37-year old Seema Azad’s calm demeanour belies the trauma that she’s had to undergo. Azad, editor of ‘Dastak’ magazine and organising secretary of People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) was arrested in February 2010 in Allahabad along with her husband Vishwa Vijayon charges of sedition and UAPA. Vishwavijay has been a student union leader and activist of Inquilabi Chhaatra Morcha (Revolutionary Students Front).
The duo were arrested shortly after Seema wrote against Ganga Expressway Plan, a project that would have displaced many farmers and also highlighted arbitrary arrests of Muslim youth by the Special Task Force in Azamgarh.
After a prolonged fight that stretched for two and a half years, the Allahabad High Court finally granted bail to the duo on 5thAugust, 2012. They have appealed against the conviction. Azad and her husband were in Mumbai recently to speak in a public meeting demanding for release of social activist SudhirDhawale, who has been in jail on charges of sedition.
Seema spoke out strongly against sedition and laws that curbed dissent and deplored the failure of mainstream media to question police charges against fellow journalists and activists. She also said the publication of ‘Dastak’ was suspended when she and her husband were in jail, but it will come out again from January, 2013.
Can you tell us what happened when you were picked up in February 2010?
I was coming back from Delhi after attending the National Book fair and a group of plainclothesmen literally grabbed my husband and me and put us in a vehicle. I wouldn’t say we were arrested. We were kidnapped. There was no warrant issued at all.
Why do you think you were arrested?
During questioning, the police kept asking us about my articles in my magazine ‘Dastak’ including Operation Green Hunt, Ganga Expressway Plan that would have affected many farmers’ livelihood and about my article on Muslim youth in Azamgarh who were being harassed by the police. I was branded a Maoist because I wrote against the Government on these issues.
Can you describe your experience in the jail?
It was very depressing initially. For the first day or two, I couldn’t talk to anyone. I slowly started opening up. Resistance builds up only gradually. My experience in prison made me open my eyes to a reality that I would never have had an opportunity to experience otherwise. Prisoners also have rights, which are consistently violated all the time. I remember wanting to read a newspaper every day. It seems like a simple thing except that it was not. I had to fight for it with the superintendent, jailor, warden and may others. Finally, when the Chief Judicial Magistrate had come for a programme in the prison, I insisted very strongly that I need a newspaper. It was only after his intervention that they started giving newspapers to read. My family really helped me during this time. Whenever they would come to meet me, they would bring along with them, a big set of newspapers, magazines and some books for me to catch up with my reading. I also found that the jail library is in a very bad shape. I could hardly use it. In my prison, I was the first woman who was accused of being a Maoist.
Since I was an under-trial, physical work was not mandatory for me. However, they kept asking me for bribes. I resolutely refused to pay them anything. I received feelers that I should either pay up or I should work. I clearly told them that I wouldn’t mind working but refused to pay bribes. However, they did not bother me after that. I think it was because I was educated, that things were relatively better for me than someone who is non literate.
The jail officials would ask for money in order to facilitate meeting with my family members. I ended up spending lot of time with the children of the female prisoners. I also taught two women how to read.
What kind of support did you receive from the journalist community?
Mainstream media kept writing from the point of view of the police. When I was arrested, I did not get any support from mainstream media and journalists at all. I have been working as a journalist for the past eight years now. Apart from bringing out a bi-monthly magazine, I have also written for a mainstream publication, Sahara Samay for three years now. Yet, when I was arrested, there was not a single word from any mainstream media journalist. It was very disappointing.
What do you think ails journalism today?
Journalists only end up writing the police version of any crime. The accused person’s version is seldom published. Rarely is any attempt made to contact the accused person’s lawyer or family for their statement. This is a very sorry state of affairs. The level of ignorance amongst journalists about laws is appalling. When I finally got bail two months ago, we had arranged for a press conference about black laws. So many journalists did not know about Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) or Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA). I had to explain what AFSPA is all about. However, just as corporate media in India is spreading everywhere, I also see many instances of independent media. There are many small publications which are doing good work. I also see hope in online media. When I was arrested, I remember my brother pointing out to many websites, blogs writing about me and the black laws that exist in our country.
Now that you are out on bail, what how do you plan to continue your fight?
I am very happy going around different parts of the country talking about black laws like sedition and UAPA. I am also working on bringing out my magazine ‘Dastak’ once again. It was stopped when I was in jail. The next edition will come out in January 2013.
I express my solidarity with the people of Koodankulam. 7000 people have been slapped with sedition! Section 124 (sedition) has become a joke. The prevailing atmosphere is such that the state wants to intimidate everyone who wants to critique and challenge government policies of development. If the government thinks that they will frighten people in this way, I can tell you from my experience that they are sorely mistaken. I have become even more rebellious after my arrest and subsequent stay in jail. I am going to continue my fight for what I believe in.