The activist’s partner recalls the time he spent in house arrest, under supervision

The activist’s partner recalls the time he spent in house arrest, under supervision
The activist’s partner recalls the time he spent in house arrest, under supervision

What makes a 71-year-old woman give up her freedom in the city that has been her home for 54 years and voluntarily go to prison?

“One date can turn your life upside down,” Sahba Husain chuckles during a telephone conversation with me. For her, that date is April 28, 2018, when the house she shared with her partner Gautam Navlakha in Delhi was raided. Then came more raids and heightened surveillance, and two years later, as the Covid-19 pandemic ravaged the country, Navlakha was arrested on terror-related charges.

The case, commonly referred to as the “Bhima Koregaon‘ case has since gained international fame because it is full of gaping holes. Independent researchers have found clues fictional proof and many are calling it a “witch hunt” for political dissidents.

Navlakha is a journalist and human rights activist with a history of criticizing the Indian state’s actions in Kashmir and Maoist insurgency-affected central India.

After his arrest, Navlakha was sent to Taloja Jail in Maharashtra, where most of the Bhima Koregaon accused were lodged. In June 2021, one of his co-defendants, octogenarian priest Father Stan Swamy, died in prison during a locked-down trial. Taking into account Navlakha’s poor health, the Supreme Court granted him permission to be placed under house arrest in November 2022. But the house had to be in Maharashtra – so Husain stopped her life in Delhi and flew down to join Navlakha in captivity.

The couple’s new home was a hall atop a library in Belapur in Navi Mumbai. It was separated by bookshelves to create a small bedroom.

It would have been impossible for Husain to find a housing society in Mumbai that would be willing to take in Navlakha. He was under arrest and the idea of ​​24 hour surveillance made most people uncomfortable. Finally, out of fear, Husain had called a friend from the Communist Party of India (Marxist), of which she is a member. The party offered them space in the Belapur library, which it manages in Belapur. Navlakha finally had a local address.

While others congratulated her on the change in the address of Navlakha’s incarceration – a house instead of prison – Husain remembers being concerned. When I moved here, the first weeks were especially difficult.

“It’s very disturbing to be under surveillance twenty-four hours a day,” she told me. “You know, every time I opened the door and stepped outside, the camera was on.”

Gautam Navlakha with Sahba Husain before he had to surrender to the National Investigation Agency in April 2020.

Be supervised

There was a CCTV camera at one entrance and another at the exit of the makeshift apartment. A metal detector, a monitor and hard drives completed the range of surveillance equipment. And there were police personnel everywhere. National Criminal Investigation Department officers also came by every now and then until they felt safe in the knowledge that nothing was wrong.

Husain was allowed to come and go as she pleased – not because she was the main detainee, just Navlakha’s partner – but it was all caught on camera and recorded in registers. She was also not allowed to take her smartphone and laptop inside, which brought her work as a researcher and women’s rights activist to an abrupt halt. When she accompanied her partner on the short morning walks he was legally entitled to, they were accompanied by armed guards.

On May 14, when the Supreme Court finally granted Navlakha bail, and on May 18 the authorities dismantled the security apparatus, Husain felt a wave of relief wash over her. “When Gautam got bail, the first thing they did was switch off the security,” she said.

“And for me, when the cameras were turned off, the monitors and all the wiring were removed, and the uniformed guards, guns and registers were sent away, it was a moment of great liberation,” she said. “So when I went downstairs the next morning, oh my god, I could breathe easier.”

The kindness of people

Yet Husain holds no grudge against the security personnel. She speaks kindly of them: “They were just doing their job.” She also remembers an evening when traffic in Mumbai delayed her return from the city, and one of the security personnel on duty went to the apartment to check if Navlakha was okay.

She also speaks of the warmth of the people in their Belapur neighborhood, as well as their “excellent team of lawyers in whom we have been able to place our full trust.”

She is grateful for her friends at the library who gave them a home. When I asked her about the color of the walls in her apartment, she said: “It’s not so much about the color of the walls, but rather about the color of the support and solidarity we have received here. And we are surrounded by bookshelves.”

When Gautam returned

What was their reunion like, despite the conditions of house arrest? Husain remembers the evening in 2022 when Navlakha appeared at the library, fresh from prison, flanked by security guards. He carried his meager possessions – some books and clothes – in thin bags, and she ran downstairs to hug him.

When they walked up the stairs to the hall, it was full of police officers, National Criminal Investigation Department officers and an explosive ordnance squad coming to scan the apartment. It was also then that Navlakha said something that reassured Husain.

“There were many officers everywhere and Gautam said hello to all of them in his booming voice. And then he said, ‘Sir, whatever you say about me, whatever you write about me, one day I will be free and you will make sure I clear my name in the case,'” Husain said. “That was the first thing he said, and I thought, ‘here comes Gautam!’ So it was very reassuring to me that he sounded exactly the same.”

But for Navlakha, the transition from prison to house arrest was complicated. In prison he had become accustomed to sleeping with only a durrhi beneath him. There was a period during the pandemic when he was quarantined in a small classroom with about 40 others. The sudden presence of a bed to sleep in, a chair to sit on, and a table to read and write made his back ache. When the body learns to curl up in on itself, it forgets what to do with the space around it. My other conversations with ex-prisoners show that the trauma from prison lingers for a long time afterwards.

Shortly after Navlakha was released on bail on May 18.

A series of battles

When asked if the ordeal of the past six years has also changed her, Husain noted that while her core remains unchanged, she is better at recognizing her strengths and weaknesses. She has also learned a lot from interactions with the other suspects who continue to hold their heads high, and from their family members who smile in the face of adversity. Ultimately, she admitted she was brave: “It’s a battle, and I fought without any resentment or bitterness toward anyone.”

Fighting was indeed plentiful.

Husain had a run-in with prison authorities after Navlakha was denied new glasses she sent for him after his old ones broke. She had to fight to get him out of quarantine and into the tightly packed classroom. even waged a legal battle for just permission to meet him while he was in prison. That privilege, she said, is reserved for blood relatives and spouses.

“The prison authorities kept asking me for a marriage certificate,” Husain said. “When I told them that we are not married, they were zapped, because at my age they expect you to be married.”

Navlakha was arrested in April 2020, but it was only after a court order and subsequent checks by the National Investigation Agency at their Delhi residence that they were finally allowed to hold a physical mulaqat, or gathering, in the prison in February 2021. But even the mulaqats were painful. They stood opposite each other, separated by glass windows, in a loud and busy room. When Husain finally sat with him “in flesh and blood” for the first time, in the hall atop the library, she said, “for a while I just stared, and slowly we started having conversations.”

No other choice

However, were her daughters, who live abroad, concerned about her? Husain was almost quarantined and they had no idea when they would see her again. “My daughters were very worried,” she says. “But I wouldn’t say they were concerned.”

They were concerned about her, my freedom, and when I would see her again, my grandchildren, she said. “But they also know me well, and they knew I could handle it.”

However, sometimes her friends and even Navlakha pointed out to her that, unlike him, she had a choice between captivity and freedom. “Gautam himself says you had a choice, you could have just said ‘no, I’m not coming’,” she said.

But that didn’t matter. “Not coming was out of the question for me,” she says. “Gautam and I have been together for thirty years now, and in a relationship like this, where there is love, commitment and care, it was the most natural thing to be here with him.”

Now that they are no longer legally locked up, the couple plans to leave the library. Navlakha is still not allowed to leave Maharashtra, so they rent an apartment in the city. But in the meantime, they meet friends, go for coffee and go for a walk together – without the company of police personnel, “touchwood!”

Husain says her focus is on the present. But she does think about the future with renewed hope. What is she hoping for? She answers: a future where they can return to their lives in Delhi, Navlakha can travel to meet his grandchildren and all the remaining prisoners in the Bhima Koregaon case can finally be free.