The War Against ‘Sympathy’
The recent arrests of five journalist-activists show the State’s increasing hostility towards worldviews that empathise with the extreme Left, reports SHOBHITA NAITHANI
ON DECEMBER 20, 2007, while addressing a chief ministers’ conference on internal security, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh made a dramatic remark: “They (Naxalites) are targeting vital economic infrastructure so as to cripple transport and logistic capabilities and also slow down any development activity… They have also got involved in local struggles relating to land and other rights. I have said in the past that Leftwing extremism is probably the single biggest security challenge to the Indian State. It continues to be so and we cannot rest in peace until we have eliminated this virus.” He went on to assure states of greater investment in the police forces “to cripple the hold of Naxalite forces.”
The PM’s statement came in the wake of an ongoing crackdown by police in various states on anyone who remotely resembles a ‘sympathiser’ of extreme-Left ideology. The tools: the 1967 Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, the Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act 2005 and the Andhra Pradesh Public Security Act, 1992 — laws that allow the government to arrest virtually anyone with political leanings or associations it does not approve of, and thus threaten the fundamental rights guaranteed to citizens by the constitution.
Govindan Kutty, Prafull Jha, Pittala Srisailam and Lachit Bordoloi — all of them journalists (or ‘former journalists’ as some would correct) and human rights activists who were arrested on charges of being Naxals or “sympathisers”, with the exception of Bordoloi, who has been charged with having links with the ULFA. This spate of arrests indicates a disturbing pattern. In most of the cases there is no charge of violence or any actual crime committed. There is merely empathy, tenuous links with extremist groups, or the accusation of such links. These arrests therefore reveal the government’s growing intolerance of people who hold political beliefs that are not statist and go against the new economic polices pursued by the government.
This, in brief, are the case histories and the story of the arrests so far.
A 48-year old human rights activist and former Uttarakhand correspondent of The Statesman, Prashant Rahi was arrested on December 22, 2007 from the forest in Hanspur Khatta in Uttarakhand. Charged that he is a Zonal Commander of the banned CPI (Maoist) group, Rahi has been implicated under various sections of the Indian Penal Code and the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. When asked about it, PVK Prasad, SSP, Rudrapur, said: “You go speak to him in jail. I am not supposed to discuss the activities he is involved in.” Rahi’s daughter, Shikha, who works and lives in Mumbai, however, tells you what her father told her when she met him at Nanak Matta Police Station in Uddham Singh Nagar district on December 25, 2007. “He was arrested on December 17, 2007 in Dehradun. The next day he was taken to Haridwar, where they hit him and threatened to pump kerosene into his anus. They also told him that they would force him to rape me in their presence. It was only on December 22, 2007 that they made his arrest records.”
“Rahi’s arrest is perfectly timed with the PM’s statement that the Maoist insurgency is the single largest threat in the country and the state Chief Minister subsequently demanding Rs 208 crore from the Centre for modernisation of the police forces,” says Hardip, a freelance journalist and former colleague. Ashok Mishra, another former colleague and the editor of Garhwal Post, feels Rahi is being persecuted because of his beliefs. “He has a Leftist ideology and was involved in various people’s movements like the one for the creation of the new state, and the agitation against Tehri Dam. They picked him up because he was mobilising people against the land, liquor and builder mafia in Uddham Singh Nagar that works in tandem with the police. I am only happy that the police didn’t plant an AK-47 on him and kill him in a fake encounter.”
Prafull Jha, in the words of Rajendra Sail, the president of PUCL in Chhattisgarh, is “one of the top 10 anthropologists in Chhattisgarh and a journalist whose analysis has been used by national TV channels many a time.” The 60-yearold former bureau chief of Dainik Bhaskar was arrested on January 22, 2008 for his alleged links to a cache of arms seized by the police in Raipur. “He and his sons were given money by the Naxals to buy cars to transport their leaders and ply weapons. He was also translating their internal literature into Hindi,” says Chhattisgarh DGP Vishwa Ranjan Jha, adding, “Please don’t call him a journalist.” Sunil Kumar, editor, Daily Chhattisgarh, picks up from where the DGP let off. “His case has nothing to do with the media and the suppression of freedom of expression. He was an active and a paid worker of the Naxals.” Kumar says Jha was thrown out of a publication he earlier worked with on charges of embezzling money. Sail however thinks that the arrests, whether of Dr. Binayak Sen or Jha, are calculated to silence voices that spoke out against official policies. “It is my belief that Jha is not a Naxal. It would be improper to say he is not a journalist,” he affirms.
On December 19, 2007, the Kerala police picked up Govindan Kutty, the 68-year-old firebrand editor of People’s March, for his alleged connection with the banned CPI (Maoist) group. Charged under the 1967 Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act among others, he was released on bail on February 24, 2008. On returning, Kutty found an order of the District Magistrate of Ernakulam pasted outside his house. It said that the registration of People’s March was cancelled as it contained materials that are “seditious in nature, bringing about contempt and disaffection against the Government of India by projecting ideologies and activities of CPI (Maoist).”
But why now, seven years after it started publication? “The articles go against the spirit of the Indian state. Police say they wanted to ban the magazine earlier, but attention was paid to it only after the arrest of Kutty,” says District Collector, Ernakulam, APM Mohammed Hanish. Kutty meanwhile feels it has become easy for the police to brand those who oppose government policy as Maoists, and audaciously admits that one is free to call him a Maoist if supporting the ideology makes him one. “There is violence everywhere. Corruption is violence, prostitution is violence, not paying minimum wage is violence, child labour is violence, caste discrimination is violence,” he says, adding, “I am a law-abiding citizen.”
Pittala Srisailam, the 35-year-old editor of online television Musi TV and co-convener of Telangana Journalists Forum (TJF) was arrested according to him on December 4, 2007, but according to the police (as reported in the papers) on December 5 in the Prakasam district of Andhra Pradesh on the pretext of acting as a ‘courier’ of the Maoists. “I had gone to interview a Maoist leader and they slapped false charges on me (Andhra Pradesh Public Security Act, 1992 for abetting and helping the banned CPI (Maoist)),” says Srisailam, who was released on December 13. Both Musi TV and TJF support the idea of a separate statehood for Telangana. His colleague and convener of TJF, Allam Narayana sees this as a conspiracy by the government to silence those opposing the government. “After Srisailam’s arrest, the government implicated the TJF of having links with the Maoists. But we are journalists and know our limitations. Our only goal is Telangana and we will achieve it through a parliamentary system.” Srisailam explains that it’s not unusual for journalists or activists working with the poor and marginalised in the hinterland to encounter, or even interact with Maoists at some point. “But that doesn’t make them Maoists,” he clarifies.
A human rights activist and freelance journalist, who is actively involved in mediation between the government and the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), Lachit Bordoloi was arrested on January 11, 2008 from Moranhat in Assam’s Dibrugarh district. He was charged with links to ULFA’s alleged plan to hijack an aircraft from Guwahati airport; to the recovery of arms and ammunition seized by the police in Assam’s Rangia town in 2007; and fund collection for ULFA. When asked about the charges, Guwahati SSP VK Ramisetti said, “In the hijack case, we got a statement from an apprehended ULFA militant in which he implicated himself and Bordoloi.”
The police’s claim is dismissed outright by Bubumoni Goswami, chairman of human rights body Manab Adhikar Sangram Samiti (MASS), of which Bordoloi is secretary general. “Some officials in the government and the police don’t want the ULFA problem to be solved. The Centre has always allocated a huge fund to tackle rebel activity in the state. If the situation continues, they will continue to benefit,” he points out. Bordoloi’s lawyer, Bijan Mahajan trashes the allegation of his client’s involvement in the Rangia case. “The investigating agencies should have picked him up immediately if it was true, but they didn’t. It is simply pick and choose politics that the State is indulging in,” says Mahajan.
The timing of the five arrests and the nature in which they were carried out indicates the government’s growing impatience with what the prime minister called “the single biggest security challenge to the Indian State.” The facts bear this out. Under the 11th Five Year Plan, an outlay of Rs.2500 crore has been approved to tackle internal security threats and beef up the Central and state security apparatus, which is nearly four times more than the allocations during the 10th Five Year Plan. Under the revamped Police Modernisation scheme, from 2005 onwards 76 districts affected by Naxalism will be provided Rs 2 crore each every year (for the first five years) for strengthening basic police infrastructure.
The government’s treatment of Naxalism purely as a law and order problem, while ignoring its socio-economic roots, has often come under sharp criticism. “The government is targeting all Left-wing activists who are exposing the government’s policies towards Maoists and Naxals or those who are involved in movements resisting the government’s land grabbing activities,” says civil liberties lawyer Prashant Bhushan, who practices in the Supreme Court. “Targeting peaceful activists will only fuel Naxalism in the country because it will force them to go underground and eventually join the Maoists,” he adds.
From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 5, Issue 11, Dated Mar 22, 2008