Two of the jailed KMSS (Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti) leaders, Bittu Sonowal and Dhaijya Konwar, have tested positive for COVID-19 in Guwahati Jail. However, there seems to be uncertainty about whether farmer leader Akhil Gogoi has tested positive as well.
Gogoi’s sample was also taken, and reports mentioned that he had tested positive for COVID-19. However, officials in Assam have denied the same. Many local news channels in Assam also flashed the news of Gogoi having tested positive, but the IGP (Jail) has denied such reports.
When asked, journalist Amradendra Deka of Pratidin Time said: “Akhil Gogoi has had a serious illness inside the jail with fever, body ache and cough. He had high fever yesterday. His swab sample was collected and there is doubt about the result and we are waiting for a confirmation.”
The jail authorities were directed by the NIA court to test the trio on July 7, and their swab tests were conducted accordingly. While Bitu Sonowal and Dhaijya Konwar were reported positive for COVID-19 yesterday and were transferred to a Guwahati hospital, Gogoi is still in jail.
What has been problematic is that the jail authorities and the BJP Government in the state showed complete apathy with regard to the health of the political prisoners. Akhil, Bittu and Dhaijya have been about their deteriorating health and symptoms of COVID-19 since June 28.
Bittu and Dhaijya alleged that they were not given a bed last night and were kept on a terrace as the hospital authorities said there was shortage of beds for COVID-19 patients. They were taken to three different hospitals after being taken out from jail and health authorities could not secure beds for them. The hospitals are also not in proximity and they had to travel for several hours with their deteriorating health condition.
Akhil Gogoi’s wife, Geetashree Tamuly, has written about her experience of meeting him in jail. In her Facebook post, Tamuly said that Gogoi had COVID-19-like symptoms. After her post went viral, there was widespread public outrage against the insensitive behavior of the government towards political prisoners. Gogoi’s lawyers had to approach the NIA court to compel jail authorities to conduct COVID-19 tests on them.
Speaking to NewsClick over the phone, Santanu Borthakur, the lawyer representing Gogoi in the court, said: “Even after public outrage and health complaints by Akhil Gogoi and his allies, the Government did not show any responsibility towards protecting basic human rights. We had to go to the court for an order to conduct a test for them. We filed the petition in court on July 6 and the court order came the next day. It is a matter of shame on the part of the BJP Government in Assam. All of them have been imprisoned vindictively for their participation in the anti-CAA movement that gripped Assam. They have been in jail for over six months now.”
Recently, 1,200 inmates lodged in the Guwahati Central Jail went on a hunger strike demanding the release of jailed activists. Gogoi and his allies were speaking about the probable spread of COVID-19 in the jail premises after a positive case was found last month. On June 5, the Guwahati Central Jail was declared a containment zone after the said case.
However, there were no measures undertaken to protect the health of the inmates by the jail authorities. Had the court order not been passed, would the Government have conducted COVID-19 tests for the jailed activists?
Speaking to NewsClick over the phone, Bedabrat Gogoi, a PhD scholar in JNU and a KMSS member, said: “The BJP Government has shown its vindictive character. Assam witnessed massive protests against the Citizenship Amendment Acct (CAA) and lost five lives during the movement. Akhilda, Bittu and Dhaijya have been kept inside the jail for their leadership in the movement. When the COVID-19 pandemic has gripped the entire world, conditions in jail are highly volatile for the spread of the disease. Even the Supreme Court said that the number of prisoners be reduced due to the pandemic. Why is the BJP government still not releasing the political prisoners? There are many protesters across India languishing in different jails across India. There should be an initiation for their release as well.”
Jails are COVID-19 Hotspots
The Guwahati jail incident hints towards a worrisome trend, that Indian jails can become COVID-19 hotspots. The overcrowded jails can afford very less for the protection of the health of the prisoners. One positive case inside any prison can turn the facility into a potential hotspot. Even the apex court observed that there is a need to de-crowd the jails.
After the anti-CAA movement, many protesters are still inside jails in different parts of the country. The police is continuing with fresh arrests amid the pandemic. There have been numerous pleas to release the political prisoners languishing in jails. During a pandemic, what could be more insensitive than to turn a deaf ear to such pleas?