Chained to a hospital bed “like an animal” while suffering from COVID-19. Not allowed to visit the bathroom, and given a bottle in which to urinate instead. Unable to eat because of a fractured jaw.
Those were the conditions that jailed Indian journalist Siddique Kappan described to his wife this weekend in a phone call from a hospital in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. “He is in deep pain,” his wife, Raihanath, told TIME in an interview on Tuesday, a day before a top court ordered Kappan—who has diabetes—to be moved to a different facility in New Delhi. “He is not receiving proper treatment.”
Kappan, who is Muslim, was jailed in October after traveling to the village of Hathras in Uttar Pradesh to report on the alleged gang-rape and murder of a Dalit woman that sparked nationwide protests over caste injustice and sexual violence. Police have accused him and the others he was traveling with, under a draconian anti-terror law, of being a member of a violent group who was traveling to the state to incite disturbances. Police said the men “were going to Hathras under the garb of Journalism with a very determined design to create a caste divide and disturb law and order situation [and] were found carrying incriminating material.” His lawyer and journalist colleagues say the charges, which carry a maximum sentence of life imprisonment, are baseless.
Despite the Supreme Court order, Kappan has not yet been moved to Delhi due to a shortage of hospital beds.
“It is shocking beyond words that such grave violation of human rights is happening in our India, a democracy,” said 11 lawmakers from Kappan’s home state of Kerala in an April 25 letter addressed to the chief justice of India. “Denying Kappan his human rights amid the catastrophic COVID crisis and its mismanagement further illuminates the priorities of the Indian state,” says Angana Chatterji of the Center for Race and Gender at the University of California, Berkeley.
Uttar Pradesh police did not respond to a request for comment, but a lawyer representing the state said that Kappan was receiving adequate medical treatment in jail, according to court records on Wednesday.
Even as a deadly second wave of COVID-19 infections ravages India, Kappan’s case has drawn widespread attention. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government, which just months ago was declaring victory over the pandemic, has been accused of turning a blind eye to the risks of a resurgence at the same time as cracking down on India’s democratic freedoms. Dozens of journalists were arrested in India last year amid a wider crackdown on dissent, according to U.S.-based NGO Freedom House. Now, the government is leaning on tech companies, too. At the same time as Kappan was chained to his hospital bed, the Indian government demanded that Twitter and Facebook block dozens of posts that criticized the government’s handling of the pandemic, including some by elected opposition lawmakers.
“India will never forgive PM Narendra Modi for underplaying the corona situation in the country and letting so many people die due to mismanagement,” said one of the tweets that was blocked in India after the Modi government’s legal demand. Its author, Moloy Ghatak, is a cabinet minister in the state of West Bengal, where Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) hopes to defeat the All India Trinamool Congress party in elections this spring.
On Wednesday police in the BJP-run state of Uttar Pradesh, where Kappan is imprisoned, charged a man with “spreading misleading information” after he shared tweets seeking an oxygen cylinder for his grandfather. Yogi Adityanath, the state’s chief minister, has ordered police to seize the property of anyone spreading “rumors” of oxygen shortages. Adityanath also reportedly ordered “action” to be taken against hospitals that were reporting shortages of oxygen and beds amid a spike in cases in the state, which has the highest population in India.
Also on Wednesday, the Indian Supreme Court dismissed a legal plea for Kappan’s immediate release, but ordered he be moved to a hospital in New Delhi. He should be transferred back to jail in Uttar Pradesh upon being discharged from that hospital, the court said.
India ranks 142 out of 180 countries on the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) 2021 world press freedom index published in April. “The unjustified detention of Siddique Kappan has turned into the worst of nightmares to the point where it is now a matter of life or death,” said Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk, in a statement calling for his immediate release. “[Kappan] should never have been arrested for simply trying to do his job. If he does not survive, the provincial authorities will bear responsibility for his death.”
Earlier this year, Freedom House downgraded India’s democracy rating from “free” to “partly free,” citing attacks on press freedom as a contributing factor. “Attacks on press freedom have escalated dramatically under the Modi government, and reporting has become significantly less ambitious in recent years,” the NGO said. “Authorities have used security, defamation, sedition, and hate speech laws, as well as contempt-of-court charges, to quiet critical voices in the media.”
While independent media do exist, many are fighting losing battles against the government. In February, the government brought in new rules covering digital publishing that give officials the power to block the publication of stories or even shut down entire websites. “There are very few independent news channels in the country,” says Dr. Gagandeep Kang, co-author of Till We Win: India’s Fight Against The COVID-19 Pandemic.
Raihanath Kappan, the wife of the jailed journalist, told TIME that his colleagues know him as a calm and composed reporter who rarely shows frustration or anger. His reporting, she said, tends to focus on those persecuted by the law—which is why he traveled from his base in Delhi to report on the gang-rape in Uttar Pradesh. “He speaks for persecuted people,” Raihanath says. “He reports the truth without thinking about the consequences for himself.”
With reporting by Naina Bajekal/London