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'The State is attacking us with guns on our heads'

By NEETA KOLHATKAR
November 30, 2022 14:31 IST
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'Baba has turned 63 and it is a matter of life or death to get him out of jail.'

Illustrations: Dominic Xavier/Rediff.com

Journalist and human rights activist Prashant Rahi has been in different jails over the last 14 years.

On October 14, the Nagpur bench of the Bombay high court discharged Rahi and several others only for the court's verdict to be overturned by the Supreme Court the next day!

"It is a huge injustice to keep a man like him in jail. Someone who has never thought about himself and in fact has worked to make other peoples' lives better, to see him suffer like this, I can't bear it anymore," Prashant Rahi's daughter Shikha Rahi tells Rediff.com Senior Contributor Neeta Kolhatkar.

The final segment of a must-read multi-part interview:

 

So, this is a new evolved Shikha, who is opening up, is acknowledging her roots and her father.
She is appreciating who she is and what she is doing, right?

Yes. (smiles). That has also changed. Like in this film in which I am working on, I am not doing my usual work, which can be very hectic.

I usually don't have time to look up, but this time I am working as a dialect coach, for a change and I have made new friends.

I tell everybody about who I am, who is my father and that he is in jail and the work he has done.

When I was first called for this film to do my usual continuity job, I told the director everything and that I will need to go to visit my baba in jail.

Then he gave me an easier option. There still are days when I am walking around, crying in a corner or I am looking like a ghost.

They are extremely sweet and if I am alone and they try to comfort me, I tell them to wait aside.

I can't fall apart and be weak because there still is a lot of work to do be done.

Yet one of them will come and reassure me, that they are giving me space, but if I need anything or want to talk they are right there. It is reassuring.

Then one of them tells me, "You know, I want your father to come out as soon as possible. You should to write to him and tell him the great work he is doing! Nobody does anything for another person nowadays. You should tell him how great he is and you are glad you are to have him as a father. It is important to appreciate people."

This is how my film colleagues are like. I shared with another friend that I can't go out anymore and eat fancy food, I feel guilty.

He has suffered bereavement and he is like, don't deny yourself any pleasure, don't do that, live your life.

I am happy to have these three new friends who have bonded well, since we are together all the time.

So yes, I speak openly nowadays and I feel proud talking about my baba.

He is the medal I now show off! Hey, this who I am, this is who my father is and this is what I do. (Says it in an animated way and laughs).

I don't think I will have anything to show off once he comes out.

Like my childhood friend tells me, there would have been nothing in my life.

It would have been one boring one, with nothing to do.

She says, I now have some great purpose which keeps me going.

She prods me to think on these lines and encourages me.

This is what I believe in, but when there is a crisis, like recently when Pandu died and baba fell ill, then I just break down.

It was that sort of a sob story. I think it was the Bhima Koregaon case happened.

The kind of people they arrested, public figures who were lawyers, professors, those kind of people.

Again they were not doing their jobs selfishly but also concerned citizens who are fighting for social causes, fighting for women's rights, Dalits rights, tribal rights. Each one was involved in human causes.

And during my struggle of fighting for my baba's cases, all of these arrested had met them and at some point guided me, directed me to a lawyer, asked me to see other alternatives.

They would ask me to attend some conference and put my view point, they all have given me strength.

So when these people were arrested, I knew this is the end. This is a big statement the State is making.

Nobody will dare open their mouths after this and it will not be easy for them to come out.

This was going to be blown into something huge and I knew that my father coming out is also going to get tough.

The way they systematically pick up 16 of them, it was something big.

I felt as if the ground beneath my feet has slipped away.

I am not related to them and wasn't close to any of them, but I knew this was a strong and deep message.

That was I think at a time there was a change in me.

At heart I am an activist and I wished I too could go to a village and live like my parents working among others minimalistically.

But actually I am a selfish person, I fear for my security and I am earning because who will be there to take care of me in my old age.

(Smiles).

But this fight I am battling to release my father is my one bit of contribution towards this cause.

(Laughs).

This is a battle against the State and the arrests in Bhima Koregaon case changed my perspective.

The State is attacking us with guns on our heads.

Getting my father out is my one bit of contribution to fight against the State.

I call it my fight against the State. It won't be so easy, but I will not give up.

My relationship with my dad has changed as I have grown up.

Maybe I did miss a father and held a grudge against that and I overcame it.

I understood that my needs are not important right now. I understood that I have to get my father out at any cost and everything else can wait.

He has turned 63 and it is a matter of life or death to get him out of jail.

He can't stay in a house for too long and for a man like that to be in a jail for that long and to be harassed by the inmates and live in those conditions, I don't want that to happen to anybody. He doesn't deserve it.

Over the years, what I have seen in jail, most of them are from rural areas. Imagine the only earning member of the house is in jail, how are their houses being run.

I've begun to experience all of this more this time round. I would see all of this even before.

I think when you begin to feel and experience all of these things, it give you the strength to fight.

I am still being selfish and just saving my father.

He was way better saving many others. Hats off to him.

I feel it is a huge injustice to keep a man like him in jail. Someone who has never thought about himself and in fact has worked to make other peoples' lives better, to see him suffer like this, I can't bear it anymore.

Every time I meet him, I cry, I get angry, but I know I have to come back to normal and just keep fighting. The main thing is to not give up and win this battle.

My family members and friends, when they see me down they all say, "Shikha you have stretched yourself more than you could have done" or say, why am I doing all this, why aren't the lawyers doing it.

It is not about me, when someone close in your family is in prison you can't sit back.

You won't even know if the person is dead and you won't be able to do anything.

Some relatives say, your father hasn't done as much as you are doing for him.

But this is not a barter system that I sit and calculate I will do only as much as my father has done for me.

It is about basic human values. If these prison officials, staff, police and authorities begin seeing prisoners in little humanitarian way then me and the family members of prisoners won't have to bother this much.

The way society functions, I don't know, they are more concerned about animals than humans.

I feel like the 'Phoenix Rising' after the Dark Knight of the soul when all is lost!

What have been the experiences as a family of a prisoner in the last 15 years? Simple rights like, to get a mulaqat, to speak to him, or a simple hug.
Of late, how tough has it been to get them basic medical attention? How difficult has it been to get him basic rights in jail?

There are a lot of things. Actually, nothing happens easily when someone is in jail.

Firstly, when there was the pandemic, until the activists didn't move the court and get orders for allowing us phone calls.

We had no way of finding out anything about our family members.

The prisons were shut for meetings and nobody would give any information on the phone.

When I would call, the prison officials would tell me there was no need to call again.

It was unnerving because we had no way to find whether the prisoners were alive or dead? Were they safe to begin with, because prisons are overcrowded.

We just had to wait, till PUCL (People's Union for Civil Liberties) filed the petition.

The Maharashtra committee members that met to decide on decongesting prisons during the pandemic, obviously they were lowest in priority because they are the most dangerous right? because they have been booked under UAPA.

Whether it is furlough or Covid, these are not the ones to be let off.

Another important point is, even if the orders have been passed, they are not uniformly implemented.

Each jail works on the whims and fancies of that particular jail staff.

In Amravati, at least they allowed us regular phone calls after then order was passed.

While I heard from another prison, it was extremely irregular. Then later it graduated to allowing us video calls.

Then there was small relief. But when baba's back was frozen, in the first case, he had spondylitis.

Again, it was a long struggle to administer him the medicines as per the prescription.

They firstly delayed in procuring the antibiotics given by the doctor and then his back froze.

Due to which he was to be brought on a stretcher. Worse was, he couldn't use Indian toilets. There was a commode chair in the prison premises which they had kept in the barracks section, which they refused to give him.

Once I told them I will purchase from outside and get him, they refused saying nothing can be brought from outside.

Finally, they ordered one western toilet seat and for that they took money from baba, which I would send him.

After it was delivered, they just let it be in their office as they claimed that commode seat has a lot of metal.

For all those days I don't know how my baba managed, he would hold, limp and would do his daily job.

It must have been extremely hard for him to use an Indian toilet.

I had to knock on the court doors and get an order, only after that the jail staff finally gave him a commode.

Even now, for two months this man was unable to digest his food, he has been dehydrated twice and simple thing like ORS was not given to him.

It is a basic thing given to any person in normal life, which was denied to him.

Means, till the prisoner is on his last legs or is in his final breath, then they will shift him to a hospital and just leave him in a general ward.

My friends now ask me, how is my dad? How do I know? I am not allowed to call the jail and ask or see till I get to meet him on the specific date.

As for mulaqats, in Dehradun I remember it used to be an open space where we could sit next to one another.

Here in Maharashtra, in all jails there is a grill and glass and we speak over the phone as they show in Hollywood films. You can't shake hands or hug each other.

You can't even hear each other if that phone or the chord is not working properly.

These mulaqats are for 20 minutes only and there are 20,000 case work tasks and long explanations are given.

Baba studies his case, makes notes and speaks in details it takes my filmi brain a while to grasp what he is saying. I hate it, you can write it.

The legal contents are just going round and round, that same thing said in 10 different ways and it is all written in complicated language to make it look intellectual.

I can't read beyond two lines, I get a severe headache.

But this time when I went to the court, at the time I had made the application for medical intervention, I was observing in court.

It is a different world altogether. When I see Hollywood films, the way they show jails, it is all easy and convenient.

A lawyer is given to you if you can't afford one. Prisoners are shown speaking on the phone.

I think if the facilities as shown in those films exist in other countries, they can be implemented even in the jails over here.

They are not luxuries, but simple basic facilities.

Why are our jails like, only the rich can afford and get it easy all the time, while others rot as if they are put in hell? It is wrong.

By the rule, there is supposed to be a coin box phone in our jails. But they don't exist in reality.

If the families are living far and they can't visit, they should be allowed phone calls in jails.

They had allowed it during the pandemic, why don't they continue with it on a permanent basis?

Also, when any prisoner is saying take me to a hospital, then he should be shifted immediately.

What's the harm? It is not like they are being given any luxuries or they are being pampered.

Why do family members have to fight in courts for their basic rights? There should be a body or lawyers who are appointed for working class people who cannot afford them.

I saw one lady who is fighting for her husband, but has no lawyer and is trying to meet ends by washing vessels in 10 houses.

After managing her work, house and kid, she has to come all the way to court from another village.

She asked me if I knew of any good lawyer to help her.

Why should it be so tough for anyone to get a decent lawyer?

IMAGE: Prashant Rahi with Shikha when she was a toddler.

When was the last time you hugged your father?

The last time his judgment was to be pronounced in March 2017, unfortunately I couldn't be with him.

I was asked by the director at time to report on the sets for the shoot in Kolhapur.

Baba also was not fully confident, he felt 50:50 chance. I didn't understand the gravity of it, that my father felt only 50 per cent chances.

It also could be, because I had no choice, I had to report for work, I wasn't expecting a drastic consequence, a life imprisonment.

(Pauses).

Firstly, he was given conviction, because he would explain how the police had falsely charged him and there was no strong evidence supporting their claim.

But as the case progressed, the judge seemed convinced and baba became concerned.

So just before I departed for the shoot, I gave him a hug.

He was to leave for Gadchiroli and I was to leave for Kolhapur. That was the last time I was close to him.

Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/Rediff.com

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