Cultural Activist-Prisoner Hem Mishra’s Letter from Nagpur Jail

Following is the translated (originally in Hindi) text of Hem Mishra’s letter, who is currently lodged in Nagpur Central Jail.

Friends,

Last month, 20th of August marked the completion of a year of my incarceration by the Maharashtra Police. In spite of being a cultural activist and a student of the well-known Jawaharlal Nehru University, I have been booked under several clauses of UAPA (Unlawful Activities Prevention Act). I have been imprisoned in the High Security Cell (called Anda Cell) of the Nagpur Jail in extreme segregation. On 6th September my bail petition was rejected in the Gadhchiroli sessions court of Maharashtra. Inside the closed doors of the jail, I had hoped that justice will shine through like a ray of light. But the rejection of my plea, has instead put my hopes to rest.

The court order denies my natural right to breathe in open air and live a free life. Today, through the efforts of many democratic and progressive individuals and organisations, it has been ensured that the process of seeking bail from the court should begin as soon as possible. It has become a burning issue in the country today, that how the powers-that-be find it convenient to prey on dissenters and imprison them in thousands, in various jails of the country. It is due to the efforts of democratic and progressive people that even the Supreme Court has come to the conclusion that the right to seek bail has to be ensured to all prisoners-under-law. From time to time, the Supreme Court has given specific directives to lower courts as well to ensure this. Despite all these the Gadhchiroli Sessions has refused to accept my bail petition and enforced further confinement on a cultural activist.

Before my arrest in August last year, I was a student of Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. Over there, along with my classes, I used to participate in seminars, public meetings, discussions on various political and social issues of the country and the world. I would participate in the struggles of the students for their rights on the campus, in struggles expressing solidarity with workers in factories, agitations by peasants against land acquisition, caste atrocities and discrimination, in programmes against violence on women, against state repression on people’s movements, against imperialist onslaughts and anti-people policies imposed on the people by the state. With the conviction that cultural resistance is indispensible to these fights, I used to sing songs and act in plays that would take these struggles to more people.

My journey as a cultural activist began in Almora town in Uttarakhand. I remember when I came to the city for my schooling from a very backward village about 30 km away. At the time, a movement was underway demanding separate statehood for Uttarakhand. The youth involved in the movement would often stall classes even in school and urged school-going students to get involved in the movement too. I too became part of the agitation for statehood in its last phase, where people from several walks of life were participating. Students, teachers, staff and clerks, women, workers, peasants, writers, journalists, lawyers and cultural activists participated eagerly and in large numbers. The hopeless stagnancy of the lives of women, unemployment among the youth, rapid out-migration from the hills, dreams of building a society based on egalitarian ideals and a democratic Uttarakhand found expression in the songs of famous cultural activist Girish Tiwari (Girda). Seeing his performances amidst thousands of spectators, attracted me towards cultural activism.

After finishing school when I entered college for higher education, I saw that students mobilised during the struggle for Uttarakhand, were fighting for students’ rights and also to establish a democratic social order in the newly formed Uttarakhand. I joined with them in their endeavour to establish a society free of exploitation and based on equality. The songs of the people and their aspirations, plays etc. had become an important part of these agitations. Through these we could make common students aware about their rights as well as conscious about the injustice, exploitation and oppression prevalent in the society around us.

But even after the state of Uttarakhand was formed, the scenario in the hills did not change. Profit mongering big multinational companies continued to loot and plunder natural resources by displacing people from their land; big hydro-electric projects continued to be passed which handed over water resources to private corporations of this country and abroad; sanctuaries continued to proliferate denying the people of the hills from accessing the forest; violence on women, atrocities on dalits, exploitation of workers and unemployment continued as before. Liquor businesses began to flourish and those in the government, inebriated with new-found power remained miles away from the pains of the people. While the struggle for Uttarakhand was going on, some officials had been charged of opening fire on protestors in Khatima, Mussouri and Muzaffarnagar and raping women. These officials were never punished, but instead promoted.

Aggrieved by these continuing injustices, new burning questions gave shape to different kinds of struggles. I too was involved in these developments. In the course of these struggles, many student activists, social workers, landless labourers, workers and women were charged of treason under draconian laws and imprisoned. I was part of agitations demanding the release of these activists as well.

I completed my graduation in Mathematics form Kumaon University of Uttarakhand, followed by a PG Diploma in Journalism and Mass Communication. After that I registered myself in BA Chinese Language in Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi in 2010. While studying in JNU, I came to know about Dr. Prakash Amte, who works to provide health facilities to tribals in the very backward area of Bhamragarh in Maharastra. Inspired by his work, I became eager to meet him.

On 19th August 2013, I set out from Delhi, enthused to meet him. The next day, that is, on 20th August 2013 I deboarded at Ballarshah railway station at around 9:30 am and left the station to look for a vehicle to take me to Dr. Amte’s hospital. Suddenly someone came from the back and held me with such strength that I could not move. Before I could fathom why I was being restrained like this, 10-12 men attacked me one after the other. I felt that worse was yet to come and started to shout for help. But this could create trouble for the assailants, so they shut my mouth with their hands and put me in a Tata-Sumo like car which was standing a little distance away. I still did not know who these kidnappers were, why I had been kidnapped like this and where I was being taken. After a little while, my eyes and my entire face was covered with a black cloth and my hands were caught so that I neither saw where I was being taken, nor could I save myself from the blows and kicks being showered on me. When I asked where I was being taken, my queries were met with abuses, threats and more physical attack.
After an hour of travel, one of them removed the cloth from my face and showed me his ID card. It was then that I understood that the kidnappers were none other than officials of the Gadhchiroli police Special Branch. I was so far not told where I was being taken and my eyes were covered again. Approximately after two more hours of travelling, I was taken out of the car and the black cloth was again removed from my eyes.

Now I could see a large field to my left where a helicopter was stationed and around it some uniformed police moved busily. To my right were some government buildings and right ahead were some other buildings. I was taken to the first floor of one of these buildings put in one room, and after a while, in another. While entering the second room my eyes fell on a name-plate on the door, which told me that I was being held at the Gadhchiroli Police Headquarters, and being taken to meet SP Suvaid Haq. I introduced myself to Suvaid Haq, who was seated on an ostentatious arm-chair, and asked why I had been kidnapped and held without any reason or heed to legality. He charged me with more threats. Within a short while two local youth from the village were brought in. In fact they too had been abducted just like me; they were the tribal youth, who the police are claiming to have caught with me. The way these youth were treated, it became clear what the grand plan of the police was behind our arrests.

I was then taken to yet another room, where every kind of custodial violence was inflicted on me for three days. Bajirao (a kind of baton which inflicts maximum hurt, while does not leave wound marks) was used to hit me, especially on the soles of my feet, I was also kicked and punched till my whole body was numb. In these ways I was beaten up every day till a point of unconsciousness, and yet in these three days I was never for a second given a chance to sleep. After three days of such cruel measures of torture in illegal detention, I was dumped in Aheri Police Station on 23rd August 2014. About 40 hours after arrest I was produced in Aheri Magistrate Court. Till now even after my repeated request, the police refused to inform my family about my arrest. Only after I finally made this request to the magistrate, the police was forced to do so from the court itself. The magistrate court remanded me to ten days of police custody. Three days after I had been abducted from Ballarshah station and kept in three days illegal confinement, the police reported to the media that they had arrested me 300 kms from Ballarshah, near Aheri Bus Stand. It was only an eyewash to show that my detention as legal.

On 2nd September 2013, when I was produced in court again, the police custody was increased again by fourteen days. For this entire period of 24 days of police custody, I was cooped in a filthy and reeking lock up. I was given food just enough to keep me alive. For the first ten days I was neither allowed to bathe, nor brush my teeth. My clothes, tooth-brush, money, ID card and everything else I was carrying was seized at the time of my arrest. Only after my father and friends gave me some articles of daily need on the 2nd September hearing, I could finally take a bath, brush my teeth and change the clothes that I was sweating in for the last ten days.

During the 24 days of police custody, Maharashtra Police, ATS, IB, and intelligence agencies of Delhi, Uttarakhand, UP, Chattisgarh and Andhra Pradesh continued the same mental and physical excesses that I was put through in the first three days of illegal custody. My facebook, gmail and rediffmail usernames were extracted from me and their passwords tracked. I am quite certain that the police and intelligence agencies are still misusing my email accounts and facebook account.

While protests took place in different parts of the country and the world against my arrest, the police continued to harass me. In fact the police wanted to keep me in custody for even longer and tried to push for this extension on the 16th September hearing. But due to the intervention of my lawyer, their plan was foiled, and the magistrate sent me to judicial custody (Nagpur Central Jail) instead of the torture chamber of police custody.

Here I was sent to barrack no. 8 which was a wing where people charged of treason, much like myself, under anti-people laws like UAPA, were imprisoned. I found that many among them were student activists in universities in Maharashtra, many were dalits and about 40 of them were adivasis youth. The numbers increased or decreased depending on how many could be framed on false charges. As time passed, in my conversations with the adivasis youth, I became privy to the inhuman and brutal torture met out to them in police custody, which lasted for months, after which they were finally handed over to judicial custody.

The textbooks of law entitle prisoners to the right to speedy trial, but for these adivasi these democratic rights are nothing but farce. Some of them have been in jail for 2 years, some for 3 years, and some even for 5 long years; and they are forced to go through daily torture. A minimum of 6 cases and in some instances 40 cooked-up cases have been slapped on these adivasis youth, so they cannot even imagine filing bail petition. Months and months pass between one court hearing and the next, even after a prisoner is first produced in court. Most of the adivasis youth I met in Nagpur Central Jail, have their cases being heard in Gadhchiroli Sessions Court, as is mine. Here the provision of producing the accused at every hearing has been discontinued. In place of that video conferencing has been introduced to speak to the prisoner when the judge so wishes. Because of this prisoners are not able to talk to their lawyers, or the judge directly, and they cannot possibly know exactly how their case is proceeding. Additionally a fair trial is not imaginable through video conferencing, since it takes place under the control of the jail authorities, and not in relatively neutral setting of the court. Such a farce of a court hearing is only to enough to enquire about the next hearing. Often, due to technical faults, even this small possibility to plead to the court is closed for prisoners. Owing to such conditions, two of my fellow inmates, who are adivasis, have already been declared guilty.

Prisoners are allowed to meet their relatives and even their lawyer through a meshed window. In that small window all prisoners crowd around, eager to talk to their near ones. Only 15-20 minutes are permitted for the prisoners to talk to their relatives who have come from afar to meet them, or lawyers with whom it is absolutely necessary to talk at length about the case.

Starting 31st January 2014, 169 under-trial prisoners united to begin an indefinite hunger strike with 4 basic demands, against the abovementioned means of oppression that are common inside jails. In this agitation prisoners who have been charged with UAPA, MCOCA and murder, took part; seven of them being women charged with UAPA. The demands of the agitation were that speedy trial must take place, that under-trials must be entitled to physical presence in courts, that bail petitions must proceed with directives from the Supreme Court so that bail becomes a smoother process. But on the very first day of the agitation, all participants booked under UAPA were taken away and locked up in the High Security Cell (anda cell) of the prison. Out of those locked up in anda cells that day, 7 including myself, have all been kept here for more than 7 months. We are not allowed to meet other prisoners in the jail premises. These barracks are very small and an open space of only 40 metres to walk about, has become our world.
My experiences of the past one year, including torture in police custody and solitary confinement of jails have made me realise how important political and cultural activism is for taking ahead the cause of changing society as well as for fighting for the rights of prisoners like me. I appeal to all to speak out for the release of thousands and thousands of adivasis, dalits, women, workers, peasants and activists, mercilessly incarcerated in various jails of the country.

With these hopes,

Hem Mishra
UT no. 56, High Security Cell
Nagpur Central Jail
Nagpur, Maharashtra
Dated 18.09.2014

For more information about the arrest and imprisonment and unproven charges on Hem Mishra, see http://sanhati.com/articles/7924/

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