Guilty Until Proven Innocent

Democracy Jun 07, 2021

The legal presumption of “innocent until proven guilty” does not seem to be applicable in India, where hundreds of people have been imprisoned under draconian laws such as the UAPA, under which they are denied bail and their basic rights as prisoners. The list of people imprisoned for years without trial is endless. The names mentioned here are simply some of the well-known ones. 70% of the prison population in the country is under trial.

According to data collected by the Union Home Ministry in 2016 - 2019, only a mere 2.2% of UAPA cases end in conviction, while over 50% end in acquittals. The families of the imprisoned allege torture, harassment, and inhumane conditions. Pleas to provide relief, especially with the pandemic raging, have fallen on deaf ears.

Let’s take a look at some of the cases which led to the arrests in the past few years.

  1. Bhima Koregaon Elgaar Parishad Case

The incident took place on January 1, 2018 - the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Bhima Koregaon which was fought between the British East India Company and the last Peshwa of the Maratha Empire, Baji Rao II.

‘Elgaar Parishad’ was a convention organized by 260 non-profit organizations to commemorate

soldiers who had lost their lives in the battle and mark the victory of Mahar Dalits over the upper

caste Peshwas. However, the event took a turn for the worse when violence broke out among the

35,000 attendees and spread across Maharashtra. The ensuing riots claimed the lives of a 19-year old Dalit and leftover 30 policemen injured.

In 2020, the case was transferred to India’s anti-terror task force, the National Investigation Agency (NIA). The agency accused the banned Communist Party of India (CPI) of organizing and inciting the violence and also plotting to assassinate Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Among the accused are 80-year old poet Varavara Rao, 84-year old Jesuit priest Father Stan Swamy, grandson-in-law of B.R. Ambedkar Anand Teltumbde, and other well-known activists, lawyers, professors, scholars, and writers. All have been booked under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA).

It is interesting to note that the evidence collected from accused Rona Wilson’s laptop and pen drives in NIA raids was found to be planted, as confirmed by a US-based digital forensic analyst firm. The accused continue to languish in prison with minimal evidence of their involvement in orchestrating the riots or the alleged Maoist links.

The following are names of the main accused in the Bhima Koregaon Elgaar Parishad case:

Name: Mahesh Raut Number of Days in Prison: 1,095 days and counting

Name: Sudhir Dhawale Number of Days in Prison: 1,095 days and counting

Name: Rona Wilson Number of Days in Prison: 1,095 days and counting

Name: Surendra Galding Number of Days in Prison: 1,095 days and counting

Name: Shoma Sen Number of Days in Prison: 1,095 days and counting

Name: Hany Babu Number of Days in Prison: 1,043 days and counting

Name: Sudha Bhardwaj Number of Days in Prison: 1,012 days and counting

Name: Varavara Rao Number of Days in Prison: 1,012 days and counting

Name: Gautam Navlakha Number of Days in Prison: 417 days and counting

Name: Anand Teltumbde Number of Days in Prison: 417 days and counting

Name: Stan Swamy Number of Days in Prison: 240 days and counting

2. 2020 Delhi Pogrom

Another event whose primary accused have been in jail for more than a year without culpable evidence is the Delhi riots that took place on February 23, 2020, following anti-CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act) protests. The violence began after repeated efforts to end the sit-in led by women at Shaheen Bagh failed and a mob of armed rioters entered the northeastern town of Jaffarabad. Hundreds of shops and houses were burnt down and 53 lives were lost. Witnesses claim the rioters targeted Muslims specifically while authorities stood by or participated in the attacks. The Delhi Police claimed that the violence was not spontaneous, but in fact, synchronized with ex-US President Donald Trump’s visit. However, there was no prima facie evidence found against those taken into custody following the investigations.

The accused include student leaders and activists of the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) and Jamia Millia Islamia (JMI). All accused have been charged under the UAPA and continue to remain in jail despite evidence of a Whatsapp group created by the largely Hindu mob that supplied information and targets to the rioters.

Name: Khalid Saifi Number of Days in Prison: 465 days  and counting

Name: Tahir Hussain Number of Days in Prison: 457 days and counting

Name: Meeran Haider Number of Days in Prison: 430 days and counting

Name: Shifa Ur Rehman Number of Days in Prison: 405 days and counting

Name: Asif Iqbal Tanha Number of Days in Prison: 385 days and counting

Name: Natasha Narwal Number of Days in Prison: 378 days and counting

Name: Devangana Kalita Number of Days in Prison: 378 days and counting

Name: Umar Khalid Number of Days in Prison: 265 days and counting

3. Anti-CAA protests:

The Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) drew widespread criticism across India after it was passed in December 2019. The following were among hundreds arrested for making ‘inflammatory speeches’ at protest sites that culminated in violence in some parts of the country. Many were accused of being conspirators of the violence in Jamia Millia Islamia, Jawaharlal Nehru, and Aligarh Muslim Universities, despite CCTV footage showing police attacking students on campus.

Name: Sharjeel Imam Number of Days in Prison: 494 days and counting

Name: Ishrat Jahan Number of Days in Prison: 465 days and counting

Name: Gulfisha Fatima Number of Days in Prison: 422 days and counting

Name: Sharjeel Usmani Number of Days in Prison: 332 days and counting

Name: Akhil Gogoi Number of Days in Prison: 175 days and counting

4. Hathras ‘Conspiracy’:

The gang-rape of a 19-year old Dalit in the Hathras district of Uttar Pradesh by upper caste men of the village sparked national outrage, especially when, after the victim succumbed to injuries, her body was cremated in the early hours of the morning by the police without the family’s permission. Politicians and media flocked to the site to protest the barbaric crime. Among those was Siddique Kappan, a journalist from a local news channel who was arrested on his way to the village and accused of having connections with Islamic extremist organization, Popular Front of India. The state government claimed of an international ploy to defame the Yogi government and provoke communal disharmony. Kappan was also named in the charge sheet filed by the UP police.

Name: Siddique Kappan Number of Days in Prison: 242 days and counting

Human rights activist G.N. Saibaba has been in prison since March 2017. Wheelchair-bound and 90% physically handicapped due to polio, he was sentenced to life imprisonment for his connections with the Revolutionary Democratic Front (RDF). The party was banned in 2012 for malicious intent. He tested positive for Covid-19 in February 2021. He has continuously been denied treatment. He is not the only one.

Varavara Rao and Fr. Stan Swamy are among the oldest in history to be accused of terrorism. Both suffer from serious health conditions, with the latter suffering from Parkinson’s. With the pandemic ravaging the country and the negligence of healthcare in prisons, their health continues to deteriorate.

38-year old Adivasi students’ rights activist, Kanchan Nanaware suffered from a congenital heart disease since birth. She was arrested under the UAPA in 2014 for alleged links to the Maoist movement. After 6 years of imprisonment, Nanaware succumbed to a brain tumor in January earlier this year. She had been an undertrial prisoner and had been acquitted in six of the nine cases filed against her. Pleas for bail to undergo a life-saving heart transplant were denied. She underwent brain surgery and succumbed to complications just days after. Her family and lawyers were not informed of her debilitating health.

This is just one of the many stories of people behind bars in India. Most of the arrested include noteworthy activists who have been vocal against injustices and unfair laws. However, dissent is not a crime. There is an urgent and ardent need to speed up trials and look into human rights violations of the prisoners. Justice delayed is justice denied.

This article is written by The Paradigm's Sr. Content Editor Shazia Farooqui

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