Vasantha said her husband has been facing
NAGPUR: Former Delhi University professor and alleged Maoist ideologue GN Saibaba has been denied a woollen full-face cap provided to him by his family by the Nagpur central jail authorities, his wife Sai Vasantha alleged on Saturday. He has also been denied napkins, handkerchiefs, towels or even a T-shirt.
Vasantha said her husband has been facing “intended bias” and “prejudice” inside the jail. “Saibaba had been using the same cloth for the last one year. Hence, we had sent a replacement but it was refused. We are facing a set of rules different from that applied to other inmates,” he said.
On Saturday, Saibaba’s lawyer Aakash Sorde reached the central jail to hand over 34 items to Saibaba through the prison authorities. He was “stunned” as only 13 of them were allowed. Several medicines, a physiotherapy equipment, blank A4 size paper, a news magazine and three books were also among the materials denied. Saibaba has been allowed to receive only two loincloth underwear and a lungi from his family.
Sorde said the list of materials was initially approved by the jail officials before it was sent to Saibaba’s family. “The jail officials refused the very same materials which they had earlier agreed to allow. The materials, including medicines, were most essential for Saibaba,” he said. “I have now sent a notice to the jail superintendent stating he will be responsible if anything happens to Saibaba,” he added.
Jail superintendent SP Anup Kumre said Saibaba has been given everything he requires as per the jail manual and norms. “We are ensuring that every rule is being followed to hand over Saibaba whatever he needs.”
The Madhya Pradesh Cabinet on Saturday approved a proposed law to regulate inter-faith marriages in the state that provides for 10 year jail for ‘forcing’ women, minors, and people from Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribe to undergo religious conversion, while exempting reconversion to parental religion from its purview.
The proposed law called the Madhya Pradesh Dharmik Swatantrata (Freedom of Religion) Bill 2020 says ‘Paitrik Dharm me Wapsi’ will not be treated as conversion. “Under this legislation, re-conversion to the ancestral religion will not be treated as conversion,” said the draft law, defining ancestral religion as the religion of the father of the person at the time of his birth.
Giving the reason for this clause, Madhya Pradesh home minister, Nirottam Mishra, said re-conversion will not be a punishable offence under this law because it is more a realisation of a mistake than a crime.
The proposed legislation will replace the 1968 Madhya Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act, and is stringent then the similar law enforced by the Uttar Pradesh government through an Ordinance.
The UP law does not provide for parental property rights to the children of inter-faith marriage, monthly maintenance and Rs 50,000 fine for inter-faith marriage without the permission of the district magistrate. In UP, the fine amount is Rs 25,000. The jail term in the two laws are the same, shows an analysis of the proposed legislations of the two neighbouring states.
Mishra said, “The bill seeks to prohibit religious conversions or an attempt of conversion by means of misrepresentation, allurement, threat, undue influence, coercion, marriage, and any other fraudulent means. The conspiracy and (the act of) abetting a person for conversion has also been prohibited.”
Mishra said the bill has a provision of punishment from one to 10 years of imprisonment and a minimum fine of Rs 1 lakh for conversions.
According to draft of the bill approved, “The forced conversion of woman, minor, scheduled castes and scheduled tribe will attract 2–10 years imprisonment and a minimum fine of Rs 50,000. Mass forced conversion will attract 5–10 years of jail term and fine upto to Rs 1 lakh. Burden of proof will lie on the accused.”
“Forceful conversions and marriages will be a cognizable offence and be non-bailable. There will be a provision for declaring inter-faith forceful marriages and forced conversions null and void. Before conversion, the person and religious gurus have to inform the district magistrate at least 60 days prior to the scheduled date of marriage. The violation of this rule will attract 3–5 years of jail and a minimum fine of Rs 50,000,” according to the approved draft of the proposed bill.
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Mishra said, “MP government has come up with the toughest rule against forced conversion in India. With providing justice to the victim of forced conversion, the proposed legislation will ensure her rights too.”
Retired high court judge, AK Gohil, said, “The bill doesn’t have any provision to deal with past cases of forced conversions and there is no time limit for lodging a complaint with the police after the marriage. Like the Dowry Prohibition Act, which has a time limit of lodging an FIR up to seven years of marriage, this proposed act should also mention the time limit of lodging an FIR.”
MP Congress Committee spokesperson Narendra Saluja said, “We welcome this bill but the provisions under this bill serve the BJP agenda instead of helping women. The BJP is trying to create a rift in the society to win elections.”
Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind state president Hazi Haroon said, “From chief minister to BJP MLAs, all the BJP leaders are using the bill as a step against ‘Love-Jihad’. BJP leaders are targeting Muslim community with this bill. If Love-Jihad is really a big issue and a crime, then they should have mentioned this in the bill. But the state government has not mentioned it as they know that the bill can be easily challenged in the court of law.”
Raising concern over reconversions, social activist, Indira Iyengar, said, “Now, the violent incidents against the members of the Christian community will increase in the name of reconversion. In tribal areas, the saffron organisation members are already targeting converted Christians. Now, they will get freehand to threaten people to lodge fake complaints of forced conversion and also force tribals to reconvert into Hindu religion.”
MP BJP spokesperson, Rajnesh Agrawal, said, “Chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan clearly said this bill is a part of Beti Bachao Abhiyan of the MP government. The bill is against forced conversions and not against conversions. People are free to change their religion by just informing the district magistrate. The Congress leaders are nowadays working to misguide people to win their lost political ground. But citizens of MP are intelligent enough to understand right and wrong.”
Why is India denying prisoners spectacles and straws?
But in recent weeks, jail authorities in India have been called out for being especially cruel to prisoners, particularly the government’s critics who are described as “human rights defenders” by international rights groups.
Earlier this month, the Bombay High Court reminded officials of Mumbai’s Taloja jail that they needed to show some “humanity” while dealing with the needs of inmates.
“We need to conduct workshops for jailers. How are such small items denied? These are all human considerations,” Justices SS Shinde and MS Karnik said.
The “small items” here were spectacles that jailed activist Gautam Navlakha had been denied.
His family told the judges that his spectacles were stolen in prison and that when they sent a fresh pair, the authorities refused to accept them.
“He was allowed to call me on 30 November, three days after his glasses were stolen. He’s 68, he needs a high-powered lens and without them, he’s nearly blind,” his partner, Sahba Husain, told me.
Since the start of the pandemic in mid-March, India has stopped all visits by family or lawyers to jail. Inmates are not even allowed to receive parcels.
Ms Husain says Mr Navlakha told her that he had spoken to the jail superintendent and had been assured that he would receive his spectacles.
Ms Husain, who lives in Delhi, quickly got a new pair made and posted them on 3 December.
“I checked three-four days later and realised that the parcel had reached the jail on 5 December, but had been refused and returned.”
image captionPoet Varavara Rao has been in jail since 2018
It was only after lawyers raised the issue in court, judges read out a lesson in “humanity”, and subsequent outrage on social media that jail authorities provided a new set of spectacles to Mr Navlakha.
A former secretary of the non-governmental organisation People’s Union for Democratic Rights, Mr Navlakha is no ordinary prisoner. He’s spent a lifetime working for civil liberties and is respected globally.
He’s been in jail since the middle of April in connection with what is known as the Bhima Koregaon case.
He’s among 16 activists, poets and lawyers who have been arrested over the past two years on charges of instigating caste violence at a Dalit rally in Bhima Koregaon village in the western state of Maharashtra on 1 January 2018. They all deny the charges against them.
Mr Navlakha is not the only one who has been denied basic items in prison.
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Just days earlier, there was outrage in India after reports that Father Stan Swamy, also jailed in connection with the Bhima Koregaon case, was denied a straw and a sipper — a plastic drinking beaker with a spout or straw.
The 83-year-old activist and Jesuit priest suffers from Parkinson’s and his lawyers had told the court that he was unable to hold a cup without spilling because of hand tremors.
Many took to social media to express their disgust and a campaign was launched asking people to send sippers to Taloja jail.
Soon #SippersForStan was trending on Twitter as many posted screen grabs of beakers they had purchased online to send to the prison.
“Let’s flood the jail with straws and sippers,” Mumbai resident Deepak Venkateshan wrote on Facebook. “Let the world know that we are still humane as a nation. Maybe we chose the wrong leaders, but there is still humanity left in us. An 83-year-old man not getting a straw cannot be the nation we live in.”
image captionFather Swamy has been working with tribespeople for three decades
Three weeks after Mr Swamy’s lawyers went to court, prison officials said that the activist had been given a sipper.
Also last month, 80-year-old Maoist ideologue and activist Varavara Rao was taken to hospital for medical treatment only after the courts intervened.
His lawyer Indira Jaisingh told the Bombay High Court that her client was “bed-ridden, had no medical attendant and his catheter had not been changed for three months”. Accusing the state of negligence, she said she feared that he would die in custody.
In July, Mr Rao had contracted Covid-19 in jail and was taken to hospital only after his family issued a statement and held an emergency press conference seeking help.
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“Over the past five-six years, there’s been a spike in the trend of government cracking down on political dissent by imprisoning political activists under draconian laws such as the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) — an anti-terrorism law that makes it almost impossible to get bail,” says MA Rashid, an expert on Indian criminal law and founder of Live Law website.
“Many of them are also charged with sedition and labelled as ‘anti nationals’. Such prisoners, even though they are undertrials, are forced to be confined to pitiable conditions in prisons awaiting trial for years.”
Mr Rashid says prisoners are guaranteed rights under the constitution and denying them medical treatment or such basic facilities as sippers and straws is unheard of in Indian criminal jurisprudence.
“In a landmark judgement in 1979, Supreme Court Justice VR Krishan Iyer said that prisoners too have the right to live with dignity and their fundamental rights cannot be curtailed,” he said.
“Since then, the Supreme Court and other courts have consistently passed judgments upholding human rights of prisoners.”
But those who’ve done time in jail say human rights have no place in Indian prisons.
image captionSafoora Zargar was three months’ pregnant at the time of her arrest
Safoora Zargar, a pregnant student activist who spent 74 days in Delhi’s Tihar jail in the summer, recently told me that she and other inmates were denied the most basic necessities.
Her arrest in April on charges of instigating riots in Delhi earlier in the year had triggered global outrage. She was freed on bail in June.
“I walked into jail barefoot and with just two sets of clothes. I had a bag with shampoo, soap, toothpaste, toothbrush, etc but I was not allowed to take it in. I also had to leave my shoes outside — they had a bit of heel and I was told that was not allowed either.”
Her detention came at a time when India had just gone into a strict lockdown to stem the spread of Covid-19.
“I couldn’t receive a visitor, parcels or even money. For the first 40 days, I wasn’t even allowed to call home. So I had to beg for every little thing and depend on the kindness of other inmates,” she says.
Ms Zargar, who was three months pregnant at the time of her arrest in April, says fellow prisoners gave her slippers, undergarments and extra blankets.
After she’d been in prison for several weeks, her lawyer petitioned the court so that she could receive five sets of clothes.
Ms Zargar and hundreds of mostly-Muslim student activists have been under arrest since religious riots swept Delhi in February, killing 53 people, most of them Muslims. The accused say they were just participating in protests against a controversial citizenship law and had no role in the riots.
The arrests have been condemned by lawyers, activists and international rights groups.
But those arrested remain in jail, with their bail requests repeatedly denied, and having to turn to the courts to have their basic needs met.
Last month, after seven of the 15 accused activists complained that they were being denied slippers and warm clothes, an exasperated judge threatened prison officials that he would personally visit the jail for an inspection.
“Because we are vocal, jail officials didn’t like us,” Ms Zargar says. “They would come out with new rules every week and use them to torment us.”
And with many Covid-19 restrictions still in place, family members say they can do little, except appeal to the court in emergencies — as Ms Husain had to do to get a set of spectacles to Mr Navlakha.
Jail officials deny Saibaba woollen cap, family fumes