“No one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged how it treats its highest citizens but its lowest one”- Nelson Mandela
Akhil Gogoi has been arrested now for 210 days (at the time of writing the report) due to his active participation in anti CAA protests in Assam. Being arrested for raising his voice against state injustice and oppression is something not new for Akhil Gogoi. Akhil Gogoi had already mentioned about the Pathetic condition of the Nagaon Central Jail. A person like Akhil Gogoi deserves respect, he is a voice of the voiceless, he is a voice of the many landless farmers in Assam, a leader of the peasants and the Working class, but in reality, his rights are being violated not only as an individual through arbitrary arrests but also in the form of “Akhil Gogoi incarcerated”. As on 09-07-2020 Dhaijya Konwar and Bittu Sonowal have been found CoVid19 positive. Meanwhile, Akhil's sample has been sent to Delhi.
Human rights are fundamental to human life that ensure justice, dignity, protection, and security. Though human rights are for non-discriminatory grounds, human rights inside prisons present a completely different picture. According to the Prison Statistics India 2018 report, India has a total of 1339 prisons which houses 4,66,084 prisoners whereas the actual capacity is 3,96,223. With 17.6% more than the actual capacity; thus, leaving the overcrowding spaces to our imagination. Health rights in prison have been on a journey since the All India Prison Reforms Committee (Mulla Committee) of 1980-1983 to the recent Justice Amitava Roy (retd.) Committee of 2018, yet nowhere near meeting the aim of the committees. The issues of overcrowding, hygiene, sanitation, safe drinking water, healthcare facilities, mental health strictly remain the same and make it a probable hotspot for CoVid19 spread if not taken utmost care by the state
According to the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, the crowded spaces and inadequate healthcare facilities of the Indian prisons prone high risk of becoming the epicentres for contamination and transmission for the spread of COVID-19. As on the 30th of June, 2020 there has been 805 COVID 19 positive reported cases from prisons across 13 states of India along with 5 cases of death. The reported cases include both inmates and jail staff. This valuable input highlights two interesting factors of reported cases-
After the Supreme Court’s order to all the states on releasing a few prisoners to reduce overcrowding. A total of 61,100 prisoners is released on parole or probation across all the state prisons of India. With very less or no money, hunger, and lack of transportation during the pandemic lockdown; the flight of the prisoners to reach home has added to sufferings and trauma. The inmates that remained in the prisons are completely cut off from the other world either due to sealing of the prisons after positive cases were reported or pandemic lockdown that forced stopped visitations. Visitations and courtroom proceedings have also been affected which has put double stress and pushed many to anxiety, stress, and various degrees of depression. The present situations have left the inmates and their families in deep grief. Among the prisoners, the worst hit is the political prisoners who are undertrial situated in various prisons of India. Amidst this pandemic, the number of political Prisoners arrested in India for their active participation in the Anti-CAA protests has increased significantly. It is almost like a crackdown on the Active anti CAA voices.
India has completed turned deaf ear to local, national, and even international organizations like Amnesty International, International Committee of the Red Cross appeal for the political prisoners in the pandemic. Starting from the lawyers, activists, and writers associated with the Bhima Koregaon case, Kafeel Khan, Akhil Gogoi; India has completely denied their co-morbid status and risk to COVID 19 in prisons. In the case of Bhima Koregaon, the accused are elderly and with co-morbidity; the Supreme Court’s order of surrender to Gautam Navlakha and Anand Teltumbe is said as "virtually a death sentence" in the pandemic (The Wire, 2020). Safoora Zagar, who is pregnant and suffering from Poly Cystic Ovarian Disorder (PCOD); accused of Delhi riots conspiracy finally succeeds in getting bail on “humanitarian grounds” after the court rejected her bail thrice.
Akhil Gogoi, the mass leader of Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS) along with Dhaijya Konwar, Bittu Sonowal and Manas Konwar associated with KMSS and its sister organizations are imprisoned under draconian law UAPA. Any person arrested under UAPA is designated as terrorist. The benefit of natural justice is violated under this law. With NIA failing to file a charge sheet within the mandatory 90 days, Akhil Gogoi was warranted release but immediately rearrested on other cases. With 210 days in prison, the worst was to happen to him was to be affected by CoViD19, and that ultimately was confirmed on 09-07-2020
Akhil Gogoi has been suffering from various health conditions and seeking medical assistance since February which includes skin infection, joint pain, problem with eyesight, dental problems. He is also diagnosed with Eustachian Tube Dysfunction, Kidney stone, he is suffering from deviation nasal system and sinusitis. During his imprisonment, his health condition has been reported to deteriorate many times and it has been a struggle to seek medical help. Akhil Gogoi on 11-03-2020 had alleged that several prisoners were ailing because of non-availability of medical facilities inside the jail.
In the light of the COVID 19 pandemic, around 1,200 inmates of Guwahati central jail staged a hunger strike on 25th and 26th of June highlighting on various health and human rights demands. Along with the inmates, the members of KMSS and other anti-CAA protestors who are under trail and in Guwahati Central Jail also took part in the protest. The demands included testing and quarantining of new inmates brought to jail before they can share cells with the existing inmates. The inmates demanded better healthcare facilities and permission to meet their lawyers and family members beyond the present scheduled "two minutes" of conversation. Among all the demands, the demand for a 24-hour supply of safe drinking water is something that needs conscious attention of health and human rights concerns not only during the pandemic but also in general. It is also to be noted that the protest was the result of deaf ears by the jail authorities to the demands of the inmates.
Guwahati Central Jail was declared as a containment zone after reporting of the positive case and thus sealed. Akhil Gogoi who has been in a fragile state of health was showing symptoms of COVID 19. Along with Gogoi, Bittu Sonowal was also complaining of fever and extreme body pain, Sonowal has a history of severe asthma since his childhood and it is a well-known fact that people with co morbidities need utmost care and protection during this pandemic. With more than 80% of asymptomatic cases in India, even with Akhil Gogoi reporting of symptoms, the Assam Police Inspector General of Prisons rejected the grounds of CoVid without any test. It seemed like Akhil Gogoi did not have the right to avail fair treatment in a pandemic situation. On 05-07-2020, wife of Akhil Gogoi Gitashree Tamuly had expressed her concerns over the CoViD19 symptoms of Akhil Gogoi through her facebook post. Not only Akhil Gogoi, it is difficult to imagine the plight of Gogoi’s wife and mother seeing Akhil Gogoi being imprisoned in the unhealthy jails during a pandemic.
After being pressurized by various civil societies, student unions, and individuals, finally, NIA court ordered for testing. On 8th July Bittu Sonowal and Dhaijya Konwar are tested positive and soon they were shifted to GMCH but due to unavailability of the bed were shifted to Sonapur. With no beds in Sonapur also, they were again brought back to MMCH, Guwahati as informed by Hussain Mohammad Shahjahan, advisor of KMSS to the public. It has been reported that both Konwar and Sonowal had to spend the night on the terrace of MMCH as no beds were available for the night and were admitted in the morning in the same hospital. On 9th Akhil Gogoi also reported being positive of COVID 19. The test result of Manas Konwar still awaits. The family members or the lawyers of the KMSS leaders still have not been informed about their test results directly from the concerned authorities. The multitude of violations here should put human and health rights laws to shame.
In the given scenario the question arises, why was testing and medical care delayed for the political prisoners? The right to life is under serious threat with delay in testing, the treatment which is further worsened by the emotional and mental status of health. In advanced digital India when every update is delivered and received at the tip of a finger, what are the reasons for taking Dhaijya Konwar and Bittu Sonowal from one treatment facility to another due to unavailability of beds? The preventable contamination is now made threatening with the delay of treatment. There is an urgent need of the doctor’s association and fraternity to speak up for the rights of the prisoners both in general and political prisoners.
It is alarming where not only human rights but the life of prisoners, especially political prisoners are in jeopardy. If political prisoners who are connected to the world through media and various social mediums are facing such violations of human and health rights in a pandemic, the plight of inmates in prisons raises the end number of serious questions that scream for attention. The prisoners who are in a vulnerable state are exposed to deeper levels of vulnerability. The issues that have been highlighted of human and health rights violations of prisoners, especially political prisoners from time to time are very disturbing and makes us think again. Are we living in a democracy? Where is the rule of law or we are living under a regime which beliefs in rule by law? Where are the Institutions today who are responsible for the checks and balances in a democracy? Is speaking up against the arbitrary actions of the government wrong? What is the fourth pillar of democracy up to? The hard social reality of the present time is that Law needs to provide security and protection of human life but at the end of the day power of politics governs the system, However, amidst all these questions in mind, the only thing that gives us and these political prisoners the hope is the power of the people.
About the Authors:
Shilpi Sikha Das - Pursuing PHD in Centre of Social Medicine and Community Health, JNU
Aniruddha Bora- Studied MA in Social Work in Children and Families, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai and currently Working With Public Health Resource Network, Odisha
Opinions expressed are that of the author
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