From the Other Side of the Bars

Rona Wilson’s quiet commitment to prisoners’ rights

In jail since June 2018, Rona Wilson has campaigned for human rights for over fifteen years and is a founding member of the Committee for the Release of Political Prisoners. Courtesy the family of Rona Wilson
18 March, 2019

In March 2012, Rona Jacob Wilson, an activist who campaigns for the release of political prisoners, addressed a seminar in Hyderabad, on counter-terrorism laws and their misuse by the nation’s security apparatus. Rona traced the evolution of India’s anti-terrorism laws, from the 1990s to their current form—the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Amendment Act, 2012. Through the UAPA, Rona said, “sanction is given to the National Counter-Terrorism Centre as well as the Intelligence Bureau to arrest, not only to investigate but also to execute ... anyone who they deem fit as committing offences that are not in the interest of the Indian state.” Rona had addressed the seminar as a representative of the Committee for the Release of Political Prisoners, or CRPP. He is one of the CRPP’s founding members and its secretary for public relations. His speech was not long—twenty minutes, give or take a few. But events that transpired in his life six years later would make it appear prescient.

On 6 June 2018, Rona was arrested from his home, a rented one-room set, in south Delhi’s Munirka village in a joint operation by the Pune Police and Delhi Police. Four other activists were arrested that day, in different parts of the country—Sudhir Dhawale, a Dalit-rights activist; Surendra Gadling, a lawyer; Mahesh Raut, an activist who works on displacement issues; and Shoma Sen, a university professor. All five were accused of having links with the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist) and charged under various sections of the UAPA.

The police described the five as the “top brass of urban Maoists” and blamed them for the caste-based violence that occurred in Bhima Koregaon, in Maharashtra, on 1 January 2018. They were also accused of helping organise the Elgar Parishad the day before the violence erupted. The Elgar Parishad is an event organised to celebrate the victory of the Mahar regiment of the British army against the upper-caste Maratha soldiers in the Battle of Koregaon in 1818. The Pune police further claimed that the arrested activists used the Elgar Parishad to incite riots the following day and Maoist operatives had funded the event. The police singled Rona out, for conspiring to assassinate the prime minister Narendra Modi in a “Rajiv Gandhi-type incident.” This was based on a letter that the police claimed they found among Rona’s possessions. Incidentally, the Pune police had raided Rona’s house a few months before his arrest on 17 April 2018, and seized his laptop, phone and other written material and had possession of all his passwords. Rona and the other activists are currently lodged in Pune’s Yerawada central prison with their bail applications pending and no trial in sight.

A native of Kollam, in Kerala, the 47-year-old spent his formative years in the state, before moving to Puducherry. Rona moved to Delhi in the early nineties, and lived there until the day of his arrest. In January this year, I visited Rona’s family home in Kollam. There were balloons hanging from the ceiling. The previous day, his neice, his elder brother Roy’s daughter, had celebrated her first birthday—an occasion that the baby’s doting uncle would have attended if he was a free man. “We have made it a point for years that we will all be here for Christmas,” Roy said. Rona “generally visits only during Christmas and if there are any family functions. We are missing that since the last seven-eight months.” He told me that he met his brother briefly on two occasions after the arrest.

There are three siblings in the Wilson family, each of whom has chosen a different career path. Roy works for a private firm in Kerala while their sister, Sona, who is the youngest of the three, is employed with a bank. A cousin of the Wilsons, who asked not to be named, told me that elders of the family had believed in giving their children a lot of freedom and never interfered in the development of their ideological beliefs. In fact, Roy said, “If I have to be frank enough with you, no discussions have happened in the family about his topics or subjects.” Roy and Sona, therefore, had little information on the specific details of the research and work Rona had pursued over the years. Roy told me that Rona “tried to get into medicine for one or two years. He completed graduation in Zoology. Then he found that it is not his calling.” He then moved to the Pondicherry Central University to study political science and international relations. “He completed his MA there,” Roy said. Rona subsequently completed his masters in philosophy at the centre for political studies of the Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi and his topic of study was a literature survey of the debate on the nature of India’s political economy between 1975 to 1995.

The family told me that Rona was always reserved and unassuming about the work he did. “Recently, in Arundhati Roy’s new book, his name was mentioned in the note of thanks. He took it very lightly. But as far as we, as a middle class family, are concerned, it was a big thing,” Sona affectionately recalled. “The interesting thing was that he did not tell us about it. A cousin happened to buy this book and saw his name on the back cover. She posted it on our WhatsApp group. That is how we found out,” Roy added.

The author Arundhati Roy echoed Rona’s family and described him as “low-key” in his disposition. She told me over an email that “probably for that reason not as much has been written” about Rona “as the others who are in jail.” Both Rona and Arundhati were members of the Committee for the Defense and Release of GN Saibaba—a Delhi University professor who was arrested in May 2014 on charges of having links to Maoists. Saibaba is severely disabled and uses a wheelchair. In March 2017, he was sentenced to life, and is currently behind bars as well. Arundhati added that Rona’s incarceration is a huge setback for the political prisoners whose rights he was fighting for. “Coordinating even one person’s legal defence is a monumental task. Rona was constantly doing prison visits, dealing with prisoners’ anguished families and ... lawyers who had offered their services for free. I remember him trying his best to handle all of it with his hesitant, somewhat apologetic smile,” she said.

Meena Kandasamy, a feminist writer and activist, echoed Arundhati. “His arrest rankled me,” Kandasamy said. “People like Rona represent the last frontier, the last line of defence that dissidents have. They could feel safe knowing that people like Rona will take up your cause; that they will campaign for your freedom.” With a campaigner like Rona in jail, Kandasamy added, “Who will speak up? Will we all be condemned to silence?”

Rona has been working with political prisoners since at least the early 2000s. The filmmaker Sanjay Kak, who is among the circle of Rona’s friends that formed during his long years in Delhi, said that many activists remember Rona “from way back in 2002, when he was probably still a young student at the JNU, but already playing an important role in the campaign for the Defence Committee for professor SAR Geelani.” Geelani, who was then a professor of Arabic in Delhi University, was one of the prime accused in the attack on the Indian parliament in December 2001. Charged as the mastermind of the attack, Geelani was sentenced to death by a special court, in December 2002. Subsequently, in October 2003, the Delhi high court overturned his conviction and he was acquitted of all charges.

Geelani has known Rona from the days when both of them were students in the capital in the early 1990s. “Since then ... we worked for human rights together,” Geelani told me. “When I was arrested in 2001, Rona was one of the persons I would always see in the courtroom. Whenever I entered the court and saw his smiling face, it soothed me,” Geelani said. His experience in prison led to the formation of the CRPP in 2007. “I had seen the people who were languishing in jail. Rona was the first person I discussed this with,” he told me. “Then we met with different people in other parts of India as well. That is how this Committee for the Release of Political Prisoners came into existence.” Rona “was our backbone,” Geelani added. According to Kak, Rona’s support for political prisoners is the reason he is under fire, as he has “worked hard to keep free and functional those who speak up on behalf of the most marginalised of our society.”

Kak added that Rona ventured into areas that well-funded non-governmental organisations were hesitant to tread, which meant that there was always a dearth of capital. “I recall a time almost 10 years ago when Rona was selling books, literally door-to-door, to raise money to his credit,” Kak told me. “Because he is very well read, his choice of books was impeccable, and he probably sold many of them quite quickly.”

Rona’s cousin too reiterated that the activist had little means to live by. “He was a very important part of the family. We all used to send money to him. He never had demands. He used to do some editing jobs. But he lived on the money we all sent him,” the cousin told me, adding that this stopped when Roy, the elder brother, started earning well. He added that Rona’s family members are unable to believe that he could be arrested for his work. “They can’t believe that he can go to jail for doing such good things. He has never harmed anybody. He was very anti-Hindutva, very political and all that. But you can’t throw him in jail for that,” the cousin told me over the phone. S Ajayakumar, a Kollam-based writer who is also a family friend of the Wilsons, told me, “He is not capable of doing anything he is being accused of. He cannot even hurt an ant. His only mistake was that he was vocal against Hindutva.”

The cousin also mentioned that the family has been deeply affected by Rona’s arrest, with one of his aunts suffering from high blood pressure and recurring nightmares ever since she received the news. The conduct of the national media in the aftermath of Rona’s arrest has added to the family’s discomfiture. Rona’s family members were taken aback by the huge presence of media at their house in Kollam after the arrest. “They suddenly came in and started recording videos of the house. We were not in a position to talk. We were really scared,” said Sona. Eventually, the neighbours and the local police intervened to restrain the media persons. Moreover, the portrayal of Rona in mainstream news channels has shaken the siblings’ faith in the media. “When we watch the news now, we wonder if any of it is true at all,” Sona said.

Their concerns were reflected in the anger of G Haragopal. A professor who has on numerous occasions been the state interlocutor with the Maoists, Haragopal spoke to Republic TV about Rona’s work, but was furious as his comments were misrepresented. Haragopal told me that he had known Rona for seven years and described him as an “absolutely honest” person with immense “courage of conviction.” He believed Rona to be a promising scholar. “I thought he would shape himself into one of the leading intellectuals of this country,” he said. Rona would not compromise on his values, Haragopal said. So, Haragopal chose to speak to Republic TV on 8 June, two days after the activist was arrested. “I said, for Rona let me make a comment because that also partly helps in shaping public opinion.” During the course of his conversation with Aditya Raj Kaul, the then associate editor of Republic TV, Haragopal deconstructed the charges against Rona, calling them the “police’s fictions.” The channel disregarded Haragopal’s statements and ran the segment with the headline “Prof. Haragopal, Maoist Sympathiser Confirms Rona Wilson Link.”

Haragopal described the activist in glowing terms, as a person with a strong moral compass. Rona’s commitment towards his values was uncompromising, and the activist’s moral universe was based on the “larger concerns of the poor people, concerns of the prisoners, concerns of the tribals,” he said. He told me that his interactions with Rona were usually focussed on issues like “nature of the state, the regime, the future of India, the future of the struggles.”

All the people I spoke to unanimously agreed that Rona’s commitment to prisoners’ rights is what placed him on the “BJP regime’s radar,” as Haragopal put it. It was Rona’s vast experience in working with political prisoners that led the journalist Sunetra Choudhury to the activist for research on her book titled, “Behind Bars: Prison Tales of India’s Most Famous.” As she recalled her meetings with him in 2016, Choudhury told me, “Even at that time, he indicated that people were after him. He was very careful about where he wanted to meet. I thought, why is he so weary? But he always knew that because he works with Geelani and others, he has to be careful. I think I didn’t appreciate that enough.” Rona steered clear of communications via phone and email, preferring in-person meetings in obscure places instead. “He was always mindful of the fact that he was being watched,” Choudhury said.

Kandasamy’s experience with Rona was also on similar lines. “If you were not the type of person to take spying and state surveillance seriously—you would not understand Rona,” she told me. “For instance, once in a chance remark, he told me that mobile phones were being used as listening devices. I cannot fathom that someone like this is going to go around town writing letters and asking for ammunition as if it is a grocery shopping list,” she said, referring to the letter that the Pune police claimed Rona had written and contained details of the plot to assassinate Modi.

The Pune police claimed that they discovered the letter on Rona’s laptop and that it was addressed to a “Comrade Prakash.” Rohan Nahar, Rona’s lawyer in Pune told me, “They want to try and hook Rona Wilson and Shoma Sen.” Nahar said there was no way to verify the authenticity of the letter. “It contradicts the stand of state. In one breath, they say that it is a covertly operated movement; they do everything clandestinely and do not use their real names. It is funny and ironic that once you say that, you are trying to present evidence where names are being used and emails are being sent and received,” he said. Nahar added that “the entire stance of the prosecution is fraught with a lot of issues.”

BG Kolse-Patil, a former judge of the Bombay High Court, also rubbished claims of Rona’s involvement in the Elgar Parishad. Patil and PB Sawant, a retired judge of the Supreme Court and former chairperson of the Press Council of India, organised the Parishad. Kolse-Patil said that the judges personally bore the cost of the event. He told me that apart from Sudhir Dhawale, who is a member of the Kabir Kala Manch, an anti-caste cultural organisation, he did not know any of the other four activists arrested. Patil has never even met Rona.

Haragopal told me that Rona knew that he was being watched by the state. “But he was also very careful because he was interested in his career,” and wanted to study further, he said. Like Haragopal, others I spoke to also described Rona as an erudite, hardworking scholar. Ajayakumar said that Rona’s “capacity for reading is immense. You have to tell him something only once. You will not have to repeat it. If say, Rona read a book of thousand pages, he does not need to look at it again. He reads every line, absorbs it and enhances it as a part of his own body of knowledge.”

Geelani, too, admired Rona’s scholarship. “Rona is a very well-educated person. He is a scholar. He was in the process of heading abroad for his PhD. But this arrest has scuttled it,” Geelani told me. Rona had recently applied to the University of Surrey and the University of Leicester to pursue his doctorate. When I visited the family, Roy, his brother, browsed through his phone to show me a letter Rona wrote from the Yerawada central prison on 12 December 2018. Besides his messages of care and concern for the family, he requested his family to write to the faculty-in-charge at both the universities to apprise them of his situation here. The letter also mentioned the topic of his proposed thesis: “The Fiction of the Muslim Other: State, Law and The Politics of Naming in Contemporary India.”

Rona himself views his life in prison as another chapter in his long-drawn commitment to securing the rights of the jailed. Soon after finding himself as one among the community of prisoners he worked for, he wrote to his family, “The life in jail, in confinement, gives you ample opportunity to see things in a different light. And as a human rights activist, defender, it gives me tremendous opportunity to look at what I had written and stood for in the last 15 years or more from the other side of the bar.”