New Delhi: It was in April last year when human rights activist Gautam Navlakha surrendered before the National Investigation Agency (NIA) in the Bhima Koregaon case.
Since then Navlakha has been in prison — first in Delhi’s Tihar jail and then in the Taloja jail in Mumbai. Earlier this month, the 70-year-old, along with five other accused, was shifted to the high-security ‘Anda cell’ of the Mumbai prison.
Navlakha’s partner Sahba Husain says the activist’s health has only deteriorated with time. Speaking to ThePrint, Husain said Navlakha isn’t allowed to step out of the Anda cell where he was shifted on 12 October and has been denied phone calls. Hussain and Navlakha’s lawyer, Payoshi Roy, also say he has high blood pressure and a lump in the chest.
In its charge sheet, the NIA had said Navlakha was assigned the task to recruit new cadres for the guerilla activities of CPI (Maoists) and that he sought “clemency” for Syed Ghulam Nabi Fai, a Kashmiri who was arrested by the FBI for allegedly accepting funds from Pakistan’s ISI.
‘No access to fresh air, no phone calls’
Navlakha’s lawyer Roy and partner allege he hasn’t been allowed a single phone call even after repeated emails to the prison authorities.
“In an Anda cell, every prisoner is given a solitary cell. The timings remain the same but the problem is that unlike barracks which have open spaces, there is no access to fresh air here, Anda cells have high concrete walls. The sunlight doesn’t reach at all here. They aren’t allowed to step out of the Anda cell to go anywhere, including the library and the canteen. Under such circumstances, one at least should be allowed a phone call,” Husain said.
“I know that they can be shifted from one cell to another, but no phone calls are extremely problematic. They have started the physical mulaqats but that can’t be a reason for not allowing one to make phone calls. What about families who live outside Mumbai? The facilities for visitors outside are bizarre — one has to stand for hours in the scorching sun, there is no washroom facility. Only one tap for drinking water. We have to wait for 7-8 hours for our turn,” she added. “Now for basic human rights, we have to run to the courts?”
The physical mulaqat (meeting) time for every detainee is 10 minutes across a glass window. Husain said the last call Navlakha made to her was on 14 October.
“He would call me every 4th, 5th day for 10 minutes. Since 14th (October), there has been no communication. Letters take weeks to reach. How will I or anyone know if something happens to him,” Husain said.
Husain had also released a statement Sunday claiming that Navlakha has been denied access to the jail’s non-concreted greener areas and fresh air.
“Gautam’s fragile health and well-being will be further jeopardised by this withdrawal of the phone call facility to his family and lawyers. Already, in the Anda Circle, he is deprived of daily walks in the jail’s non-concreted greener areas and fresh air, and his health has deteriorated further, making specialised medical care an absolute necessity, if he is to live to fight this unjust and false case foisted on him. Without the weekly calls to me in Delhi, and to his lawyers, his life and his defence will be severely compromised,” the statement read.
This isn’t the first time that the families of the accused in the Bhima Koregaon case have alleged that the activists have been denied phone calls.
Last year, Sudha Bharadwaj’s lawyer said the former was denied “basic humanity of a phone call.”
ThePrint reached U.T. Pawar, jail superintendent of Taloja jail, through calls and messages but there was no response till the time of publishing this report. Atul Kulkarni, ADG prisons, refused to comment on the matter.
However, a senior officer with the Maharashtra prisons told ThePrint that Navlakha or any other prisoner hasn’t been denied the right to make phone calls.
“Yes, there are no more facilities available for video calling since physical mulaqat started this month but voice calls can be made through the coin phones in the jail premises. This is available for all prisoners, including those in the Anda cell”.
Asked about the protocol of shifting prisoners to the high-security barracks, the officer said “it is an administrative call”.
Looming cancer fear
In August this year, Navlakha’s lawyers filed a petition before the Bombay High Court to keep the activist under house arrest citing his ill-health. In an interim prayer, they also asked for a comprehensive health check-up.
“The hearing was adjourned twice because the state hadn’t filed a reply. Last week, the state stated that he cannot be put under house arrest because he has committed a grave crime,” advocate Roy told ThePrint.
The next hearing is on 6 December.
Roy said that Navlakha’s chest lump is worrisome as his family has a history of cancer.
“We don’t know if it’s a malignant tumour or not. Jail authorities haven’t done any tests on him. After multiple letters they took him to Vashi hospital once, however, the OPD was closed so he couldn’t be examined. When they brought him to the quarantine ward in Taloja jail, the conditions there were inhumane and uninhabitable with no doors on the washroom. His allergies worsened and blood pressure shot up,” Roy said.
She added that Navlakha doesn’t want to be taken to a government facility due to the “traumatic conditions in the quarantine ward”.
“To shift a prisoner to the Anda cell is the discretion of the jail superintendent,” Roy said.
In June 2020, Navlakha had highlighted the “inhuman conditions” at a quarantine facility in Maharashtra where he was lodged. Based on a telephonic conversation with him, Husain had then written a letter to filmmaker Anand Patwardhan on the quarantine ward’s conditions.
In May 2020, family members of Stan Swamy, Hany Babu and Mahesh Raut had described the conditions inside Taloja jail as “grim and dangerous”.
In her Sunday statement, Husain also said she fears Navlakha might meet the same fate as tribal rights activist Stan Swamy. The 84-year-old Swamy died on 5 July at a hospital in Mumbai.
“Not long ago, Stan Swamy passed away in tragic circumstances. Stan, severely debilitated by Parkinson’s Disease, had to fight for such basic needs as a straw to drink, help to move to the toilet, and medical attention. His simple desire was that in his declining state of health he should be allowed to die at home in Ranchi,” Husain said in her statement.
Swamy, who suffered from Parkinson’s disease, had to wait for a month to get a straw and a sipper from the Taloja jail authorities.
(Edited by Neha Mahajan)