The Memory Keepers Of India’s Imprisoned Intellectuals
Varavara Rao is writing poems again. This news, from his nephew N Venugopal is shared with joy. After months of teetering precariously between life and death in Mumbai’s Taloja jail, delirious, bedridden, with an unchanged catheter, and no trained attendants, the Bombay High Court, on Nov. 18, ordered immediate medical attention for Rao, one of the country’s most prolific public intellectuals. The court also okayed family visits.
“This last week, he has come back,” Venugopal says of Rao. The court allowed each family member 15 minutes with Rao every day. Fifteen of them immediately took turns to visit him, relaying and rallying around the poet. “He is a gregarious person. He wants people around him. It gave him hope, he has regained strength.”
They carried Telugu books which Rao hasn’t had access to, because jail censors in Mumbai don’t read Telugu. Venugopal reports the poet is reading almost a book a day and has written three poems. Physically, he remains weak. He has lost 20 kg, and is a frail outline of his former self. But his family has won the battle they have waged since July: the right to proper healthcare. It’s a reprieve from the tears they have shed almost every day these past two years.
Rao, one of 17 arrested in the Bhima-Koregaon case, is no stranger to prisons. The first time he was arrested his two daughters were 8 and 5, Venugopal tells me. His second arrest was 22 days after his third daughter was born. But that was four decades ago. Now Rao is 80 and ailing. “All earlier imprisonments were in Andhra Pradesh where even jail staff knew he was a public intellectual and all of them were Telugu speaking,” Venugopal says. “In Maharashtra’s jails nobody knows who he is, they speak a language he doesn't know.”
In the last two years, the Bharatiya Janata Party government has liberally used the harsh anti-terror law, the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, against students, academics, lawyers, writers, and activists whose only crime seems to be that they are vocal dissenters of the ruling dispensation. This year hundreds of anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act protestors have been framed as rioters in the violence that broke out in northwest Delhi in February.
As families wait endlessly for their loved ones to be released, they must keep their stories alive in the public imagination.
In addition to tackling rejected bail applications, delayed trials, endless paperwork, and tighter prison rules in the pandemic, they must also be the gladiators who ensure that nobody will forget their loved ones. This past year, fathers, daughters, wives have shared their tales and tears on Facebook, through press conferences, in open letters, and in interviews to the few mainstream media houses that still have space for the families of dissenters.
Khalid Saifi’s daughter Mariam likes to feel like a princess on her birthday. The countdown to her seventh birthday in September began a few days earlier. On the day, her mother Nargis woke her up with a birthday song as she had requested. The youngest of three siblings, Mariam is always pampered but this day was full of “extra princess behaviour” as her mother puts it. Her father’s friends brought a cake, everyone showered her with love and attention. “Everything was going well but in the evening she started crying and wouldn't stop,” says Nargis, who cajoled the reason for her tears out of daughter: “Abbu isn’t there.”
I met the kind and genial Saifi in 2019, weeks before the protests against a new citizenship law rocked Indian cities. Saifi is a member of United Against Hate, formed when teenager Junaid Khan’s brutal murder on a crowded train in 2017 made a group of citizens realise they had to counter the daily narrative of hate. Like many Indians, myself included, Saifi participated in the nationwide protests against the discriminatory Citizenship (Amendment) Act. He was arrested in February and charged with the UAPA.
“When he was arrested, we thought he would be released soon. But it’s been nine months. The birthdays of all our three children and two Eids have passed,” says Nargis. Her sons Yasa, 12, and Taha, 10 (he just fractured his finger while skating), who once enjoyed pestering their father for pizza, burger, or a donut, and loved to go shopping with him, now don’t ask for anything. “The children have grown up,” she adds. “They look after me, they take away my cellphone when they see me looking at news headlines that give me tension.”
Tension or not, these families keep reminding us that we need to pay attention to their big fight.
Venugopal, who once posted about Telugu literature and authors on his Facebook, now uses it almost exclusively to share news and updates of Varavara Rao.
On the second anniversary of her incarceration, Sudha Bharadwaj’s 23-year-old daughter Maaysha wrote about the tireless human rights lawyer who was also arrested in the Bhima-Koregaon case. Bharadwaj, who was once offered the position of judge at the Chhattisgarh High Court, has been charged under 10 sections of the Indian Penal Code and the UAPA.
“I used to always fight with maa over why she chose this work in an area where she has to work day and night without thinking about her health. She would say, ‘If people like us won’t work then how will poor people get justice?’,” Maaysha wrote in August. “I wanted to live a normal life where my mother would prepare my tiffin box, drop me to school or college, make me study, just like any other mother. But I suppose she was not meant to be a normal mother. She is special. Only a few people in this world have the courage to work like she does. Which I suppose, is one of the reasons why she is in jail.”
If Maaysha fights for her mother, Mahavir Narwal speaks up for his daughter Natasha, in jail since May 23. The two are very close, the retired scientist tells Karwan-e-Mohabbat in this poignant video, pointing to the kurta she bought him. Her brother keeps her room tidy so that when Natasha returns, she will find it in great shape, Narwal says. Then he tells you what really goes through his mind. “Suppose my daughter has to stay in jail for a long time, and the time comes that she won’t be able to see me. I’m growing old, maybe I won’t get to see her…we just console our hearts by saying good things.”
Nargis Saifi, who speaks to her husband for five minutes every day says she also avoids telling him any bad news. Instead, she asks him about his time in jail. For Diwali, the inmates made diyas out of dough and placed them outside their cells. Khalid Saifi bought them laddoos and gulab jamuns from the jail canteen. He does his namaz regularly, plays badminton, and teaches other inmates to write. Narwal’s father too reports that his daughter is running the jail library and teaching inmates yoga.
Sometimes hope can come from the oddest places. In his two years in jail, Rao has written around 20 letters to authors across the world including Turkish author Elif Shafak, after reading her book Forty Rules of Love. “He praised her book and told her he had learned a lot about Rumi’s companion Shums Tabrizi,” says Venugopal laughing.
Nargis says Saifi told her something that’s stayed with her: “He said jail has criminals but they are not communal. There are all kinds of people but nobody cares about your religion.”
Priya Ramani is a Bengaluru-based journalist and is on the editorial board of Article-14.com.
The views expressed here are those of the authors, and do not necessarily represent the views of BloombergQuint or its editorial team.