Q&A: Indian journalist Sudhir Dhawale discusses his release from prison

After languishing in jail for 40 months, Mumbai-based journalist and activist Sudhir Dhawale has walked free. Dhawale was the only journalist in jail in India in late 2013, according to CPJ’s annual prison census. With his release, there are currently no other journalists behind bars in the country for work-related reasons. 

Dhawale, who founded and edited the Marathi-language magazine Vidrohi, wrote about human rights abuses against Dalits, previously known as “untouchables” in India’s caste hierarchy. Authorities arrested him in January 2011, accused him of supporting India’s banned Maoist rebels, and charged him with waging war against the state, which carries a potential death penalty. On May 15, after being denied bail multiple times, Dhawale was finally acquitted by an Indian court on all charges, according to news reports. He was released a few days later.

Dhawale spoke with CPJ about his lengthy imprisonment and the state of press freedom in India. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Sumit Galhotra: Can you briefly explain the events leading up to your imprisonment?

Sudhir Dhawale: After attending a Dalit convention in the Wardha district of Maharashtra state in January 2011, secret police abducted me by a railway station and took me to Gondia, a city about 150 miles east. The officers never identified themselves nor did they provide a warrant for my arrest.

Police entered my home the following day and seized my books and computer. Initially, I was charged with waging war against the state under sections 121 and 121A of the Indian penal code, and with alleged involvement with a terrorist group under sections of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. Eventually, I was tried under the latter and section 120B for criminal conspiracy. On several occasions, I was denied bail by the courts.

SG: What issues did you write about in your magazine?

SD: In Vidrohi, I wrote about abuses against Dalits and exposed the state’s role in these abuses. I wrote critically on issues such as the Mahatma Gandhi Tanta Mukti Gaon Mohim, a program introduced in Maharashtra state to address local, village-level disputes. In practice, the program essentially functions like khap panchayats [unelected village councils], ensuring that atrocities against Dalits and other marginalized people do not get reported.

SG: Were you hopeful that you would be released from prison? What were the conditions like?

SD: I never gave up hope. I knew I was innocent. I never acted against the state, and there was no evidence against me. Being surrounded by other political prisoners kept me from losing hope. I was in the company of innocent people who were rotting away in prison. Many of them couldn’t meet their lawyers or family members. For many, their families would travel great distances to see them, only to not be allowed visits upon arrival–things that make you question whether justice is a joke here. Even through these realities, I never gave up hope.

SG: What are your plans now that you have been released?

SD: I returned home to Mumbai a few days ago to my wife, son, and daughter. I am finally breathing the fresh air of freedom. In my absence, Vidrohi continued publishing, albeit sporadically and less frequently. I plan to publish it regularly once every two months. Our new issue will be released later this month. I also plan to continue organizing efforts to address Dalit oppression.

SG: What does your arrest and jailing say about India and its climate of press freedom?

SD: As I see it, democracy in India exists for a handful of people–not for everyone. Article 19 of India’s constitution, which enshrines basic freedoms for every Indian citizen around aspects like speech and expression, has become a mockery because of the way in which the state and its agents function. There is little tolerance for criticism or to raise one’s voice, be it under the Congress or the Bharatiya Janata Party.

Now, with the rise of Modi and his affiliates, like the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and Bajrang Dal, the future looks even bleaker. But their rise will also give way to a growing [counter] movement for change.