Professor Hany Babu is indispensable

Jenny Rowena holding the books for Hany Babu returned by Taloja jail authority. Photo: Shaheen Abdulla

A small carton sat on the coffee table with a note in Marathi. Three books for Hany Babu, an associate professor in the department of English of Delhi university, has been returned from Taloja jail in Mumbai. “What is their problem with books?” asks Jenny Rowena, wife of Hany Babu. 

Wednesday marks three months in prison for Hany Babu MT, the 12th person to be arrested in the 2018 Bhima Koregaon violence case. After Babu, tribals right activist Father Stan Swamy and three artists from Kabir Kala Manch – Sagar Gorkhe, Ramesh Gaichor and Jyoti Jagtap – were arrested by National Investigation Agency. 

Now sixteen activists, including prominent academics, lawyers and journalists are behind bars charged with infamous terror law – Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA). Critics of Modi’s Hindutva regime alleges that Bhima Koregaon case is fabricated to clampdown dissenters. The investigation at once claimed to have uncovered a plot to assassinate prime minister Modi.  

“Babu was never part of any left groups, forget about radical left or Maoist,” claims Rowena, an assistant professor in the English Department at Miranda House College, Delhi University. Rowena blatantly rejects any association with the celebratory gathering – Elgar Parishad – at Bhima Koregaon in January 2018. 

“There is no evidence by the police that proof any of the accused has committed a crime,” points out Rowena. “They are all activists who work for social justice”.

Hany Babu attending a debate in Kerala. Photo: SIO Kerala

Earlier this month, NIA filed the second supplementary 10000 page-long charge sheet naming Hany Babu, Anand Teltumbde, Gautam Navlakha, Father Stan Swamy and the three artists from Kabir Kala Manch. The chargesheet alleges Babu did the task to organise visits of foreign journalists to Maoist areas. 

Speaking to Maktoob, Rowena said They did know about the 200-year-old battle of Koregaon but had no clue on ‘Elgar Parishad’ until recently. “After the violence, like how everyone would have known, he would have known”.  

Rowena believes the baseless accusations against Babu in the charge sheet will fall apart in the court and he will be able to secure bail. Documents and letters recovered from his laptop and testimonies from protected witnesses are the evidence against Babu. 

The 49-year-old professor is angered by the fact that Babu is not paying the price for the cause he believed. “This is cheating, there is no glory in this”.

“We are political”

Hany Babu and Jenny Rowena met in the late 90s when they were pursuing their PhDs at the English and Foreign Language University in Hyderabad. Though Babu was senior, Rowena started to see Babu in common political circles. 

“Babu was into Linguistics and I was in film studies in the English department”, said Rowena. Though Rowena was a Hindu and Babu, a Muslim, they were both from OBC background. Babu’s character drew Rowena closer to the Malayali senior. The scholars fell in love in 1997 but had to wait until 2003 to get married. 

As students, they had to experience discrimination and alienation on the campus. “ We were unimportant for others,” Rowena remembers. “It was the age of Subaltern studies. But it made no sense to us, though we were subalterns”. Those years of alienation from elite groups shaped Babu’s politics. 

When Babu moved to Germany to do another PhD, Rowena’s Junior Research Fellowship ended and she had to discontinue her studies and find a job. After returning, Babu pursed her to complete her PhD and supported her. 

Initially, Babu worked in distance education at EFL University. In 2008, he got an offer to join Delhi University. Rowena followed him to Delhi joining Miranda House under reservation quota. She admits that she never felt welcome in Delhi. 

It was the initial years of implementing reservation for OBC category, DU like many other universities was reluctant to fill reservation seats. Rowena found herself a victim of discrimination after joining under OBC quota. Her job was on thin ice due to false allegations. 

“That is how we come in contact with Saibaba,” Rowena explains. G.N Saibaba helped them fight against a powerful college administration. He made her write an open letter and organised a protest in Miranda House. 

“People from every party came and I was able to retain my job,” says Rowena. The couple returned the gesture then Saibaba got arrested in 2014. Though many had reluctant to openly support Saibaba, Babu and Rowena had no second thought. 

“Babu’s mother was against his political activism. She reminded him that he was a Muslim and far more vulnerable. But I never stopped him, because even I am political”. 

The supplementary chargesheet has stressed Babu’s involvement in Saibaba Defence committee as evidence. Rowena says it was all happening in the public domain and the committee is still functioning if it is illegal. “It is a violation of rights, even the officers who came to conduct the raid said it was not about Saibaba campaign”.   

“Even the vocal radical left people abandoned him saying it was too much,” Rowena recalls. “ We decided we are not going to do that and he had a daughter with a similar age to our girl”.

“Babu’s focus was on the reservation, that is what he had been working on,” Rowena claims. Hany babu fought publicly and legally against the universities which overlooked reservation norms. 

“Babu filed RTI enquires to all the colleges and with their response, he made a chart which showed the disparities between the OBC funds and seats filled,” says Rowena. The chart was read out in parliament.

The soft-spoken and humble professor influenced and supported his students to fight back the hegemonic university and claim their space in the societal structure. Dozens of his students wrote letters to prison during his birthday, reflecting their agony in learning their mentor is in jail.

Unexpected raids and subsequent arrest

“I don’t know how they connected Babu with Bhima Koregaon case,” she said. Hay Babu was a left critic and never sympathized with any left-leaning groups. “We move in an anti-caste, Bahujan circles”. 

In September last year, Babu and Rowena woke up to see a team of Pune police in front of their doorstep at around 6 am. Babu’s laptop, mobile phone and books were seized in the raid. 

“They spend six hours searching for books, they never looked at anything else” Rowena grins. Police took two books, ‘From varna to jati-political economy of caste in Indian social formation: Commemorating scholar and revolutionary martyr Yalavarthi’ by Naveen Babu and ‘Understanding Maoists’ by Venugopal, during the first raid. Rowena says it is all available for in public domain. 

Many academics and civil groups protested the raid and came out to support Hany Babu and Jenny Rowena. “We never thought we would get so many support and we anticipated them to come back within three months”,

“Babu had the logic that if they have taken all the trouble to conduct the raid, they will come back”. The position of the new government in Maharashtra, which overthrew Bharatiya Janata Party, on the case give relief for the targetted academics across India. 

“We thought the case was getting cleared and even people who are inside was going to come out”, recalls Rowena. But soon after the change in government, NIA took over the case, in an inappropriate manner triggering a lawsuit. 

“When NIA took over, people from all over India started getting a summons. Babu was also summoned,” said Rowena. Babu left for Mumbai packing lite, planning to come back soon in his return ticket for the next day. “He didn’t even take a change of clothes”.

When Babu reached Mumbai, he was shown the alleged documents and asked to explain how it was on his computer.

“The documents are letters written by some people to some other people in which his name is mentioned. One of the letters is supposed to be written by him to somebody”.

Hany Babu was asked if Rona’s friend or his secretary put the files on his computer. They also asked if any students have used the computer, Babu denied any such speculations. 

Rona Wilson, one of the first person to be jailed in Bhima Koregaon case is a Human rights defender. He was the public relations secretary of the Committee for Release of Political Prisoners (CRPP) and was involved in Saibaba Defence Committee. Rona, a Keralite was a friend to Hany Babu and Jenny Rowena. 

Babu was made to sit in the corridor the whole day without any questioning. throughout the interrogation, he was asked to give somebody’s name and go home. “ We can’t tell lies just to go home,” said Rowena. 

Babu refused to give any names and subsequently he was arrested on the fifth day of interrogation. “The minute he saw the folders, he said he was going to be arrested”. On July 28, Babu was arrested by NIA. ” He was relieved to go to jail because of the interrogation”. 

Reformulate and fight back 

“Everyone is confused by the way the case is expanding,” lamented Rowena. “Despite the fact, there is no solid evidence, many reputed people are in jail for two years without bail”. Rowena accuses the trail itself has become the punishment, spending years in prison without a conviction. “I think that is the idea”.

“Even the groups involved are surprised to see Babu dragged to this case. Nobody knew him,” she claims. “He is said to be an associate of Gautam, But he never sat in a room with Gautum or Anand. The only person he knew is Rona Wilson”. 

“The Idea of this- Bhima Koregaon case- is fabricated is getting more clear with the arrest of Hany Babu and Father Stan Swamy”, said Rowena. The arrest of Swamy followed the same pattern even though he was a critic of Maoist groups. 

Rowena questions the bizarreness of Hany Babu keeping a document that could jeopardize him even after Rona was arrested for the same reason a year ago. Even experienced lawyers and senior journalists share the same dilemma to frame and understand the investigation. 

After Hany Babu’s arrest, many of his colleagues and wellwishers have protested and extended support to Rowena in the fight. Lawmakers and academics have taken up the case but BJP government and courts remain reluctant to see facts. People have questioned how can Babu be branded as a Maoist. 

“Even if the police can do anything, the court should safeguard us”. 

On 2 August, NIA came back to raid Rowena’s flat, at 7:30 in the morning, to take specific materials that were lying around even during the first raid a year earlier. “As far as neighbours are concerned, it is an income tax case,” Rowena laughs sitting on the couch on the 21st floor. 

“DMK, CPI, CPIM, MPs from Congress, Muslim League, NCP and Welfare Party have spoken publicly saying this is a form of crushing dissent,” Said Rowena. 

“Our politics is shaped from Bahujan reading and for us previous government, new government and even the left is no different. It’s all Savarna government,” Rowena suggests. 

“What is happening now, if you read historically, has been happening in 1836, it was happening in 1839, Cow protection movements were happening and Bal Gangadhar Tilak was trying to do the Ganesh Chaturthi. These kinds of conflicts we are experiencing today, the debate about ‘Love Jihad’, Shudi movement which is Ghar Vapsi, riots between Hindu, Muslims were lower caste are also involved as Hindus, these are something Congress nationalism has brought in to manage this population and give the power to the Savarna groups”. 

Rowena believes that after the Pune pact in 1930, marginalised groups are defeated and colonized. “What we see today is a culmination of that. In a way, it is a promising moment also by showing its true colours. Now we have to deal with it, we have to create a resistance to reformulate”. 

Rowena and her daughter get five minutes every ten days to speak with Babu who knows the near future is bleak. But with her husband wrongfully arrested and languishing in an overcrowded cell in the middle of a pandemic, Rowena has no time to spare but to fight back the repressive state.