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.