Kolkata:A group of 500 prominent persons, including film personalities Soumitra Chatterjee, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Naseeruddin Shah and Aparna Sen from West Bengal, have penned an open letter to the Centre demanding an immediate release on bail of activists like Varavara Rao and Safoora Zargar at a time when "a pandemic is raging across the country".
Left leaning poet and writer Varavara Rao is among the 11 rights activists to have been jailed, apart from Sudha Bhardwaj, Shoma Sen, Anand Teltumbde, Gautam Navlakha, Arun Ferreira, Vernon Gonsalvez, Surendra Gadling, Mahesh Raut, Sudhir Dhawale and Rona Wilson, the letter said.
"In the prisons of Maharashtra where they are being detained, some inmates have died and many others have tested positive for COVID-19," the letter issued by the Indian Cultural Forum platform on June 16, said.
The letter also expressed dismay over denial of bail to student activist Safoora Zargar of Jamia Millia University and human rights activist of Assam, Akhil Gogoi.
Zargar, a member of Jamia Coordination Committee, was arrested under the anti-terror law --UAPA -- in a case related to communal violence in northeast Delhi during protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act in February.
We, the undersigned, are deeply concerned about the health of 11 respected fellow citizens:
1. Mr. Varavara Rao
2. Ms. Sudha Bhardwaj
3. Ms. Shoma Sen
4. Mr. Anand Teltumbde
5. Mr. Gautam Navlakha
6. Mr. Arun Ferreira
7. Mr. Vernon Gonsalvez
8. Mr. Surendra Gadling
9. Mr. Mahesh Raut
10. Mr. Sudhir Dhawale
11. Mr. Rona Wilson
These activists, many of them eminent scholars, writers and poets, have worked for the welfare of India's poorest and most marginalised people over decades. Yet they have been turned into politcal prisoners and incarcerated. They have not been granted bail despite the fact that in the prisons of Maharashtra where they are being detained, some inmates have died and many others have tested positive for COVID-19.
In Assam, Akhil Gogoi, who has repeatedly raised his voice against human rights violations by the state, has been denied bail.
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 at a time when a pandemic is raging across the country. We have learnt that Mr. Varavara Rao who is 80 years old is already ill and has been removed to a police hospital.
It is also shocking that Safoora Zargar, the pregnant student from Jamia Millia University in her second trimester, who was arrested for protesting against the CAA, is being denied bail. This places her life and that of her unborn child at risk.
Young student leaders too, including from Jamia University and JNU, who led the democratic, peaceful public protests in Delhi, challenging the CAA, NPR and NRC, have been implicated in criminal cases and placed behind bars, during the COVID-19 lockdown.
Safoora Zargar and the other students should all be granted bail along with the activists mentioned above.
The fear of the the COVID-19 "rampaging through prisons" has been expressed by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
It’s also worth remembering that the American Bar Association – Center for Human Rights has called on the Indian government to immediately release human rights defenders being incarcerated in jails across India.
We are very disturbed at the insistence on incarcerating eminent human rights defenders and student dissenters under such circumstances. The focus should surely not be on the suppression of dissent in our country, but on the containment of the pandemic for all, in prison and out of it.
If some of our most eminent social activists, and dissenting students, all of who selflessly strove for a better India, are deliberately lodged in jails where the COVID-19 is waiting to devastate their health, then the government shall be held wholly responsible for any detrimental impact of COVID-19 on the said persons.
We, the people of India, as well as the rest of the world, will be watching closely how those who stand with the marginalised and democratically dissent are treated by this government. All activists and human rights defenders should be immediately released on bail. We demand nothing less.
Read the statement in Hindi here.
Read the statement in Kannada here.
Read the statement in Bangla here.
Read the statement in Marathi here.
Read the statement in Malayalam here.
List of signatories can be read here.