I fear for my father imprisoned in pandemic-stricken India

My father faces a coronavirus death sentence in an Indian prison, having committed no crime.

A policeman walks inside the Tihar Jail
A policeman walks inside the Tihar Jail in New Delhi on March 11, 2013 [Reuters/Mansi Thapliyal]

Like thousands of other young people, I, too, am worried about my elderly parents during this pandemic. I am especially concerned about my father, who is imprisoned in a small dingy cell in South Asia’s largest prison complex – Tihar jail – in India’s capital New Delhi.

My father, Altaf Ahmad Shah, or Abu as I call him, is 63 years old and has diabetes and hypertension. Hence, he is in the “high-risk” category of people who face potential life-threatening conditions if they, God forbid, contract coronavirus.

Abu was arrested in July 2017. He is not in prison because of any criminal activity. The reason for his incarceration is his political activity and his belief in the right to self-determination in Indian-administered Kashmir. Intimidated by my ailing Abu’s political aspirations, the world’s largest democracy imprisoned him, charged him with sedition and accused him of “waging war against the country”.

Abu has not been imprisoned for the first time. He has spent several years in different jails for supporting the resistance movement of Kashmir and being a member of the pro-resistance political group, Hurriyat Conference, headed by my grandfather, Syed Ali Shah Geelani.

Tihar prison complex has about 16 prisons housing more than 17,000 inmates. Abu and many other Kashmiri political prisoners are kept in the so-called “high-risk security ward”.

Family visits for those in high-risk wards are different from the ones in general wards: they are shorter and take place later in the day once all other visits have finished.

During my meetings with Abu at Tihar jail in 2017-2018, I developed a stronger and more affectionate bond with him. Visiting Tihar has been more than challenging in every sense to me. Every Friday, I would prepare myself mentally to travel to that place that frightened me, but at the same time it meant half an hour of happiness for both of us. Those visits were always full of trauma, fatigue, intimidation, anxiety and fear.

When I went to meet Abu, I would have to wait for more than three hours in the waiting area, perched on a corner of a broken bench and overwhelmed with fear. I was not allowed to carry anything before entering the waiting area, except a little courage and desperation to see Abu.

As I and others waited, rodents, insects and stray dogs would lurk in the room. Many times, I fell sick after those visits, given the unhygienic conditions of the prison. Despite the heat and the humidity inside, visitors would not even get a glass of clean water to drink.

Whenever I asked Abu about the living conditions in the cells, he would dodge the question, but his physical appearance spoke for itself. He started looking weaker with each visit and much older, his hair and beard turning white.  

Out of anger, I once asked him why he had chosen such a life that put him and our family in such great suffering. “You are privileged to see me and meet me. I am in the same prison where Afzal Guru and Mohammad Maqbool Bhat have been hanged and buried. Their families did not even see their dead bodies. They remained incarcerated even after their death,” he told me. Bhat and Guru were Kashmiris who were also arrested and charged with “waging war against the state”; they were hanged in 1984 and 2013 respectively.

Abu always tried to keep my spirits high, telling me to hope and pray for the day of his release. I last saw him on February 21 this year. It was one of the most emotional visits, as I had not seen him for more than a year. “Ah! Baedd chaham gamaeczh!” (Ah! You have grown up), was the first thing he said when he saw me through the window in the dim-lit room. He looked so old to me. But I did not say it.

A month later, India imposed a nation-wide lockdown due to the coronavirus. Prison visits were banned.

My worries about my father are fuelled by the fact that prisoners do not receive adequate health care in India. There have already been a few cases of Kashmiri prisoners whose severe health problems have been neglected.

Peer Saifullah, a 54-year-old Kashmiri resistance leader, was operated on for a brain tumour before he was arrested in 2017. He needs life-saving medication to survive and often falls unconscious in jail, but he told me, so far, he has been provided medical assistance just once. In one of his desperate messages, Saifullah wrote to me: “I am dying in this prison. I might not survive as my body is giving up now”.

In December last year, Ghulam Muhammad Bhat, a 65-year-old Kashmiri, died in an Uttar Pradesh jail. He had been detained under the Kashmir Public Safety Act – a law which allows Indian police to detain anyone who they suspect may commit a crime against the state.

There are hundreds of Kashmiris imprisoned outside Kashmir and most of them are pre-trial prisoners. News about their wellbeing and messages from them rarely make it out of the prisons where they are kept.

The outbreak of the coronavirus in India has spread more anxiety among hundreds of families of Kashmiri political prisoners. We all fear we may not see our loved ones again.

India currently has more than 500,000 registered coronavirus cases so far and at least 16,000 deaths.

Tihar jail reported its first coronavirus case in late May and there are rumours of an outbreak there.

In March, after prisoners started testing positive for the disease, the Supreme Court ordered early releases to decrease overcrowding. In April, former first chief minister Mehbooba Mufti was shifted from prison to house arrest; 65 prisoners in Jammu and Kashmir were also set free.

But so far, my father and his associates have not been released, despite the fact that none of the accusations against them have been proven in any court of law in India.

My mother, who has been unwell too since the arrest of Abu, frantically calls me every day to ask if there is any news. Last month, our bail plea was rejected, but our application to get my father checked at a hospital was accepted. Despite the court order issued on June 1 to grant Abu medical attention, the jail authorities have not yet carried it out.

As the coronavirus death toll surges and more people are reported infected with the virus, our hopes are dwindling that justice will be served and we will see our loved ones free, alive and well. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.