“We are witness to systematic abuse by authorities wielding arbitrary powers” – A profile of Gautam Navlakha

In collaboration with maraa, The Polis Project launched Profiles of Dissent — a new series centered on remarkable voices of dissent and courage in India and their personal and political histories, as a way to reclaim our public spaces. These are prominent writers, poets, activists, and human rights defenders who have been in prison, held under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. The profile features Gautam Navlakha, journalist and a rights activist who has been accused of Maoist links in connection to the 2018 violence at Bhima Koregaon village. Navlakha’s arrest in the midst of the global COVID-19 pandemics appears a deliberate and politically-motivated attempt to curb dissent and silence voices of opposition. 

By The Polis Project and maraa

22 June 2020

​“At no time have governments been moralists. They never imprisoned people and executed them for having done something. They imprisoned and executed them to keep them from doing something. They imprisoned all those prisoners of war, of course, not for treason to the motherland…They imprisoned all of them to keep them from telling their fellow villagers about Europe. What the eye doesn’t see, the heart doesn’t grieve for.”

― Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago, 1918-1956

‘Political Prisoner’ is a category of criminal offense that sits most egregiously in any civilized society, especially ​in ​countries that call themselves liberal democracies. It is a thought crime: the crime of thinking, acting, speaking, probing, reporting, questioning, demanding rights, and, more importantly, exercising one’s citizenship. But these inhumane incarcerations do not just target private acts of courage, they are bound together with the fundamental questions of citizenship, and with people’s capacity to hold the State accountable. Especially States that are unilaterally and fundamentally remaking their relationship with their people. The assault on the fundamental rights has been consistent and ongoing at a global level and rights-bearing citizens are transformed into consuming subjects of a surveillance State.

In this transforming landscape, dissent ​is ​sedition, and resistance is treason. 

Illustration by Ashish Bagchi

While the Indian State has a long history of ruthlessly crushing dissent, a new wave of arrests began in 2018. Eleven prominent writers, poets, activists, and human rights defenders have been in prison, held under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. They are accused of being members of a banned Maoist organization, plotting to kill Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and inciting violent protests in Bhima Koregaon. To date, no credible evidence has been produced by the investigating agency, and those accused remain incarcerated without bail. Since the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act protest began in December 2019, students, activists, and peaceful protesters have been charged with sedition, targeted with violence, and subjected to arrests. Since then, more arrests have followed specifically targeting local Muslim students leader and protestors, including twenty-seven-year-old student leader Safoora Zargar, who is currently pregnant.

Since the COVID-19 lockdown was announced, India’s leading public intellectuals, opposition leaders, writers, thinkers, activists, and scholars have written various appeals to the Narendra Modi government for the release of India’s political prisoners. They are vulnerable to COVID-19 contagion in the country’s overcrowded jails, where three coronavirus-related deaths have already been reported. In response, the State has doubled down and rejected all the bail applications. It also shifted the seventy-year-old journalist Gautham Navlakha from Delhi’s Tihar Jail to Taloja, without any notice or due process – Taloja is one of the prisons where a convict has already died of COVID-19.

A fearful, weak State silences the voice of dissent. Once it has established repression as a response to critique, it has only one way to go: become a regime of authoritarian terror, where it is the source of dread and fear to its citizens.

How do we live, survive, and respond to this moment? 

In collaboration with maraa, The Polis Project is launching Profiles of Dissent. This new series centers on remarkable voices of dissent and courage, and their personal and political histories, as a way to reclaim our public spaces.

Profiles of Dissent is a way to question and critique the State that has used legal means to crush dissent illegally. It also intends to ground the idea that, despite the repression, voices of resistance continue to emerge every day.

The following excerpt is published from maraa, READ ALOUD: Ideas Can Never Be Arrested. You can read Varavara Rao’s profile here, the profile of Sudha Bharadwaj here and that of GN Saibaba here.

GAUTAM NAVLAKHA

Gautam Navlakha is a civil liberty, democratic, and human rights activist; and a journalist. He is engaged in longstanding activism through the People’s Union for Democratic Rights (PUDR) Delhi. He is also an editorial consultant of the Economic and Political Weekly (EPW). He resides in New Delhi. Navlakha has also been a convener of the International People’s Tribunal on Human Rights and Justice in Kashmir. He has done a great amount of work in Kashmir, and in recent times, his focus of work has been the areas of Chhattisgarh which are under Maoist influence. 

Date of arrest: 28 August 2018 

Charges: He was arrested in August 2018, alongside Sudha Bharadwaj, Vernon Gonsalves, Varavara Rao, and Arun Ferreira. The FIR—on the basis of which the arrests were based on an accusation of being a Maoist, his alleged connections to Elgaar Parishad, and its alleged role in inciting violence in Bhima Koregaon. The arrests were made based on sections of 153A (commits any act which is prejudicial to the maintenance of harmony between different religious, racial, language or regional groups or castes or communities and which disturbs the public tranquility), 120B (criminal conspiracy to commit an offence), 117 (abetting commission of offence by the public or by more than ten persons) and 34 (common intention) of the Indian Penal Code. They were also charged under relevant sections of the UAPA and have been accused of hatching a secret Maoist plot to kill Prime Minister Narendra Modi. 

Location of work: Delhi, Chattisgarh, Kashmir 

Update: After being arrested on 28 August 2018, Gautham Navlakha was placed under house arrest. He was subsequently released from house arrest on 1 October 2018. The Bombay High Court on 26 October directed the police to refrain from taking coercive action against Navlakha for a week, after which on 1 November this was extended to the 21 November after noting that petitions pertaining to the case were pending before the Supreme Court. The police are yet to file a charge sheet against him as of 23 November, requesting an extension of another ninety days. 

Update 22 June 2020: On 16 March 2020, the Supreme Court dismissed the anticipatory bail pleas presented by Gautam Navlakha and Anand Teltumbde, saying that their petitions cannot be maintained as they were accused under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. On 8 April 2020, the Court gave them a week to surrender in the Bhima Koregaon violence case in spite of the spreading of the Coronavirus epidemics and the dangerous overcrowding of Indian jails. Gautam Navlakha released a statement on his impending incarceration in which he explained the reason for his surrender and the hope to receive a fast and fair trial. The High Court was scheduled to hear Navlakha’s bail application on 27 May 2020, but without notice and without informing his family he was hurriedly moved to Taloja Jail in Mumbai, that already has two reported cased of COVID-19.

Human Rights activist Gautam Navalakha and Sehba Hussain at their residence after the decision of Delhi High Court in 2018. ( Photo | Parveen Negi/ EPS)

On the 21 June 2020, Gautam Navlakha’s partner Sahba Husain wrote a letter to filmmaker Anand Patwardhan lamenting the conditions in Taloja Jail Quarantine Facility. The letter reads:

Dear Anand

Gautam called me yesterday after a gap of 15 days. All I knew until then was that he was sent to a quarantine facility in Taloja on 26th May after he was suddenly shifted from Tihar jail in Delhi to Bombay. This quarantine facility runs from a school building in Taloja where new inmates are brought before being shifted to jail.

Gautam mentioned to me on the phone some of the horrific details that I am sharing with you.

He said that there are 350 inmates crowded into six classrooms in the building with Gautam having to share the room with 35 other inmates, many others sleeping in the corridors and passages. There are only 3 toilets, 7 urinals, and a common bating space without a bucket or a mug. He said that the congestion is such that apart from the fear of Covid-19, inmates are prone to skin infections too.

He also said that there is no fresh air as they are mostly locked in with no place to walk or exercise, although he manages to do his yoga as other inmates help to clear some space for him. He said he has lost 2 kg in these three weeks of prolonged quarantine and was wondering how long the authorities would keep him and the other inmates in such inhuman conditions. Taloja jail at present does not seem to have space for new prisoners such as him. Given these circumstances, it worries me to think about the extreme health risk that he and other inmates are being exposed to on a daily basis.

He also mentioned how all of them are completely cut off from the outside world as there is no news flowing in or out of this quarantine facility. He wondered about what could be going on in the world outside!

I must say I am truly aghast with what he shared with me yesterday.

Despite these deplorable conditions that he described to me, he sounded well and said that he is trying his best to manage and not wilt under the sheer burden of this ordeal.

I thought I must share this with you since you have often been asking me about his well being. His lawyers and I are trying to see what can be done, although I do believe that it is important for us outside to raise our voice against this kind of inhuman treatment of a political prisoner like Gautam – and in fact all the other BK 11 currently in jail.

You must have also heard regarding Varvara Rao’s terrible and deteriorating health condition inside the jail.

The concerned authorities urgently need to look into this and make necessary amends.

Well, thanks for calling me earlier today.

Salaam,

Sahba

***

Excerpt from Days and Nights in the Heartland of Rebellion by Gautam Navlakha 

When every abuse has been hurled and epithet employed against the Maoists, half-truths and untruths begin to acquire wings. They are diagnosed, dissected, and demonized; the intelligentsia are reluctant to face facts. Yet we are still compelled to demystify reality and to answer some fundamental questions: Why this war? Who are these people, the “single biggest threat” to India’s internal security? What is their politics? Why do they justify violence? How do they perceive their “people’s war”, their political goals, and themselves? How do they intend to take a leap from their forest strongholds into the world outside? 

We are witness to systematic abuse by authorities wielding arbitrary powers. Apart from arrests, torture, fake encounter, the authorities have become brazen enough to suppress voices of dissent by accusing them of being “Naxalite sympathizer”, as though to be a Naxalite or a Maoist is in itself criminal. It took Supreme Court judges to remind the government counsels that to hold sympathies is not a crime. It is this repressive climate of war, which makes it incumbent, that we do not succumb to official diktat to tailor our convictions and go beyond official propaganda to understand for ourselves the Maoists, who are our own people. 

What Do I Believe? 

What is my overall impression? How do I read the Maoist movement in DK? I am convinced that this war will be unlike any other war which the Indian government has waged in the last 63 years. That this is one war which will test the resilience of the Indian state as it has never been done before. Precisely because it is a war in which people are fighting in their own territory to save their land, forest, water, minerals, from being grabbed and they are convinced that they have an alternate vision, not just for themselves, the Adivasis, but for Indian people as a whole. It is a different ball game altogether when a people feel that destiny beckons them to emancipate themselves in order that they can inspire fellow countrymen and women to rally around them and follow their example. 

They are not saints, certainly not sinners, but as mortals they have shown what an unflinching commitment to bring about social transformation actually means. Critics can find faults, magnify them, over-read them, rulers can try to “eliminate”, “cripple” and “choke”, to use the words employed by the PM, to wipe them out, but it is not possible to deny that they are rooted among people, they survive because of this, and they are expanding politically because poor and deprived believe in them. It’s not only Maoists reaching out to people but people are reaching out to them and inviting them to enter new areas, to assist them in their everyday struggles. Therefore, I believe that whether they are dealt a setback or lose their base or bases here or there, this movement is not going to be obliterated. 

I think that if they are pushed from one area they will sprout elsewhere. This is the significance of their claim that they are thinking in terms of 50-60 years and not just here and now. They are here to stay. This represents a significant shift. 

Afterword 

I woke up with the moon shining bright on my face. Through the fifteen-day journey every night we saw the moon grow in size. From new moon to full moon, a fortnight was now coming to an end. Tonight would be a full moon. It was 3.30 am and I could not sleep. I sat up. It was the day we were to return. I felt heavy in my heart. I heard Jan stir next to me. He asked me “is something wrong?” I said I can’t sleep. I feel kind of low thinking whether I will get to see them ever again. Will these young women and men be around? The party members we got to know and with whom we shared so much of ourselves, we talked, argued, and discussed, so frankly, will they be around? He said yes, it’s been quite remarkable meeting all of them, and I for one have been treated as grandfather, which is something so strange for someone like me who comes from Sweden, you know. But listen, he said, you can still return, whereas I am not only getting old but I don’t think I will be allowed to return. 

We sat talking in whispers. But the feeling did not disappear. So just when it was time to bid goodbye at the “border” Niti came to me and said “bhai, mujhe bahut bura lag raha hai ki aap log ja rahe ho” (Brother, I feel bad that you all are leaving today). I said that is our feeling too. She said “hum yahi baat kar rahe the ki John sir se kabhi milna nahi hoga. Lekin aap vapas aayoge na?” (We were discussing that we might not meet John Sir ever again, but you will come again, no?) I told her she could count on me that I will never give up trying to somehow make my way back there to see them. I meant every word. What a sad day it would be for all of us if these men and women were to die at the hands of a force which neither knows nor appreciates the motivation behind these young people. What the party means to them, why they took up arms, what they have achieved, why they fight, and what their dreams are. And why we must not let them down and protest the destruction of lives of these people, our very own. 

More in this series

“The laws of sedition still occupy the dark statute books. / Draconian laws run amok lawlessly. / Free speech is as elusive as ever, social justice a mirage.” – A profile of GN Saibaba

“We need groups organised to fight, they’re the ones who can make a dent” – a profile of Sudha Bharadwaj

“Above all, there should be dignity and respect in the affairs related to the birth or death of human beings” – a profile of Varavara Rao

‘In this Kafkaesque domain, process is punishment. My hope rests on a speedy, fair trial for myself and my co-accused’  By Gautam Navlakha

‘Mass frenzy has made India’s destroyers nationalists, its selfless servers traitors. Hope you speak out before your turn comes’ By Anand Teltumbde

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