Rights

'Release the Bhima Koregaon 16 Immediately': Nobel Laureates, EU MPs Write to Indian Authorities

The signatories, including Noam Chomsky and Olga Tokarczuk, sought that the temporary order to release prisoners in light of COVID-19 be applied to these political prisoners as well.

New Delhi: Academics, European Union parliamentarians, Nobel laureates and other figures of international prominence have written a letter to the Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the Chief Justice of India, the chief minister of Maharashtra and other Indian authorities demanding the release of political prisoners arrested in connection with the Bhima Koregaon.

Expressing concern over the incarceration of human rights defenders in prisons in India under “deplorable hygiene conditions” and the absence of appropriate medical care, the letter said that political prisoners were at grave risk of contracting the new and more virulent strain of coronavirus.

The letter, which is addressed to several Indian authorities and copied to the EU Commissioner for Human Rights and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, sought that the temporary administrative order to release prisoners in light of the outbreak of COVID-19 be applied to India’s political prisoners as well.

The signatories to the letter included noted academic and linguist Noam Chomsky, former President of the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention José Antonio Guevara-Bermúdez, Nobel laureates Olga Tokarczuk and Wole Soyinka, Columbia University professor Partha Chatterjee, Brown University professor Ashutosh Varshney, human rights activist Shahidul Alam, former editor-in-chief of The Guardian UK Alan Rusbridger and journalist Naomi Klein.

The letter pointed out that overcrowded prisons with a shortage of water and medical equipment posed a serious health risk to political prisoners – many of whom had already contracted COVID-19 and reported a significant deterioration of their health.

Also read: There Is No Case. Release the Bhima Koregaon 16 and Compensate Them

“In a moment of unprecedented national calamity, we ask for decisive action by the government and court to set the BK-16 at liberty to avert further tragedy,” the signatories said and stressed that the political prisoners were facing a “humanitarian emergency”.

“Two of the BK-16 were recently shifted to multi-specialty hospitals after intense advocacy from family members and concerned citizens,” the signatories said and also referred to poet Varavara Rao, who received temporary bail on medical grounds after he was hospitalised for several weeks.

Among those arrested in connection with the case include Sudhir Dhawale, a writer and Mumbai-based Dalit rights activist, Mahesh Raut, a young activist from Gadchiroli who worked on displacement, Shoma Sen, who had been head of the English literature department at Nagpur University, advocates Arun Ferreira and Sudha Bharadwaj, writer Varavara Rao, activist Vernon Gonsalves, prisoners’ rights activist Rona Wilson, Surendra Gadling, a UAPA expert and lawyer from Nagpur, Father Stan Swamy, Delhi University professor Hany Babu, scholar and activist Anand Teltumbde, civil liberties activist Gautam Navlakha, and members of the cultural group,  Kabir Kala Manch: Sagar Gorkhe, Ramesh Ghaichor and Jyoti Jagtap.

The entire statement has been reproduced below.

§

10 June 2021

We urge the immediate release of human rights defenders in India into safe conditions

Accounting for almost a third of deaths from Covid-19 worldwide, the situation in India is grave. We are alarmed that a number of human rights defenders who are currently awaiting trial in Indian jails have developed serious health issues in jail owing to over-congestion and neglect, absence of appropriate medical care, and deplorable hygiene conditions. These political prisoners are now at great risk of contracting the virulent strain of the virus — which some have already contracted —  and will have no access to prompt medical care that is necessary to save lives. We therefore urgently seek that the temporary administrative order to release prisoners due to the pandemic be applied to political prisoners in India. We strongly believe that by turning a blind eye to the toll exacted by Covid on those it holds in its custody, the government is in violation of its constitutional duty to safeguard the life of these citizens.

Among the thousands in India arrested for “political offences” is a group known as the Bhima-Koregaon (BK)-16:  four academics, three lawyers, two independent journalists, a union organizer and social activist, a poet, three performing artists, and a Jesuit priest. A majority of them are senior citizens, some of whom have comorbidities that render them particularly vulnerable. All are human rights defenders with a record of writing, speaking and organizing for the rights of workers, minorities, Dalits, and Adivasis through peaceful and constitutional means. As the deadly second wave of Covid rages, with an equally serious third wave anticipated, the overcrowded prisons face severe water shortage and lack the medical equipment and personnel necessary to fight Covid. At least six of the arrested have contracted Covid-19, others have reported various acute infections and a rapid deterioration of health. Two of the BK-16 were recently shifted to multi-specialty hospitals after intense advocacy from family members and concerned citizens. Last year, one of the 16, an 80-year old poet, received temporary bail on medical grounds after weeks of hospitalization, at a moment when it was feared that he may die in custody.

In a moment of unprecedented national calamity, we ask for decisive action by the government and court to set the BK-16 at liberty to avert further tragedy. When the prison is unable to provide for the health and safety of the prisoners, the family has a right to offer such care as they deem necessary. None of the prisoners is deemed a flight risk. We acknowledge that while the Bombay High Court allowed three of the 16 arrested to be transferred to private hospitals, there is a humanitarian emergency facing all these political prisoners, whose lives are in grave danger from Covid-19.

With this letter, we call on the Indian authorities to take urgent and prompt action:

Release the BK-16 from overcrowded and unsafe prisons immediately.

Allow them to be cared for by their kin.

Show compassion and responsibility in order to avoid catastrophic consequences.

Ensure them their constitutional right to live and die in dignity.

Signatories

  1. José Antonio Guevara-Bermúdez, Former President of the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention
  2. Olga Tokarczuk, Polish writer, Nobel Prize for Literature 2018
  3. Wole Soyinka, Nigerian writer, Nobel Prize for Literature 1986
  4. Margrete Auken, Member of the European Parliament
  5. Idoia Villanueva, Member of the European Parliament
  6. Alviina Alametsä, Member of the European Parliament
  7. Lord Harries of Pentregarth, Member of the House of Lords, UK
  8. Caroline Lucas, Member of Parliament, UK
  9. Apsana Begum, Member of Parliament, UK
  10. Clive Lewis, Member of Parliament, UK
  11. Mick Barry, TD, Member of the Irish Parliament
  12. Michel Brandt, Member of the German Bundestag
  13. Eva-Maria Schreiber, Member of the German Bundestag
  14. Heike Hänsel, Member of the German Bundestag and Vice-President of Left Parliamentary Group, Germany
  15. Christine Buchholz, Member of the German Bundestag and deputy member of the Committee on Human Rights and Humanitarian Aid
  16. Mattea Meyer, Member of the Swiss Parliament
  17. Cédric Wermuth, Member of the Swiss Parliament
  18. Fabian Molina, Member of the Swiss Parliament
  19. Tamara Funiciello, Member of the Swiss Parliament
  20. Pierre Yves-Maillard, Member of Swiss Parliament, President of the Swiss Trade Union Federation
  21. Katharina Prelicz-Huber, Member of Swiss Parliament, President of the Swiss trade union VPOD-SSP
  22. (Rt Revd Dr) Rowan Williams FBA, Former Archbishop of Canterbury, Former Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge
  23. Revd Ted Penton, SJ, Secretary of Justice and Ecology,  Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States
  24. Vania Alleva, President of the Swiss trade union Unia
  25. Noam Chomsky, Institute Professor and Professor of Linguistics Emeritus, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), USA
  26. Homi K. Bhabha, Anne F. Rothenberg Professor of the Humanities, Harvard University, USA
  27. James Silk, Binger Clinical Professor of Human Rights, Yale Law School, USA
  28. Gyan Prakash, Dayton-Stockton Professor of History, Princeton University, USA
  29. Judith Butler, Maxine Elliot Professor, Department of Comparative Literature, University of California at Berkeley, USA
  30. Signe Kjelstrup, Principle Investigator, Center of Excellence, Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), Norway
  31. Arjun Appadurai, Paulette Goddard Professor of Media, Culture, and Communication, New York University, USA
  32. Faisal Devji, Professor of Indian History, University of Oxford, UK
  33. Talal Asad, Distinguished Professor, City University of New York, USA
  34. Gyanendra Pandey, Arts and Sciences Distinguished Professor, and Director, Interdisciplinary Workshop on Colonial and Postcolonial Studies, Emory University, USA
  35. Victor Wallis, Professor, Berklee College of Music, USA
  36. Michael Morris, Chavkin-Chang Professor of Leadership Management, Columbia University, USA
  37. Ashutosh Varshney, Sol Goldman Professor of International Studies and the Social Sciences, Brown University, USA
  38. Ash Amin, Professor of Geography, University of Cambridge, UK
  39. Partha Chatterjee, Professor of Anthropology, Columbia University, USA
  40. Akeel Bilgrami, Sidney Morgenbesser Professor of Philosophy, Professor, Committee on Global Thought, Columbia University, USA
  41. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Professor of English and Comparative Literature, Columbia University, USA
  42. Maryse Condé, French-Guadeloupean novelist and laureate, Professor Emerita, Columbia University, USA
  43. Paula M. L. Moya, Danily C. and Laura Louise Bell Professor of the Humanities, Stanford University, USA
  44. Ueli Maeder, Professor Emeritus of Sociology, Former Dean at the University of Basel, Germany
  45. Joshua Castellino, Executive Director, Minority Rights International and Professor of Law, Middlesex University, London
  46. Wolfgang Kaleck, Lawyer and Author, Berlin, Germany
  47. Alan Rusbridger, Former Editor-in-Chief, the Guardian UK and  board member, Committee to Protect Journalists
  48. Naomi Klein, Journalist, Author, Filmmaker, Activist, and Gloria Steinem Chair in Media, Culture, and Feminist Studies, Rutgers University, USA
  49. Vince Warren, Lawyer, New York, USA
  50. Jennifer Robinson, Barrister, UK
  51. Alejandra Anchieta, Founder and Executive Director, ProDESC, Mexico
  52. Sarah Ahmed, British-Australian Writer and Independent Scholar
  53. Srećko Horvat, Philosopher and Council Member, Progressive International
  54. Ilija Trojanow, Bulgarian-German Writer
  55. Amit Chaudhuri, Novelist, Essayist, and Musician
  56. Shahidul Alam, Photographer, Writer, Curator and Human Rights Activist
  57. Ahdaf Soueif, Novelist, Political and Cultural Commentator

Endorsing organizations

  1. InSAF India (International Solidarity for Academic Freedom in India)
  2. India Civil Watch International (ICWI)
  3. Sikh Council UK
  4. PEN Canada
  5. English PEN
  6. PEN International
  7. American Sociological Association
  8. Hindus for Human Rights
  9. Global Secular Hindu Forum
  10. Solifonds Switzerland

 

Further reading

  • The People’s Union of Civil Liberties (PUCL) Maharashtra (September 2, 2020). Imprisoned and Unsafe. Prisoners and the Pandemic. Lockdown on Civil Liberties Series – 1. A PUCL (Maharashtra) series.
  • Jyotsna Kapur and Neepa Majumdar (May 24, 2021). The international academic community must respond to repression in India. Academe Blog.
  • Amy Kazmin (May 20, 2021). Indian activists languish in jail despite soaring Covid rates. Financial Times.
  • Inés San Martín (May 19, 2021). Activists fear jailed Indian Jesuit faces Covid ‘death sentence’. Angelus.
  • Mekhala Saran (May 18, 2021). Crowded jails & COVID: 16 Bhima Koregaon accused’s kin share fears. The Quint.
  • Narsi Benwal. (May 17, 2021). Mumbai: State has 1 medical staff to look after 315 odd prisoners. The Free Press Journal.
  • Jyoti Punwani (May 17, 2021). Should the Bhima Koregaon 16 be left to die? Rediff.com.
  • Niha Masih and Joanna Slater (April 21, 2021). Further evidence in case against Indian activists accused of terrorism was planted, new report says. The Washington Post.
  • Polis Project (March 8, 2021). The strange case against the Bhima Koregaon political prisoners. The Polis Project.
  • Newslaundry (December 2, 2020). Explained: Why is UAPA a draconian law?, Newslaundry.
  • Abhinav Sekri (July 18, 2020). How the UAPA is perverting the idea of justice. Article 14.
  • World Prison Brief. (May 21, 2021). World Prison Brief Data – India. WPB.​

To:

The Hon’ble Chief Justice of India,

Justice N.V. Ramana,

Supreme Court of India,

Tilak Marg, New Delhi 110001

The Hon’ble Chief Justice,

Justice Dipankar Datta,

105 Bombay High Court,

(P.W.D.) Building, Fort, Mumbai 400032

The Hon’ble Justice A.A.Sayed,

Member of the High Power Committee,

105 Bombay High Court,

(P.W.D.) Building, Fort, Mumbai 400032

The Hon’ble Prime Minister of India,

Mr Narendra Modi,

Prime Minister Office,

South Block, Raisina Hill, New Delhi 110011

The Hon’ble Home Minister of India,

Mr Amit Shah,

Ministry of Home Affairs,

North Block, Raisina Hill, New Delhi 100011

The Hon’ble Chief Minister of Maharashtra,

Mr Uddhav Thackeray,

Maharashtra CM Office,

Government of Maharashtra,

6th Floor, Mantralaya, Nariman Point, Mumbai 400032

The Hon’ble Home Minister of Maharashtra,

Mr Dilip Dattaray Walse-Patil,

Mantralaya, Nariman Point, Mumbai 400032

Mr Anand Limaye,

Additional Chief Secretary, Home (Appeal and Security),

Member of the High Power Committee,

Home Department, Mantralaya, Nariman Point, Mumbai 400032

Shri Sunil Ramanand,

Additional Director General of Police (Prisons),

Member of the High Power Committee,

OId Central Building, 2nd Floor, Pune-1

Copy to:

Mr Nils Menzer,
Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (UN Human Rights)

Ms Leigh Toomey,
Chair-Rapporteur, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (UN Human Rights) Working Group on Arbitrary Detention

Ms Dunja Mijatovic,
EU Commissioner for Human Rights

Ms Mary Lawlor,
Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders,
Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (UN Human Rights)​

Mr Gerard Quinn,
Special Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities,
Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (UN Human Rights)

Ms Irene Khan,
UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (UN Human Rights)

Ms Rosa Kornfeld-Matte,
Independent Expert on the enjoyment of all human rights by older persons, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (UN Human Rights)

Ms Tlaleng Mofokeng,
Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (UN Human Rights)