English schoolteacher Mary Tyler, who spent five years in Indian jails in the early 1970s on suspicion of being a Naxalite, recalled her experience in Anand Patwardhan-directed documentary Prisoners of Conscience (1978). “As for the condition in the jail, they were very overcrowded,” she said. “Sanitation was extremely primitive; medical care was extremely poor, especially in the smaller jails; and there were lots of infectious and contagious diseases. Medical treatment was almost nil. Apart from that, there were severe water problems, clothing was not provided according to jail rules, visits were arbitrary... In general, one had a feeling that most of the prisoners there would not have a chance of being taken to court at all – let alone trial.” Tyler, who was interviewed for this film during the Emergency (1975-1977), later recollected her experiences at the Hazaribagh jail in a book, My Years in An Indian Prison (1977).
Patwardhan’s documentary begins with the text: “The persons interviewed in this film have one thing in common. They have all been political prisoners in independent India.” He began making the film during the Emergency, when Indira Gandhi’s government used laws such as the Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA), 1971, the Conservation of Foreign Exchange and Prevention of Smuggling Activities Act, 1974, and the Defence of India Rules (DIR), 1915, quite liberally to imprison opposition leaders, political opponents within the Congress, suspected and real Naxalites and members of other armed groups, liberal journalists and many others. Patwardhan himself spent a day in jail, as he recollected in an interview: “While making Prisoners of Conscience I was jailed for a day but I got out, yet at the back of my mind there is always some caution about what I’m doing or what might happen.”
The film documents the end of the Emergency and the defeat of Indira Gandhi. “The existence of political prisoners did not begin with the Emergency nor did it end with it,” says the voiceover. One of the interviewees for the film, Jayaprakash Narayan, says the expectations from the Janata Party government, which came to power in 1977, had not been fulfilled as long as there were political prisoners in India — a thought that Patwardhan echoes in the interview: “The film is an attempt to show that ever since independence, because the class structures in India have remained hierarchical, and because there is a very small ruling class made up of landlords and big business, the government – no matter which party was in power – had to use repressive means to stay in power.” Patwardhan got a taste of it when he tried to release Prisoners of Conscience — it was denied a clearance by the censor board despite the Janata Party being in power.
Christophe Jaffrelot and Pratinav Anil in their recent book on the Emergency, India’s First Dictatorship, claim: “In 1978 the Shah Commission disclosed 110,806 citizens had been arrested under the DIR and MISA during the twenty-one months of authoritarian rule, adding that political prisoners, as opposed to common criminals, accounted for at least half that figure.” The Shah Commission, appointed by the Janata Party government, was headed by ex-chief justice of India J C Shah and was mandated to look into the excess of the Emergency. After Indira Gandhi was re-elected to power in 1980, most copies of the commission’s report disappeared. Drawing upon a report in the Frontline, Jaffrelot and Anil argue that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has used the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Amendment Act, 2019, in a similar manner to lock up its detractors. Some of those incarcerated under this Act are activists arrested in the Bhima Koregaon case (whose legitimacy has been challenged by recent revelations) and protestors against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019, or the CAA.
To circle back to schoolteacher Tyler’s experience in jail, there are continuities between 1975 and 2021. If anything, things have only got worse. According to a recent report of the National Crime Records Bureau, seven in 10 Indian prisoners are undertrials; one in three are Dalits or Adivasis. Only 14 countries in the world have more undertrials behind bars, proving the often-repeated observation that in India the process of seeking justice is in itself the punishment. Before Amnesty International shut down its office in India in September 2020, accusing the government of a “witch-hunt”, it had published a detailed report of how prisoners were tortured behind bars in India. In 2019, there were 478,600 people lodged in Indian jails, according to the NCRB report.
Last Saturday, February 15, 22-year-old climate activist Disha Ravi was added to these statistics when a team of Delhi police picked her up from her home in Bengaluru. She has been accused of sedition and circulating a document — now, infamous as the “toolkit” — tweeted by Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg in support of months-long protests by farmers in North India. There have been accusations that the Delhi police did not even get a transit remand, necessary for arresting a person in another city and bringing them to the national capital. Right to Information activist Saket Gokhale has filed an application seeking clarification on this and the Delhi Commission for Women has issued a notice on the police, even as police commissioner S N Shrivastava has denied that his force violated any norms in the case. While Ravi remains in custody, warrants have been issued against two other green activists — Shantanu Muluk and Nikita Jacob from Maharashtra.
Historian Ramachandra Guha, who has been a consistent critic of the Modi government, reflected on Ravi’s arrest in his column for NDTV last week. One of the five reasons he cited was: “the Modi-[Home Minister Amit]Shah regime fears independent thinking in general; they particularly fear it when expressed by young people. Indians in their 20s and 30s, who are animated by ideals of religious pluralism, caste and gender justice, democratic transparency, and environmental sustainability — that is, by ideals different from and often opposed to those of the Sangh Parivar — have more energy and more time on this earth to fulfil their own hopes for our land. Therefore, they must be sent off to prison, through the abuse of state power and of the legal process if necessary.” Incidentally, Guha himself was arrested in December 2019 while protesting against the CAA in Bengaluru.
A scholar of international repute, Guha’s arrest had sparked international censure with the Financial Times in London claiming that India was “sliding into a second Emergency”. One might argue that such comparisons are onerous, depending more on coincidences than on empirically proven facts. And, indeed, it would be a futile exercise to try to find an exact mapping between a historical event and contemporary developments. But denying the resonances between — to borrow Jaffrelot and Anil’s term — India’s first dictatorship and the undeniable erosion of democratic institutions in the country in our time would be an invitation for more such coincidences to occur.
The write’s novel Ritual was published last year.