Published: 30th August 2019
Forget War and Peace, Vernon Gonsalves is now reading Anne Frank's Diary to convicts and running classes in prison
Gonsalves' son Sagar Abraham Gonsalves talks to us about his father, the kind of books he read and how the past year had been for him and his family
War and Peace in Junglemahal: People, State and Maoists is a collection of essays about Maoist violence in India. The title is eerily similar to Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace, but this book talks about a completely different thing. It is neither banned nor illegal in India. Yet, academic-activist Vernon Gonsalves, who is currently facing the trial on the Elgar Parishad-Koregaon Bhima case was reportedly asked by the Bombay High Court to explain why he had a copy of it. There were reports that said that the court called the book an 'objectionable material'.
We do not know how Gonsalves reacted to this and we aren't making any assumptions here. But when he was arrested last year, he told his wife and son, "Don’t Worry! At least I’ll be able to keep the others company inside!”. Gonsalves, along with four other activists, Sudha Bharadwaj, Varavara Rao, Gautam Navlakha and Arun Ferreira were arrested on August 28, 2019, on a number of charges.
During the time of his arrest, Gonsalves' son Sagar Abraham-Gonsalves had penned an emotional note about the night in which the police took his father away. The post had gone viral then. Sagar spoke about how he felt helpless to see his 61-year-old father being taken away. He wrote, "It is not a good feeling to watch while someone whom you love and admire, more importantly, someone whom you know has done no wrong, be taken away to jail and all you can do is give that person a tight hug and tell them to be strong."
A year later, we spoke to Sagar again. He told us about how reading was an important part of the Gonsalves-Abraham family's life and how the past year had been for him.
Excerpts from the conversation:
The whole country is talking about the Mumbai HC's comments on a book found in your home. What do you think of the episode that happened in court?
I'm not very aware of what happened in court. What I heard was, the judge asked a question about him possessing certain (work of) literature. My thoughts were basically that the idea that possessing literature of any form can be a threat is wrong. Possessing certain literature doesn't make anyone a criminal. Questioning someone's decision to read something is quite a sad state of affairs. That's something that made me quite sad. The facts that books and CDs and movies can be part of their evidence is quite a sad state of affairs.
There were apparently a whole lot of books that the police confiscated. Did you grow up reading a lot of books? What was the sort of literature that your father exposed you to?
We have a lot of books at home. To be honest, the good thing about my parents was that they would never tell me what to read, even when I was a child. They'd let me choose and read whatever that I want. I like history a lot. So, my father would encourage me to read about revolutionaries like Bhagat Singh, Ambedkar and Azad. He would also give me Amar Chitra Katha books to read. He would also give me books about kings and Indian mythology. So, I had my own set of literature. I visit libraries on my own and pick my own books. They've only encouraged me to read and help me develop reading as a habit. All three of us as voracious readers. In our free time, we'll only be with a book. He reads more non-fiction.
How often do you visit your father?
He's in Pune now. I visit him once every two months. But my mother goes quite often. I meet him in prison and in court. We also write letters to each other.
What does your father tell you whenever you meet him in prison? How is he doing?
He's a very benevolent man. He wouldn't talk much about himself but ask about the other family members and friends. He is trying to make the best of his circumstances. He's taking classes. He's teaching the inmates to speak English. He is running classes four times a week. So, he asked us to pass on copies of simple books like The Diary of Anne Frank, so that he can give it to them to read. Also, he keeps borrowing books from the library and does some reading work for the case too.
So he's in good shape?
That way, his spirit is unbeatable. It is quite nice to meet him and everyone else associated with the case. The way they carry themselves with such positivity it really heartwarming to see. That is when you realise that these aren't people who've done anything wrong but firmly believed int heir ideals and what they stood for. You can't break their spirit. It is unfair to keep them all locked up, just because they oppose and dissent the popular viewpoint.
Are you hopeful that the case's judgment will be favourable? What are your thoughts on the trial?
The case is proceeding at a gracious rate. The trial proceedings are taking its own time, very slowly. The pace of the trial is pathetic. They're being punished for god knows what. Their crime is not proven, but they're being punished. When the judgment comes, they may get acquitted. But how do they make up for this time? For all the trauma (of being) inside the prison. They're still collecting the evidence. It's really sad to see. I don't want to talk much about the bail proceedings. If it comes through, it will be very nice. It will restore some faith and hope in my mind about the judiciary.
How has the past year been for you, personally and as a family?
When he was under house arrest, it was both a boon and a curse at the same time. He was home and we could interact with him and be with him. But those months were painful because there were cops right outside our house. It was very claustrophobic, living in your own house with someone constantly watching you. That was difficult. The dates keep getting pushed and the judge got changed between. It was pretty disheartening. Also, the kind of trials that people created on social media (have been bad). There was so much name-calling.
Social media has trolls aplenty who seem to have it in for you. How have you handled that?
People don't really know what and who they're talking about. They're talking about them with such vehemence, anger and disgust. They're called such horrible names even without knowing who they're. People are jumping the bandwagon. They're called anti-nationals and urban Naxals. That is disheartening and depressing in a way to see people in your country behaving this way. It made me constantly think about the need for a dialogue. People must talk to each other and understand what each side represents. Not be at each other's throats like a bunch of rabid dogs. Today, no one wants to talk and understand where the other person is coming from. That way, I've grown as a person and figured out what I feel right and wrong are.