Skip to main content

Hany Babu, 55, was arrested as a political dissident and sent to a notorious, high-security prison that houses some of India’s most-wanted terrorists and underworld criminals.Courtesy of Jenny Rowena/Handout

Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.

Things seemed bad enough for Delhi University professor Hany Babu when he was arrested as a political dissident and sent to a notorious, high-security prison that houses some of India’s most-wanted terrorists and underworld criminals. But during the 11 months the outspoken anti-caste activist has spent there, the situation has become even worse: The overcrowded facility has become a hotbed for COVID-19.

His wife, fellow professor Jenny Rowena, said she grew increasingly anxious when he lost weight and developed an eye infection in early May. Not long afterwards, he and several other fellow prisoners at Taloja Jail were diagnosed with COVID-19.

Mr. Babu, 54, is now recovering in hospital, but Ms. Rowena worries about the safety of political prisoners amid India’s brutal second wave of COVID-19. “What is the need to put these [people] in prison? If you don’t have the mechanisms to look after him, why are you keeping the prisoner there?” she asked.

It’s a concern that academics, lawyers and human rights activists share – they say India’s recently revised Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), which gives the government the power to criminalize dissent, is putting more political prisoners behind bars at a time when conditions are unsafe and overcrowded. The country’s courts are allowing the release of some inmates in order to curb the spread of the virus inside prisons, but these measures rarely apply to those arrested under anti-terror laws, renewing concerns over the BJP government’s growing crackdown on dissidents in recent years.

Indian protestors from various left organisations raise hands and shout slogans as they protest against the detention of human rights activists under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act in New Delhi on Aug. 30, 2018.CHANDAN KHANNA/AFP/Getty Images

The arrest of Mr. Babu, a linguistics professor, along with 15 other academics, activists and lawyers, came amid an investigation into violence that broke out in the village of Bhima Koregaon in January, 2018, the day after an anti-caste event called the Elgar Parishad was held. The group is accused of a conspiracy to assassinate Prime Minister Narendra Modi, invoke violence through political speeches, and of being members of the outlawed Maoist Communist Party of India – charges those arrested in connection with the case deny.

The lawyer representing one of the accused, 84-year-old priest and tribal-rights activist Stan Swamy, alleges “criminal negligence” by prison authorities who failed to provide adequate care to inmates. In November, 2020, Mr. Swamy, who suffers from Parkinson’s disease and has had trouble eating and drinking in prison because his hands shake from the illness, was temporarily denied access to a straw and sipper by the NIA before public outrage forced the agency to backtrack.

The UAPA, a purported “anti-terror” law that invokes the “lone wolf” theory – the idea that an individual can be a terrorist without being part of a terror organization – has been invoked in the arrests of thousands in recent years – including youth and student activists, a majority of whom have been critical of Mr. Modi and his ruling BJP party.

Between 2015 and 2019, India saw a 72 per cent increase in the number of arrests made under the UAPA, with nearly 2,000 arrests in 2019 alone after the BJP’s amendment to the act, which empowers the government to designate individuals as terrorists with no redress for those deemed as such. Bail has been a rarity in most cases and the UAPA allows for 180 days of incarceration without charge.

“This has been the most ruthless government, which has brought in many draconian measures,” said Delhi-based social activist Shabnam Hashmi, founder of ANHAD, a human rights group formed in response to the 2002 religious riots in Gujarat. “They have arrested a large number of young activists.”

Across India, young people took to college campuses and later the streets after the implementation of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register for Citizens (NRC) in 2019. The CAA, a law which granted citizenship to non-Muslim migrants from neighbouring countries, and the NRC, which asked people in the state of Assam to prove their citizenship through documented evidence, both triggered a wave of protests across the country.

“They are against any kind of intellectual activity – not to think, not to speak out, not to write anything,” Ms. Hashmi said. “Thinking and intellectual activity is unacceptable to this government, and hence the attack on students.”

Several students and academics were also arrested under the UAPA for their alleged role in the 2020 Delhi riots, when violence broke out between Hindu and Muslim groups after protests over the CAA, leaving more than 50 people dead and 200 injured. Among them were Umar Khalid, Natasha Narwal and Safoora Zargar, a student at Jamia Millia Islamia University who was pregnant at the time of her arrest. Delhi police told the courts that Ms. Zargar’s pregnancy was not grounds for bail, but she was granted bail two and a half months later.

Ms. Narwal was recently granted interim bail after her father contracted COVID-19 and died from the illness, but has since returned to prison. Mr. Khalid, who tested positive for the coronavirus in April, remains in jail.

“It’s not like we haven’t seen political prisoners before,” but the increased fear around protest and dissent is a more recent issue, said freelance journalist and activist Muzzammil Imam, whose brother, Sharjeel Imam – a former PhD scholar at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi – was arrested under the UAPA and also came down with COVID-19 last year.

The UAPA’s roots in the American-bred “lone wolf” theory is a particularly troubling aspect of the law, said lawyer Mehmood Pracha, who has represented people charged under the act. “Before lone wolf theory started in the U.S., you had to be a member of a band or terrorist organization to be arrested,” he said, adding, “but now even if you’re not a member of any so-called terror organization … if the government wants, they can arrest you and designate you as a terrorist.

“I am in favour of strict laws to tackle certain heinous crimes in society, but it is the misuse of these laws that is the devil here.”

While hundreds of political prisoners remain locked up in crowded conditions, advocates continue to raise concerns about their treatment and access to health care and release on bail as the variant that is now called Delta continues to sweep through the country.

Those arrested under the UAPA can’t even look to the courts system for justice, supporters say, as the courts are often tougher on political prisoners and deny them bail and other legal rights, while other prisoners receive more lenient treatment.

Social activist Ms. Hashmi cited the case of controversial right-wing news anchor Arnab Goswami, who was arrested in 2020 for allegedly abetting a suicide by failing to pay the deceased man for designing his TV studio. After spending 14 days in judicial custody (where the accused is kept in prison on order of a judge), India’s Supreme Court granted Goswami’s bail, stating that the “basic rule of our criminal justice system is ‘bail, not jail.’”

“They will open the court at night to hear Mr. Goswami’s bail application, [but] the judiciary has unfortunately succumbed to the fascist government,” Ms. Hashmi said, pointing out that while someone such as Mr. Goswani, a celebrity supporter of the BJP, was readily released, most political prisoners are not.

“The judiciary is failing the most,” Mr. Pracha concurred. Those arrested under the UAPA will not get the benefit of recent COVID guidelines, he said, noting that political prisoners arrested by the NIA are treated differently than other inmates despite Article 14 of the Indian Constitution, which states that the government will not deny anyone equality before the law.

“So what is so special about the cases which are investigated by the ‘special agency’? Is it not a violation of Article 14?”

Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.