally stepped outside with the cops, he was pumping his 78-year-old fists in the air, shouting slogans of ‘laal salaam’, even as his family and friends joined in with gusto.

“He left like a warrior going into the battlefield, full of high spirits,” Sahaja, his eldest daughter, says over the phone from Hyderabad.

After a year-and-a-half in a Pune prison, he was transferred to Mumbai. It was there that he tested positive for Covid-19 and was shifted to Nanavati hospital.

Rao, who has spent seven years of his life behind bars, right from the Emergency days, always did his time in prison with a rebellious enthusiasm and good humour that no authority could crush.

“His goodness would radiate wherever he went. In a matter of minutes he would develop a circle of friends, whom he engaged with in discussion. It didn’t matter what your politics was. The atmosphere used to be charged with life everywhere he went,” Sahaja says.

In the Pune prison, too, the connections he forged with fellow inmates kept him in high spirits. But things turned for the worse earlier this year. The shift to Mumbai’s Taloja prison in February, and the Covid-19 outbreak around the same time, cut him off from all contact with his family. It took Sahaja 10 petitions to merely patch through to her father on a phone line. “It was May by the time they were allowed to talk to him over the phone. By then we could see how rapidly he had deteriorated,” she says, adding that the isolation in prison and lack of contact with family had broken him. They found him talking to the family in Hindi, instead of Telugu, and he appeared to be forgetful. A severe sodium-potassium imbalance in his blood levels meant he couldn’t recognise his wife when she visited him. At JJ hospital, where he was admitted, he was found lying in a pool of urine, unable to comprehend his surroundings.

In July, infected with Covid-19, he was shifted to Nanavati hospital. Sahaja says the family was denied access to his medical reports. “We still are made to wait for court hearings for the medical authorities to share health updates.”

According to the latest figures, Indian prisons have reported over 1,550 Covid-19 positive cases. The Supreme Court recently directed states to release on parole prisoners facing up to seven years of jail. By the end of June, Sahaja points out, states like Uttar Pradesh had released 17 per cent of their prisoners on parole to contain the spread of the virus; and, yet, an 80-year-old Covid-19 positive undertrial, against whom “no conclusive evidence” has been found yet, was denied bail.

Sahaja and the rest of the family cannot bear to see the steady fading away of a man who was known for his razor-sharp memory and articulate command over language, one who had never spent a single day without reading or writing. “We moved 25 legal petitions in recent months. The petitions all ask, in various ways, permission to help take care of him. Allow him house arrest or temporary bail or an attendant from the family who can live with him, or at least transfer him to a prison anywhere in Andhra Pradesh or Telangana so that he can feel more at home with his surroundings,” Sahaja. “Our wishes are so small. Yentha kruramga undhi raajyam (how cruel the State is),” she says in Telugu.

Yet, Sahaja is her father’s daughter. She braves it out, as she was always taught to. “He wasn’t the kind of father who took us out on family outings. He raised us to survive in the real world with our heads held high,” she says. These are testing times indeed, and she is nothing if not prepared for them.

Battle within and without

While the families of some political prisoners have had to witness the deteriorating physical and mental health of their loved ones and move petitions to make basic contact with them, others have been forced to pay a different price. Kafeel Khan, a government doctor in Gorakhpur’s Baba Raghav Das (BRD) Medical College, was detained under the stringent National Security Act (NSA) in January this year.

This is the same doctor who made headlines when the BRD medical college was faced with the death of 60 infants in August 2017, due to a disruption in oxygen supply. Khan, then a paediatrician at the hospital, was accused of negligence and arrested, even as he had worked overtime and spent his own money to procure 500 jumbo oxygen cylinders to save lives. Two prison stints later, when Khan made a speech in December last year, at the Aligarh Muslim University, expressing his views against the proposed Citizenship Amendment Act, he was arrested in January to “prevent him... from engaging in activities that are prejudicial to the maintenance of public order.”

“By imprisoning him baselessly for 17 months, the administration isn’t just torturing Dr Kafeel Khan, but our entire family,” says his brother Adeel Khan, over the phone from Gorakhpur.

Adeel alleges that not only was his brother handcuffed and led away like a hardened criminal, he was also confined in a filthy barrack at Mathura jail with 100-odd inmates in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, and denied access to video calls even as the other inmates enjoy the facility. The immediate family, too, soon bore the brunt. Dr Khan’s younger brother was shot at in broad daylight and is in a critical condition; Adeel’s own battery inverter and fan pump distribution business was targeted by the Gorakhpur police and he was forced to shut shop. The family is continually shuttling between the Supreme Court and Allahabad Court, as the double bench judges are changed just ahead of each hearing, thereby delaying the case endlessly, Adeel alleges.

“Dr Kafeel was newly married to Dr Shabista (a dentist) when he was first arrested. They have two toddlers, who have barely seen their father. His life had only just begun... What was his crime?” asks Adeel.

Lonely battle: Maaysha Bharadwaj says she has not found emotional support since her mother's arrest in 2018


As families battle in the courts publicly to secure the freedom of their dear ones, other wars are all-too-private and all the more intensely painful. Activist and human rights lawyer Sudha Bharadwaj has been lodged in Mumbai’s Byculla jail since 2018 for her alleged involvement in the Elgaar Parishad case related to the violent riots at Koregaon Bhima in 2017. She is a single parent to 21-year-old daughter Maaysha, a psychology student. Since her mother’s arrest, friends have offered help, but the trauma is hers alone.

In a recent media interview, she said, “Although they are supporting me... no one is supporting me emotionally. It breaks me down. My friends disconnected after learning the controversy... I am all alone.” What’s most crushing, she revealed, is being named and shamed as a so-called urban naxal. “Do they even realise the impact it casts on me or my mama?”

It wasn’t long ago that Rao wrote these haunting lines in his prison diary: “What if one is found not guilty? Leaving aside the loss of health, family and other material comforts, who will compensate for the freedom and the time lost?”

Shriya Mohan

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Published on August 14, 2020
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