/ 6 May 2021

The Covid-19 crisis facing India’s prisoners

India Health Virus
Mass cremation: Burning pyres of the people who died of Covid-19 at an open-air crematorium set up during the pandemic inside a defunct granite quarry on the outskirts of Bangalore. (Manjunath Kiran/AFP)

India’s devastating second wave of Covid-19 has prompted urgent calls from civil rights movements and human rights organisations for the release of political prisoners from overcrowded and dirty prisons. 

Political parties have joined their calls amid fears that the coronavirus will spread through the country’s notorious prisons, and pose an imminent threat to the life and wellbeing of political prisoners.

The Indian government has refused to free activists, many of whom are denied adequate medical care. The hashtag #ReleaseAllPoliticalPrisoners has been trending for the past several weeks on Twitter, seeking the release of protesters facing trial in various cases, including the 2018 Bhima Koregaon case and the 2020 northeast Delhi riots.

The National Confederation of Human Rights Organisations urged Prime Minister Narendra Modi on 24 April to immediately release all political prisoners in the wake of the pandemic. “Many political prisoners, including the ones who have been jailed in the infamous Bhima Koregaon case, have been languishing in jail while the trial is getting delayed. No crime has been proven and they are kept in jail for political reasons,” said the confederation.

It also expressed concern for Kerala-based journalist Siddique Kappan, who was arrested in October last year while on his way to report the alleged gang rape and death of a Dalit woman at Hathras in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. Already suffering various comorbidities, Kappan, who was charged under the draconian anti-terror Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, is reported to have fallen in jail and recently tested positive for Covid-19.

“Kappan’s catching Covid is a testament to the condition in which people are kept in jails, and having them locked up is putting their lives at risk. In the same prison in which Kappan is held, around 50 other inmates have also tested positive for coronavirus,” the confederation said.

The Supreme Court of India directed the Uttar Pradesh state authorities to shift Kappan from the Mathura jail to a government hospital in Delhi for treatment on 28 April. Earlier, Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan wrote to his Uttar Pradesh counterpart, Yogi Adityanath, to ensure Kappan was provided with proper healthcare. 

“Kappan had been admitted to KVM hospital in Mathura and had reportedly been kept chained to his bed even when his health condition had become precarious,” Vijayan wrote.

Student activist and United Against Hate founder Khalid Saifi, who was arrested for his alleged role in the Delhi riots in February 2020, has also reportedly contracted Covid-19 and has been denied medical treatment.

“From 19 to 23 April, my husband … called me every day and said he had a mild fever, throat infection, cough, weakness and headache. He was running a temperature of [38°C] a day ago as well. He is not being tested. I’m petrified … He is a diabetes patient,” said Saifi’s wife, Nargis, adding that the jail is a “time bomb”.

Another jailed student activist, Umar Khalid, who was also arrested for his alleged involvement in the Delhi riots, tested positive for Covid-19 and has been kept in isolation at Delhi’s Tihar jail. Khalid is among 240 prisoners, in a prison complex that houses about 20 000 inmates, who have tested positive for the virus since 1 April, 227 cases of which are still active.

A number of student leaders at the front line of the movement against the anti-Muslim Citizenship Amendment Act have been imprisoned by the Modi government, as have prominent human rights activists, including Gautam Navlakha, Anil Teltumbde, Sudha Bharadwaj and Varavara Rao. Many have been charged under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act and jailed for allegedly instigating caste-based violence at a gathering in Bhima Koregaon in Maharashtra state in January 2018. Octogenarian poet-activist Rao was released on medical grounds in March. He contracted the virus last year, forcing jail authorities to move him to a hospital.

Anonymised prisoners at peril

The left parties expressed concern in July last year about the deteriorating health of these civil and human rights campaigners in prisons after the Covid-19 outbreak. “The deplorable conditions in the overcrowded jails, which lack even basic facilities, have contributed immensely to their deteriorating health condition. 

“Many of them have comorbidities and have been on medications since [before their arrests],” the Communist Party of India (Marxist) said, adding that all political prisoners were at a high risk of infection.

More than 375 prominent Indian personalities also made a plea to the government to release political prisoners. “These activists are not convicted criminals. Nor are they planning to flee the country and escape the law. We demand that they be granted bail immediately on humanitarian grounds as their lives are at risk,” the statement said.

The authorities themselves have identified prisons as Covid-19 hotspots. “Prisons may act as a source of infection, amplification and spread of infectious diseases within and beyond prisons,” said a May 2020 advisory document by India’s union ministry of home affairs.

Prisons are already overcrowded in India, with awaiting-trial prisoners accounting for 69.05% of occupants. Prison occupancy rates rose to 118.5% in 2019, from 117.6% in 2018, according to 2019 prison statistics by the National Crime Records Bureau, rendering these institutions unsuitable for physical distancing.

“As the deadly surge of the pandemic engulfs the city and the country, punishment continues to remain a ‘fetish’ and a ‘spectacle’, both inside and outside the prison,” wrote columnist Karan Tripathi on The Quint news website. 

“Unlike state governments, prison authorities are not releasing periodical updates of Covid-19 cases in their jail complexes. While the people outside prison have been reduced to a statistic, those inside prison are completely anonymised. While the second wave has breached the prison walls, the suffering of those behind bars remains unreported.”

The UN last year urged countries to release individuals detained without sufficient legal basis, including political prisoners, stressing the need to take a close look at incarcerations and to reduce overcrowding in prisons to prevent catastrophic rates of infection.

This is an edited version of an article first published by New Frame.