New Delhi: After enduring 960 days of incarceration, activist-scholar Atiqur Rahman said that he was targeted for being a Muslim and that his continued imprisonment convinced him that “there is nothing called democracy left in India”.
On October 5, 2020, Rahman was arrested along with journalist Siddique Kappan and two others, Masood Ahmad and Mohammed Alam, while on their way to Uttar Pradesh’s Hathras.
They were travelling to Hathras to meet the family of a 19-year-old Dalit woman who had allegedly been gang-raped by four ‘upper caste’ men. The woman later succumbed to her injuries. Though the woman in her dying declaration accused three men of sexual assault, none of the accused were found guilty of rape by an SC/ST court in March this year. One person was convicted of culpable homicide not amounting to murder and other offences under the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act.
Meanwhile, the Uttar Pradesh government claimed that Rahman and Siddique were part of a conspiracy to instigate caste riots. Rahman was accused of sedition and money laundering, and of offences under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA). He was also charged under sections of the Information and Technology Act
He was granted bail in the money laundering case, after already obtaining bail in the other cases, last month and walked out of jail on June 14.
Speaking to The Wire, Rahman said that the 32 months of imprisonment have failed to kill his spirit.
“When I walked out of jail I chanted ‘Inquilab Zindabad’ and even today I have no fear. I will continue to raise my voice against any injustice in any part of the country,” he said.
While Kappan was going to cover the incident as a journalist, Rahman, who was a member of the Campus Front of India – the student wing of the now-banned Popular Front of India – went to “show solidarity” with the victim’s family.
“I have always raised my voice and shown solidarity with important causes, whether it is Nirbhaya or Hathras. I decided to go to Hathras and meet the victim’s family and show solidarity,” he said.
‘Punished for being a Muslim’
According to Rahman, he was punished because he was a Muslim, and not for his activism.
“On October 2, when [Congress leader] Rahul Gandhi went to Hathras along with some of his supporters, they were roughed up and sent back. The next day when Jayant Chaudhary from the Rashtriya Lok Dal tried to go there, he was lathi-charged. On October 4, Chandra Shekhar Aazad (of Bhim Army) tried to go there but was detained and later let off in Muzaffarnagar,” he said.
“Why were they let off? Because they were Hindus while the four of us were sent to jail because we were Muslims,” he said.
On May 25, the Allahabad high court, while granting bail to Rahman in the money laundering case, noted that the only allegation against him was that Rs 5,000 had been deposited into his bank account.
The court noted “that [the amount] has been deposited in his account by a person who is not an accused in the case,” according to the judgment, accessed by The Wire.
The judge also noted that the main co-accused in the money laundering case, K.A. Rauf Sherif, was already granted bail.
While Rahman was granted bail last month, he only walked out of jail on June 14. This happened due to “procedural delays,” according to one of his lawyers, Sheeran Alavi.
“There were procedural delays relating to formalities that needed to be completed before he could be released,” Alavi told The Wire.
On March 15, the high court granted him bail in the UAPA case, observing that no “strong reason” had been given to justify Rahman’s continued detention. The judgment said:
“We, however, notice that the counter affidavit, after filing of the charge-sheet, does not spell out any strong reason which may justify continued detention of the present appellant who is in judicial custody since 05.10.2020.”
The court, while granting him bail in the UAPA case, also noted that both his co-accused, Kappan and Alam, had been granted bail.
It said that the charges were framed against Rahman without giving him due opportunity of hearing in the trial and the order was set aside by the high court earlier remitting the matter back to the trial court for a fresh hearing.
“All I can say is that I have been punished for being Muslim along with the three others who were with me,” Rahman said.
Fear for life in jail
During the years he spent in jail, Rahman said that he felt his life was under threat.
“I struggled a lot during these 32 months, and at several points, I felt that my life was under threat due to my deteriorating health.”
In November 2021, he underwent heart surgery at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in New Delhi. The surgery was only possible after an urgent plea was moved by his family in the Allahabad high court.
The Wire had reported that Rahman had been suffering from aortic regurgitation – a condition that occurs when the heart’s aortic valve doesn’t close tightly, causing some of the blood pumped out of the heart’s main pumping chamber (left ventricle) to leak backwards.
The lack of adequate medical care after the surgery only worsened his health. In August 2022, he was hospitalised at Lucknow’s King George Medical University.
“After the surgery, doctors said that I had only a 90% chance of survival. My right side was left completely paralysed. I was in hospital in Lucknow for 10 days,” he said.
In September 2022, his family’s requests for urgent medical care were amplified by several activists on Twitter.
Civil rights activists had also written a letter to Uttar Pradesh’s authorities to provide him with urgent medical care.
Rahman said that he feared for his life after his second surgery.
“I was completely paralysed. I couldn’t talk to anyone. I would try to speak but nothing coherent would come out. I was in a wheelchair with a urine bag in my hand,” he said.
“Even though they hoped that I would die in jail, I somehow managed to survive,” he added.
Democracy in India
Rahman said he will continue to speak up against injustices in India. He also plans to pursue a PhD in Library and Information Science.
With legal fees amounting to over Rs 30 lakh, Rahman said he has to find a way to pay back those who lent money to his family.
“My family has struggled a lot. We have to pay over Rs 30 lakh in legal fees. We somehow managed by borrowing from friends and family, and by taking loans. I have to find a way to pay off these loans,” he said.
The 32 months he spent in jail have convinced the activist that “there is nothing called democracy left in India”.
“My experience in jail has shown me that in India, democracy only exists in textbooks now,” he said.
Note: This article has been updated since publication to remove mention of Rahman’s second surgery. He was hospitalised to receive treatment but did not have to be operated on a second time.