It is difficult to link the recent image of Hany Babu as his condition was described in a press statement released by his family with the normalcy of interaction with him as a linguistics teacher and former colleague in Delhi University.

On Tuesday, his family said that he is in agonising pain from a spreading eye infection that could threaten vital organs as he spends his tenth month as an undertrial in Taloja jail with no clean water to wash his eye, as the infection spread to his cheek, his forehead, possibly his right eye, and potentially his brain. The Indian Express reported that he had been taken to Mumbai’s JJ Hospital on Wednesday.

On Thursday, his family released another press statement to say that they had been informed at the hospital that Babu was Covid positive. “Despite requests we have not received any information regarding his CT count, his vital statistics and the results of any tests conducted,” the statement said.

They urged the Maharashtra government to shift Babu to a multi-speciality hospital. “We do not want to leave him at the mercy of a system that treats undertrial prisoners with such cruel indignity and does not believe that it owes us the courtesy of even informing us of Hany’s condition and treatment or that Hany and his family have a right to know and participate in his treatment,” their statement said.

A stickler for the rules

Years ago, on one of the rides to work that I sometimes availed of to reach Delhi University in time for class, Hany Babu objected mildly that official correspondence often referred to him as Hany Baby, despite his requests for a correction. What else did he expect, I remarked flippantly, with a car named Swift Desire? Mild objection tended to characterise his tone, even in the face of North Delhi traffic that would make anyone swear.

It was a mystery, given how demanding teaching and administrative duties were, how Babu found the time to help with budgeting systems in the English department, aside from streamlining admission and grading procedures so that students encountered a consistent and transparent admission system. He tried to ensure that reserved category students could occupy the university seats that were meant for them.

Often, this involved legal battles to get courts to uphold the law. When he found how expensive lawyers’ fees were, he enrolled in the university’s law department as a student and earned a law degree while teaching so he could shoulder the work himself. Easily done.

With the different skill levels of students in the university, keeping up with those with superlative levels of reading was challenging enough. I rarely responded to the needs of those without the same stream of advantages. Hany Babu however, among others, had the time. His office was open, especially to those who found the system daunting, unfair, and exclusionary.

Despite these exemplary qualities, it has to be said that not everyone agreed with his way of working. He is annoyingly nit-picking and exacting about following rules, and demanded a strict adherence to guidelines. If there were numbers and percentages prescribed in university rules, these would be fulfilled unto the last detail, and he would make his opinion felt in meetings largely through his silent, granite-faced conviction.

If it weren’t tragic, we might feel how comically ridiculous it is that someone as legalistically-minded as he is should be accused of instigating or conspiring in acts of violence. Despite the fact that he would be singularly useless to any such project, Hany Babu has been imprisoned for almost a year now as an undertrial in the Bhima Koregaon case. The charges, under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act suggest that he and 15 others instigated violence during a celebration by Ambedarkite groups in Bhima-Koregaon village near Pune in 2018.

In the many years that the 16 people accused in the case have spent in jail, Varavara Rao the poet-activist was permitted medical care only when he was critically ill, Sudha Bhardwaj’s family have stated that the trade unionist and lawyer’s health is deteriorating, and now Hany Babu’s family pleads for access and transparency as his eye infection is life-threatening and they have no information from one day to the next about his course of treatment.

By contrast, the leader of the Samasta Hindu Aghadi, Milind Ekbote, who was also accused of instigating the violence in 2018, was granted bail that April, though a Supreme Court bench of Justices Kurian Joseph and Mohan M. Shantanagoudar asked the police why no effort had been made to arrest him.

A shock

Hany Babu’s arrest was a shock to the academic community in Delhi. Those responding to the raids, interrogation and finally, arrest of the linguistics teacher have pointed out that he was actively involved with the Committee for the Defence and Release of GN Saibaba. Saibaba also taught at Delhi University and was arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment for alleged links with Maoists in 2014.

Suffering from 90% physical disability, Saibaba has had to petition time and again for assistance and for medical help. Recently, his family have pleaded yet again for hospitalisation and parole as he tested positive for Covid-19 and his health is deteriorating. In June 2018, Saibaba’s lawyer, Surendra Gadling was arrested on charges that linked him to Maoists and to the Bhima Koregaon incident.

In April this year, the legal team of one of the accused, Rona Wilson, presented two reports by Arsenal Consulting, an independent digital forensic company based in Massachusetts, statinh that the only evidence linking Rona Wilson (and by implication, the other 15) with Maoist groups was a set of documents installed in his computer by hackers using malicious software. The report stated that ten files were placed remotely into his hard-disk through NetWire, a malware, and that Wilson had never created, opened, modified or viewed them.

What, if not a sense of nation would prompt Hany Babu to move from Kerala to Delhi, to become a symbol of the legal struggle for disprivileged castes to access their right to education? If we examine the lives and interests of the Bhima Koregaon 16, it is evident that they have brought class perspectives to bear on their concern with caste and Adivasi rights. As lawyers, activists and teachers in touch with those whose rights they advocate, they pose a true alternative to contemporary politics, and it increasingly appears that this is the reason they are in prison.

Aside from the fact that they are political prisoners, the rights for which their families petition are not special favours, but their entitlements by law. Petitions for medical help, for books, for phone calls with family should be guaranteed to all prisoners, but it appears these are not. In this time of crisis, however, courts themselves have recognised the need for practicality and for safeguards for those whom society tends to forget.

From mid-2020, the Bombay High Court, and more recently, the Supreme Court have asked for measures to be implemented in prisons in response to the Covid-19 crisis. This April, the division bench of the Bombay High Court, comprising Justices Nitin Jamdar and Chandrakant Bhadang asked for a fresh consideration of measures to decongest prisons in Maharashtra as an increasing number of prisoners test positive.

In a 14-page order released on May 8 this year, a Supreme Court bench led by the Chief Justice of India NV Ramana, and comprising Justices L. Nageswara Rao and Surya Kant, eloquently stressed the need to defeat the virus “from within prison walls”. Taking these into account, Maharashtra Chief Minister, Uddhav Thackeray, Home Secretary Dilip Walse-Patil, and the Director General of Prisons, Maharashtra, should urgently consider ensuring bail for Professor Hany Babu and the others arrested in the case.

Rochelle Pinto is the author most recently of Translation, Script and Orality: Becoming a Language of State.