“Deeply saddened by the passing of Father Stan Swamy,” Pinarayi Vijayan, the chief minister of Kerala, wrote in a tweet after the 84-year-old Jesuit priest and Adivasi-rights activist died in police custody in Maharashtra, in July this year. “Unjustifiable that a man who fought all through his life for our society’s most downtrodden had to die in custody. Such travesty of justice should have no place in our democracy.” While Vijayan expressed his shock about Swamy, he has ignored the struggles of those facing similar charges in Kerala’s jails.
In the past five years, despite seeing nearly no major terrorist or Maoist attacks, the Kerala government registered 145 cases under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act and offences pertaining to sedition and “waging war against the state” in the Indian Penal Code. On 27 October 2021, while replying to a question in the legislative assembly about the number of people charged under the UAPA during his tenure and the details of the charges against them, Vijayan refused to answer. He said, “the details of accused in cases pertaining to national security and which are under consideration of special courts cannot be revealed.” He also refused to answer questions about the number of UAPA undertrials and the amount of time they had spent in prison.
Over six years, courts in Kerala have denied bail to NK Ibrahim, a 67-year-old activist with a serious heart condition, multiple times. In June this year, CK Rajeevan, another activist lodged in Kannur jail, went on a hunger strike to get tested for COVID-19, according to Thankamma, his wife. S Danish, a 32-year-old activist, has received bail in several cases against him, but the Kerala Police Anti Terrorist Squad has repeatedly accused him in fresh UAPA cases to keep him in prison, his lawyer Tushar Nirmal Sarathi, said. In prison, Danish got infected with COVID-19.
The three activists and their lawyers and families have been struggling to maintain their health in prison for the entirety of the pandemic. The lawyers and families of all three inmates told me that they had written multiple times to Vijayan requesting his intervention, but received no response. Many of the allegations of police and prison misconduct were levelled against the Viyyur High Security Prison in Thrissur district. Activist raising concerns about the mistreatment of activists in Kerala have also been targeted by what they claim are false cases.
On 13 July 2015, Ibrahim was arrested by the Kerala Police from Payyoli village in Kozhikode district, accused of being a member of the Communist Party of India (Maoist) and conspiring to wage war against the state. He was booked for sedition under Section 124A of the IPC and under multiple sections of the UAPA. His family told me that he was working as a helper at a vegetable shop in Payyoli at the time, and had been involved in trade-union activism in the region.