NEW DELHI — A couple of weeks ago, Koel Sen received a call from a constable at the Byculla Jail in Mumbai, informing her that the facility to meet prisoners would be suspended soon, in view of the coronavirus outbreak in India. Instead, during the lockdown instituted by the government, the prisoners would only be allowed to make a two-minute phone call to a family member, and that too, occasionally.
Koel’s mother, professor and activist Shoma Sen, had been moved from Pune to Mumbai’s Byculla Jail a month earlier, after the Bhima Koregaon case was taken over by the National Investigation Agency (NIA).
“I couldn’t believe what they were saying. I asked the man, ‘what conversation can be done in two minutes?’ He informed me that ‘you can just ask how she is doing’ and that’s it,” Koel told HuffPost India.
On 30 March, the lawyers for 61-year-old Sen and poet-activist Varavara Rao had appealed for bail, arguing that the two activists fall under the high-risk category of people susceptible to COVID-19. However, on 31 March, their bail plea was rejected.
India has reported more than 1,600 COVID-19 cases so far, and 38 people have died. Activists have warned that an outbreak in India’s overcrowded prisons could be disastrous. While different states in the country, including Uttar Pradesh and Punjab, have begun giving parole to low-risk prisoners to decongest jails, the activists arrested in the controversial Bhima Koregaon case are still waiting for relief.
“The public prosecutor argued that the coronavirus outbreak doesn’t change the situation for them. I really don’t understand what that means. Maharashtra and Mumbai have turned out to be a hotbed of COVID-19 infections and are they suggesting that people like my mother are immune to it? This is ridiculous,” Koel said.
It has nearly been a month since Koel has spoken to her mother as there was no facility for prisoners to call home till now.
“I used to only meet her at the jail or when she was produced in court,” Koel said. For the past few days, the filmmaker has been glued to her phone, because she has been told that her mother will get just one chance to call her.
“I was not told what timings she could call at, or when. So I am always scared that I will miss the two-minute window to speak to her and I have no way to know when I can speak to her again,” she said.
Minal Gadling, wife of activist Surendra Gadling, who is incarcerated at the Taloja Jail in Navi Mumbai, confirmed the two-minute call provision. Minal had called the authorities to ask how they could check on their imprisoned family members. She said the officials spoke to her ‘rudely’ and did not commit to anything. Later, she said, following efforts of their lawyers, the phone call provision was made available.
Gadling called his wife a few days ago, and the call got disconnected exactly after two minutes. “I could only ask how he was and vice versa. I usually send him money orders, which is closed now due to the lockdown. While he quickly started to explain how to send him money now, the call was disconnected and I haven’t spoken to him since then,” Minal said.
Monali Raut, sister of activist Mahesh Raut, who is also lodged in Taloja Jail, said that Mahesh had called their sister on Tuesday to inform the family about the provision. “The first minute went in them trying to listen to each other, because the connection was poor and there was a lot of noise around Mahesh. Then he quickly told her about the phone call option, asked if she was okay and then the call got cut,” Monali said.
My mother suffers from arthritis, glaucoma, hypertension and high blood pressure. She is extremely immuno-compromised. It is terrible for her to be living in a crowded bunker with 20-30 other people
Both Minal and Koel said that ever since the activists have been transferred to Mumbai jails, they have been staying in halls with at least 30 other people. “When I met my husband on 13 March for a court date, he said that his cell was overcrowded and has at least 20-30 people. It was so overcrowded that all the things he had at the Pune jail could not be accommodated here,” Minal said.
While health advisories has been repeatedly asking for physical distancing as a means to curb the spread of the virus, there is no such opportunity for these activists.
“My mother suffers from arthritis, glaucoma, hypertension and high blood pressure. She is extremely immuno-compromised. It is terrible for her to be living in a crowded bunker with 20-30 other people,” Koel said.
Lawyer Ajay Verma, convenor of the National Forum for Prisons Reform told HuffPost India in an interview that jails should begin counselling sessions for prisoners as they are denied physical meetings with their families, and should be given the opportunity for ‘e-mulaqats’.
While a Supreme Court order earlier this month suggested that some prisoners, especially undertrials can be released on parole, Koel said that people booked under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act were kept outside the purview of that order.
“This is really inhuman. My mother needs a lot of medicines, usually I buy them and take them to the jail. I have not figured out what to do now, hopefully the jail will provide the medicines. Now I don’t even know how I can discuss this with her in two minutes,” Koel said.