New Delhi: Over a year ago on 4 October 2020 Atik-ur Rahman, a 27-year-old activist and research scholar, left home in Riawali Nagla in Muzaffarnagar in west Uttar Pradesh (UP) for a routine check-up at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) in Delhi.
A regular visitor since 2007 for his chronic heart condition diagnosed when he was a teenager, Rahman hoped the surgery would be in November.
His family of seven—wife, small children, brothers and parents—has not seen him since.
On his way to Delhi, Rahman, the son of a postman, joined friends and associates going to Hathras, where a Dalit teen had been sexually brutalised by four upper-caste men a fortnight ago. She succumbed to her injuries on 29 September 2020.
A student at the Chaudhary Charan Singh University in Meerut, Rahman is also associated with the Campus Front of India (CFI), student organisation of Popular Front of India, which has been in the crosshairs of government investigating agencies and has seen many leaders arrested over a range of allegations.
His friend in the CFI Imran P J told Article 14 that Rahman was the first from his village to graduate from college. The library sciences research scholar was popular among villagers, as he guided and helped in educating youngsters.
“Rahman prioritised education and encouraged youngsters to pursue their studies in reputed institutes,” said Imran. “He was active in social causes including the anti-CAA agitations in Delhi and UP.”
Rahman accompanied Siddique Kappan, a journalist from Kerala, Masood Ahmed, a master’s student at Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia and CFI office-bearer and taxi driver Muhammad Alam, on their way to express solidarity with the bereaved family in Hathras.
UP police arrested all of them using sections 151, 101, 116 of the Criminal Procedure Code.
The first information report filed against them on 5 October 2020, a day after their arrest, listed eight sections of five laws, including the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) 1967, which allows detention without bail for up to a year.
The laws invoked against them were 124A (sedition), 153A (promoting enmity between groups) and 295A (outraging religious feelings) of the Indian Penal Code 1860; sections 65 (tampering with computer source documents), 72 (penalty for breach of confidentiality and privacy) and 76 (confiscation) of the Information Technology Act 2008, and sections 14 (offences to be cognizable) and 17 (punishment for raising funds for terrorist act) of the UAPA.
"Broadly defined anti-terror laws such as the UAPA serve as useful tools to curb dissent and suppress the voices of those inimical to state policy," lawyer Abhinav Sekhri wrote in Article 14 in April 2020. "They are especially effective since almost all countries equip anti-terror laws with provisions that dilute procedural rights available to accused persons, elongated pre-trial custody and make bail harder."
Such critiques have been levelled against the prosecution in the three-year-old Bhima-Koregaon case, as the main accused thus far have been 16 human-rights activists and academics. This is a constant source of concern in the application of anti-terror laws, as a 2018 report of the UN Special Rapporteur said.
A chargesheet was filed in April 2021, accusing them of sedition and conspiring to incite caste violence following the Hathras gangrape and murder. Somewhere down the line, Rahman was also charged under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act (PMLA).
In the year in Mathura district jail, Rahman’s health took a turn for the worse.
The Heart Condition
The father of two suffers from a heart disease called aortic regurgitation, his wife Sanjida said. After putting off surgery over financial concerns, Rahman was finally prepared for his operation at AIIMS in November 2020. Instead, he was jailed.
“Among all the arrested people, Atiq is least talked about. It’s been a year now but nobody is paying heed to us, nobody listens,” Sanjida told Article 14.
Rahman filed an application for treatment on 22 December 2020 but the court rejected it. In a second application on 25 March 2021, he pleaded to be referred to AIIMS Delhi. Despite the court order, “nothing happened,” his lawyer Saifan Shaikh told Article 14.
Five months later, Shaikh said he sought 60 days of parole on 25 May 2021 for Rahman to have his surgery at AIIMS, but the petition was denied after UP police testified in court that he was receiving “adequate medical care”.
Disposing the plea for bail, the order said: “The police have said that the accused has been taken to Agra and is being treated in the district hospital. Presently his health is satisfactory. In the facts and circumstances of the said case, the accused is not granted interim bail.”
The neglect of his condition was soon made evident. On 23 August Rahman was admitted to Mathura jail hospital with an illness that authorities claimed was "seasonal fever".
Through the year of his custody, his family has not been allowed to meet him even once. “Every time there is a court hearing, we hope to meet him but have not been allowed, not even once," said Sanjida. "We went to Mathura to meet him but the authorities just wouldn’t allow it. Not even the children were allowed to meet."
Between helplessness and anger, she said: “Why is he in jail? For being a Muslim? Not just bail, I demand his full acquittal.”
She said she had no answers when their children Haris and Waris asked about their father in jail, and said the kids were in trauma, “acting differently”.
“They speak his name in their sleep. My boy used to sleep with Rahman and has cried every night for his dad,” she said. “The children call him Paapu and ask me ‘Why is Paapu in jail’. What should I tell them?”
The National Confederation of Human Rights Organisations (NCHRO) compared Rahman’s deteriorating health and his case to that of Stan Swamy, the 84-year-old Jesuit priest with Parkinson’s disease who died in custody on 5 July 2021 for want of medical treatment—an event a United Nations Human Rights expert called “a stain on India’s human rights record”.
“We witnessed the passing away of Father Stan Swamy in custody,” NCHRO tweeted on 11 August. “Now, Atik-ur Rahman, a student leader suffering from a serious heart condition and facing negligence even amid a life-threatening disease, reveals the failure of our democratic society as well as the rule of law.”
On 22 September, Rahman’s health took a turn for the worse when he was being taken for a hearing from jail to a special court for financial fraud (PMLA court) in Lucknow. The escort police and officials rushed him to Chandoli primary health centre enroute and onwards to Agra district hospital then Sarojini Naidu Medical College hospital, also in Agra.
The PMLA court order of 23 September directed clearly that Rahman should be taken to AIIMS Delhi. The order stated: “The applicant is patient of severe Aortic Regurgitation meaning destruction of aortic wall and is a known pre-condition for cardiac arrest. Hence, the applicant be referred to AIIMS, Delhi.”
It would be two weeks more before Rahman was taken to AIIMS, Delhi, on 8 October and returned to jail after midnight.
Neither his family nor lawyers were told what the doctors had advised. Shaikh cited a 2021 Bombay High Court verdict that “prisoners have a right to their medical records under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution,” to say, “denial of these rights is a violation of the Constitution".
Shaikh said the “state is trying to make another Stan Swamy out of him”.
It was only after lawyer Sheeran Alvi sent jailors a reminder that the medical report was submitted to the PMLA court.
On 12 October, the Mathura jail superintendent submitted a report to the PMLA court. “Accused Atikur Rehman is [receiving] treatment at [Agra] district jail hospital as per advice of…AIIMS New Delhi," said the report. "The accused has been advised surgical intervention (Bentall procedure) for aortic regurgitation by experts from AIIMS New Delhi... have asked for Rs 2 lakh and 10 units of blood…. said expenditure has been demanded from director general of police/ inspector general, prison administration and reform services, UP, Lucknow.”
The report added that once Rs 200,000 was made available by prison authorities, Rahman “will be sent to AIIMS New Delhi for treatment”. On 8 November, the PMLA court asked the Mathura jail to update it on Rahman’s medical treatment on 8 November.
“Atik is in no state to wait for the government to approve funds," said Sanjida. "Right now he needs medical attention. We will pay the amount ourselves, but no one is paying any heed to us. Only we can understand the pain and agony he must be in. We have seen him cry for help in pain and they are not even allowing him treatment. It breaks my heart.”
(Ubair ul Hameed and Ghazala Ahmad are independent multimedia journalists.)