‘That is how our machinery operates and sees every prisoner.’
I feel like the ‘Phoenix Rising’ after the Dark Knight of the soul when all is lost! — Shikha Rahi
Journalist and human rights activist Prashant Rahi has been in different jails over the last 14 years.
Currently, his case against the conviction of life imprisonment is being heard in a Nagpur court.
His daughter Shikha Rahi, who currently works as a dialect coach for a Hindi film, shares with Rediff.com‘s Senior Contributor Neeta Kolhatkar how she has been running across the country to different jails and knocking on the doors of various courts.
She believes the government wants to send a strong message of silencing people by arresting people like her father, other public figures who are termed as ‘Maoist’ and ‘Urban Naxals’ by the authorities and are fighting for basic rights in prison, like medical intervention.
She has seen herself change from a shy, embarrassed, girl to a determined young lady who is willing to rise and fight to get her father out.
The first of a multi-part interview:
Your father has been unwell for months. What is the current status regarding your father’s health? You had moved the court asking for a gastroenterologist to inspect him. What’s the latest?
So the court had agreed with what the jail authorities told them, which was not a gastroenterologist, but they would get a general surgeon from the local hospital near Amravati jail.
Though it has been mentioned in the order to get a gastroenterologist, they settled with what the jail officials said, asking for a general surgeon.
Our lawyer tried to persuade with the court, but they were like what more assurance do you want.
I also didn’t want to push hard, because it is the same bench that is going to be hearing the final hearing for appeal against the sentence of life imprisonment.
On the date the final hearing was to begin, the bench had said they want the latest update and the jail officials sent some rough paper.
They want to show they are taking care of the prisoners, since they were sort of reprimanded by the court.
The general surgeon saw my baba, but the prescription he gave I have seen it and seems like a generic medication for his stomach.
They also took him to the hospital. They conducted basic tests: CBC, sonography and a chest x-ray which makes no sense. The sonography report showed everything is normal.
But the surgeon did not come nor was any follow up done. My father’s health condition has not improved.
His main problem being, the food that is prepared in the jails, especially the vegetables and dal, is prepared with lots of spices and palm oil.
The components of palm oil are heavy on the stomach which has impacted him adversely.
The jail officials also mentioned in their report, the prisoner asked for a special diet and they have been giving khichdi and dal.
My baba has written in his letters to me, they are putting all heavy dals, excluding moong dal in his khichdi.
On paper they have informed the court they have given him a special diet and the prisoner is normal.
Is he coping well with the new diet that is being given? Is there any alternative at all in jail?
He has written that the special diet is causing him more trouble.
They have cut down on the spice, but are still putting oil in the dals and khichdi, which he can’t eat.
I have now contacted a lawyer and ask him to check, because I am allowed to meet my father, only between the 1st-15th or from 16th-30th/31st of every month.
He then went and got himself checked and said the situation is more or less the same.
Now baba has to make do with some of his own experimentation, like dry rotis.
Earlier, he used to eat only two rotis, now he has changed the diet.
He now eats four rotis with butter and sugar.
He asks for dry chawal and put some turmeric in it and some digestive kind of biscuit.
There is a canteen in jail, but it doesn’t function normally.
Everything is rationed, there is no storage space to keep fruits and dry fruits are also rationed for prisoners.
They can’t relish a lot (laughs).
They don’t want the prisoners to become healthy and fit.
He can’t even eat eggs, that bad his stomach condition has become.
On the other hand, all those gangsters filled in that prison are getting special diets, eggs, paav and milk.
Baba is not being given bread. He makes curd from the milk given to him.
I have understood that he has figured some way out to survive in prison.
Medically, I am helpless, I can’t push beyond what I am doing.
I can’t force things either on the jail or the judge.
Baba has informed me that he has been given some syrup by the doctor which is giving him some relief, so I am just hoping he will somehow survive.
You mentioned there has been a setback for you all legally. What has happened? How are you managing single-handedly?
Yes, so we have a big setback legally speaking in reference to the hearing.
Since all these years that he was arrested, Supreme Court Senior Advocate Nitya Ramakrishnan on her own came forward and told me she was willing to help my father in whatever capacity in every court, without taking a penny from me.
She knows the work my father has been doing, he used to take her help for legal issues and was helping other political prisoners, especially the poor.
In fact, when he got arrested in Raipur, he had gone for the case in which she was representing because of him. She knows baba and his work.
He was brought to Maharashtra after that and she knows the police narrative is not authentic.
We have been waiting for this trial.
So we have Pradeep Mandhiyan from Mumbai for Mahesh Tirkey, Pandu Narote who just died, but is still to be proven innocent, Hem Mishra and Vijay Tirkey.
Professor G N Saibaba is represented by Senior Advocate Subodh Dharmadhikari.
Advocate Nitya was to represent my father and Vijay Tirkey, she got him out on bail.
It was a new bench and we didn’t think they would start immediately.
So first we were blamed for delaying the trial, while the truth is Nitya was ready for the hearing, we have been ready since March while actually it was the prosecution that was delaying the case.
The bench then said they wanted all lawyers present from day one of the hearing and Nitya had told me way in advance she will be busy till September 27th as she is representing the convicts of the Jaipur blast case, as they are facing the death penalty.
She cannot leave that case and come here from day one at Nagpur.
The setback is we have lost out on Nitya (breaks down).
I have just lost on the main advocate for my father.
She was not just any other advocate, she is a genius and it is a huge personal loss.
That day I didn’t know what to do. I have never felt so helpless (chokes).
All these days I was waiting for this big day and now my lawyer can’t represent me.
It is a big case and we can’t bring any new one.
I am aware Advocate Pradeep is thoroughly prepared and now I am in touch with them.
Dad has been sending notes and our lawyers are now back and forth.
in the last few weeks we have seen that the health concerns of political prisoners across various jails are grave — your father; Vernon Gonsalves; prior to that Pandu Narote’s death.
Much earlier than these was Father Stan Swamy’s death, and the fact the authorities are waking up rather late to address these health issues.
Is it a struggle to get basic rights in jail?
When I first got Narote’s news, I was in fact seeing a movie where a daughter is fighting for her father who was wrongly accused.
So I was already howling watching this movie. At that time I got Pandu’s news and I broke down.
I could correlate with the whole situation. First was Father Stan and since then it has not been easy.
But Pandu’s news hit harder. Pandu had age on his side and (his death was) completely unexpected. Moreover, our hearing was to begin in few days.
Sadly, there has been not even one single attempt to get bail, because the legal train would stop only at Saibaba and my father. The rest were never heard.
Also, his family members who live in the forests in Gadchiroli, had not seen him since March 2017 when he was arrested.
They are poor people, daily wage workers, who can’t afford to travel every month.
They just saw a dead body after 2017.
At that time it was inexplicable why I broke down and the fear of how easy it is to lose someone when they are in prison.
It is just a pattern, when someone has fallen ill — not even a fatal disease really speaking — they wait till it reaches a point and no option left to save the person. After much delay they take them to a hospital and at the last minute will dump the prisoner in prison to show he died there.
In my father’s case, he has ulcers and a gastroenterologist needs to see him.
The sonography report is not the end of the story… you have to do endoscopy, colonoscopy. These things are denied to prisoners because the attitude of the authorities is that these prisoners have committed a severe sin — not even a crime — and they deserve to rot in hell.
So it is deserving of every prisoner to die neglected. That is how our machinery operates and sees every prisoner.
Well, mostly all, because gangsters are given different treatment.
I remember when my baba was arrested in Uttarakhand and his hearing was on during video conferencing, his back had completely frozen, they had brought him on a stretcher.
That morning he was put in a jail infirmary. Till night he was made to hold his stools because they had not figured a mechanism to make him relieve himself.
They refused to give him a commode chair and had to fight in court.
Pandu’s death just shook me even though I had never met him. It felt like someone in my family had passed away. It is also the fear of losing my dad just like that.
Nobody tells you anything and they may let him die easily.
Like the building guard here in Andheri (north west Mumbai) had forgotten to give me the letters on time. He handed over letters of two months at one time.
My baba had been suffering since two months and I had not known.
It was just by chance that I had booked my ticket to visit him.
I had written to my dad and I was wondering what has happened. He has not written and he must be thinking I am doing nothing even after he has written two letters.
He has written, ‘Don’t worry, I am strong. I can survive for one or two months… you don’t have to interrupt your shoot and run around for me… I have somehow managed to jot down notes for the case.’
Again that day I felt the ground slip beneath my feet.
He otherwise doesn’t remember anything about anyone and in one letter he has sent birthday wishes to his sister and such things.
They say when you are near your end you become nicer (laughs), it was like that, I felt.
His letter was in red ink, because the ink in the other pen was over.
All this got me overthinking.
And it was on the day that we were tired of the boring food served to us on the shoot. So we had ordered burgers and good stuff.
After that I came home and read these two letters.
I was shattered and felt guilty that here I am going out with my friends and eating such good food and here my father has been suffering since two months.
Then I called my friend and said I am never going out and eating out again.
I felt so guilty for…(breaks down)… for all those things I had eaten and relished… (silence).
All these years I have to not think about him.
Because if I have to visualise him inside the prison, it is tough.
Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/Rediff.com
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