‘Beaten for knowing Arabic and studying at Jamia’: Siddique Kappan’s wife on his 700 days in jail
Raihanath Kappan talks about her daughter’s viral I-Day speech and how the police didn’t even let her husband speak to her in Malayalam.
At 2.30 am on October 6, 2020, Raihanath was frantically checking her phone. She hadn’t heard from her husband since midnight the day before. Perplexingly, the messages she’d sent him had been read and her voice notes played, so why wasn’t her husband responding?
What Raihanath didn’t know was that her husband hadn’t checked his phone at all – it was the Uttar Pradesh police that had accessed their private chats.
Her husband, Siddique Kappan, had been arrested on October 5 while on his way to Hathras to report on the gangrape, and subsequent death, of a Dalit woman.
Siddique has been in jail ever since, charged with sedition and under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act. He was first imprisoned in Mathura, and then moved to Lucknow. The UP police had accused Kappan of , , and .
Over the last two years, Siddique’s story has been told multiple times by multiple news outlets, and Raihanath is still waiting for their family of five to be reunited. Crushingly, the Allahabad High Court dismissed Siddique’s bail plea on August 2. Raihanath is now trying to apply for bail in the Supreme Court.
“I used to be a happy and content mother and wife. My life was a small bubble in Kerala,” she said. Today, she’s reading chargesheets, case laws, bail orders, and news reports. “I’ve had to become a lawyer, journalist, activist, running from pillar to post for my love.”
Newslaundry met Raihanath, 39, at Travancore House in Delhi, where she’s been given accommodation by the Kerala government. She and her son, Muhammad Muzzamil, 19, had gone to Lucknow on August 19 to attend Siddique’s NIA case hearing, hoping to meet him at the district court. Raihanath had last met him on July 15.
“But he was not brought to the court,” she said. “So, I came to Delhi without seeing him.”
In Delhi, she clutches her phone at all times to make sure she never misses a phone call.
“Every time the phone rings, I hope it will be Kappan,” she said. She last spoke to him on August 19, just before she boarded the flight to Lucknow. “After that, he hasn’t called. He must be wondering why we have not met him.”
She got up, walked over to a bag, and pulled out a packet of peanut chikki. Handing this reporter a piece, she said, “I brought this from Kerala for Kappan. And now I can’t give it to him, so we might as well share it.”
A viral speech on Independence Day
Raihanath grew up in Malappuram in north Kerala. She married Siddique in 2002 when she was 19 years old. He was working as a computer teacher at the time and soon moved to Saudi Arabia for nine years, where he worked as a computer technician.
Raihanath stayed behind in Kerala to look after his parents. Siddique returned to India in early 2011 after the death of his father. “That’s when he thought he should try his hand at journalism,” Raihanath said. He moved to Delhi, first freelancing, then working for Tejas followed by Azhimukam. He returned to Kerala in July 2020.
The couple has three children – Muzzammil, 19, Zidan, 13, and Mehnaz, 9. It’s Mehnaz who, on August 15, gave a speech about her father at her school’s Independence Day celebrations.
“I am Mehnaz Kappan, daughter of Siddique Kappan, a citizen who has been forced into a dark room,” she said.
Her speech went viral on social media.
“I am Mehnaz Kappan. Daughter of journalist Siddique Kappan, a citizen who has been forced into a dark room by breaking all of the freedom of a citizen…”: 9-year-old daughter of Siddique Kappan in her Independence Day speech.#SiddiqueKappan #IndiaAt75 #IndependenceDay2022 pic.twitter.com/JbdDUOmuQn
— azeefa (@AzeefaFathima) August 15, 2022
Raihanath said she had received a call from Mehnaz’s school a week before, inviting her daughter to speak “to celebrate India’s 75 years of freedom”.
“When I told my daughter, she smirked,” Raihanath said. “She said, ‘Freedom? What freedom?’”
Raihanath wrote the speech for Mehnaz, focusing on freedom – as instructed – but in the context of her jailed husband. “How else are we to speak of freedom?” she pointed out. “I cannot expect her to go on stage and say our country is free and we are all happy when her father has been in jail for two years, right?”
Ideas of freedom are fresh in her mind. A few weeks ago, she read on the circumstances leading to his arrest. Khan, a paediatrician in UP, was arrested after drawing attention to a healthcare crisis at a Gorakhpur hospital. He was imprisoned for seven months and was released from a Mathura jail just one month before Siddique was moved there.
“During one of our conversations, Kappan told me he’s in the same cell that Kafeel Khan was in, so I immediately ordered his book and read it in one sitting,” Raihanath said. “I wanted to understand what his life might be like in jail.”
In December, Siddique was moved from the Mathura jail to one in Lucknow for the hearing in his case at an NIA court. The case had been transferred based on a petition filed by the UP police.
“Unlike Mathura, in Lucknow they did not give him paper and pen to write to us,” Raihanath said. “They refused to allow us to send him Malayalam books – the one thing he loves. Initially they didn’t even let him speak to us in Malayalam on the phone. That literally meant we could not communicate properly. I don’t speak Hindi or English and he only speaks a little Hindi.”
Siddique’s lawyer had to raise the matter with jail authorities. Finally, a few weeks later, he was given permission to speak to his family in his mother tongue.
Initially they didn’t even let him speak to us in Malayalam on the phone. That literally meant we could not communicate properly. I don’t speak Hindi or English and he only speaks a little Hindi.
‘I became that woman’
Raihanath told Newslaundry the sequence of events leading up to Siddique’s arrest.
It was August 2020. The first wave of Covid had just subsided, and the family was holed up at their home in Malappuram. Siddique received a phone call from a journalist friend, asking if he could interview lawyer Prashant Bhushan for a story.
Siddique boarded a train and arrived in Delhi on September 1. He stayed on after the assignment, rooming with friends and acquaintances. “Kappan’s bag was his office, his home, his room, everything,” Raihanath said.
Then, on September 30, news trickled in from Uttar Pradesh’s Hathras. A Dalit woman had been gangraped on September 14. She succumbed to her injuries two days later and her body was forcibly cremated by the UP police.
“Kappan told me he wants to go do the story,” Raihanath said. “He was waiting to find friends and colleagues to go with him for two reasons: One, he struggled with the Hindi language so he needed someone with him. Two, he did not have enough money to travel alone.”
He called his wife around midnight on October 5. “This was the usual time he’d call me,” she said. “We would talk about our day and only then would we sleep.”
It was their last call before his arrest.
Raihanath didn’t hear from him on the morning of October 5. She called him in the afternoon, but he did not pick up. She still wasn’t worried though. “I knew his phone was not working properly and maybe he was busy.”
When he hadn’t responded to her calls and texts by 8 pm, she got worried. She knew he had wanted to go to Hathras, but he hadn’t discussed any specific plans with her to do so.
“He is a sugar patient and sometimes used to faint. I was worried he may have fainted in his room and no one would know,” she said. “I didn’t even have his friend’s number to call.”
She checked her phone at 2.30 am and noticed he had read her chats. “I sent him an angry voice note,” she recalled, “asking why he wasn’t responding to me. It remained unread until the next day.”
On the morning of October 6, a neighbour told her that, according to news reports, Siddique had been arrested on October 5.
Raihanath’s immediate response was relief. “I had imagined the worst, I thought something had happened to him healthwise,” she said. “So to know he was alive was a relief.”
Siddique had gone to Hathras with Atiq-ur Rehman, a PFI activist and PhD scholar from Muzaffarnagar; Masood Ahmed, a PFI activist from Bahraich; and Alam, a cab driver from Rampur. All four were arrested.
Meanwhile, calls began pouring in from Siddique’s friends and colleagues, assuring her that arrests were “normal for journalists” and that a “lot of people in Hathras were being arrested”. They told her Siddique would “soon be released”.
It was a day later, when she heard Siddique had been charged under the UAPA, that a deep worry set in. She didn’t know much about the law, she said, but she had “some idea”.
“Kappan used to talk to me about these things,” she said. “Once, he interviewed GN Saibaba’s wife. He told me about her life after her arrest. All that came back to me in a flash. Suddenly, overnight, I became that woman.”
How did she explain everything to her children?
She paused before replying. “To be very honest, I don’t remember much of what I told them. Now, when I look back at video reports from those initial days, the faces of my children make me cry,” she said. “They looked so confused and shocked.”
The case has taken a toll on the family. “My eldest son is 19. He wants to travel with his friends and go out,” she said. “But the only travel he gets to do is with me – to go to Uttar Pradesh to see his father in jail.”
Months in jail, and dwindling hope
Forty-five days after his arrest, Siddique called his mother from Mathura jail.
“Hers was the only number he knew by heart,” Raihanath said. “When he called my mother-in-law, she was staying with a relative. They immediately put me on a conference call and I heard his voice after a long time.”
Immediately after the call, Raihanath went to the relative’s house to pick up her mother-in-law’s phone. Siddique would call every other day for exactly five minutes.
He told me they asked him what languages he knew. When he said he speaks Arabic, he was beaten. When he said he studied at Jamia, he said they beat him. Then they asked if he eats beef. He does. But he said he doesn’t to stop the thrashing.
Over the next few months, he told Raihanath about the questioning he faced from the UP police.
“He told me they asked him what languages he knew. When he said he speaks Arabic, he was beaten,” she said. “When he said he studied at Jamia, he said they beat him. Then they asked if he eats beef. He does. But he said he doesn’t to stop the thrashing.”
Due to Covid restrictions, Raihanath was not allowed to visit her husband, and the Mathura jail did not have video-conferencing facilities. In January 2021, three months after his arrest, he was allowed to video-call his mother for 20 minutes.
In early February, his mother was ill. Siddique was given five days’ bail to visit her in Malappuram. He was accompanied by seven UP policemen and 25 personnel from the Kerala police.
“I remember waiting at the gate to see him arrive. There was so much police,” Raihanath said. “The Kerala police surrounded our house for the three days he was home. No relatives were allowed to come home and we were not allowed to step out without entering it into a register. It was a surreal time.”
Siddique looked “so weak”, she said, and even though she made his favourite foods, he was unable to eat much or digest it. “It was a difficult time for us,” she added. “We were happy to see him but he was heartbroken to see his mother’s condition.”
In April 2021, a month after his visit home, Siddique tested positive for Covid. He was admitted to a medical college in Mathura.
He called Raihanath five days later.
“He sounded desperate and sick. He told me he was chained to his bed and given a bottle to urinate,” Raihanath said, tears welling in her eyes. “He said no one was willing to let him call his family so he managed to call through some other phone. He pleaded with me to tell the lawyer that he preferred to go back to jail where he had more freedom.”
Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan got involved at this point, to UP chief minister Adityanath about Siddique’s treatment. “He is reportedly kept chained to his bed even when his health condition is precarious,” Vijayan wrote. “…I request you to make it sure that he gets all medical facilities.”
On April 30, Siddique was moved to AIIMS in Delhi after the Supreme Court told the state government to admit him to a “better hospital”. Once he tested negative for Covid, Raihanath and Muzzammil went to Delhi and tried to see her husband at AIIMS.
“I was one wall away from him but the police didn’t let me see him,” she said. “I told a nurse to tell him I was here. I waited for hours outside the hospital for six days. I begged and pleaded but they would not even let me see him.”
Even as Raihanath waited in Delhi, Siddique was quietly returned to Mathura jail. Raihanath and her son returned to Kerala. She would subsequently see her husband a handful of times during hearings at the Mathura district court – he would hand over letters and they would be allowed to sit next to each other for a few minutes.
“I would take the children to meet him,” she said. “My daughter has met him only once.”
In June 2021, Kappan’s mother died. He could not attend her funeral.
“The news completely shattered him,” Raihanath said. “Kappan lost all his will. I was so scared for him.”
‘There’s nothing free in our lives anymore’
Raihanath’s own will is “starting to break”.
“Now, I feel nothing during the hearings,” she said. “I have realised what it means to be a UAPA accused in India. I have learnt that in India, if the police want, any man walking on the street can be accused of things like terrorism.”
Over the last two years, she’s written to multiple politicians for help, and met chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan last October. The chief minister assured his support but the case being in UP led to certain “constraints”, he had said.
“This I don’t understand,” Raihanath said. “If he really wanted, he could do something.”
On August 23, Siddique’s co-accused, Mohammad Alam, was granted bail by the Allahabad High Court. The Supreme Court is likely to hear Siddique’s bail petition on August 26.
“After hearing all this, do you see why my daughter gave the speech she did for Independence Day?” Raihanath asked. “There’s nothing free or independent about our lives anymore. But I have hope in our judiciary and we will continue to fight.”
This article orginally appeared in Newslaundry