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Attacks on activists speak of pathological intolerance

t’s not easy being a public-spirited activist in India these days. If you’re a right-to-information campaigner, you run the risk of being physically eliminated, as has happened to more than 20 activists in recent years. If you’re a conscientious whistleblower, you could be victimised—like AIIMS vigilance officer Sanjiv Chaturvedi—or murdered, like Shanmugam Manjunath.

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Modi government cracks down on green NGOs

India’s new Modi government trains its guns on environmental activists.

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Did Obama Legitimize Extremist Violence With His Visit to India?

The president roped once-non-aligned India into a strategic alliance, but only by bolstering the Modi government, with its religious intolerance and pro-corporate policies.

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Satyarthi's Nobel is a cheer - and a warning for India

The award of the Nobel Peace prize to Kailash Satyarthi and Malala Yousafzai has been widely welcomed in India. This is doubtless positive for the cause of children's rights. But it's also a comment on how the world looks at the social reality of an India that struts about as an "emerging power" but tolerates large-scale abuse and merciless exploitation of children. Satyarthi got the prize partly for the same reason why Slumdog Millionaire was a hit in the West.

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Britain’s odious rapprochement with Narendra Modi

About 1,000 Muslims died in the Gujarat riots, under Modi's watch. Without justice, there can be no reconciliation

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Suspend work at Koodankulam, talk to protesters, urge concerned citizens

The movement against the Koodankulam nuclear power project in Tamil Nadu has entered a new phase with a Jal-satyagraha following the repressive police action of September 10. More than 120 eminent citizens from different walks of life have signed the following statement expressing solidarity with the protesters, and calling for serious engagement with them on vital issues of safety. The signatories include former Chief of Naval Staff L Ramdas, former Cabinet Secretary TSR Subramanian and former Planning Commission member SP Shukla, former Atomic Energy Regulatory Board chairman A Gopalakrishnan, former Chief Justice of Delhi High Court AP Shah, former Ambassador to the United Nations Nirupam Sen, scientists PM Bhargava, D Balasubramaniam, Satyajit Rath, MV Ramana and Suvrat Raju, social scientists Romila Thapar, Sumit and Tanika Sarkar, Rajeev Bhargav, Amit Bhaduri, Manoranjan Mohanty, Gyanendra Pandey, Achin Vanaik and Zoya Hasan, writers Adil Jussawalla, Arundhati Roy and Arvind Krishna Mehrotraq, dancer Leela Samson, artists Ghulam Shaikh, SG Vasudev, Vivan Sundaram and Sheba Chhachhi, and many other scholars and social activists such as Vandana Shiva, Aruna Roy and Ashish Kothari.

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Typhoon of Protest in The Arab World: Democracy’s new crucible

The whirlwind of popular protests that overthrew Tunisian president Zine el-Abedin Ben Ali and Egypt’s long-standing ruler Hosni Mubarak shows no sign of abating. The entire Arab world is in revolt, from Yemen and Bahrain in the Persian Gulf to Morocco and Algeria in the Maghreb, and to Sudan and Djibouti in the South. Even the Saudi Arabian and Kuwaiti regimes are beginning to look vulnerable.

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Down the nuclear tube in Jaitapur

India is obsessively pursuing nuclear power generation and imposing it upon an unwilling public, which doesn’t treat nuclear reactors as good neighbours. Inevitably, the government is getting into direct and imperious opposition to the people, with terrible consequences for democracy, which at minimum must respect the right to life with dignity, and the right to reject projects that are destructive of the environment and livelihoods. This is nowhere more evident than in Jaitapur in Maharashtra’s Ratnagiri district, on the Konkan coast, where Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd is erecting six giant (1,650 MW) reactors designed by the French firm Areva. Jaitapur is touted as the world’s largest nuclear station, generating 9,900 MW (India’s present nuclear capacity, 4,780 MW).

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Travesty of justice

The life sentence awarded to Binayak Sen would only accelerate the process of debasement of democracy and the rule of law.

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Society’s stake in the rule of law

Thirtyfive years after it passed a bad human rights judgment during the Emergency, the Supreme Court has finally acknowledged its error. A Court bench has pronounced the 4:1 majority verdict in the ADM Jabalpur case as wrong in ruling that during Emergency rule, nobody can move a habeas corpus petition before a High Court on the ground that detention is illegal or mala fide. Habeas corpus (literally, having a body) is a fundamental right in any minimally civilised society, which empowers a court to order the police to produce a wrongly detained person to ensure that no harm is caused to him/her. Such an explicit correction was long overdue.

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A kangaroo court verdict

An Indian sessions judge has disgraced the country’s judiciary by sentencing celebrated health and civil liberties activist Binayak Sen to life imprisonment. He held Sen guilty of sedition, no less, merely for passing on to others letters written by a suspected Maoist imprisoned in central India’s Chhattisgarh state, called Narayan Sanyal. Even this minor charge wasn’t established beyond reasonable doubt. The trial followed the kangaroo court model – of reaching a predetermined verdict by substituting suspicion, surmise or conjecture for substantive evidence. The judgment has been condemned the world over by conscientious citizens – not least because Sen embodies the public conscience and civic courage.

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Kashmir’s dialogue of the deaf - As The State Flounders Amidst Crisis

Even before the all-party delegation comprising 39 political leaders visited the curfew-bound Kashmir Valley, it was clear that it would accomplish very little barring gaining some acquaintance with people’s perceptions of the ground situation. There was wide divergence among its member-parties on the basic approach to be adopted towards Kashmir. Logically, an all-party delegation can be productive only if it conveys a strong, broad political consensus. But the Centre manifestly failed to evolve a consensus. Instead, it substituted the all-party delegation for it.

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Ruling Kashmir by trampling rights

The visit of the all-party delegation to Jammu and Kashmir wasn’t, and couldn’t have been, a spectacular success. It didn’t have a mandate based on a broad policy consensus. It was preceded by little sounding out of different strands of opinion in the curfew-bound Valley. It was led by one of the architects of India’s recent Kashmir policy which has left the Valley bleeding, under prolonged curfew, and with a death-toll exceeding 100.

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Kashmir: defusing the crisis

The protest wave that gripped the Kashmir Valley has abated with the calling in of the army. But public anger against the killing of 15 young Kashmiris, including a 9-year-old boy, isn’t likely to vanish soon. The restoration of order has claimed a high price: the army had to be called into Kashmir for crowd control for the first time since the azaadi movement erupted in 1989.

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Defending Livelihoods, Promoting Equity: UPA-2’s litmus test at Year One

It’s no aberration that the first anniversary of the return to power of the United Progressive Alliance should coincide with a tsunami of grassroots protests: from Orissa to Maharashtra, and from Tamil Nadu to Uttarakhand, through tribal Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand. The protests represent popular resistance to UPA-2’s industrialisation and mining policies and its zealous promotion of gross domestic product (GDP) growth as an end in itself. Central here is the displacement and dispossession of vulnerable people.

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Anti-Naxal Operation Green Hunt: Waging war against the people

The Indian state will diminish itself and undermine its claim to being minimally civilised if it resorts to organised, large-scale and deliberate violence in which civilians will be the main casualty.

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Murder by encounter

Perpetuation of the gory practice of fake ‘encounter killings’ highlights judicial apathy as well as police culpability.

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Counter-Terrorism Must Not Kill Democracy

by Praful Bidwai

28 December, 2008

In a season in which politicians have become everybody's punching bag and targets of vicious media attacks, it would have been a miracle had Minister for Minority Affairs Abdul Rehman Antulay not attracted ridicule for demanding an inquiry into the killing of Maharashtra Anti-Terrorism Squad chief Hemant Karkare and his colleagues Ashok Kamte and Vijay Salaskar. I am no admirer of Antulay. I was among the handful of journalists who exposed his brutal evacuation and expulsion of pavement-dwellers in Mumbai in 1983. Yet, the questions he posed about Karkare's death won't go away -- despite his own ignominious climbdown.

Antulay didn't allege that Karkare, who famously cracked the Hindutva terror network involving Pragya Thakur and Lieutenant Colonel Shreekant Purohit, was shot by one of its members. His query was, who asked Karkare to go to Mumbai's CST station and to Cama Hospital , near which he was killed by Abu Ismail and Ajmal Amir Kasab ?

We still don't know what motivated Karkare's team to go there without high-grade bullet-proof jackets and in violation of the norm that senior officers shouldn't travel in the same vehicle in an emergency. Home Minister P Chidambaram's statement to Parliament doesn't clarify the issue. According to one police account aired on television, the team went to Cama Hospital to rescue another officer, Sadanand Date, who was injured. According to a second account, the team was pursuing a red car carrying Ismail and Kasab.

It is hard to believe that senior officers like Karkare, Kamte and Salaskar all had to walk to CST/Cama because the police had erected barricades, and that they abandoned their separate vehicles to get into one car while chasing the fugitives. Even the circumstances of Karkare's killing, allegedly in a narrow lane behind the hospital, remain obscure.

If the police wireless message about the red car was meant to lure the team into an ambush, it is vital to ask where and how the report originated. If the gunmen were firing from the left, as Constable Arun Jadhav who was in Karkare's car, but survived the attack said, how was Karkare hit three times in the chest while Jadhav got two bullets in his right arm? Also, the ambush story doesn't quite hang together. The only vegetation in the lane has wire netting around it, behind which it'd be hard to hide.

Clearly, even if one discounts all conspiracy theories, unanswered questions remain. Hindutva groups reviled Karkare for his bold, scrupulous investigation into the Thakur-Purohit terror network. L K Advani , no less, wanted him removed from the ATS and levelled charges, disproved after medical examination, that Thakur was tortured in ATS custody This, and the gaps in the police account(s), make imperative a dispassionate, thorough, high-level investigation into his killing -- in addition to an inquiry into the intelligence failures and state agencies' inept response to the attacks.

The case for an inquiry in the Karkare case is all the stronger because many in the Muslim community which has borne the brunt of excesses committed in the name of fighting terrorism and other citizens too, have seriously questioned the official account.

Antulay or no Antulay, it's the government's duty to answer them. Supremely callous colonial rulers ignore public concerns. But democratic governments' legitimacy depends on respecting them and sharing the truth with the public in the interests of social cohesion. A credible inquiry would help rebuild the public's faith in the government, which has recently suffered erosion.

There are moments in the life of a nation when exemplary rectitude, transparency and adherence to law are called for, and an effort worthy of universal respect is necessary to reach out to those who feel excluded. Justice H R Khanna's dissenting opinion in the Emergency case, Justice B N Srikrishna's inquiry into the Mumbai violence of 1992-1993, and Karkare's own brilliant investigation into the Hindutva terror network, are instances of these. In each case, State functionaries rose above pressures to harness their work to extraneous agendas. The entire nation gained from their work. We badly need another such effort today.

Regrettably, the United Progressive Alliance government seems to be caving in to Right-wing pressures from the Bharatiya Janata Party to adopt a macho, national-chauvinist, 'to-hell-with-civil-liberties' stance to show that it has the will to fight terrorism. That alone explains the deplorable haste with which it railroaded through Parliament two tough counter-terrorism laws without serious debate. These erode federalism and infringe civil liberties.

The National Investigation Agency Act establishes a new organisation to investigate acts of terrorism and offences related to atomic energy, aviation, maritime transport, sedition, weapons of mass destruction, and Left-wing extremism. Significantly, it excludes Hindutva-style right-wing extremism, which has taken a far higher toll in India than left-wing Naxalism. It's far from clear how the NIA can secure the cooperation of other existing agencies, rather than face turf battles and sabotage.

Unlike the Central Bureau of Investigation, which needs the consent of a state before investigating crimes there, the NIA will supersede state agencies. This is a serious intrusion into the federal system. The NIA, and the special courts set up under the Act, will be vulnerable to political abuse by the Centre.

The second law, the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Amendment Act brings back the discredited POTA, except for admitting confessions made to the police as evidence. It radically changes criminal procedures, extends periods of police custody and detention without charges, denies bail to foreigners, and reverses the burden of proof in many instances. The Act will turn India into a virtual police State.

The UPA abrogated POTA in 2004 in response to innumerable complaints of abuse against Muslims and application to offences not connected with terrorism. But the UPA retained all other tough laws, and also amended the Unlawful Activities Act. This increased punishment for terrorism and harbouring/financing terrorists, made communications intercepts admissible as evidence, and increased detention without charges to 90 days from 30 days.

However, despite numerous recent terrorist attacks, the UPA firmly rejected the BJP's demand that POTA be re-enacted. But now, it has shamefully caved in to the demand -- under the pressure of elite opinion and with an eye on the next general election.

The UAPA Act contains a range of draconian clauses, including a redefinition of terrorism, harsh punishment like life sentence or death, long periods of detention, and presumption of guilt in many cases. The redefinition includes acts done with the intent to threaten or 'likely' to threaten India's unity, integrity or sovereignty. Under this hold-all provision, the police can arrest, search and seize the property of anyone whom it 'has reason to believe from personal knowledge, or any information by any person... or any articles or any other thing...' Even rumours and baseless suspicion fit this description. Also covered are attempts to kidnap Constitutional and other functionaries listed by the government. The list is endless.

Under the Act, an accused can be held in police custody for 30 days, and detained without charges for 180 days. This is a travesty of Constitutional rights. Even worse is the presumption of guilt in case there is a recovery of arms, explosives and 'substances of a similar nature.' The police routinely plants arms and explosives, and creates a false recovery record. The punishment range extends from three or five five years to life. This shows the government has not applied its mind.

Under the Act, there is a general obligation to disclose 'all information' that a police officer thinks might be relevant. Failure to disclose can lead to imprisonment for three years. Journalists, lawyers, doctors and friends are not exempt from this sweeping provision, which presumes guilt on mere suspicion. Besides making telecommunications and e-mail intercepts admissible as evidence, the Act also denies bail to all foreign nationals and to all others if a prima facie case exists on the basis of a First Information Report by the police.

POTA and its predecessor, the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act, were extensively abused. They targeted the religious minorities, specifically Muslims. Some 67,000 people were arrested under TADA, but only 8,000 put on trial, and just 725 convicted. Official TADA review committees found its application untenable in all but 5,000 cases. POTA's abuse was even more appalling.

The two new laws will increase the alienation of Muslims from the Indian State given that they have been the principal victims of India's recent anti-terrorism strategy. Many Muslims are also distressed at the alacrity with which the laws were passed -- in contrast with the UPA's failure to enact the promised law to punish communal violence and hate crimes.

This will make the social-political climate conducive to State terrorism, promote muscular nationalism, and create a barbed-wire mentality. These are the ingredients of a terrible national security State, much like Pakistan's or Israel's, and similar to the way the US is evolving. Nothing could be worse for our citizens' safety and our democracy's health.

Top Activist's Detention Blot on Democracy

Inter Press Service, 15 May 2008

by Praful Bidwai

NEW DELHI, May 15 (IPS) - Protests are mounting all over the world against the year-long detention of Dr. Binayak Sen, a distinguished Indian human rights and health activist, under draconian laws in the central state of Chhattisgarh.

Sen, national vice president and Chhattisgarh general secretary of the well-known People's Union of Civil Liberties (PUCL), was arrested under allegations of helping left-wing extremists, known in this country as Naxalites.

The charges shocked human rights organisations and citizens’ groups, which on independent investigation, have found them totally fictitious. They believe that the Chhattisgarh government filed them to harass Sen and set a horribly negative example for all civil liberties activists and intimidate them.

Sen is probably India’s first human rights defender to have faced such prolonged detention.

Sen’s detention raises serious questions about the content and quality of democracy in India, and the state’s failure to respect liberties and fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution. It also points to links between human rights violations and the government’s social and economic policies.

The protestors are demanding Sen’s unconditional release, repeal of the Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act, 2005, (PSA), and the disbanding of a state-sponsored right-wing militia called Salwa Judum, which has been rampaging through the state killing and maiming people in the guise of fighting Naxalites.

On Sunday, when Sen’s detention completed one full year, poets, artists, musicians, theatre personalities, social scientists and writers, including the award-winning novelist Arundhati Roy, joined hands with social activists in 15 Indian cities, including Raipur, Sen’s hometown and Chhattisgarh’s capital.

As many as 48 international organisations such as Amnesty International and citizens’ groups based in the West also organised demonstrations or vigils in nine cities in the United States, including New York, Washington, San Francisco and Boston, and in London, Paris and Stockholm

Meanwhile, 22 Nobel laureates from the world over have called for Sen’s release so that he can receive in person the prestigious Jonathan Mann award for health and human rights, an "international honour that will be bestowed for the first time on a citizen of India".

The award is due to be presented in two weeks by the Global Health Council (GHC), an alliance of medical organisations and professionals, in Washington, DC.

In a letter to India’s President Pratibha Patil, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Raman Singh, the Nobel Prize winners have expressed "grave concern that Dr Sen appears to be incarcerated solely for peacefully exercising his fundamental right, in contravention of Articles 19 (freedom of opinion and ex-pression) and 22 (freedom of association) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights", which India has signed.

The letter also says that the two internal security laws under which Sen was charged, the PSA and the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act 2004, "do not comport with international human rights standards".

The PSA criminalises even peaceful activity and protest, by declaring it "a danger or menace to public order, peace and tranquillity", because it might interfere with or "tends to interfere with the maintenance of public order… the administration of law or its… institutions", and encourages or preaches "disobedience to established law and its institutions."

Under these laws, Sen can be awarded the death penalty or life imprisonment. Among the charges he faces are being a member of a terrorist gang or organisation, knowingly holding the proceeds of terrorism, sedition, abetting unlawful activity, undermining public safety, and conspiracy to wage war against the state.

These charges hinge on one allegation by the police: namely, that Sen visited a detained and ailing Naxalite leader, Narayan Sanyal, in Raipur prison 33 times, and allegedly passed notes from him to his collaborators outside jail through a Kolkata-based businessman, Piyush Guha.

But Guha has denied that he received any letter from Sanyal, and said and that he signed a false confession under duress. During the trial, which began after long delays on April 30, key witnesses failed to corroborate the police version or turned hostile.

"As for the numerous visits to meet Sanyal, that cannot be a charge at all," says Prashant Bhushan, a public interest lawyer based in Delhi. "It was entirely in Sen’s line of work both as a civil rights defender and a physician. Besides, the visits were not surreptitious or illegal. They took place with the permission of and under the supervision of the jail authorities".

During a visit paid to Sen last September in the same prison IPS found it impossible - given the small size of the room and the eagle eyes of the officials - to smuggle out a piece of paper. All conversation is audible to the wardens.

Kavita Srivastava, Jaipur-based national general secretary of PUCL, holds that Sen was singled out by the Chhattisgarh government partly because he was trying to expose the brutality and outright criminality of the vigilante Salwa Judum group, armed and trained by the state.

Salwa Judum has perpetrated gruesome atrocities against ordinary citizens, besides Naxalites and their suspected sympathisers. It has burned down entire villages in Chhattisgarh’s dirt-poor southern districts, populated by acutely disadvantaged Adivasis or indigenous tribals.

The militia’s campaign of violence has turned nearly 100,000 people into refugees. But both the Chhattisgarh the central government continue to shield, support, finance and encourage it.

They recently told India’s Supreme Court that Salwa Judum is the only means available to them to counter Naxalite violence. The court has not yet pronounced judgement on a public interest petition filed by reputed academics demanding the disbanding of the militia.

Recently, Manmohan Singh described left-wing extremism as "the greatest internal security threat" facing India and promised to crush it. He said his government would not rest until the virus of Naxalism is eliminated.

His government pledged to spend over 750 million US dollars on fighting it. But its efforts have failed to contain the movement. Over the past two years, more people have been killed in Naxalite-related violence, including police counter-violence, than in Kashmir or India’s turbulent Northeast.

Chhattisgarh is the worst example of the failure of the state’s strategy of combating left-extremism exclusively by unleashing state repression against unarmed civilians.

Sen was trained as a paediatrician at the Christian Medical College in Vellore, Tamil Nadu, and has devoted most of adult life to improving the health and living conditions of the very poor in the Adivasi districts of Chhattisgarh, besides defending the civil liberties of wretchedly poor and exploited people.

Sen’s organisation, ‘Rupantar’, has run a clinic for 10 years in Dhamtari district. He has done exemplary voluntary work in the Gandhian mould in providing primary and preventive healthcare to people long deprived of access to any health facilities, especially from the state.

There are no medical personnel in the area, often not even a chemist within a 30-kilometre distance. Even in emergencies, the public is forced to depend on quacks, and corrupt, apathetic, incompetent, and usually missing, government employees.

Rupantar’s clinic offers a range of services at nominal cost, including rapid testing for the deadly Falciparum strain of the malaria parasite, which has saved scores of lives. These services are provided through local "barefoot doctors", who give the public invaluable advice on nutrition and preventive medicine.

Sen appears to have been victimised precisely because he formed a bridge between the human rights movement and other civil society organisations, and created a forum of empowerment for Chhattisgarh’s disadvantaged people.

The state government, whose very existence is premised upon the rapacious exploitation of the indigenous Adivasis and the staggering natural wealth of Chhattisgarh -and whose primary function is to subserve big business, forest contractors and traders - is loath to tolerate such individuals.

Chhattisgarh has an egregious recent history of repression. One of India's most creative trade unionists, Shankar Guha Niyogi, who ignited a mass awakening on social, cultural and economic issues, was assassinated at the behest of the state’s powerful and politically well-connected industrialists in 1991. They still roam free.

Chhattisgarh has among India’s worst indices of wealth maldistribution and income inequality. Some of its rural regions present a dismal picture of malnutrition, starvation deaths, illiteracy, and severe scarcity of safe drinking water. Some have suffered a rise in infant mortality.

The literacy rate among tribals here is less than one-third the national average -just 30 percent for men and 13 percent for women. Of the 1,220 villages of one district (Dantewada), 214 have no primary school..

But the state’s cities are booming with ostentatious affluence, spanking new hotels and glittering shopping malls.

The difference in life-expectancy between an advanced state like Kerala and tribal Chhattisgarh is a shocking 18 years. The two regions could well belong to different continents like Europe and Africa.

Chhattisgarh is extraordinarily rich in forests and in mineral wealth, including high-quality iron ore, bauxite, dolomite, quartzite, granite, corundum, precious stones, gold, diamonds and tin ore, besides limestone and coal.

This wealth has been voraciously extracted. But it has produced virtually no gains for the local population.

"Naxalism has thrived in Chhattisgarh as a response, albeit an irrational and violent one, to this obnoxious system of exploitation, dispossession and outright loot," says Rajiv Bharagava, a political scientist at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. "In Chhattisgarh, the state has collapsed as a provider of public services and a relatively impartial guardian of the law. The Naxalites flourish because the state has failed."

"This is a terrible comment on India’s democracy, adds Bhargava. Democracy isn’t only about elections. Unless it has accountable institutions and a system of rights, it loses much of its meaning."


Savage Repression In Chhattisgarh - When the state turn lawless

May 28, 2007

The detention of a noted human rights activist Binayak Sen, under the Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act, for his legitimate visits to the jailed Maoist leader Narayan Sanyal, puts Indian democracy under a question mark.

The detention in Raipur of noted human rights activist Binayak Sen under the Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act, 2005 (PSA) and the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act has rightly attracted nationwide condemnation from citizens’ groups. Dr Sen, general secretary of the Chhattisgarh People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), and the union’s national vice-president, was arrested for his alleged links with banned Maoist groups. The critical allegation against Dr Sen is that he met senior Maoist leader Narayan Sanyal more than 30 times in recent months in the Raipur central jail where he has been detained.

On the very face of it, the charge is utterly preposterous. Dr Sen met Sanyal with the authorities’ knowledge and consent and always in the presence of a jailer. In fact, as a civil liberties activist, it is his legitimate job and function to meet detainees and ensure that their fundamental rights are respected and they are treated in accordance with the due process of law. Whether he met Sanyal 35 times or 100 times is totally irrelevant so long his visits were permitted by the police.

It speaks poorly of the Chhattisgarh government that it cavalierly levelled defamatory and scandalous charges against an activist-intellectual of Dr Sen’s standing, who has an illustrious record as a public-spirited paediatrician connected with the people’s health movement. Dr Sen was involved with the setting up of the Shaheed Hospital, an initiative of the great trade unionist Shankar Guha Niyogi who was murdered at the behest of rapacious industrialists.

The Hospital, owned and operated by a workers’ organisation, remains unmatched anywhere in India as a voluntary venture which helps the population of a backward tribal area callously neglected by the state. Dr Sen was on an official advisory committee which drew up one of the most successful community-based primary healthcare programmes in India, based on the Mitanin, the local barefoot health worker.

It’s nobody’s case that Dr Sen is a Naxalite, or a Maoist sympathiser. Everyone who knows him, as this writer has done for many years, will testify to his commitment to peaceful means by which to fight for a compassionate and humane society.

It’s thus all the more infuriating that the Chhattisgarh government arrested him under the draconian PSA. This is one of the most repressive laws of the country, which allows for the prolonged detention of a person on the vaguest of charges, even mere suspicion. The charges include committing acts with a “tendency to pose an obstacle to the administration of law” and actions which “encourage(s) the disobedience of the established law”.

Needless to say, this law criminalises even non-violent protests, including Gandhian forms of civil disobedience. It’s nothing short of a disgrace that the PSA remains on India’s statute-books even after POTA stands abrogated.

Dr Sen was detained under this law even before the police had obtained a shred of half-way credible evidence against him. Since then, they have searched his house and ransacked his farm on the outskirts of Raipur. They claim to have collected “hundreds of incriminating documents”, which include compact disks, pamphlets and other papers. Now, most of the documents are available in the public domain. The list includes newspaper clippings, CDs on “fake encounters”, and letters from victims of state repression, which have since been published in newspapers. A good deal of the impounded material pertains to Dr Sen’s work as a health and civil liberties activist.

Clearly, we are dealing here with malicious police allegations of the same variety as the charges filed in 2002 against The Kashmir Times Delhi bureau chief, Syed Iftikhar Geelani. He too was accused of possessing “classified” documents, suggesting links with secessionist and terrorist groups. The police were forced to retract all such charges when it was established that all of Mr Geelani’s “secret” documents were obtained from public-domain sources, none even remotely connected with terrorism.

Mr Geelani was detained for 8 months—and released without apology or explanation—because he is a Kashmiri and related to separatist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani. Similarly, Dr Sen is being harassed because he’s a civil liberties activist who has courageously exposed a number of police atrocities. These, remarkably, include 155 “fake encounters” in Chhattisgarh in 2 years. The latest was the cold-blooded murder of 12 Adivasis on March 31 in Bijapur district—which made the headlines even as the public was absorbing the shock from revelations about the “encounter” killing of Sohrabuddin Shaikh and Kausar-Bi by DIG Vanzara and his henchmen in Gujarat.

It would be an even greater injustice if Dr Sen has to languish for months in jail before the ridiculous charges against him are disproved as powerfully as those against Mr Geelani. Surely, our courts have a duty to prevent such miscarriage of justice. Surely, our top politicians and bureaucrats have learned some lessons from the sordid stories of abduction, illegal detention and outright killings committed by trigger-happy policemen all over India.

Surely, it has not escaped the attention even of our creaking, deeply flawed justice delivery system that draconian laws, which allow preventive detention and forced confessions from the accused, are liable to be—and usually are—misused. They create a climate of impunity, in which no official is ever held accountable for his/her gross misconduct, excesses or cruelty.

It bears recalling that the rate of conviction under the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act was less than 2 percent. This speaks of gross abuse of the law. The police typically didn’t bother to collect evidence which would help their case stand up. They used TADA (and later POTA) to bung people into jail and extract confessions from them under duress, including threats to liquidate them through “encounters”. Such laws, including the Chhattisgarh PSA, become excuses not to conduct diligent investigations, while claiming impunity and raising alarmist fears about extremism, terrorism and threats to “national security”.

The PSA was used in Chhattisgarh four times before Dr Sen’s case—for instance, to arrest a petty shopkeeper for selling groceries to Maoist sympathisers (of whose identity he probably wasn’t aware), and to harass a Class XII student who was in love with a suspected Naxalite. The Chhattisgarh police, true to type, are now planting stories about a “close relative” of Dr Sen’s, who is subversive by virtue of having studied at Jawaharlal Nehru University! Only a warped khaki brain can think in such illiterate, philistine and irrational ways.

Yet, it is precisely this way of thinking that led the Chhattisgarh government to set up Salwa Judum, a viciously Right-wing band of thugs whose job is to target and kill Maoists. They have razed villages, raped women and looted what little the poor possess—all with police support, complicity or collusion. Salwa Judum has unleashed a reign of terror and inflicted incalculable harm upon ordinary Adivasis. No fewer than 47,000 people have become homeless owing to its depredations.

However, the Chhattisgarh government’s anti-Naxalite juggernaut continues to roll on, causing violence and destruction, setting Advasi against Adivasi, village against village, and bankrupting the state of its authority and legitimacy. The government now plans to use helicopter gunships to intimidate villagers, cut down prime forests to deny sanctuary to the Maoists, and thus repeat the “Strategic Hamlets” strategy of the United States during the Vietnam War. And yes, they plan to use grenades, not just bullets, while fighting Maoists.

There’s a larger purpose behind the anti-Naxal operations. Apart from trying to wipe out the Maoists militarily (while causing enormous damage to civilian life and citizens’ freedom), it is to make Chhattisgarh safe for huge mining and industrial projects, which dispossess people en masse, but guarantee super-profits to predatory business houses. Chhattisgarh is selling its precious mineral wealth cheap to promote neoliberal capitalism. It has signed more than 30 memoranda of understanding with business houses, including multinationals with a terrible human rights record.

The human consequences of such a “development” strategy have become starkly obvious in many states—especially Jharkhand and Orissa, besides Chhattisgarh. In Orissa, there’s growing popular resistance to the South Korean company POSCO’s steel plant and the Tata’s steel mill. Last year began with the gunning down of 13 Adivasis at Kalinganagar. And last fortnight saw attacks upon peaceful protestors by goons hired by POSCO. The state is bent upon breaking the blockades erected by the people even if that involves bloodshed and wanton destruction.

This insanity must stop. The monstrous mining and steel projects, in which the people have no stake, must not be granted clearances by bypassing environmental and rehabilitation scrutiny under pressure from the top, all the way to the Prime Minister’s Office. Or else, the state will lose all its legitimacy in the eyes of the people. Then, the Maoists will have achieved their purpose of discrediting not just the state, but democracy itself.

An edited version of this article appeared in The Khaleej Times (Dubai)

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