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Mumbai: When 84-year-old Jharkhand-based tribal rights activist and Jesuit priest Father Stan Swamy passed away on July 5, one of his co-accused in the Elgar Parishad case, Sudhir Dhawale, penned an emotional poem. Dhawale, a writer and anti-caste activist from Mumbai who is currently jailed at the Taloja central prison, wrote an eight-page poem describing his first meeting with Swamy, their interactions in jail and Swamy’s contribution to the tribal rights movement in Jharkhand. He titled the poem Pathalgadicha Father or the ‘Father of Pathalgadi’.
This was a personal piece that Dhawale had wished to share only with his friends, lawyers and colleagues at Vidrohi, his bi-monthly magazine. The jail authorities, however, never had the letter delivered. Instead, it was sent to the Nagpur office of the Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS).
The ATS, which has no role to play in the investigation of the Elgar Parishad case or any other case which may involve Dhawale, was approached by the Taloja jail authorities. It opined that the letter was “objectionable” and should not be delivered. Dhawale was subsequently served a “warning letter”.
Dhawale was one of the first people to be arrested in the ongoing Elgar Parishad case. He, along with 15 other activists, lawyers and academics, has been charged under several sections of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) for allegedly being a part of a banned Maoist group.
In 2011, Dhawale was arrested for his purported links to the Naxal movement. Shoddy investigations led to flimsy evidence being gathered, which was rejected by the trial court and Dhawale was released after spending 40 months in Gondia prison.
Following his release, Dhawale actively participated in public protests and continued publishing Vidrohi. Besides the Elgar Parishad case, Dhawale doesn’t have any other case pending against him.
The jail superintendent, Kaustubh Kurlekar, in a July 31 letter to the special NIA court had claimed that the ATS had taken objection to the letter and hence it could not be delivered. Dhawale, calling Kurlekar’s behaviour “unconstitutional”, has moved a contempt petition before the same court. Both petitions are pending.
The poem, written in Hindi, mentions in great detail the many interactions between Swamy and Dhawale; Swamy’s birthday celebration a few days before he fell sick and was moved to a private hospital in Mumbai; his “andolanjeevi” or revolutionary life in Jharkhand; the NIA’s failure to provide any substantial evidence against Swamy; and the “casteist judicial system” which differentiates between the rich and the poor.
Kurlekar had cited rules 17 and 20 of the Maharashtra Prisons (Facilities to Prisoners) Rules, 1962 for denying Dhawale his right to write while in prison. These rules allowed jail authorities to scrutinise any written material sent out from prison and decide whether the content enclosed is political propaganda or passes strictures against the jail administration. The rules, however, had been struck down by the Maharashtra government in 1992, following the Bombay high court’s order in the case of Madhukar Bhagwan Jambhale versus State of Maharashtra and Others.
Dhawale refers to this judgement and the subsequent government notification to oppose Kuralekar’s stand.
In the Jambhale judgement, the court had observed, “The restrictions imposed on the prisoner, to be valid, must have relevance either to the maintenance of internal order and discipline in the precincts of the jail or prevention of escape of the prisoner or prevention of transmission of coded message or messages which have the potentiality or tendency to give rise to disturbance of public order or inspiring commission of any illegal activity or offence or reason of a like nature.” Dhawale’s writings don’t fit any of the mentioned criteria.
Harshali Potdar, Dhawale’s friend and a colleague at Vidrohi, says no part in the poem is against the state. “It is merely an ode to an old man who passed away while being incarcerated,” Potdar said. She further noted that while every correspondence from the jail premises is, by rule, scrutinised by the jail superintendent, sending intimate letters to the terrorism squad is a first.
“Sudhir [was] arrested by the NIA. ATS has no role in the investigation. The prison authorities use their bias and consult a terrorism squad, making not just the arrested person vulnerable but also those to whom the letter is written. It is violative on too many levels,” Potdar said.
In the Jambhale case, the court held that both rules 17 and 20 of the Facilities to Prisoners Rules were violative of Articles 19(1)(a) and 21 of the Indian Constitution. “By reason of the conviction and being lodged in jail, the prisoner does not lose his political right or rights to express views on political matters, so long as such views propagated by the prisoner through letters do not have the potency of inciting violence or is likely to adversely affect maintenance of law and order or public order,” the court had held.
Before Dhawale, his co-accused, Ramesh Gaichor, Anand Teltumbde and Arun Ferreira had also been served similar warning notices.
After Ambedkarite activist and actor Vira Sathidar passed away due to COVID-19 in April this year, Gaichor, a cultural activist and member of the Kabir Kala Manch, had written a poem to express his grief. This poem, too, was termed objectionable by Kurlekar and was stopped from being sent to Gaichor’s sister. Gaichor has also written to the chief justice of the Bombay high court seeking contempt of court proceedings against Kurlekar for not honouring the 1984 judgment in the Jambhale case.
Similarly, Ferreira had written a long letter describing the condition in which Swamy lived in jail and the impression he left on his co-prisoners in the many months that he was incarcerated. This was published on Scroll.in on August 12. Dhawale has said that Kuralekar served Ferreira with a warning notice too.