On May 25, 68-year-old Indian activist and journalist Gautam Navlakha was given five minutes to pack up all his belongings before he was moved from Tihar jail in New Delhi. He was then put on a train and sent to the city of Mumbai which is over 1,300 km away. All this happened even as his interim bail plea was being heard by the Delhi High Court. His partner and family were not informed of the move which took place amid the raging COVID-19 pandemic in India. People above the age of 60 and those with medical complications have been advised against traveling.
Gautam Navlakha is among the activists and critics of the government who are being hounded by the Indian state as part of what is called the Bhima Koregaon or the Elgar Parishad case. The case has to do with violence in the State of Maharashtra in January 2018 following an event celebrating the victory of the oppressed castes in a 19th century battle. Many reports point out that the violence in 2018 was perpetrated by Hindu right-wing groups which share the ideology of the ruling right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). However, the investigation soon took a different turn and began focusing on activists and critics of the government.
The Indian state has been attempting to arrest Gautam Navlakha for quite some time now. He, along with four other activists, was detained without any notice on August 28, 2018. He was under house arrest till October that year, when he was granted relief from that form of detention. His pleas for anticipatory bail kept being rejected and finally on April 14, 2020, he was forced to surrender before the National Investigation Agency along with noted academic Anand Teltumbde, who is also being investigated in the same case. Navlakha, Teltumbde and the other activists have all been charged under the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act which severely restricts the possibilities of obtaining bail and gives the police wide-ranging powers.
While the case was initially about the violence in 2018, it soon developed into a larger conspiracy which included an alleged plot to assassinate prime minister Narendra Modi. The government has failed to provide any concrete evidence of this plot and the courts have refused to thoroughly scrutinize these claims.
‘The crimes of Gautam Navlakha’
What then are the crimes of Gautam Navlakha? Over the past few decades, and especially since the Narendra Modi government came to power in 2014, Navlakha has worked on the impact of violence by state and non-state actors on some of India’s most oppressed communities. He was one of the members of the International Peoples Tribunal for Human Rights and Justice which in 2012 released Alleged Perpetrators – Stories of Impunity in Jammu and Kashmir. This report chronicles human rights abuses by Indian security forces in Kashmir.
He played a critical role in an exhaustive report of 1984 anti-Skh riots in Delhi titled Who Are the Guilty, as well a report titled India’s Kashmir War in the 1990s. Both these reports exposed the role of the then ruling Congress Party in weakening democratic institutions and in human rights abuses. In 1992, Hindu right-wing forces led by BJP leaders demolished the Babri Masjid, a mosque in the State of Uttar Pradesh. Navlakha was also involved in the people’s tribunal which investigated it.
He has also chronicled the oppression of the tribal communities in the mineral-rich parts of central India. These regions have also witnessed militant action by Maoist groups. Navlakha wrote about many of the issues faced by the people there in his book, “Days and Nights in the Heart of Rebellion”. Incidentally, long before his arrest, right-wing media outlets carried out an abusive campaign against him, dubbing him an ‘Urban Naxal’ (Naxals are Maoist militants). The basis of this campaign was a speech he delivered at a university where he asked piercing questions about why youth in Kashmir are picking up arms against the Indian state.
Navlakha has written about the struggles of people in India’s northeastern States against mass displacement due to corporate projects. He has also focused on the impact of draconian laws such as the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act and the Public Safety Act.
He has been associated with the People’s Union for Democractic Rights and the journal Economic and Political Weekly. He is also a contributor to the Indian news organization, Newsclick.
Gautam Navlakha’s arrest in April was widely condemned by leftist political parties and activist groups. His treatment in the weeks to come was equally shocking. His partner, activist Sahba Husain, said in an interview with Newsclick that Gautam had called her before he was shifted but had no idea what was going to happen. “He expressed serious concern about his health, his blood pressure had risen to 200. Even his medical prescriptions were left behind by the authorities. We were shocked to know the treatment he was given, exposing him to coronavirus danger besides subverting the entire process using illegal ways,” she said. His lawyer Mihir Desai said Gautam suffers from colonic polyposis, chronic gastritis and high blood pressure, and is therefore particularly vulnerable to COVID-19.
Gautam is now in Mumbai’s Taloja prison. Both the Tihar jail in New Delhi where he was earlier lodged and Taloja prison have recorded COVID-19 cases. In the aftermath of the COVID-19 outbreak, several States in India began to release prisoners under various parole conditions to reduce the prison population. However, the targeting of critics of the government has continued unabated. In addition to the Elgar Parishad case, the police have also arrested a number of people who earlier this year were involved in protests against the government’s divisive citizenship law.
On the day of his surrender before the National Investigation Agency, Gautam Navlakha wrote about war and peace in the time of COVID-19. He wrote:
“That moment has arrived. The pandemic has made this urgent. Because anything which distracts us from what needs to be done here and now to mitigate the suffering of India’s overworked and underpaid working class, is not worth pursuing. Ideally, this should not be a short-term palliative but should usher in a sea change in our attitude and policy to ensure a life of dignity, something which has passed them by..This requires the labor of all conscientious citizens and the administration… This pandemic offers us an opportunity.”
Gautam Navlakha’s struggle for justice continues.
(With inputs from Umer Beigh)
**This is the fifth article of the series Criminalization and punishment in quarantine, a communications initiative of different international media projects whose objective is to raise awareness to, amid the current public health crisis, the realities of those people that are subjected to forced isolation (penitentiary, psychiatric, or migrant detention). The oblivion and exclusion of these populations only increases in these times with the suspension of visits. What is the situation in different countries and what are the responses of the Governments? During these days of quarantine can the confinement of societies be a bridge of solidarity towards the people deprived of their freedom? This series of reports seeks to understand the situation of prisons in times of pandemic.