PUCLDR National Convention on Political Prisoners
By Aurobindo Ghose
A Poem symptomatic of the Theme of Political Prisoners
Let me invert the structure of this article a bit. I have referred to some of the poems in the anthalogy of poems “Dissenting Voices” (1977) which accompanied the 1977 – PUCLDR National Convention of Political Prisoners, at the end of this piece. However, let me begin with one poem which is very representative, rather symptomatic, of the subject or theme of this paper.
1. Bengali – Do not Tolerate by Birendra Chattopadhaya
As long as
in this country’s jails
there is even one man
held without trial –
and justice is derided
in the name of trial
As long as
wolves and jackals
tear even one man to pieces –
Do not ever believe
that in this country
such things as democracy
education, culture, civilization
Never never tolerate
this great insult
The term ‘political prisoner’ is used by persons or groups challenging the legitimacy of the detention of a prisoner. In general usage, any person who is in jail without reason, in abrogation of his or her fundamental rights or basic human rights or freedom of expression, is a political prisoner. A political prisoner is one who has not committed any crime or violated any reasonable law and yet remains incarcerated within the four walls of a prison / detention centre. When Emergency was relaxed in February 1977, there were hundreds of political prisoners in Indian jails. Today also, though there is ostensibly no declared Emergency, there are thousands of political prisoners languishing in Indian jails, from Assam (in detention camps inside jails ) to UP ( under NSA ), from Pune ( Bhima Koregaon activists under UAPA) to Jamia Millia Islamia and AMU ( anti-CAA student protesters ) , and JNU ( sedition cases) to Kashmir ( after revocation of Art. 370 ), to Punjab and Haryana ( farmers). In August 1977, the PUCLDR called a National Convention for Release of Political Prisoners. Today there is the utmost and urgent need to call another such National Convention and campaign for the release of all political prisoners.
Principal Categories of Political Prisoners in India : their Geographical Distribution
I. Assam : ‘ Illegal Foreign Immigrants’ in Detention Centers
Prime Minister Narendra Modi claimed in a Delhi election meeting on 22 December 2019 that there is no detention centre in India and that it was a rumour floated by the “Congress and the urban-Naxals”. A fact-check by the online-journal Quint, dated 24 December, found Modi’s claim false and misleading. Already the Government had disclosed on 27 November, 2019 that 1043 people were housed in six detention centres in Assam, being run inside the district jail premises at Dibrugarh, Silchar, Tejpur, Jorhat, Kokrajhar and Goalpara.The New York Times report of 17 November, was more to the point when it dislosed that the government had arrested several hundred people due to the suspicion of them being foreigners.There is no reason, except suspicion, that a person, an alleged foreigner, is held in a detention centre and that is why we call him a political prisoner. In January 2020, the Supreme Court of India issued Notice to the Assam and Central governments for sending 60 children to detention centres, as their names had not cleared the list of the National Register of Citizens (NRC), even though the names of their parents, have. A well-documented visit to the detention centre located inside Kokrajhar jail in 2016 established the pathetic, unhygienic , inhuman and humiliating conditions (where they are forced to live along with criminals ) of the detention centers. It also raised doubts about the fairness and non-arbitrary functioning of the 100 or so Foreigner Tribunals (FT), under the Foreigners’ Act, 1946, set up in Assam since 1964 to tackle the issue of influx of illegal immigrants. A Bengali Hindu family of four, was found to be languishing in the Kokrajhar detention centre for the last seven years only because the family had ignored notices from the FT, even while the elders of the family were all enjoying the freedom of Indian citizenship. Giving this family company in the detention centre, were five individual women, both Hindus and Muslims, who were the only ones in their family charged with being illegal immigrants, even though their husbands, parents and siblings continued to be Indian citizens.According to a Supreme Court ruling, illegal immigrants can be held in the detention centers only upto three years, after which they are eligible for bail. However, both ignorance of the law as well as their abject poverty, deter them financially to afford the bail. What is indeed distressing is that about 19 lakh people from Assam have not been included in the latest National Register of Citizens (NRC), and they have all to assiduously prove their citizenship, failing which they may be moved to the detention centres, as political prisoners. The sword of Damocles hangs over their heads! For the vast number of poor, backward and ignorant citizens involved in this large exercise, it will be well nigh impossible to obtain such age-old documents or to have access to lawyers or legal advice to prove that the available documents confer citizenship. This will further escalate the numbers and complexity of the issue of political prisoners in Assam.
II. Uttar Pradesh : Anti- CAA protests, Misuse of NSA
The UP Police imposed major fines on those protesting against the Citizen’s Amendment Act (CAA) for allegedly damaging public property, and when they failed to pay the fines, they were arrested. Although ostensibly they were arrested for criticising the CAA, that it discriminated between citizens on the basis of their respective religions, it was done in a round-about way. First, the protesters were burdened with heavy fines for allegedly damaging public property, without giving them any hearing either on the nature of the alleged damage caused or on the reasonableness of the fines imposed. If they did not pay the fine, they were arrested without any further discussion. Only in early January 2020. two of the prominent ones among those arrested, Congress leader Sadaf Jafar and former DG of UP Police, SR Darapuri, were granted bail. The total number of persons detained in UP for anti-CAA protests was 5558, out of which 1246 were arrested. 23 persons died during these protests.
According to the investigations made by the Indian Express ( April 6 and 7, 2021 ), between January 2018 and December 2020, 94 out of 120 NSA orders for detention in U.P., were quashed by the Allahabad High Court. 61 or more than 50% of the total NSA orders were concerning a single minority community. The Court calls out the gross abuse of the National Security Act in Uttar Pradesh
The two- part investigation by the Indian Express, shows that the Government of Uttar Pradesh misused and is misusing the draconian National Security Act in order to arbitrarily arrest any person, mostly belonging to a particular minority community, without any real reason, making the person so detained a ‘political prisoner’. The Allahabad High Court released 94 political prisoners in 120 such illegal detentions under the NSA made across 32 districts of the state in a period of three years or 36 months between January 2018 and December 2020. The High Court set aside the NSA orders in 30 out of 41 cow slaughter cases, all 20 of 20 communal incident cases and 20 of 25 others. The Court’s orders exposed the arbitrary and mechanical misuse of power by the police and the administration. The FIRs lodged by the Police were similar in language and content and were indicative of a “cut and paste” exercise.The High Court found “no application of mind” on the part of the District Magistrates issuing the NSA orders. The accused in many of the cases were denied the due process of law, including the right to be represented by a lawyer and so they could not secure bail. What was amazing was that identical descriptions and similar venues were disclosed in many cow slaughter cases.
We must appreciate the efforts of the media to expose the absence of the Rule of Law in the state of UP over the last few years, earlier it was rampant ‘encounter killings’ by the UP police, now it is the detentions under NSA. We now understand why the District Magistrates love the NSA. It empowers the state to detain a person without a formal charge and without trial. The grounds for detentions under the NSA. are very vague like “the security of the state” or for “maintenance of law and order”. The NSA is indeed a draconian Act, which can be instantly slapped without provocation, on a person in police custody, or on one granted bail by a trial court or even if he has been acquitted by the court. The law takes away a person’s constitutional right to be produced before a magistrate within 24 hours, and the detained person cannot even move a bail application before a criminal court. The only protection that a person has is to move a writ of Habeas Corpus in the High Court under Article 226 of the Constitution of India.
III. Jammu & Kashmir : Revocation of Art. 370, Militancy, Sedition and UAPA
On 5 August 2019, the Government of India revoked the special status, or limited autonomy, granted under Article 370 of the Indian Constitution to Jammu and Kashmir. The revocation was accompanied by the cutting off of communication lines in the Kashmir valley, deployment of thousands of security forces to curb any uprising and the arrest of several leading Kashmiri politicians including two former Chief Ministers. Such arrests continued. and jails across J& K were overflowing with prisoners beyond their holding capacity. According to an RTI reply by the Director-General of Police (Prisons), on 6th December 2020, there were 4131 prisoners, of which 4005 were men and 126 women, held in J&K, and 90% of these prisoners were undertrials. Moreover, less than 2% of all individuals arrested in militancy-related cases, have been convicted. On December 4, 2019, 234 prisoners from J&K were in UP jails, and 27 in Haryana jails.In a recent written reply of 4th February 2021, the Govt told the Rajya Sabha, that of the 613 persons including separatists, overground workers and stone-pelters detained in Kashmir since August 2019, 183 persons still remain in detention. A few among the political prisoners were charged with sedition but there were a large number of arrests under the UAPA. The Jammu & Kashmir High Court recently quashed a sedition case against a Ladakh councillor for comments on the Indian Army after the Galwan clash, saying it is a “sheer abuse of law.” The Court said that though the comments may have been”unsavoury and detestable”, it would not amount to either “sedition”.
Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act is an Indian law aimed at prevention of unlawful activities of individuals and associations in India. Its main objective was to make powers available for dealing with activities directed against the integrity and sovereignty of India. It is a black law, and those arrested under its provisions are deemed to be ‘political prisoners’.
The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data shows a rising graph of UAPA cases in J& K : from less than 60 cases annually until 2015, to 255 cases in 2019, the year of the revocation of Art. 370 in Kashmir and also the latest year for which NCRB data is available. Lawyers say that the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) is a stringent anti-terror law that prescribes seven years’ imprisonment against any unlawful activity “intended to disrupt the sovereignty and territorial integrity of India” or “is intended to cause disaffection against India”. Lawyers in Srinagar say the UAPA is now being used on the flimsiest of excuses, “for anything and everything” Two recent UAPA cases are being cited in this regard. Mushtaque Ahmed Wani, a grieving father led a protest march through his village in Kashmir’s Pulwama district, asking for his teenage son’s dead body, because he did not believe his son was a militant killed in a gunfight with security forces. Hours later, Wani was arrested under the UAPA. Yesterday’s 17 April Indian Express reported that a woman Special Police Officer, Saima Akhter, in Kashmir’s Kulgam district was dismissed from service and arrested under the UAPA when she shouted at Armymen for not sparing her family from searches even during Ramzan and calling them outsiders. Summing up, it appears that the number of political prisoners in Kashmir currently is huge and increasing, though it cannot be specified without further inquiry. ,
IV. Pune, Maharashtra : Bhima Koregaon conspiracy, sedition and UAPA
Lakhs of people, mainly Dalits, congregate on 1st January every year at the Vijay Stambh (victory pillar), near Pune, to commemorate the battle of Bhima-Koregaon fought on 1st January 1818, in which the Mahar (Dalit) forces as part of the East India Company army, decisively defeated the upper-caste Peshwas of the Maratha army. Dr B. R. Ambedkar, the unquestioned leader of the Dalits, visited the site on 1st January 1927. To commemorate his visit, thousands of his followers visit the site every New Year’s Day.
To mark the 200th anniversary of the Bhima- Koregaon battle, about 260 Ambedkarite, Dalit and Bahujan organizations came together as the Elgar Parishad, under the stewardship of two former Judges, Justice B, G, Kolse-Patil and Justice P. B. Sawant, which held a meeting a day earlier on 31st December 2017 and called for justice for the Dalits. Among others, Jignesh Mewani, a Dalit MLA and JNU student leader Umar Khalid, addressed the Elgar Parishad. Getting wind of these developments, the Hindutva or Brahmanical forces disrupted the celebrations of the 200th Anniversary of Bhima-Koregaon the next day on 1st January 2018: there were clashes. arson and unprovoked violence in which a youth died. Initially, the administrative view was that the vandalism, violence and disruption was the handiwork of right-wing forces, so on 2nd January 2018, an FIR was filed against Sambhaji Bhide and Milind Ekbote.
At that time, the BJP ruled Maharashtra and Devendra Fadnavis was the Chief Minister. First, Ekbote was not traceable, later when he was arrested, he refused to co-operate with the police. In April, 2018, a teenaged Dalit girl witness, whose house was burnt in the violence, was found dead in a well. Her brother was arrested on charges of attempt to murder.
Meanwhile, in the following months, as police investigations proceeded, the narrative changed a full 180 degrees. On 8 June 2018, Pune police arrested Rona Wilson under the UAPA, besides arresting Surendra Gadling, Sudhir Dhawale, Professor Shoma Sen and Mahesh Raut with alleged Maoist links for inciting riots. In August 2018, the Pune police carried out searches of nine human rights defenders and arrested five of them: poet Varavara Rao, lawyer Sudha Bharadwaj, and activists, Arun Fereira, Gautam Navlakha and Vernon Gonsalves.
The National Investigation Agency (NIA), a central agency under the Union Ministry of Home Affairs, took over the case from the Maharashtra Govt. on January 25, 2020, as the BJP was no longer in power in Maharashtra.
On 14 April, 2020, on the Birth Anniversary of Dr Ambedkar, his grandson – in – law Professor Anand Teltumbde, was arrested by the NIA and vilified to the extent that “Teltumbde was not only in touch with terrorist and Maoist organizations” but also he “organised weapons and explosives training for the militants in Korchi forest area of Maharashtra.”
In October 2020, the NIA released a 10,000-page charge sheet, with fresh names, including Stan Swamy, a Jesuit priest from Ranchi, Jharkhand, whom the NIA accused of having links to the left-wing terrorist organization, the CPI (Maoist). The NIA also talked of a conspiracy to assassinate Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
After Sharjeel Usmani, a student of AMU, spoke at the Elgar Parishad event in Pune on January 30 this year, two case of sedition were filed against him and his name was also added to the list of accused in the Bhima Koregaon case. The current list of political prisoners in India only gets expanded, not only quantitatively but also qualitatively. Each of the persons booked under UAPA in the Pune Bhima Koregaon case, whether it is social activist Reverand Stan Swamy, S.J. or poet Varavara Rao, or human rights activist-cum-journalist Gautam Navlakha, or lawyer Sudha Bharadwaj or student activist Sharjeel Usmani or intellectual Anand Teltumbde or literateur Professor Shoma Sen, or the others in the list, each of them are internationally known and respected.
V. Tihar Jail : Delhi riots, anti-CAA student protests , UAPA and sedition
Student bodies across the country in early June 2020 demanded the release of political prisoners,under the UAPA including the release of activists protesting against the CAA such as Safoora Zargar and Meeran Haider from Jamia Millia Islamia and Pinjra Tod activists, Devangana Kalita and Natasha Narvel from JNU. On 23 June 2020, Safoora Zargar, a pregnant student activist arrested under the anti-terror law, UAPA, was granted bail by the Delhi High Court after the police withdrew its objection on “humanitarian grounds”. Safoora’s imprisonment, while she was pregnant and keeping her in solitary confinement for 38 days, on false charges of instigating the Delhi riots, had triggered global outrage. Only recently, JNU student leader Umar Khalid was granted bail in a Delhi riots case but will remain in prison as he is yet to be granted bail in a UAPA case also related to the riots. The police have invoked provisions of the tough anti-terror law UAPA against Khalid to investigate the alleged “larger conspiracy” behind the Delhi riots.
Sharjeel Usmani, a former student of Aligarh Muslim University and JNU is also in jail under the UAPA law. As per the Wire’s interview with him, when he was invited to speak at the Elgar Parishad event on January 30, 2021, in Pune, Usmani did not hesitate even for a moment before accepting. He was later charged with sedition for his speech at the Elgar Parishad. Sharjeel Usmani’s interview with the Wire is sparkling, full of self-respect and dignity, and needs to be quoted. “All my life, I’ve seen us being reduced to biriyani and kebab or qawwali at best…. I am an Indian. I’m fighting for my fair share in Indian society…to save our dignity and self-respect as a community in India,” Usmani told the Wire.
VI. Punjab & Haryana : Farmers in Jail for Protesting agaist Farm Laws – Gurudwara Bangla Sahib honours Lawyers who obtained their Bails.
Here we are not concerned with Farmers’ issues as such but with the limited question of how many farmers are there in jails as political prisoners and under what circumstances. On 3rd February, the Delhi Govt released a list of 115 people in different jails in Delhi, arrested by Delhi police in connection with the farmers’ protests, which the Delhi Chief Minister said will help people find family members.
Another source of information on jailed farmers is freelance journalist Mandeep Punia, who was arrested by the Delhi Police from the Singhu border on Sunday 31st January 2021 and released on bail on Wednesday, 3rd February. He said that it was a golden opportunity for him to report on the farmers incarcerated in Tihar jail, and as he did not have any paper or notebook, he talked to the farmers and scribbled notes on his legs. He intends to prepare a detailed report.
The Sanyukta Kisan Morcha (SKM) which is in charge of the farmers’ protest informed that a total of 151 farmers were booked in FIRs, other than the one for Red Fort violence, and as of 13th March, 147 of them had been released on bail, however, their main cases were pending. Till that day, only one farmer booked from Punjab and three from Haryana remained to be released. The SKM also informed that it had transferred Rs 2,000 each in the bank accounts of all the farmers lodged in jails.
The fourth source of information, a surprising one, was the live video showing the programme at Sri Gurudwara Bangla Sahib on the evening of Sunday the 28th of March. This live programme was organized by the Delhi Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee (DGPC) to honour all the Advocates who had participated in the work and selfless service to provide free legal aid like bail, etc. to more than a hundred struggling, innocent farmers who had been wrongly arrested during the Farmers’ protest movement. This programme was screened live all over the world – from India to the USA, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Asia, Africa and Europe. All the lawyer-participants were honoured with Saropas and Certificates of Participation. By collating information from all these four sources, it will be possible to have a correct assessment of the numbers of farmers arrested and their status/ condition.
Recalling the 1977 PUCLDR National Convention on Release of All Political Prisoners
Our modest survey above of the state of civil liberties and democratic rights in India currently, has shown that even though the country appears to be a functioning political democracy with the Parliament working. periodic elections taking place, no Press censorship, and an apparently independent judiciary, there are thousands upon thousands of political prisoners languishing in Indian jails and detention centres, from Kashmir to Maharashtra and from Assam to UP, Delhi and Punjab. Even though there is no declared Emergency, individual and collective freedom appear to be in peril. The natural corollary is how to build a stronger democratic system, and immediately, how to build public opinion and . a sustained public campaign for the release of all the political prisoners
Jaiprakash Narayan or JP, a Gandhian socialist leader, who was Indira Gandhi’s strongest critic, was one of the first to be arrested on the declaration of national Emergency on June 25, 1975. He was detained at Chandigarh. On his release on medical grounds in late 1976, JP formed the Peoples’ Union for Civil Liberties and Democratic Rights (PUCLDR) to oppose the suppression of civil and political rights which later formed an executive committee with retired Justice V. M. Tarkunde as its President. Emergency was relaxed and elections were declared by Indira Gandhi on January 21, 1977 with instructions to the States to release political detenues under MISA.
At that time I and some of my friends were lecturers in Delhi University. As there were many students, teachers and karamcharies of the University in jail, we met and decided to form a broad-based committee of the Delhi University unit of the PUCLDR, representing students, teachers and karamcharies. I was chosen as its Convenor. Soon the PUCLDR (Delhi University) unit organised a March of about 2,000 persons from the University to the office of the Lt. Governor of Delhi, across the University Ridge, with a Memorandum demanding the immediate release of all persons of Delhi University, named and identified. All of them were ordered to be released by the Lt. Governor the same evening. It made an impression. After some time, when Ashim Chatterjee, a well-known CPI(M-L) leader detained in a West Bengal jail, was flown down to Delhi to meet the then Home Minister, Chaudhary Charan Singh, the same Delhi University unit of the PUCLDR organised a ‘Mashaal Jaloos’ or torchlight procession in the Capital to demand the release of all political prisoners. This torchlight procession gained attention and was attended by many student and teacher activists from the Universities in Delhi including well-known former Presidents of the JNU students’ union. The PUCLDR team also distributed leaflets in Hindi and English during the March, 1977 elections making the issue of release of political prisoners a public issue.
Around that time, the newspapers were full of reports of the police forces and governments of Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal, Kerala, Bihar, Orissa and Punjab claiming ‘encounter killings’ of ‘Naxalite prisoners’ escaping from police custody. Sensing that these could be cold-blooded murders covered up as ‘encounters’ made Jayaprakash Narayan or JP set up an Andhra Pradesh Civil Rights Committee consisting of V. M. Tarkunde, Arun Shourie, B. G.Verghese, Nabakrishna Choudhuri, K. G. Kannabiran and others to enquire into these ‘encounter killings’. The Committee organised public hearings, recorded extensive evidence and issued two Reports giving details of how 16 young boys labelled as ‘Naxalites’ had been picked up by the police from different places and then killed while in police custody. These findings of the Civil Rights Committee provoked wide-spread anger in the country. Meanwhile, various civil liberties organisations across the country, like the Association for the Protection of Democratic Rights (APDR), Calcutta; Committee for the Protection of Democratic Rights (CPDR), Bombay; Andhra Pradesh Civil Liberties Committee (APCLC), Hyderabad; Organisation for the Protection of Democratic Rights (OPDR), Hyderabad and others expressed concern on the question of political prisoners languishing in jails.
It is in this background that the Delhi State branch of the PUCLDR started thinking and preparing to hold in Delhi on August 20 and 21, 1977, a National Convention on the subject of civil liberties in India with special reference to the question of political prisoners. At that time, Gandhian Vishnu Dutt was the Convenor of the Delhi State PUCLDR. A preparatory committee was formed with Vishnu Dutt, B. G. Verghese, P. N. Singh, Tejender Singh, Govinda Mukhoty, P. N. Lekhi, Bhawani Prasad Mishra, Zahoor Siddiqui, Vijay Pratap, Sudesh Vaid, Vimla Ramchandran, Sumanta Bannerji and Aurobindo Ghose as its members. The Preparatory Committee issued a letter of information and invitation in the names of all its members and it was published in the Economic & Political Weekly dated July 16, 1977. It was mentioned that all the sessions of August 20 and the first session of August 21, would be devoted to the question of political prisoners. police brutality and prison reform. The concluding session on August 21 would be devoted for a seminar on the subject of the civil liberties movement in India where the programme and activities of the different civil liberties organisations, and the possibility of their coordination, would be discussed. Papers were invited, which should be sent in ample time to the address for correspondence, which happened to be mine. It was mentioned that the PUCLDR (Delhi) would not be in a position to bear the travel expenses of the delegates, but would gladly make arrangements for their accommodation. Addresses of all active CL & DR individuals and organizations from different parts of the country were obtained from various sources and they were separately invited.
In preparing for the Convention, the Committee was clear that it would demand the release of all political prisoners , including members of political parties and groups including the CPI(M), Naxalites, jawans/members of the PAC in UP and Nagas and Mizos. This led to some controversy. Liberals like V. M. Tarkunde and his friends like Jai Prakash Narayan and members of the Andhra Pradesh Civil Liberties Committee appointed by JP ( see above) did not agree to the inclusion of Naga and Mizo political prisoners among persons to be released from Indian prisons.Tarkunde and his friends did not participate.There were three notable exceptions : B.G. Verghese , Arun Shourie and K. G. Kannabiran. Verghese and Shourie played an active participatory role.
The other controversy was somewhat surprising. E. M. S. Namboodiribad, General Secretary of the CPI(M) acknowledged our invitation but declined to participate.No reason or explanation was given. Although the Preparatory Committee was in favour of the incarcerated members of the CPI(M) to be included among those whose liberty would be sought, the party was unmoved.
The actual Convention held at New Delhi on two days, August 20 and 21, 1977 was a great success with about 300 – 400 delegates participating from across the country. There were stark and graphic accounts from different States on the question of political prisoners, their numbers and the nature of difficulties faced in investigation and enumeration. In the case of a large number of political prisoners who had been released on bail, their main cases remained pending for months or years, and they had to present themselves before police stations and courts at frequent intervals. State-level civil rights activists presented authentic accounts of police brutality and prison reform. Kalyan Chaudhari’s article on ” ‘Law and Order’ Killings” in West Bengal, which had already appeared in the Economic & Political Weekly of July 16, 1977 reflected and was symptomatic of many of the presentations made at the Convention from different corners of India. Besides the names of Govinda Mukhoty, B. G. Verghese and Arun Shourie, already mentioned above, who constituted the Presidium and played an active role, there were other participants who lent colour to the proceedings like Krishna Raj and Rajani Desai of the EPW, Professors Uma Chakravarti and Nirmal Chandra and political activists like renowned TU leader Shankar Guha Niyogi, the new-student- now-lawyer Nitya Ramakrishnan, from Naga student leader Luingam Luithi to the legendary Presidency College -icon Ashim Chatterjee,
A few developments related to the 1977National Convention, need to be taken note of. There were not sufficient inquiries and presentations on the question of women political prisoners, and the Centre did nothing to remit the death sentence of Molina Dhak, a young CPI(M-L) girl, who had murdered her rapist. On the question of the number of political prisoners, the then Home Minister Charan Singh had said the PUCLDR numbers appeared to be “exaggerated”, upon which we handed over a memorandum to the Home Minister accompanied by a list of 700 odd such prisoners. This memorandum signed by me as spokesperson was published in the EPW issue dated May 21, 1977. We mentioned that the list of about 700 prisoners was ‘preliminary’ and promised to submit the complete list soon. The major development after the National Convention was that the PUCLDR which was under stress and strain due to differences in the identity of political prisoners to be released split into two distinct organisations: PUCL and PUDR. The good news is that these two civil rights bodies joined hands after the 1984 Delhi Sikh carnage to produce the historical black report titled as ” Who is Guilty ?”.
The exciting cultural contribution to the Convention was the original preparatory work done by the cultural team entrusted with the work of creating an original anthology of poems from different languages on the theme of the Convention.The anthology of poems is titled “Dissenting Voices” The foreword to this book of poems needs to be quoted in full: ” these are the voices of poets from some of the languages in India. This collection is not representative, but only a small sample of what is available. We hope that this anthology, however feeble, shows that the poetic conscience of India is not silent at the time of crisis.”
We need to express our gratitude to the translators, who have not been individually identified by the poem/s they have translated, but their names appear collectively in the book of poems ‘Dissenting Voices’ as follows:
Anjan Ghosh, Krishna Kumar, M L Tikku, Mudrarakshasa, P C Patnaik, Pravanjan, Radha Kumar, V Ramulu, Rati Bartholomew, C V Subba Rao, Vasant Mane.
The link to the collection of poems, “Dissenting Voices” given below, can be opened and the entire anthology can be accessed and read.
However, I will quote four poems which are very striking. one of which has been put right at the start of this article.
2. Telegu – Mother by Siva Sagar
Why do you weep?
Why do you mourn at the grave?
Your son is not there
He is already
One with his people.
3. Bengali – The Charge : Treason by Dhruba Sengupta
Shrabani and Rekha taught in a slum school.
One day the Special Branch jeep just picked them up.
The charge – Treason.
Treason because they shouted slogans in a procession.:
“We demand the release of political prisoners,
removal of PD, Misa, the Black Laws”,
treason because they were suspected
of mingling with the masses
of wanting to share their lives.
4. Telegu – Rebirth by Cherabandaraju (Hyderabad Jail)
…Every drop of my blood
I scatter like seed
to liberate my country.
Prisoner I may be
but not a slave
Though battered and broken
like a wave of the sea
I will be born
again and again.
To conclude, the 1977 Post-Emergency PUCLDR National Convention can act as a guide book to another National Convention now on the question of Release of Political Prisoners, which is very relevant and urgently required in the present testing times. Moreover, there are resource books on Civil Liberties organisations and activities available now, which were not available earlier, like Jha, Munmun (1996) A study of human rights organizations and issues in India. PhD thesis, University of Glasgow (link below) :
Delhi, dated 21st April, 2021.
— By Aurobindo Ghose, writer, Human Rights activist and lawyer