What makes a 71-year-old woman relinquish her freedom, in the city that has been home for 54 years, and voluntarily move into confinement?

“One date can overturn your life,” Sahba Husain chuckles over a phone call with me. For her, that date is August 28, 2018, when the house she shared with her partner Gautam Navlakha in Delhi was raided. Then came more raids, 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 garnered international notoriety for being riddled with gaping holes. Independent investigators have unearthed clues of fabricated evidence and many have called it a witch-hunt against political dissidents.

Navlakha is a journalist and a human rights activist with a history of being critical of the state’s actions in Kashmir and the Maoist insurgency-hit Central India.

After his arrest, Navlakha was sent to the Taloja prison in Maharashtra where most of the Bhima Koregaon accused were imprisoned. In June 2021, one of his co-accused, octogenarian priest Father Stan Swamy, died in custody as an incarcerated undertrial. Taking into account Navlakha’s poor health, the Supreme Court in November 2022 granted him permission to move into house arrest. But the house had to be within Maharashtra – so Husain packed up her life in Delhi and flew down to accompany Navlakha in captivity.

The couple’s new home was a hall on top of a library in Navi Mumbai’s Belapur. It was partitioned by bookshelves to create a little bedroom.

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

As others were congratulating her on the change in the address of Navlakha’s incarceration – a house, instead of the jail – Husain recalls feeling anxious. On moving in, the first few weeks were especially hard.

“It is very disturbing to be under surveillance 24/7,” she said. “You know, every time I opened the door and stepped out, the camera was on.”

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

Being under surveillance

There was a CCTV camera at one entrance and another at an exit to the makeshift apartment. A metal detector, a monitor and hard drives completed the array of surveillance paraphernalia. And there were police personnel all around. Officers of the National Investigation Agency would also drop in from time to time until they felt secure in the knowledge that nothing was amiss.

Husain was allowed to come and go whenever she liked – not being the arrestee, only Navlakha’s partner – but it was all recorded on the cameras and noted in registers. She was also not allowed to take her smartphone or her laptop into the house, bringing her work as a researcher and a women’s rights activist to a halt. When she joined her partner on the brief morning walks to which he was legally entitled, they were accompanied by armed guards.

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

She added: “And for me, when the cameras were switched off, the monitors and all the wiring taken down, and the uniformed guards, guns, registers sent away, that was a moment of great liberation. So, the next morning when I went down, oh my gosh, I could breathe easier.”

The kindness of people

Yet, Husain holds no resentment for the security staff. She speaks of them kindly: “They were just doing their jobs.” She also recalls an evening when the Mumbai traffic delayed her return from the city, and one of the security personnel on duty went up to the apartment to check if Navlakha was alright.

She also speaks of the warmth of the people in their Belapur neighbourhood, as well as their “excellent team of lawyers in whom we were able to repose our complete faith”.

For her friends at the library that gave them a home, she is grateful. When I asked her about the colour of the walls in her apartment, she said: “It’s not so much the colour of the walls as much as it is the colour of support and solidarity that 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 showed up at the library, fresh out of prison, flanked by security officers. He was carrying his meagre possessions – some books and clothes – in flimsy bags, and she ran down to hug him.

When they made their way up the stairs to the hall, it was crowded with policemen, officers of the National Investigation Agency and a bomb squad that had come to scan the apartment. It was also then that Navlakha said something that reassured Husain.

“There were many officers all around, and Gautam, in his booming voice, said hello to all of them. And then he said, ‘sir, whatever you may say about me, whatever you write about me, one day I’m going to be free and you will see that I clear my name in the case’,” said Husain. “That was the first thing he said, and I thought: ‘here comes Gautam!’ So it was very reassuring for me – that he’s sounding just the same.”

But for Navlakha, the transition from jail to house arrest was complicated. In prison, he had grown accustomed to sleeping with as little as a durrhi under him. There was a period during the pandemic when he was quarantined with about 40 others in a small classroom. The sudden presence of a bed to sleep in, a chair to sit on and a table for reading and writing made his back hurt. When the body learns to curl in on itself, it forgets what to do with all the space around it. My other conversations with ex-prisoners suggest 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

On being asked if the ordeal of the last six years has changed her as well, Husain noted that while her core remains unchanged, she recognises her strengths and weaknesses better. She has also learned a lot from interactions with the other accused who continue to keep their heads held high, as well as their family members who smile in the face of adversity. Finally, she conceded that she has been brave: “It’s a battle, and I have fought without any rancour or any bitterness towards anybody.”

The battles, in fact, were aplenty.

Husain had to battle with the prison authorities after Navlakha was denied a new pair of spectacles that she had sent for him after his old ones broke, she had to battle to get him out of quarantine into the densely-packed classroom, and she had to even wage a legal battle for as little as permission to meet him when he was in jail. That privilege, she said, is reserved for blood relatives and spouses.

“The jail authorities kept asking me for a marriage certificate,” said Husain. “When I told them 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 not until a court order and subsequent National Investigation Agency checks at their Delhi residence that they were finally, in February 2021, allowed a physical mulaqat, or meeting, in jail. But even the mulaqats were painful. They stood facing each other, separated by glass windows, in a noisy and congested room. When Husain finally first sat with him “in flesh and blood”, in the hall on top of the library, she said, “for a while I just kept staring, and slowly we began to have conversations.”

No other choice

Were her daughters, who live abroad, worried about her, though? Husain had moved into near-confinement and they had no idea when they would see her next. “My daughters were very concerned,” she said. “But I wouldn’t say they were worried.”

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

Sometimes, however, her friends and even Navlakha would point 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 was immaterial. “Not coming was out of the question for me,” she said. “Gautam and I have been together for 30 years now, and in a relationship like this, where there is love, commitment and care, to be here with him was the most natural thing.”

Now that they are no longer legally confined, the couple are planning to move out of the library. Navlakha is still not allowed to leave Maharashtra, so they will rent a flat in the city. In the meantime, though, they will meet friends, go out for coffee and take walks 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 does she hope for? She answers: a future in which they can return to their life in Delhi, Navlakha can travel to meet his grandchildren and all remaining prisoners in the Bhima Koregaon case can finally be free.