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Branded Maoist, ex-political prisoners narrate how they were 'wrongfully' incarcerated

By Our Representative 

Celebrating the International Day of Solidarity with Political Prisoners, which fell on March 18, the Campaign Against State Repression (CASR), a joint platform of 35+ organizations, held a public gathering in Delhi titled “Life in Anda Cell: Political Prisoners and Wrongful Incarcerations” at the Press Club of India, Delhi, in order to mark the acquittal and prison experience of cultural activist Hem Mishra and his family. 
The Bombay High Court recently cleared him, along with Dr GN Saibaba, journalist Prashant Rahi, Adivasi activists Vijay Tirki, Mahesh Tirki and Pandu Narote, of all the charges.
Addressing the meet, political scientist Dr Saroj Giri,  a member of Forum Against Corporatization and Militarization (FACAM), said, the arrests and imprisonment of political prisoners like Hem Mishra is not a matter of legal victories or individual political parties. Instead, it is because Hem Mishra raised the issues of corporate loot of natural resources, displacement of Adivasis, caste-based oppression and the exploitation of workers and peasants, that he was imprisoned. 
With Delhi University, Dr Giri added, “The electoral bonds case has exposed that all parties trying to maintain the facade of electoral democracy are allies in using the labour of workers and the resources of Chhattisgarh as ATMs for their class rule. Voices like Hem Mishra who opposed this were silenced.”
Hem Mishra’s father, KD Mishra, noted how legal procedures were violated when his son was abducted by the police and how his disability was ignored. He said, “My son has a disability that restricts the usage of his hand. We made a lot of effort to get it treated when he was young, but in jail, even getting him medicine was difficult. All we heard was that our son was a Naxalite, a Maoist which supposedly made him worse than any other criminal. My wife said he was fighting for the interests of the people and was fighting for a noble cause but it took a long time for me to accept it.”
St Stephen's College, Delhi University, professor and ex-Delhi University Teachers Union (DUTA) President Dr. Nandita Narain narrated how even those who defended the interests of political prisoners, like Prof Hany Babu, who was a member of the Committee for the Defense and Release of GN Saibaba, and Rona Wilson of the Committee for the Release of Political Prisoners (CRPP), found themselves in prison under the charges of being associated with the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist) under the "fabricated" Bhima Koregaon-Elgaar Parisha case. 
She argued that merely carrying Maoist literature and raising the demand for Jal-Jangal-Jameen (Our Water, Our Forest, Our Land) does not make one liable for arrest under UAPA. “We are students, scholars, educators. Reading and carrying Maoist literature is no crime but our right, for we must study all thoughts, ideologies and philosophies, and come to our understanding.”
Cultural activist Hem Mishra, who was incarcerated for 10 years under the charges of being a “Maoist courier”, said, “I wanted to visit an activist working on Adivasis issues to understand the issues on ground, beyond my understanding as a student. This dream cost me 10 years.” 
According to him, “What they claimed as Maoist literature was study material for my Junior Research Fellowship exam and the publicly-circulated Outlook magazine. The police grabbed me in plain clothes and tortured me for 3 days, letting nobody know of my whereabouts as they kept asking me to identify various people as Maoists.”
He underlined, “People keep asking me, do you still have faith in the justice system? I want them to ask the judges, how can they wrongfully keep a student in prison for 10 years studying in a premier university and still claim to dispense justice?"
He added, even his lawyers were not spared, with their offices being raided by the police too, and a former lawyer on his case, Surendra Gadling of the Indian Association for People's Lawyers (IAPL), himself being arrested under the charges of being a Maoist.
What they claimed as Maoist literature was study material for my Junior Research Fellowship exam and the Outlook magazine
Hem Mishra said, he was continuously moved from one jail to another, making lawyers inaccessible to him and draining his family of its limited finances by forcing them to find new lawyers in different jurisdictions. Inside the closed anda cell’s spartan conditions, where political prisoners are often kept in isolation, even the jail staff appealed to the police authorities and judges to remove Hem out of the anda cell but it fell upon deaf ears. He discussed how the plight in prison compelled him to lead a hunger strike against the brutal conditions for all prisoners and the pending court dates. 
“The government claims that prisoners have the right to meet their families and loved ones, for this they have set up an ‘e-mulaqaat’ video conferencing system. But political prisoners were continually denied it. I lived on my books and reading material in prison, which they would randomly seize anytime any issue happened in the prison. It is against this that we went on a hunger strike. So many of my fellow inmates died without medical treatment, like Pandu Narote. It is against this apathy that we went on strike”, he noted.
He added, “it is not about just the 6 of us in my case. It is about all political prisoners. As long as the fight for jal-jangal-jameen remains, as long as the fight of Dalits, Adivasis, workers, peasants, oppressed nationalities remains, as long as the question of creating a better world for all people and a better state for all people remains, the fight of all political prisoners will rage on. At the end of the day, I am a bard who sings the songs of the people and I will continue to echo their cries. I am out of prison, but as long as all other political prisoners like Rona Wilson, Surendra Gadling, Sudhir Dhawale are inside prison, I feel I am only out from a smaller cage into a bigger one.”
Hem’s mother brought up her ordeal during his incarceration: “We are people of the Himalayas. We did not come here to have our son be labeled a terrorist and an enemy of the state. I am only happy that the decade of harassment has ended.”
Veteran lawyer and activist Prashant Bhushan highlighted how agencies like the National Investigation Agency (NIA) and Enforcement Directorate (ED) have been given extra-legal impunity under the current government to criminally loot the country and file fabricated cases against activists who fight against all this. “Political prisoners are stuck in this situation due to the draconian UAPA law being used against them where bail becomes an exception and jail becomes the rule, even when one is not guilty,” he said.
Democratic rights activist Devika Menon condemned draconian laws like UAPA and upheld the demand for release of all political prisoners. She harkened back to United Nations resolutions and covenants which guarantee rights to political prisoners but have not been realised in Indian society. She recalled the words of Prof RS Rao, “Rights are determined by people and for the people. They cannot be conditional in a country claiming to be a democracy.”

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