Siddique Kappan, was on his way to investigate the gang rape of a minor dalit girl in Hathras which had sparked a nationwide outrage. He was arrested by the Uttar Pradesh police on October 5, 2020. As is commonplace, though illegal, the police held him incommunicado for 48 hours. For those unfamiliar with Kappan, he is a freelance journalist who has covered politics, crime, and current affairs for Malayalam-language news outlets. What may have predicated his present tragic fate is perhaps, his being the secretary of the Kerala Union of Working Journalists.
48 hours later, on October 7, Uttar Pradesh police, revealed that Kappan and the three activists were being held in Mathura pending an investigation into alleged violations of the Indian Penal Code including Sections 153A (promoting enmity between groups), 295A (outraging religious feelings), and 124A (sedition). They are also conveniently charged under sections 14 and 17 of the Unlawful Activity Prevention Act (UAPA).
UAPA of 1967 vintage has great use for the authorities for bail becomes a remote possibility. Many students who participated in the Anti-CAA protest are still languishing in jails courtesy a clever UAPA insertion.
In most of the sophisticated constitutional democracies of the West, charges like these would be promptly put to trial, while invariably enlarging the accused on bail. A prompt trial is the surefire deterrent to initiating prosecutions on incredulous charges. But we have veered around, a system where the state is able to incarcerate citizens on allegations like these for years on end. Kobad Gandhi (25 years) and the Elgar Parishad accused ( 3 years and counting) are classic examples of our distorted and dystopian criminal administration system. We have yet to institutionalize innovative constitutional responses to the now common place tactics of the state.
Now to continue the story, the Kerala Union of Working Journalists (KUWJ), knocked the doors of the Supreme Court stating that Kappan had suffered a fall in the jail bathroom and had also tested positive for Covid-19. Kappan has a heart ailment, blood pressure, diabetes which according to received medical wisdom are life threatening co-morbidities.
On April 28, the Supreme Court rose to the occasion in the glorious traditions of our constitutional courts. Undeterred by the contumacious arguments of the State, the Court emphasized, “we state that the most precious fundamental right to life unconditionally embraces even an undertrial.” Without hesitation, the court directed that Kappan, be shifted to a government hospital in Delhi for better treatment. It would pay to study this beautifully constructed order. So poignant, giving free flow to our most precious ‘right to life’. The order exudes, in letter and in spirit of what our Framers, conceived the mettle in a constitutional court. Those words should resonate through our republic which for sometime has been in a constitutional comatose.
Kappan was shifted to AIIMS, Delhi on 30.4.2021. On the 6th day, he was taken away from AIIMS on the strength of a certificate by signed by one resident doctor and a consultant. It read that the patient though Covid positive is “discharged in a hemodynamically stable condition”. The complex set of co-morbidities conveniently do not find mention in the report. The UP Police without so much as informing the Supreme Court, took Kappan out of AIIMS in the middle of the night to Mathura. The predictable umbrage which will be taken will be, as per Supreme Court’s orders, KAPPAN will remain in the hospital to the satisfaction of the doctors. A feeble rationale, but nevertheless a talking point.
The actions of the UP police is difficult to countenance. But this is not unusual, for, that is how unbridled power behaves. What happens with impunity in totalitarian states, happens with concealed tactlessness in constitutional democracies. Alexie Navalny was poisoned with the nerve agent Novichok during his incarceration. The removal of this Covid infected undertrial may not be quite in the same league. But the mortal consequences are the same.
It is easy to slide down to silly semantics and endless justifications in legalese. What is really at stake here is, not just the danger to the life of Siddique Kappan. It is whether, we as a nation, will acquiesce in this frontal assault on the freedom of the press. There is a coded signal the powers are sending by this incident. The message which is loud and clear is do not think freedom of the press exists to the extent that power can be challenged. Freedom of the press, and democracy itself, in more sense than one, now depends on the life of Siddique Kappan.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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