Press release

Political prisoners’ lives in danger as India’s Covid crisis worsens

Published on 7 May 2021

IDS researchers call for urgent release of activists including IDS alum Devangana Kalita.

As India passes 20 million reported Covid-19 cases, those in jail are at serious risk from contracting Covid-19 due to poor conditions and should be urgently released on humanitarian grounds, say Institute of Development Studies researchers. This includes activist, researcher and former IDS student Devangana Kalita who, on 23 May, marks her one-year anniversary of being imprisoned for taking part in peaceful protests against the Citizen Amendment Act (CAA).

According to research from the Social Science in Humanitarian Action Platform, ‘Covid-19 in prisons in low-and middle-income countries’ Covid-19 will spread exponentially within and outside of prison facilities without immediate and aggressive efforts to address overcrowding and poor sanitation. With a limited window of opportunity to act before infection has drastic health impacts inside a prison, urgent government action is essential. This includes early release, the release of pre-trial detainees previously denied bail and limits on new arrivals.

Devangana Kalita, a talented academic and social justice activist, graduated with a master’s degree from IDS in 2011 and has been held in prison since 23 May 2020. Along with fellow activist, Natasha Narwal, she was arrested for taking part in peaceful protests against the Citizen Amendment Act (CAA) in Delhi, India and subsequently charged under the stringent anti-terror law Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) and denied bail.

For the past year Devangana and Natasha have continued studying from their prison cell while also campaigning for prison reform including conditions for social distancing the right to daily phone calls to family for quarantined prisoners and access to medical care during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Earlier this year the UN highlighted the ‘heavily felt’ impact of Covid-19 on prisoners worldwide and last year during the pandemic a joint UN statement declared that all countries should be ‘limiting the deprivation of liberty, including pretrial detention, to a measure of last resort’ to reduce the spread of infection and danger to life.

Commenting on behalf of IDS researchers and students, Professor Lyla Mehta and Dr Anuradha Joshi, Research Fellows at the Institute of Development Studies said:

“India is grappling with a health crisis on a severe scale with millions across the country facing a very real risk to life. This is even more acute within India’s prisons where pre-existing poor conditions worsen the risk and life-threatening impacts of Covid-19. In this context, we believe the situation of peaceful protestors including students, activists and academics such as IDS alum Devangana Kalita should be urgently reviewed.

“Devangana joined protests against the Citizen Amendment Act because of her view that it discriminates against people according to their religion. Her dedication to upholding social justice is why she is rightly such an inspirational advocate for the rights of women and minorities.  We stand with her in calling for action against injustice and towards nurturing inclusive, democratic and accountable societies’.

To find out more about Devanagana Kalita’s case read IDS alum jailed in India for peaceful protest



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