Five Years of Incarceration – and the Audacity of Hope

Jul 05, 2023
By Rona Wilson

Originally published in

Father Stan Swamy died on this day two years ago, while incarcerated in the Elgar Parishad case. His co-accused Rona Wilson writes about continuing oppression in the country – and where he finds hope.

To have spent more than five years in prison, for alleged offences under the most draconian acts of the Indian Penal Code, fully aware that the only ‘crime’ of you and your co-defendants is speaking truth to power, is an experience that is surreal. To live such a quotidian life in prison is a dystopia that stares at you. Yet you have little choice in prison but to engage with this audacity. It is through words that you confront this dystopia, name it.

Through words we name the world we confront/inhabit, and make sense of our existence.

To confine someone is to silence them. But then, silence can’t be silenced. Words enliven them; words of silence; silence of words; words that are armed, armed words; fearless words; liberating words.

What words can make sense of the Bhima Koregaon-16 case? It is fitting example of words as inversion of reality, in order to silence words that refuse to be silent, words that are against silencing of words, words that write, words that dare to dream.

Can five years of incarceration, yet unabated, silence our words? This same question was echoed, albeit in a different context, when Shobha Gupta – lawyer for Bilkis Bano, who struggled for years alongside the rape survivor to secure her justice – on being asked by senior journalist Barkha Dutt if Bilkis Bano would take legal measures against the Gujarat government’s decision to give remission to 11 of those men who were sentenced to life for violating her – lamented, “How much courage can one woman show?”

Words that can unsettle you… Especially, in the context of a human being, a woman in particular, condemned to that unimaginably unbearable moment of being gang-raped before her mother, to then witness her mother and two sisters being meted out the same brutality; to watch them die; to be mute witness to her three-year-old daughter being killed, her head smashed with a stone.

Gupta’s outrage is mindful of a woman who refused to be silent, and gave up 17 years of her life struggling for justice to put behind bars all those men who violated her. The disquiet that betrays the outrage in her lawyer’s lament is eloquent of the uncertainties befriending Bilkis Bano’s life ahead. The gross injustice that was visited upon her is turned upside down – yet another instance of immersion of reality – by C.K. Raulji, a BJP legislator and one of the members on the Gujarat government panel that recommended the release of these convicts, when he says in an interview to Mojo Story that these men who got released were “Brahmins, and Brahmins have good sanskar (culture). Their conduct in jail was good.” Words that invert reality. Words that silence.

Brazen impurity as words to express/understand the injustice meted out to Bilkis Bano – the act of releasing those who violated her followed by the justification of their release – will not suffice, as the ‘standardisation’ of her experience will effectively silence her. The insidious nature of this act should also be read/named as Brahminical exceptionalism, the very logic of fascist Hindutva politics.

Not to say, the BK-16 case is undoubtedly a chilling example of Brahminical exceptionalism.

An unsettling quiescence that accompanies lawyer Gupta’s question putting us all to shame, is a silent testimony of our times.

The prime minister, who primes in the politics of naming/labelling, has preferred to call the 75th year of post-1947 India as ‘Amrit Kaal’. In his recent visit to the US, while addressing the joint session of the Congress, the prime minister was lavish with the word democracy, much to the curiosity of the international media. Not a misplaced curiosity, as the ‘new India’ being ushered in, post-2014, has been witnessing growing assaults on the basic freedom of people. Issues that should be of least significance in the everyday life of ordinary citizens – like what you eat, drink, wear; whom you talk to, move around with; where you go, offer your prayers, stay, buy your daily provisions from – have suddenly become of utmost significance.

Words that project the ‘new India’ are a misnomer, an exercise in the inversion of reality.

While the prime minister tries to convince the international community that India is the ‘mother of democracy’, that democracy is India’s ‘DNA’, nine years of the Narendra Modi-led government has promoted a systematic assault on the ability of people to come together to make sense of what is becoming of their country. Muslims are the worst hit in this politics of construction of a ‘new India’ – the strategic project of Brahminical Hindutva fascism – always in search of an imaginary enemy, that thrives and breeds in the constant othering of minorities.

A recent fact-finding report by the Citizens and Lawyers Initiative edited by senior advocate Chander Uday Singh with a foreword by Justice Rohinton Nariman (retd) has called out the systematic, planned manner in which Ram Navami and Hanuman Jayanti processions were used in April 2022 – in Gujarat, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Delhi, Uttarakhand, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, West Bengal, Karnataka, Bihar and Andhra Pradesh – by Hindutva forces to foment riots in localities where Muslims stay. This was followed with targeted destruction of the homes and businesses of Muslims by the governments mostly in BJP-ruled states. Muslims have been forcefully prevented from offering namaz in public places. There are also open calls for the social and economic boycott of Muslims by Hindutva forces, with the connivance of the power that be.

Several BJP-ruled states have enacted laws against the imaginary threat of ‘love jihad’. Even the Modi dispensations’s studies on the socioeconomic status of Muslims would not hide their abysmal condition – worse than Dalits and Adivasis. India ranks second to Indonesia for having the second largest population of Muslims (around 200 million) in the world. The Citizenship (Amendment) Act and the National Register of Citizens (NRC) have reduced Muslims to second-class citizenship as they lacked documents which many Indians lack.

Yet another key word as an exercise in the inversion of reality is ‘normalcy’. Kashmir has been frozen under a wet blanket of ‘normalcy’. There is no independent verification of the state of affairs in the region of Kashmir – which is among the most militarised zones in the world – ever since the 2019 revocation of the special autonomous status of Jammu and Kashmir, ending seven decades of protection.

Atrocities on Dalits and Adivasis have peaked in the last five years. The law that is supposedly meant to protect Dalits works against them. Caste is so well entrenched that for every case of atrocity filed, a counter case is instantly filed involving offences ranging from sexual harassment to robbery against the original complainant. With more and more public sector undertakings (state-owned enterprises) being sold to the private sector, even the marginal share of representation of Dalits in jobs in PSUs have dwindled, effectively neutralising whatever little gains that reservation policy brought. The deepening crisis in the favour of the rich upper castes have further aggravated the plight of Dalits.

As the prime minister gets verbose about green technology and clean energy, and the need to reduce the carbon footprint, we are witness to the unbridled exploitation of verdant and biodiversity rich and unique forests of central and eastern India by a global conglomerate owned by Gautam Adani that has displaced Adivasis from their natural habitat, irreversibly damaged and rendered uninhabitable. Safeguards guaranteed by the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution are being flagrantly violated. That seemingly disarming sobriquet flaunted by the media as ‘ease of doing business’ is a smokescreen to bypass gram sabhas of Adivasis, to further dilute environmental guidelines that serves as modalities for environment impact assessment.

Five years of our incarceration also saw targeted attacks on some of the best institutions of higher learning for promoting liberal, progressive and critical thinking. These institutions have been starved off their state-funding. The best research institutes dealing with public policy and NGOs keeping a watch on socio-economic and environmental policies have been at the receiving end of government ire as their licenses for foreign donations have been revoked.

Close on the heels of concerted efforts to dismantle some of the best institutions of higher learning in India, the prime minister serenades the international media as he claims India to be the ‘vishwaguru‘ of philosophical wisdom and knowledge. Ironically, this campaign is dovetailed by a systematic design to spread obscurantism and motivated dissemination of misinformation, hate and ignorance through social media by forces that are chosen by the powers that be and have gained considerable influence among a cross section of the society, resulting in deep polarisation.

Whatever is left of the independent media is being threatened into silence. Words are strategically deployed in the pliant media to control, contain and coerce narratives that cater to the interests of Hindutva politics. So-called experts from a few think-tanks owned either by the corporate sector or funded by them, or owing allegiance to the Hindutuva politics crowd, crowd the opinion pages of the print media as well as primetime news of the visual media.

Over the nine years of his tenure, Narendra Modi has built an intrusive state with sweeping powers for the police, intelligence agencies, central agencies like the NIA, CBI, ED and an all powerful NSA. Careful tinkering with postings of civil servants in important posts have resulted in a loyal bureaucracy that favours the whims of the political leadership. This intrusive state is further teethed with state-of-the-art malware and spyware that, in Edward Snowden’s words, has the “ability to gain possession of more than just your words… [and] were capable of winning total control of your whole device, including its camera and microphone”.

The Bhima Koregaon-Elgar Parishad case or the BK-16 is the first of its kind in post-2014 ‘new’ India where spyware and malware were used to control, capture and implant incriminating material in recent times, in the computer hard disks and electronic devices of human rights activists, academics, lawyers, cultural activist, journalists to frame them in false cases.

Those who have dared to speak truth to power have been behind bars under draconian laws like the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, the National Security Act (NSA), sedition law etc. Whatever happened to Gauri Lankesh, Govind Pansare, Narendra  Dabholkar or M.M. Kalburgi may await you, in a worst-case scenario. One may also be visited upon by what beckoned Father Stan Swamy, incarcerated as one of the co-defendants of the BK-16 – a case of institutional murder.

The deep polarisation that we are witness to in the last nine years on the lines of cast, religion, region, colour, nationality, food choices, attire is not an accidental encumbrance that has befuddled us. It is the wages of three decades of opening up of the economy of India through policies that gave predatory monopoly capital (domestic and international) ample avenues for profit maximisation, resulting in islands of prosperity surrounded by vast swamps of poverty and misery. A minuscule minority have become insanely rich while the gap between rich and poor has catastrophically widened. The glossy success stories of the market that are projected in the corporate media belong to a small segment (though sizeable in terms of numbers given the huge population of India) of conspicuous consumers of goods that are part of the globalised consumption chains. This newfound power of consumption that was earlier off bounds has made this section the vocal proponents of a ‘new’ India that is ready to take the world head on.

Three decades of market liberalisation, globalisation and privatisation have resulted in greater concentration of wealth in a few hands, while unemployment and underemployment with abysmally low wages mark the general features of the major segment (unorganised sector) of the economy. The pro-monopoly, pro-big capital policies of the Modi government like demonetisation and the Goods and Services Tax, coupled with the devastating impact of the pandemic and the war in Ukraine, have further deepened the crisis in the economy. It is in the faultlines of of this complex matrix of an economy, polarised between the super rich and the vast sections of the poor, further exacerbated by deepening social divisions, that a highly intrusive and coercive state under Narendra Modi and Amit Shah connives with Brahminical Hindutva fascism to reap dividends of a cynical politics based on the age-old colonial dictum of ‘divide and rule’, putting communities, castes, religions, nationalities and regions against each other by constructing an enemy within.

Having set a kaleidoscopic picture of broader political context, it makes sense to return to the questions that we had set to confront in the beginning of this write up. The lament of Bilkis Bano’s lawyer returns to visit us, ill at ease, informed with portents of the emerging scenario.

Bilkis Bano’s anguish, anger and pain writhes in the wrenching verse of Bertolt Brecht as he writes: “When the wound stops hurting, what hurts us is the scar.”

As Brecht’s verse gives life to the lived experience of Bilkis Bano, the scar that epitomises the memory of her ordeal also rekindles her to struggle against the powers that be, to borrow from Milan Kundera, the struggle of her “memory against forgetting”. It is these 17 years of her struggle for justice never to give up, despite extreme adversities, that gives us hope.

Bilkis Bano’s never-say-die spirit resonates with the determination of the women at Shaheen Bagh, Delhi, who initiated the historic sit-in against the discriminatory Citizenship (Amendment) Act of the Modi government that had questioned the very citizenship of Muslims, reducing them to second-class citizens. The perseverance of the women at Shaheen Bagh had transformed their historic struggle into a torrent of Shaheen Baghs all over the country. Notwithstanding the uncertainties in an atmosphere of growing Islamophobia, lynching and othering, Muslims dared to dream of a world contrary to the devious machinations of Brahminical Hindutva. This gave hope to all freedom-loving people of this country.

The spirit of Bilkis is also visible in the undying hope of the Adivasis of central India, the poorest of the poor, as they marched thousands of kilometres raising their voice against the changes being proposed in the Forest Rights Act, which if implemented, would have doomed their lives and livelihoods.

This march forced the authorities to review the prosed Bill. The politics of the protest Adviasis embarked on evoked hope of a future with smaller carbon footprint, secure for all. The heroic year-long protests of the farmers’ unions, against the farm Bills introduced by the Modi government was a watershed moment. It was heroic for its unequivocal position of not wanting to be talked down to, but to be heard, to fight for what really ails the farming community, what is at stake in the interests of food security of this country. And finally, contrary to the Modi government’s unilinear modes of communication, conflating the interest of monopolies as the real interests of the agricultural sector in this country, that dominated every possible form of communication, the dogged struggle of the farmers despite all out efforts to negatively profile them, criminalise their struggle, create dissensions within their ranks, could still think through and take action through words and forms of communication along with mobilisation of various sections of people to knit together a narrative that was uniting, giving hope.

Very recently, Indian wrestlers of international repute, unhindered by the uncertainties their promising careers may encumber, embarked on the path of struggle against horrifying instances of sexual harassment stirred by the hope that this can/will open up spaces for future sportspersons to perform with dignity, without fear, free of sexual predators.

These are just markers to indicate that despite all the intrusive, criminalising, highly repressive, vindictive and intimidating presence of the state with fascist Brahminical Hindutva as its ideological weapon, the audacity of hope of the struggling masses, of freedom loving people, cannot be crushed.

To live in hope is to trust that it motivates you to find the way ahead. Human beings distinguished themselves from the rest of species with their unique faculty to situate their quotidian subjective experience in the larger objective reality of their society. This being and becoming cannot be seen in isolation but determined by familial, social and cultural contexts. This self-realisation of their unique capabilities – to comprehend the individual and social experiences not as exclusive insulated events but as each determining the other and vice versa – is what gives them hope and strength to go to any extent to defend, nurture their land/community/society that make and remake them.

Nothing, let alone endless incarceration, can silence our words. This write-up, as we move beyond the mark of five years of our continuing incarceration, is hope, its audacity to take wings in the form of words.

In the last five years we lost Father Stan Swamy, one of our co-defendants, on July 5, 2021, due to the gross insensitivity and criminal neglect of the system, to his specific medical condition. They wanted to silence all of us. They thought they had ‘silenced’ him for the last time. But Stan personifies the embodiment of the audacity of hope; he refuses to die, even in his death. His death, his silence, has become even more eloquent. More words on Stan, his lifelong commitment to his people, the poorest of the poor Adivasis of Jharkhand, their forests, rivers, land being endangered by the avarice of big capital. Yes! Stan’s memory lives in the struggles of the Adivasis for their lives and livelihoods. Against the criminalisation of their youth. Stan’s memory lives in the undying hope of the Adivasis of Jharkhand for a better future. The struggle of their memory against forgetting. The audacity of hope.

It is the fear of this audacity of hope, its immense potential to unite people, to open up the horizons of their world that echoes in the words of the National Security Advisor Ajit Doval as he thinks loudly before an audience of new recruits of IPS probationers at the Hyderabad Police Academy on November 11, 2021. To quote the relevant part: “The new frontiers of war, what you call the fourth generation warfare, is the civil society… it is the civil society, that can be subverted, that can be suborned, that can be divided, that can be manipulated, to hurt the interests of a nation. And you are there to see that they stand protected.”

It is no strange coincidence that Brahminical Hindutva fascism also detests the idea of hope, audacity to transcend barriers so as to unite people. The idea of hope strikes at the root Brahminical Hindutva’s hierarchical, divisive notions of social engineering that leaves the human being narrow minded, always in search of our imaginary enemy. Hope is anathema to the ideology of Brahminical Hindutva fascism which builds on divisive politics, as a rigidly hierarchical social order that is, by compulsion paternalistic, anti-intelligentsia and undoubtedly narrow-minded in its approach to critical thinking, always in search of an (imaginary) enemy within.

Historian Ernst Bloch, writing in the times of Germany fascism (Nazism), makes this incisive observation in his three-volume study, The Principle of Hope: “The emotion of hope goes out of itself, makes people broad instead of confining them.”

Our continuing incarceration after five years even after a forensic audit by reputed/credible forensic firms in the US, proving beyond doubt that the so-called electronic evidence against us in the basis of which arrests were made, are all implanted in our computer hard disks and other electronic devices, reveals more about the lawlessness of the process taking refuge in the black side of draconian legal instruments. They may kill the flowers, but can they hold back the spring? The audacity of hope?

Rona Wilson is a human rights defender, arrested along with other activists and academics in the Elgar Parishad case in 2018. Until his arrest, Wilson was public relations Secretary of the Committee for the Release of Political Prisoners (CRPP). As part of CRPP, Wilson extensively wrote and advocated against draconian legislations like the UAPA. He was later booked under the same UAPA law.