Two days after my Covid-19 quarantine came to an end inside the Tihar Jail, I read the terrible news about the death of co-accused Natasha’s father Mahavir Narwal due to the coronavirus.
I did not know Mahavir ji. But I had seen some of the interviews he had given after Natasha’s arrest last summer. He spoke with such composure and dignity in what would have been an extremely difficult time for his family. Far from being bogged down by the ridiculous accusations of ‘riot conspiracy’ under which Natasha was arrested, he defended her innocence as well as her activism stating that he was proud of his daughter. My heart goes out to Natasha in this hour of grief and loss. It is difficult to even imagine her pain and anguish.
Life in jail is quite difficult even in normal times. I have spent the last eight months alone in a cell, locked up for over 20 hours a day on several occasions. But the ongoing health crisis has increased the difficulties of prison life manifold.
Over the past one month, as the second wave of Covid-19 ravages India, I have not spent a day or night locked up in my cell without extreme anxiety – worried about my family and loved ones. One tries not to think too much by trying to distract oneself, but the news of death and despair that the newspaper brings every morning is so overwhelming that fending off the worst possible thoughts is just not possible. At such moments, it feels as if the jail cell is shrinking as suffocation and claustrophobia creep in and take over one’s mind and body.
I wait eagerly for the five-minute weekly phone call or the ten-minute video call twice a week to hear from home. But just as we start talking, the timer ticks off, cutting the call. Never before have I realised the value of every second like I do during such calls to home.
Around mid-April, I got the news that my mother and several relatives had tested positive for Covid-19. The condition of my uncle was particularly serious, as his oxygen levels kept falling and he was hospitalised and soon shifted to the ICU. In the middle of the health scare at home, I woke up one morning not feeling well – I had fever and a terrible body ache. I rushed to the jail OPD to get tested but they sent me back with a few medicines. After six days of symptoms and a court order, I underwent a test, which returned positive.
After testing positive, however, I got all the medical attention that I required and was quarantined. But naturally, the quarantine also meant no weekly phone or video calls to any of my loved ones. I recovered from Covid-19 laying down in my cell wondering helplessly what the situation at home was.
The process is punishment
While in quarantine, I read about the High-Powered Committee appointed by the Delhi High Court, contemplating like last year the release of prisoners on emergency parole/interim bail due to Covid-19. I knew from the experience of last year, and it was subsequently confirmed, that those arrested under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, or UAPA, will not be eligible for any interim relief.
The only way for us to be back with our families is to secure regular bail, which the provisions of UAPA make extremely difficult, if not almost impossible, for the near future.
As a law, the UAPA makes a mockery of the Supreme Court’s observation that bail is the rule and jail an exception. For all effective purposes, the UAPA turns this principle on its head by requiring an accused person to prove their innocence and thereby proceeding on a presumption of guilt, even in order to grant bail. That too, without the benefit of a trial.
It feels as though it is only after a long-drawn trial that we can even expect to be free. For the last 14 months, since the first arrest in our case, our trial has not even begun. We have not got a chance to even prove our innocence. All 16 of us arraigned in this ‘conspiracy’ case are in pre-trial detention and the pandemic will only further delay the proceedings with several judges, lawyers and court staff falling ill.
Clearly, the process itself is the punishment. And this process, torturously slow even in normal times, has become excruciatingly cruel in conditions that prevail today.
If I were free
Will the government consider the abnormal conditions that prevail today and release political prisoners? I have little such hope, for it was precisely the exceptional circumstances of the pandemic last year — curbs on protests and media’s attention focussed on the health and economic crisis – that gave this government a perfect cover to push many of us who spoke up against the unconstitutionality of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) into jails.
I keep thinking how life would be if we were free today — we would have reached out to the ones in need with relief, with empathy and solidarity irrespective of their identity. And yet, here we are, languishing in conditions that have only gotten worse — battling disease, anxiety and, in Natasha’s case, personal tragedy.
Along with the loss of lives, experts have pointed out the huge toll that the Covid-19 pandemic has taken on the mental health of people for the past 14 months. I wish people spared a thought for political prisoners and our families; for Mahavir Narwal, who not only suffered from Covid-19 at the end, but also from a year-long agonising wait longing to see his daughter free. I wish people also spared a thought for Natasha, who could not be with her father in his last moments, but three weeks after cremating him, has to once again return to jail.
(As told to Banojyotsna Lahiri and Anirban Bhattacharya)
Umar Khalid is an activist and former JNU student. He was arrested by the Delhi Police on 13 September 2020 under the UAPA and has been lodged in Tihar Jail since then. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant Dixit)