Unlawful Activities: How the Indian prison system denies basic freedoms, rights and dignity to political prisoners

In the summer of May 2022, relegated to his oblong-shaped high-security anda cell, GN Saibaba was frequently thirsty. The Delhi University professor, lodged in Nagpur Central Jail at the time, has post-polio paralysis in both legs. He had also lost the use of his left hand after a nerve injury he said he sustained during his arrest. As temperatures reached 45 degrees outside, Saibaba needed help every time he wanted a drink—his wheelchair did not reach the corner of the cell where the pot of water was kept. For three weeks, Saibaba kept requesting the jail authorities for a plastic water bottle that he could keep handy. They eventually agreed.

A week later, his lawyer brought a one-litre bottle, but the authorities at the main gate refused to bring it in. When Saibaba’s lawyer told reporters about this, it caused a small furore. But just as swift, was the backlash. Police walked in and raided his prison cell; they “planted bottles,” according to Saibaba. They took photos and told the press that Saibaba already had several bottles in his cell. The authorities then fixed a CCTV camera with a view of the toilet and bathing area. Saibaba went on a hunger strike. Five days later, the camera was removed and the water bottle handed over to him. “It was only because of my hunger strike that I was able to get these things corrected,” Saibaba said.

This March, after nearly 10 years in jail, Saibaba was acquitted of all charges by the High Court—he had been convicted in 2017 of criminal conspiracy and waging war against the state. He has now returned to Delhi, where he is trying to put back the pieces of a life rent apart by the state. Saibaba’s decade in prison was marked by cruelties and obstacles, creating hurdles to access the most basic of necessities, like medicine and water. Even the installation of the CCTV camera, he believed, was punishment for going to the press, designed to humiliate.

Saibaba’s is one of the more egregious cases of violence against political prisoners, but not the only one. Across jails in Maharashtra, prisoners charged or convicted under the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) have horror stories to narrate.

In September 2022, Anand Teltumbde, a human-rights activist and writer, approached the National Investigation Agency court with a plea for mosquito nets. “Taloja central jail is infested with mosquitoes and the mosquito repellent ointments and incense sticks are hardly of any use,” he wrote in his application.

Teltumbde was one of 16 activists, academics, lawyers, and writers implicated in the Bhima Koregaon case, charged with inciting caste-related unrest near Pune in January 2018. Though multiple fact-finding reports, including one commissioned by the Pune police, pointed to the role of two Hindu extremists in instigating the violence, the individuals prosecuted for it had nothing to do with the violence. Eventually, the BK-16—as they came to be known—were charged with a gamut of offences, including plotting the assassination of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and maintaining ties with the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist).

Teltumbde was not the only one who raised the issue of the nets in court. Earlier that month, Vernon Gonsalves, a fellow accused in the same case and jail, contracted dengue and had to be put on oxygen support in hospital. Taloja Central Jail, on the outskirts of Mumbai, is next to a swamp. The mosquito infestation is so high that an undertrial once took a bottle filled with dead mosquitoes to court to highlight the menace. Two other co-accused in the case, Gautam Navlakha and Sagar Gorkhe, had also made requests for mosquito nets. But request after request was denied.

There was no rule against mosquito nets. Other inmates of the same jail were reportedly using them, raising the question, are political prisoners charged under the UAPA especially targeted by jail and state authorities? The answers differed between prisoners.

“Every moment in jail we were looked upon as a threat to the system,” said Prashant Rahi, a journalist and activist, who was also convicted and ultimately acquitted with Saibaba. Rahi spent 12 years in prison under UAPA, charged with being a Maoist, first in the newly-formed state of Uttarakhand, and then later in Gadchiroli, Maharashtra. “Every arm of the jail system would like to isolate and segregate me in various ways all through the period of my post-conviction incarceration. This abstraction is very difficult to explain in words. One needs to be inside as a UAPA convict to actually understand it.”

However, others accused under the UAPA said caste and class played a decisive role in the treatment by jail authorities, and the extent to which the inmates themselves could push back against the indignities. “If normal prisoners fight for their rights, there will be an immediate backlash—we can push for some things a little further without that,” said Arun Ferreira, one of the BK-16, who is currently out on bail. Natasha Narwal, who was accused of fomenting the Delhi violence of 2020 and charged under the UAPA, echoed the sentiment. “Because I was also coming from a particular caste, class location and educational background, there was a lot of media attention,” she said.

Prisoners and lawyers alike mentioned that Muslims, Dalits, tribals and other minorities were singled out for even worse treatment. “After all, at the end of the day not everything is regulated by rules, a lot of it is discretionary,” said Harsh Bora, a Delhi-based criminal lawyer who has represented both Hindu and Muslim UAPA clients. “Muslims accused of terror crimes are treated worse and kept more isolated. And of course, if the state becomes vindictive, then it can do anything.”

Saibaba has borne the brunt of some of the state’s ugliest impulses. “Why did they target me?” Saibaba asked. “If a 90% disabled person in a wheelchair is arrested and imprisoned, that would send a message to the wider society in India, that even such a person is not spared,” he said. “Apart from my disability, they thought, if an educated person from a prestigious university like Delhi University is incarcerated indefinitely, educated people and defenders of rights will develop a fear and won’t raise their voice.”

When GN Saibaba’s lawyer brought a one-litre bottle to the Nagpur jail, the authorities at the main gate refused to bring it in. PHOTOS BY RITESH UTTAMCHANDANI FOR THE POLIS PROJECT.

Over weeks, we interviewed more than a dozen prisoners, lawyers and activists to understand how UAPA prisoners are treated—both undertrials and convicts—in the country’s prisons. We contacted a dozen serving and former jail officials, of whom three spoke to us. Our conversations revealed a pattern of differential—and often harsher—treatment of UAPA prisoners, both in policy and in practice. However, it was difficult to determine whether the cruelty meted out was causal, because they were political prisoners, or incidental, and that they were simply the more vocal subjects of India’s criminal justice system. Jail authorities, however, denied differential treatment.

More pertinently, perhaps, the conversations revealed that even the UAPA prisoners under the full glare and scrutiny of the media were subject to a cavalcade of cruelties, large and small. This ranged from the denial of medical treatment, to the mental and physical cruelties of high-security prison cells, and even to being disallowed from speaking to relatives in their native language. While jail manuals and official documents sometimes differentiated UAPA prisoners from others, much of how these rules were implemented was in the hands of the jail authorities. The maltreatment of UAPA prisoners arose from a combination of official regulations, unofficial strictures and superintendent discretion.

The repercussions of the political targeting of these prisoners were felt outside the confines of the prison too. Surendra Gadling’s son, Sumit, narrated how friends and relatives cut off ties with the family after his father’s arrest in the Bhima Koregaon case. “One day after the arrest, some of my relatives came home to meet us,” Sumit recalled. “When they left, some police people followed them from our house to theirs. They called us later and told us that they wouldn’t keep in touch.”


THE UNLAWFUL ACTIVITIES (PREVENTION) ACT was enacted in 1967 in response to the growing Naxalite movement, ostensibly to address threats to India’s sovereignty and integrity. Over the years, it has been amended to expand its scope and increase penalties, granting law enforcement broad powers to arrest and detain suspected “terrorists,” with minimal procedural protections against the state’s wide discretionary powers. In practice, the state has repeatedly used the law against activists, journalists and intellectuals, to accuse them of grave charges of terrorism, and imprison them for months and years without trial.

“UAPA is intended by parliament to protect the sovereignty of India,” said Yug Mohit Chaudhry, a human-rights lawyer who has represented some of the BK-16. “Notwithstanding the presumption of innocence, the state and the state-friendly media use their enormous resources to vilify people prosecuted for UAPA offences as anti-national and terrorists. As part of this narrative, they are subjected to a very heightened security regime, in prison and also when they are taken out in public for court appearances, hospital visits etc accompanied by battalions of gun-toting security personnel because the state wants to communicate to the court and to the public that these prisoners specifically are dangerous terrorists and not just your run-of-the-mill criminals.” In the case of the BK 16, he added, this vilification is “wholly unmerited because even as per the state’s version no act of violence has ever been alleged against any of these prisoners.”

Throughout its history, the UAPA has been the subject of debate and criticism, particularly for being weaponised against political dissent, by sacrificing civil liberties at the altar of national security. While the Act was established and expanded under Congress rule, the Bharatiya Janata Party regime has been using it liberally to clamp dissent over the last few years.

The People’s Union for Civil Liberties conducted an extensive study of the UAPA between 2009 and 2022, which demonstrated its increased usage despite negligible convictions in courts. The PUCL report showed that the National Investigation Agency had registered 69 cases under the law during the Congress-led regime, and 288 under Modi—with an average of 13 per year in the former, and 34 per year in the latter. The report, citing National Crime Records Bureau data, revealed that between 2015 and 2020, out of 8,371 people arrested under the stringent law, only 235 were convicted—less than three percent. Another study, by FactChecker, found that between 2014 and 2020, the NCRB records showed an average jump of 985 cases per year, with over 4,000 cases pending as of 2020. In effect, a majority of those arrested languish in prisons for years on end without trial.

Prisons are a state subject, governed by prison manuals that vary across states. “Jail manuals can be very liberal but are not always followed,” said N Venugopal, the editor of Veekshanam magazine, who has been booked and raided under the UAPA. “It’s based on whatever the jail superintendent thinks, so it is a kind of feudal empire.” Venugopal is also the nephew of Telugu poet and Bhima Koregaon-accused Varavara Rao. Venugopal said united Andhra Pradesh introduced several prison reforms following protests in the mid-1990s. “It later started deteriorating, but compared to Maharashtra, jails in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh are still better.”

Jail manuals across states draw upon colonial-era laws that, among other things, laid out the powers and duties of a superintendent. Typically, a superintendent is responsible for prison management, including security, discipline, finances, punishment, work assignments to prisoners and other administrative matters. The manuals spell out some of these, ranging from deciding which prisoners need to be shifted to another prison, addressing prisoner grievances, maintaining the facilities and consulting and following the advice of a medical officer. Medical officers who attend to prisoners have a free hand to treat prisoners, but they also report to the superintendent.

In practice, this meant that superintendents and jailers played a decisive role in the treatment of the UAPA prisoners. “Very arbitrary, no policy,” Ferreira said, about the exercise of this power. “When we were in Pune, there was a strict policy by the superintendent that we should be kept in separate cells, like phansi yard or anda barrack. At Arthur Road, when we were there for two days, we were treated the same way—kept in anda barrack. But when we were shifted to Taloja, the superintendent said we should be kept in barracks. So it’s arbitrary, depending upon the superintendent.”

He offered another example of how this discretion had significant consequences for the prisoners. “We told the Taloja superintendent that Varavara Rao, who was 80+, needed help, but he was very clear that we should be separated. But for one month, after that superintendent got Covid, a new superintendent came and saw that Varavara Rao was in a bad situation and needed help. So he allowed me to stay with him. It all depended on the whims and fancies of the superintendent.”

In policy, too, some states prescribe certain restrictions against UAPA prisoners, among other categories of prisoners. For instance, in 2007, Maharashtra issued a circular about the treatment of “Naxalite” prisoners, which included monitoring them and their correspondence closely. Both Maharashtra and Delhi prison rules also prescribe restrictions on specified categories of prisoners—including those convicted under the UAPA—from using certain phone facilities.

The Karnataka Prisons and Correctional Services Manual differentiates prisoners into three categories “to determine the level of security for effective surveillance, safe custody and prevention of escapes.” The manual classifies “Naxalites, radicals, extremists and terrorists” as highest security prisoners, above “ordinary murderers”, “hired assassins”, dacoits and other kinds of offenders. Such “high security prisoners” are to be separated, their barracks checked daily, and no medical or other staff may visit them unless accompanied by an officer-in-charge of the block. Further, “letters of high security prisoners shall be censored by the in-charge officer.”


MANY PRISONERS spoke of the extreme isolation of their prison cells, and its severe impact on their physical and mental health. High security prisons—whether the phansi yard in Yerawada Jail or the anda barrack of Amravati Jail—were akin to solitary confinement, they said. The anda, or egg, cell refers to an oblong-shaped high-security prison cell in India’s central jails, that allows greater surveillance while patrolling due to their shape. The phansi, or death-row, yard refers to the section of the prison where prisoners sentenced to death were lodged, and among them, were the lawyer, Sudha Bharadwaj, and the English professor, Shoma Sen, both activists accused in the Bhima Koregaon case. “It was like a cage,” recalled Bharadwaj, who has been out on bail since December 2021.

Rahi described his seven years in the anda barrack, spatially, as “pure torture.” Despite the charges against them being purely political, and not of violent crimes, the anda barrack was designed and administered in a way that treated all its inmates as serious threats. “You’re just helpless within the anda barrack,” Rahi said. “It’s like being trapped inside the deepest recesses of a jail, a 21st century dungeon. You can’t communicate with anyone else or share emotions.”

Prashant Rahi suffers from lumbar spondylosis and chronic pain due to the hours he spent sitting on the floor to read and write. “I wasn’t even allowed to use anything to write on, not even a stool to sit on, forget a chair and table even at my own cost,” Rahi said. PHOTOS BY RITESH UTTAMCHANDANI.

Even though they shared the cell with one or two more prisoners, they were not allowed to talk to anyone else. Saibaba was considered a serious threat to the state even though he was barely mobile, and spent all his incarceration in an anda cell in Nagpur. “When a person is arrested under UAPA related to Naxal activities, even though they might be fabricated cases, they are all categorised as Naxal prisoners, even though there is no such official category,” Saibaba said. “Unofficially they treat them as special, dreaded prisoners.” He said lock-up rules were stricter, there were curbs on meeting family and lawyers, even though it “has no legal basis.”

A former senior official who served in the Maharashtra prisons department justified such treatment stating that Naxalism was an ideological problem, and such prisoners often influenced or instigated other prisoners, including to assault jail officials. The official said the separation was done in a “transparent manner” and that courts were informed. The jail superintendent may take a decision based on inputs from the police. However, “they might be kept in the general ward, it is not hard and fast”. He also added, though, that the conduct of the Bhima Koregaon accused was “very good.” However, Amitabh Gupta, the inspector general of prisons in Maharashtra, denied any general practice of differentiation, and said segregation was only done “based on the threat perception of the prisoners.”

According to Chaudhry, the Indian prison system is designed to strip people of their dignity, which is the surest way to break them completely. “It is worse than poor toilets, bad food, non-existent facilities because stripping you of your dignity makes you feel like a worm,” he said. Rahi’s experience is testament to this. “I wasn’t even allowed to use anything to write on, not even a stool to sit on, forget a chair and table even at my own cost. I used to sit on the floor for hours on end to read and write,” he said. This prolonged discomfort has caused Rahi lumbar spondylosis, a long-term, painful condition he endures even after coming out of prison.

Apart from the spatial segregation, prisons also imposed other kinds of systems to separate certain prisoners. Saibaba said he was kitted in a separate dress, a green belt across the shoulders of the uniform to quickly mark “Naxal” prisoners out from the rest of the prison population. They were called “hare patti wale.” Gupta said those who had attempted to escape were given a red band, but when asked if there was a green band, he answered, “I do not think so.”

Bharadwaj said that although there is no formal category in prisons other than undertrials and convicts, all kinds of distinctions are made in practice. Outside the jail there is always a list of convicts, undertrials, women, children. “But in areas affected by left-wing extremism like Chhattisgarh and Jhakhand, they write ‘Naxalibandi’ on the board outside. But that is not a legal categorisation, that is for their own mind,” she said.

Prisoners described being branded as “Naxals” or “anti-nationals” with jail authorities warning other prisoners against mingling with them. “They would tell other prisoners, ‘Don’t mix with them, or talk to them much, they are trouble and they have these charges,’” said Narwal, who spent 13 months in Tihar Jail. “We would hear it from other people,” she said. “But Indian prisons are so overcrowded so it’s very difficult to maintain that micro segregation unless and until you are completely kept in isolation.”

The prison authorities also enforced a differential practice for UAPA prisoners by denying them their right to work and earn money in jail. Work in prison is classified into three categories: skilled, semi-skilled, unskilled. Some UAPA prisoners we spoke to said they did not get the permission to work, which meant that they were denied an income.

Bharadwaj applied to offer legal aid for fellow inmates. She was denied. However, she would informally help people, make sure they were up to speed about their case; if they did not have details, she would request her own lawyers to get the papers for them. “I was hauled up for doing that,” she said. “On one of his rounds, the superintendent said he would inform my court that I was doing this. I don’t know if they felt that I was spreading my tentacles and getting them all organised,” laughed the trade unionist.

Sunil Dhamal, the superintendent at Yerawada Jail, told us that there was no discrimination against UAPA prisoners and that they were treated just as every other prisoner. But when it came to work, he said, prison authorities had to be more discerning because they were “high security” prisoners. “We have to make sure they are not a threat to others or themselves,” Dhamal said. “Often they are famous outside, so any small thing that happens inside becomes big news. We give them work like cleaning and washing, but not jobs that involve the use of weaponry like carpentry, smithy, leathery.”

Rahi said he was refused work even when he volunteered to do it without the usual, meagre payment. After years of fighting for his right to work, the Amravati jail authorities finally allowed him to work at the end of his prison term and after he was acquitted, which meant he ended up working for less than two months. The job was to plant saplings and water them, something that delighted him greatly. “It was a huge relief to use gardening implements and carry water,” Rahi said. “It gave me the opportunity to see the open sky above, work the soil, see and feel the vegetation. Inside the anda barrack, incidentally, everything is solidly concrete. Plants and even soil or earthen pots are barred from entry inside. They distanced us from nature too, not just humans.”

He planted about 60 saplings, some of which sprouted the odd bud, and a couple even blossomed bright, red flowers. “Some subordinate staffers, knowing about my political orientation, unofficially popularised what I had created out of the utmost depressing environment as ‘Azad Garden,’” Rahi said.


Stan Swamy was denied a straw and sipper, which he needed to drink water due to hand tremors caused by Parkinson’s. PHOTOS BY RITESH UTTAMCHANDANI FOR THE POLIS PROJECT.

THE MOST consequential cruelty meted out to political prisoners is the denial of medical attention.

Stan Swamy was a Jesuit priest who dedicated his life to Adivasis in Ranchi. At 84, he was the oldest of the 16 people accused in the Bhima Koregaon case. Arrested in October 2020, he spent eight months in Taloja Central Jail awaiting trial, as his health deteriorated rapidly, to the point where he could no longer eat or bathe on his own. Yet, authorities denied him access to even basic amenities such as a straw and sipper, which he needed to drink water due to hand tremors caused by Parkinson’s. Under the jail superintendent at the time, Kaustubh Kurlekar, the authorities even reportedly refused to allow Swamy to receive a full-sleeve sweater, a blanket, and two pairs of socks from his friends at the Taloja gates. Kurlekar declined to speak to us about his tenure, saying it would be inappropriate because he is now retired.

As his health worsened, Swamy persevered in his struggle for medical attention, making appeals for interim bail for health reasons. The NIA opposed his request to receive treatment at “a hospital of his choice” because it would “set the wrong precedent.” Jail authorities claimed to have adequate medical facilities, while Swamy noted that it only had ayurvedic doctors. At his last bail hearing in May 2021, Swamy told the judges that he would die if things didn’t change. Two months later, on 5 July, Swamy died in a Mumbai hospital, still in judicial custody. Many have since termed his death an “institutional murder”—by the courts, the NIA and the jail authorities.

Pandu Narote was arrested in August 2013 in the same case as Saibaba and Rahi, accused of being a Maoist. They were first discharged by the Bombay High Court, in October 2022 for lack of valid sanction under the UAPA, and then again in March 2024, on the merits of the case. But Narote did not live to see either acquittal. Narote, who shared a cell with Saibaba for a spell, was an Adivasi farmer from Gadchiroli district. “Pandu told me that he worked harder on their land to help his two younger brothers go to high school and college,” Saibaba recalled. On 20 August, Narote was admitted to a hospital, where he was diagnosed with swine flu. But according to his lawyers, Narote’s condition had been deteriorating severely, but jail authorities had refused to act till the last moment. Five days later, less than two months before he would be acquitted, Narote, too, died in judicial custody.

Saibaba, on the other hand, was in relatively good health before he entered prison. “The problems started during the undertrial period,” he said. It began with his left hand being dragged by the police when he was arrested, damaging his nervous system and muscles. For nine months the injury festered and worsened, until a court allowed him to be taken to a hospital.

“The prison authorities act according to the dictates of the government of a state,” he said. “They told me there were many restrictions on us, we wanted to send you, but we had to follow instructions of the higher authorities.” He added, “Before I would reach the hospital the officers would sit with the doctors and instruct the doctors. This was happening for more than eight and a half years in front of my eyes. Some of the doctors also told me.”

Despite court orders, medicine access was erratic. His wife would submit the medicines at the prison main gate, but they would not reach the professor. “I had to go on a hunger strike for two days and then they would give some medicines,” Saibaba said. “It was a constant struggle and this continued till the last day.”

The BK-16 prisoners have faced such issues across jails. Hany Babu, a Delhi University professor, almost lost an eye because of an infection that was not treated on time. Surendra Gadling had to move court to access his ayurvedic medicines when it was disallowed by a new superintendent. His co-accused Vernon Gonsalves later wrote that this was done as “prison policy only allowed allopathy within the prison — this at a time when all three medical officers, including the CMO, were BAMS graduates,” who had only completed a Bachelor of Ayurvedic Medicine and Surgery, not an MBBS.

Gadling’s son, Sumit, who was only 17 years old when his father was arrested, has seen his father’s physical ailments at close quarters. “Physically it’s been very hard for him,” said Sumit, now a 23-year-old lawyer. “He has diabetes, hypertension, syncope, lumbar and cervical spondylitis, and a frozen shoulder. But he was denied medicines and the diet prescribed by a dietitian for months due to which he fell unconscious a few times and injured his head. He had requested cots and commodes and regular visits to hospital. All that was denied.”

Courts can intervene from time to time, but implementing the orders in practice might raise their own set of complications. At one point, Varavara Rao was taken to the state-run JJ Hospital, where he was fitted with a catheter. He returned to prison soon after. “In medical science books it is written that within two weeks it has to be removed, otherwise it will become lethal, septic,” said Venugopal, his nephew. “He was kept with the catheter for two months.” The jail’s ayurvedic doctors were not equipped to remove it. The family had to approach the court again.

Gupta, the IG (Prisons) for Maharashtra, denied there was any differentiation in medical treatment or facilities for UAPA prisoners. “Everything is the same for everyone,” he said.

On his return to Taloja jail after he was granted interim bail last December for his niece’s wedding, Surendra Gadling was not allowed to enter with a yoga mat. PHOTOS BY RITESH UTTAMCHANDANI FOR THE POLIS PROJECT.


POLITICAL PRISONERS described challenges created by the prison authorities for all issues, no matter how big, such as life-threatening health conditions, or how small, such as water bottles and sippers. Small but basic needs such as books, stationery, correspondence, or other things that provide comfort are withheld. In 2021, Gautam Navlakha moved the court “for allowing him to have access to sun and fresh air for an hour every day.”

Last December, Gadling was granted bail for his niece’s wedding. On his way back, he took a yoga mat with him so that he could do some exercises—the floor, Sumit said, is uneven and causes problems—but he was not allowed to enter with it. According to Sumit, an application has been pending in court for his father to be able to access his yoga mat.

Sudha Bharadwaj was granted access to five books per month only after she moved court. The order specified that the superintendent could monitor the books to see if they contained “violence, vulgar, obscene, pornographic or the material propagating the banned organisation namely Revolutionary Democratic Front or CPI (Maoist).” When the farmers’ protests gripped India, Bharadwaj’s friend brought her a book on Punjab. “I was asked, why are you reading this?” she recollected. “I was given the book but with great suspicion.”

These small acts of harassment and suspicion are built into the system to break a prisoner. “They make you beg and grovel for things like library visits, weekly phone calls or receiving spectacles or a PG Wodehouse book sent by friends or family,” said Chaudhry, who has argued for Navlakha. “These small things that serve as a modicum of distraction from your ordeal assume magnified proportions when they are arbitrarily and despotically denied. Even when a jail official comes, you are not allowed the dignity of standing—you have to squat or sit on your haunches.”

Even for the right to correspond with their friends and family, they must overcome obstacles. In Maharashtra, correspondence entering and leaving prison is closely watched, more so if the accused are facing UAPA charges. Movement of mail is often delayed or censored. A senior official said this was done in case there was something “explosive that could create a problem,” for “security reasons.”

In August 2021, ten of the BK-16 wrote to the Maharashtra home minister accusing the Taloja superintendent, Kurlekar, of scanning and saving copies of their correspondence, and using it to intimidate them. These letters included one by Ferreira to his mother about his memories of Swamy, whom he got to know as his cellmate over several months. The letter, titled, “Stan’s profound simplicity,” was about Swamy’s time in prison and Ferreira’s interactions with the octogenarian priest. But Kurlekar did not let it pass.

After his release on bail, Ferreira approached the Maharashtra State Human Rights Commission, arguing that Kurlekar’s actions violated the law, and that Kurlekar had relied on a provision that had been struck down by the Bombay High Court as unconstitutional in 1992. In defence of the action, the Taloja superintendent at the time, Pramod Wagh filed an affidavit in January 2024 saying the letter cast aspersions on the Bhima Koregaon investigation and “propagate[d] a Naxalite ideology.” This April, the MSHRC condemned the censorship and directed the Taloja prison and the state government to pay Ferreira a sum of Rs 2 lakh as compensation for violating his fundamental rights.

It’s not very different in Tihar in Delhi. “The words they deemed too dangerous or too political, they would scratch them out,” Narwal said. “Once the superintendent told us, please tell your friends not to use revolutionary language, or say fascists or BJP.” In a recent letter she received from her co-accused Gulfisha Fatima who is still in prison, she could tell that the words “Kejriwal”, “BJP” and “Modi” had been struck off. When Narwal was in prison, her own correspondence was closely scrutinised.

“No one else is talking about these kinds of things in their letters, so they become more careful with our letters,” she said. “Informally there would be more surveillance, who are we talking to, what are we talking about.”

Another arena of constant struggle was phone calls. During COVID, Saibaba had to go on a hunger strike for 12 days to avail phone-calling facilities for 15 minutes every week, as opposed to the five minutes they permitted. Even during those calls, he was prevented from speaking to his wife or mother in their mother tongue. “If I spoke in Telugu no prison officer would understand and I could be sending messages to Naxalites through my wife,” he recounted their reasoning. On some occasions the phone was snatched away or the meeting stopped if Telugu was overheard.

Navlakha moved court several times to avail phone and video calling facilities. In 2021 he was allowed to call his partner in Delhi for five minutes in the presence of his advocate and an “escort party,” provided it was on speaker phone. When this was stopped, Navlakha approached the high court, where the Maharashtra government stated that it would not allow him to make phone calls because of the charges against him. He could write letters instead, the state said.

The authorities at Taloja Central Jail refused to accept new spectacles for Gautam Navlakha, after his were stolen inside prison, and despite being informed that he can barely see without them. PHOTOS BY RITESH UTTAMCHANDANI FOR THE POLIS PROJECT.


WHY DO UAPA prisoners continually move courts? “First an attempt has to be made to the jail, and if the jail were to deny your request, then the court would get involved,” said Bora, the Delhi lawyer. “Often they do, but often they don’t.”

Judges have pulled up prison authorities for delaying or denying certain requests. A Bombay High Court bench called for greater “humanity” and sensitisation of prison staff when they heard that Navlakha’s new spectacles had not been handed over to him. In 2020, a lower court admonished the superintendents of Taloja and Mumbai central prisons for not submitting timely reports on applications made by the prisoners, and said it would have to take action if such delays persisted.

These applications, sometimes almost absurd in their scope, make news—some under-trials said that is why it appeared as if they were treated more harshly compared to other prisoners. They knew how to navigate legal proceedings, write applications or engage the media. Many political prisoners used this knowledge and access to help other inmates. During the pandemic, the Supreme Court passed an order to decongest prisons, which meant that jails should have been liberal with bails. But the Maharashtra High Power Committee excluded those convicted with a sentence more than seven years and those accused under special criminal laws, including the UAPA, from COVID bail. “I personally filed bail applications for people above 75 years of age, people with diabetes, brain tumour, cancer, people with young children,” Bharadwaj said. “Nobody got bail.”

At the height of the second wave, Bharadwaj recalled, there were 56 people in her barrack when there should have been 25. Her application for interim bail was rejected despite a medical history of diabetes and tuberculosis. After three years and three months in prison, Bharadwaj got out on bail in December 2021. Her bail conditions mandate her to be in Mumbai, where she has to attend every hearing in court.

Bharadwaj has not been able to return to her beloved Chhattisgarh where she spent most of her working life, or Delhi where she had restarted her life with her daughter before she was arrested. Now she is rebuilding her life in a city far away from everything she holds dear. Dressed in a red salwar kameez and her trademark bindi on her forehead, Bharadwaj spoke about her life in prison early one Sunday morning in April. We met her in a 15th floor apartment in Borivali in the north of the city, that a friend owns and has offered her to stay.  At a distance, from the window, you see the Sanjay Gandhi National Park, one of the last few remaining green lungs in the city. “I had nothing when I got out of jail. I have been helped by friends,” she said.

A few days earlier, her BK-16 co-accused Vernon Gonsalves, Arun Fereira and Shoma Sen arrived at the top floor of the neo-Gothic building of Mumbai’s sessions court complex. Nothing much happened that day—the court just gave them another date. Since their bail conditions mandate that they cannot meet each other, court is the only place where they can catch up.

Gonsalves plucked a small box of cake from his bag, and distributed it to some of the lawyers and his co-accused. Murmurs of “Happy Birthday, Vernon!” could be heard. Gonsalves accepted the wishes, and smiled.

All photos are representative.

Corrections: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that GN Saibaba was acquitted by the Supreme Court, and that Surendra Gadling was granted interim bail to attend his daughter’s wedding. Saibaba was acquitted by the Bombay High Court and Gadling attended his niece’s wedding. The Polis Project regrets the errors.

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