India Forced Dissidents Into Jail Despite the Pandemic. Now They’re Getting Infected.

Jails in politically sensitive states such as Assam and Kashmir are reporting huge spikes. Many testing positive are critics of the Indian government and its controversial policies.
Pallavi Pundir
Delhi, IN
July 22, 2020, 12:33pm
political prisoners india prison jail coronavirus
The arrest of activists who criticised Indian government's policies led to protests (pictured) in India. During the pandemic, they're being forced to remain in overcrowded jails with high risk of COVID-19 exposure. Photo courtesy of Getty Images  

Indian writer-activist Varavara Rao, who was accused and arrested for allegedly inciting caste violence, had been languishing in the Taloja Central Jail in Navi Mumbai, in western peninsular state of Maharashtra, since 2018. The 80-year-old just tested positive for COVID-19, and is also showing signs of dementia along with multiple health issues.

The charges against him stem from the Elgaar Parishad case, wherein high-profile activists and lawyers allegedly made anti-communal speeches in the city of Pune, Maharashtra. The city police, however, charged them for allegedly instigating violence and even conspiring to assassinate Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Rao has denied all allegations. Despite having no charges formally brought against him, Rao remains in prison and is one of the many political prisoners contracting COVID-19 as outbreaks intensify in Indian prisons.

In India, many jails are reporting an alarming rise in COVID-19 cases. On July 21, a sub-jail in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh reported what is possibly the highest spike in a prison in India in a single day. Out of 82 total inmates, 64 tested positive.

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Trends also show that many prisons reporting rising cases house political prisoners, or are located in politically sensitive regions.

In the Anantnag district in south Kashmir, a hotbed of insurgency and conflict in the state, 96 prisoners out of the total 193 tested positive, along with 56 staffers. The inmates include local political leaders who were locked up after the revocation of Article 370 in 2019, which took away the state’s special status in the Indian Constitution.

The prison administration refused to tell Indian media where the prisoners will be taken for treatment “due to security reasons”. Families of inmates allege lack of transparency about the condition of prisoners.

“We tried to visit the hospital to get an update about his condition but we were denied entry,” Adil Bhat, the nephew of Zahoor Ahmad Bhat, who was jailed under the draconian Public Safety Act, told news outlet The Print. The law is controversial for rampantly booking people including separatists and voices of dissent in Kashmir. There are reportedly 270 PSA detainees across jails in Jammu and Kashmir.

In the northeastern state of Assam, activists booked on charges of sedition and under the provisions of the Unlawful Activities (prevention) Act (UAPA), also tested positive in the prisons. UAPA has been criticised for allowing the state unprecedented power to designate someone as a “terrorist” without trial.

Many detainees in Assam jails also include those who criticised the Indian government’s Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). Among those who recently tested positive for COVID-19 include prominent anti-CAA activists Sharjeel Imam and Akhil Gogoi.

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The CAA, passed in December 2019, provided an easier path for members of six religions from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan before December 2014. Islam is not on the list. Critics and legal experts warned that the Hindu nationalist government of PM Modi intended to use the CAA to render large numbers of Indian Muslims stateless.

Dasarath Das, Assam’s Inspector General of Prisons, told The Indian Express that at least 435 inmates in Assam’s Guwahati Central Jail, out of over 1,000, tested positive for COVID-19.

The Indian government has categorised both Assam and Kashmir as “disturbed” areas under the notorious Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958. The Act grants special powers to the Indian Armed Forces to prohibit gathering, use force, or even open fire in order to maintain public order.

Jail authorities told Indian media that they have been taking precautions. In Kashmir's Anantnag, district jail superintendent Syroz Bhat told news outlet Scroll that they organised COVID-19 workshops in March. “But social distancing was not possible because jail was overcrowded,” he said.

In Assam, Das told Scroll that swab samples were taken when the first case was detected on June 4. “It is most likely the new undertrial prisoners who brought the virus in,” he said.

Early this year, many prisons across India partially emptied their lock-ups to avoid the outbreak of COVID-19. However, news reports show there is still overcrowding. In June, Navi Mumbai's Taloja Central jail—where Elgaar Parishad activists are detained—was thrust into the limelight for reportedly housing 350 inmates in just six rooms.

In the meantime, an interim bail plea at the Bombay High Court for Rao on medical grounds was rejected by the Indian government’s National Investigation Agency. Rao’s lawyers stated that the activist is “almost on his deathbed”. The NIA accused Rao of trying to take “undue benefit” under the garb of COVID-19.

India currently has 1,193,078 total confirmed COVID-19 cases—the third-highest in the world—at the time of writing this piece.

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