Sins of My Father

Sagar Abraham-Gonsalves spoke to VICE about what he learnt from his #UrbanNaxal dad over the last three days.

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Aug 31 2018, 10:49am

Susan Abraham, Vernon Gonsalves, and Sagar Abraham-Gonsalves

Writer and former academic Vernon Gonsalves was one of the five activists who were arrested under various sections of the IPC and the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) earlier this week on grounds of being linked to the Bhima-Koregaon violence. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court directed that the five be placed under house arrest until September 6.

The 61-year-old was also arrested in 2007 by the Maharashtra Anti-Terror squad for being a “top level Naxalite”. He was later acquitted in 17 cases for lack of evidence, after spending six years in jail. VICE spoke to his son, 23-year-old Sagar Abraham-Gonsalves, about having to see his father being arrested once again from his Andheri house, and what he’s learnt from him the last two days.

I remember one time in 2013 when I was in my first year of college, I visited him in Nagpur jail. I don’t know how he knew, but when we met, he asked me about breaking up with my first girlfriend. Sitting inside jail, he told me that all of this happens, that I shouldn’t be bitter, these things happen.

We used to write letters that time when he was in custody. In the next letter he wrote to me, he said he felt bad we couldn't talk more about the breakup. I didn’t write much back then because I was lazy. Now when I look back at the amount he wrote compared to me, I feel guilty. Despite the physical distance between us, the letters kept us emotionally close.

Young Sagar on a beach with his father. Image: Sagar Abraham-Gonsalves

I couldn’t articulate it back then, this feeling of helplessness. Seven years ago, I was 12 when our house was raided at midnight. He was taken away in handcuffs in the morning. My dad was composed, but my mom was distraught. I couldn’t comprehend the severity of it. All I could do was watch.

It was much worse then. But now it’s a little different. I’ll be 24 in October; I can vote, get married, but I’m still powerless. Even during the acts of small mercies—like this time around, he wasn’t put in handcuffs and the police weren’t mistreating him—I feel like there’s still nothing we could do. Throughout the raid, my dad was telling me to not let my future get affected by this, as I want to pursue Masters in History abroad. That’s what the plan was. While the search was going on, my parents were telling me to not worry.

It’s why the term Urban Naxal is pretty disgusting. There’s so much hatred for someone you don’t know, someone you haven’t interacted with, and like sheep in a herd, people are attacking him because someone called him an #UrbanNaxal. I saw it personally over the last two days—the kind of hatred that exists in certain sections of the media and how that sentiment permeates into a large section of the society today. My father, though, as strong as ever, has remained unaffected.

I watched him chat with the police during the raid, about what they’d studied, where they lived, with a smile on his face. I’ve never really expressed how much in awe I am of him, of how he’s carried himself. It replayed for me two days ago.

As a person, my dad has always been good with people. When I was a kid, I noticed this with other children. Like, he’d talk to my friends or cousins, and he’d empathise with them and not look down upon their problems. We used to have these family picnics where adults would sit on the “adult” table but my dad would sit with us, tell us stories, even play-fight with us.

And then there was all his work, his desire to work for people who don’t have options. He worked for factory workers, tribal communities in Chandrapur and Vidharbha districts in Maharashtra for 10 years. He went out there and worked for his beliefs. I hope, someday, I find a value system for which I work with the same zeal as he has done so far.

Seeing someone fight gives you a sense of optimism; which was increased twofold with the kind of support I’ve gotten from people. It has been overwhelming. People who I don’t know are sending me messages on Facebook and WhatsApp. They’ve come out in droves. Now, I hope we can channel this energy better. I’m not as sad, only because of how my parents have brought me up. Like the man was in prison. I don’t even know what kind of circumstances he was in, but in spite of all that, he never bothered about himself. He came back from that experience with a smile on his face.

When they were taking him away couple of days ago, he had this bright smile on his face again. And I hugged him and told him, “Be strong.” He laughed and said, “I’ll keep the other guys company.” It’s like learning by doing. If he has the power to react positively, so can I.

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