Face to face Interview With Jenny Rowena
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Category : FACE TO FACE:
Author : Aura Staff
Hany Babu, a Delhi University professor and a native of Kerala was one of the 16 people arrested by the Maharashtra police for allegedly organizing an event called ‘Elgar Parishad’ on the bicentenary of the 1818 Anglo-Maratha War in Bhima Koregaon. Hany Babu, who was arrested by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) on July 28, 2020, is still in jail. Every year, Bhima Koregaon celebrates its victory near the Victory Pillar, a monument to Dalit soldiers who fought against the Peshwa dynasty as part of the British Army. There are eyewitnesses to the organized violence perpetrated by RSS leaders Milind Ekbote and Sambhaji Bhide against the Dalits who came to Shaniwar Wada on Saturday, January 1, 2018 to celebrate the victory. Yet this violent incident was reported as a caste conflict between Dalits and dominant castes. Sections 153A, 505 (1) (b) and 117 of the IPC have been added to the FIR registered on January 8, 2018 in the complaint of Tushar Dangude. The FIR was registered against six members of Kabir Kala Manch, a cultural organization. The FIR has been registered in connection with the names of journalist and poet Sudhir Dhawale, Sagar Gorkhe, Harshali Poddar, Ramesh Geichor, Deepak Dhengle and Jyoti Jagtap. Based on this, 16 writers, social activists and teachers from different states of the country were arrested, on charges of inciting communal violence and plotting to assassinate Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Meanwhile, Milind Ekbote, accused in several cases of inciting hate speech against Muslims, was arrested and released on bail. Sambhaji Bhide has not been arrested yet. Rohit Vemula’s mother Radhika Vemula, Bharipa Bahujan Mahasangha founder leader Prakash Ambedkar, JNU student leader Umar Khalid and Gujarat Vadgam MLA Jignesh were present at the Elgar Parishad on December 31, 2017, led by several Ambedkarite and Left organizations in Maharashtra. Former Bombay High Court Judge Kolse Patil was one of the organizers of the Elgar Parishad. Jyoti Jagtap, Ramesh Geichor and Sagar Gorkhe of Kabir Kalamanch were the latest to be arrested in the NIA case. In this conversation, Jenny Rowena, wife and colleague of Hany Babu, a Delhi University professor, talks about the racial base of the Indian prison system, penal code and the democratic rule of civil society.
In a Clubhouse discussion on inmates in UAPA cases, you shared some observations about the use of the term ‘political prisoners’, referring to the large percentage of inmates in Indian prisons. Can you explain this? There surely is a category of prisoners, who can be called ‘political prisoners’ and it cannot be said that they do not exist. They are being arrested for their views and activism. The government cannot directly say, ‘You are being imprisoned for helping to organize the Adivasis’. In the case of Anand Teltumde, the arrests were made in the name of ideas, in the case of Babu, in the work he did at the university, and in the name of opposing the gross human rights violations against GN Saibaba. All were arrested using UAPA. There is something our lawyer says about UAPA, that UAPA is used because there is no evidence, and if there is any evidence, the police can show it and file a criminal case. But when there is no real evidence and you still want to arrest and harass someone, then you will use UAPA. That is what is happening now. Because prima facie evidence in the UAPA is enough to put someone in jail for years. Also it’s the extreme way in which UAPA has been read in the Watali judgment of the Supreme Court that makes the UAPA even more problematic. Because in this case, the court only needs to see the police diary and there is no need to investigate. (According to the Watali Judgment, the court does not have to look too much into whether the evidence collected by the prosecution is sufficient when considering the bail plea in the UAPA case, so the accused have to remain in jail till the end of the trial) Haven’t you seen the case of students and activists involved in the Delhi genocide conspiracy case? Notice the way the case of Umar Khalid is going now. In all of this, one can clearly see how lightly the UAPA is being used against the protesters. In one of the pieces of evidence the NIA is using, there is a letter supposed to be written by Sudha Bharadwaj with Marathi words in it, but Sudha didn’t even know Marathi. None of their present evidence will survive if it comes to trial. But they can be jailed for as long as they want on the basis of prima facie evidence given by the police until the trial. This is the situation. Similarly, going inside the prison system clearly reveals that seventy percent of them are trial prisoners. Many are imprisoned for petty matters, such as not having a lawyer. Most of the inmates are from Dalit, Bahujan and Muslim communities. So many are languishing in jail even after getting bail as they don’t have money to pay bail surety. So many don’t have any lawyers. The family is too poor to afford any lawyers. And they don’t even get any money for their daily needs (1000 to 4500 can be given) in jail. Isn’t it a big problem of the prison system itself that when people make mistakes, only people from certain communities and the marginalized and downtrodden communities are imprisoned? In that sense, all prisoners are political prisoners. There is also a politics behind their imprisonment, not just their crime. They may have made a mistake. But it can sometimes be the result of their socio-economic structures, which is the real crime of the real mistake. Not only that, there may be many more out there who have committed a greater crime than they have. Some people like that are even ruling today.

Is Gautam Navlakha being moved to the ‘anda cell’ an indication that the accused in the Bhima Koregaon Elgar Parishad case will face solitary confinement?

The anda cell is not a solitary confinement but a space of extra security inside, a prison within the prison. Vernon Gonsalves, Arun Ferrera, Surendra Gadling, Ramesh Gaichor and Sagar Gorke were the first to be transferred to the anda cell. Then Gautam was sent there. No one responded or wrote when the first four were sent to anda. All this came out only when a press statement was issued by his wife when Gautam was transferred. The prison warden has changed, and with that came this change.

In March 2020, Prof. GN Saibaba received NCHRO’s Mukundan C Menon award. While speaking at the meeting, Hany Babu said that he had worked with Sai Baba against many anti-reservation laws during his university days. Can you tell us about Hany Babu’s activities these days? There was no OBC mobilization when we came to the university. Babu and other OBC teachers formed organizations for their issues as OBCs. Even after the Mandal Commission, they had given only a 10 per cent concession for OBC in DU. So, most seats were left vacant and it was illegally transferred to General. At the same time, each college used to get crores of rupees from UGC in the name of OBC expansion. Isn’t this like real loot? Babu filed RTIs and found out how much money was given and how many seats were left vacant. Responses were received from 33 colleges. It took about a year to do this. This study first brought out the huge gap in the filling of OBC seats in the university. This was done by the Academic Forum for Social Justice, which was the forum made by Hany Babu. A report of this came out in the Forward Press on this as it was also handed over to parliamentarians. This is what Babu and his team brought out. This was followed by legal cases that Babu gave and also another case given by JNU students. They won the case. Supreme Court ruled in favour of OBCs and universities like DU and JNU were forced to take in OBC students and fill up the total 27 percent quota and also stop converting OBC seats to general. Now 50 percent reservations are fully followed in DU. Babu and the other teachers acted like a hotline. They were called wherever there was a problem. This is what happened in the early days. There was no reservation then, so it was done. I think Babu must have been noticed that day. Everyone, including the so-called progressives, stood by Professor Sai Baba’s issue. Some of them are very openly holding Maoist positions, those who ideologically support it and have radical left positions. Babu is not such a person. Babu’s politics was a Bahujan minority politics. But since Dalit Bahujan politics does not see Muslim issues, Babu also had problems in this politics as a Muslim. But Hany Babu stood with Sai Baba on a very personal level as a friend, neighbour, South Indian and OBC. Babu stood with sincerity. Didn’t I say, many people in this society do many things, but only a few are caught? The same thing happened here. Many sided with Sai Baba, but in they arrested only one professor and he is an OBC Muslim!
What is the current status of the case? We have applied for bail in the lower court. The hearing is ongoing. Similarly, a clone of Babu’s laptop has not been received yet. As the Arsenal report in the case of Rona Wilson has proven, we have not been able to show whether Babu’s computer was infected with external material using malware. But Babu’s number was also in the Pegasus phone leak. It will take time for this to come out. The NIA deals as a central agency. They can do anything. There is no one here to question them. But this is not their problem. It is a problem of our own judiciary. They show all these excuses using the existing rules. They can do anything when the rules are like this. Will any country have a law that can keep a person in jail for years just by seeing the police diary? See the way they used UAPA on 100s in Tripura. How do they use UAPA like this? A lot of Muslims are also trapped through UAPA. Similarly, about 27,000 Adivasis who resist are being imprisoned by branding as Maoists by using UAPA. Stan Swamy is the one who talked about them. Eventually, he too was imprisoned, or he was institutionally murdered. Retired judges are now talking about sedition. What about the UAPA? If you look at the many international human rights treaties, you can see that such a law cannot exist as it is against basic human rights. Still it’s going strong in India.

That is the next question. At present people seem to be thinking about UAPA in a conscious way. Why have protests against this law not been so strong since its inception?

It seems to me that when it comes to the prison system, only a small group speaks out against such cases. It will be an elite liberal left group. It doesn’t really reach others. There are other categories that are worried about this. About 27,000 Adivasis have been branded as Maoists as I said earlier, and are in jail. This is one of the most popular discourses in our country. Take the case of Stan Swamy himself. Stan Swamy stood as an ally. He stood as part of the Adivasi resistance. Even when we talk about Stan Swamy, we do not talk about the Adivasi resistance. Their voices will not come. Even if it does come, it will come through the mediation or medium of a left liberal group filled with savarnas. This is a big problem. Whites never took up black causes in the US. Blacks fought their own causes. Here the oppressor will oppress and will also fight for the oppressed. And when that happens the oppressed will not only be oppressed but will also become voiceless.

There is a terrible caste system in our country. It seems that the same caste system exists in the production of knowledge and the creation of discourse. Savarnas have colonized everything including knowledge. They create dominant knowledge here. They talk about everything, they write books. We still do not have a mainstream public sphere where the masses can speak. We do not have decision making by us. We are not even represented in the judiciary. Now all these discussions are going on in a small group.

In such a situation, nothing important will come out. The current government does not care about this small group. It is as if they did not even hear what they were saying. Our knowledge creation is very racial. Things that are important to the masses take place in an alternative place. That alternative place has no authority. Consider that we still do not have a national media of our own. Whatever there is, is because of the internet. The savarnas here fear everyone just as the Americans fear others. They fear others will take their jobs and occupy their space. This fear is the emotional basis of their power. It’s the emotion they whip up to maintain their power. Both in themselves and others around them. This is how it is maintained. So it can be said that they are people who live in fear. They want the UAPA and think that more and more people should be imprisoned and tortured so that their safety or their caste hegemony remains.

Let me mention one more thing about our prisons. The IITs are getting huge funding because their constituency are the people of the ruling class here. But the people who come into the judicial system as prisoners are people who have no power. The people who decide the policies and administration here, do not want to make a facility for them, whether inside or outside the prison or within the legal system. For them it’s important to hurt them. If the whole prison were Brahmins or upper castes, would they be so complacent? What’s going on inside the jail? No political group takes it seriously. The Black Movement had made prison a central theme, it was widely criticized and written from within and outside. But the identity groups here are different. In the end, only a handful of Muslim organizations and leftliberals take up prison issues. And they don’t have much power.

Hany Babu has faced many health challenges in jail including COVID and Black Fungus, how is his health now? Hany Babu still has a small problem with his eye. The doctor says it will be a permanent disability. The infected eye has fallen a bit. It’s not very noticeable and thankfully his eyesight has not been affected.

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