The Curious Case of Arun Ferreira

Oct 14,2011

From the grey zone of Naxal activism and State repression, Revati Laul reports on the curious case of Arun Ferreira

Not in a free state Ferreira has been langushing in jail for the past four years

WHEN THE inspector at the Nagpur Central Jail rapped his broken, wooden baton on the door of the visiting room, a file of relatives cleared the bench. Their time was up. On the far side of the room, the next lot of inmates appeared, including Arun Ferreira, whom TEHELKA was visiting.

Khakhi fury Ferreira became a marked man after protesting the violence against Dalits

Ferreira has been in jail for four years, charged in various Naxal-related crimes, from murder to planting bombs. And acquitted in all those cases. The court found not a shred of evidence against him. Then, on 27 September, he was freed. But the moment he set foot outside the jail gate, he was whisked away in a police jeep to Gondia district, three hours from Nagpur and re arrested in two more cases.

Events that Ferreira and his lawyers see as part of a pattern, an attempt to keep him in jail in one case after another, never mind what the actual charges are, whether or not they stick, or even whether they sound plausible.

In the visiting room, it was barely possible to tell the contours of his face from behind the double wire mesh and bars. Cut into small squares, Ferreira, the 38-yearold inmate, settled behind his side of the window, prepared for the interview. On the face of it, the story appeared similar to that of activists being picked up by the State and put away as Naxals and Maoists — such as Binayak Sen and Soni Sori, who was the subject of TEHELKA’s cover story last week (The Inconvenient Truth of Soni Sori by Shoma Chaudhury).

The overwhelming question at this point was fairly straightforward: Is Ferreira genuinely a victim or really a Naxal? What hit us straight away was that this was indeed the wrong question. Ferreira’s story was not an either/or case, but perplexingly, a bit of both. A truth that tumbled out as he answered his very first question.

“Would you call yourself a Naxal sympathiser?”

“Yes,” he said. “You could say that. I’m actually for all people’s movements. From Anna Hazare’s to tribal protests in Gadchiroli (in Maharashtra). And I can’t say, sitting here, what kind of protest will be most effective or necessary in what particular case. Should angry Kashmiris throw stones or not, for instance? I believe in the Constitution. But I also simultaneously believe in the rights of the people, and those who are oppressed, to protest, even with arms if need be.”

And suddenly, the questions around Ferreira and the perspective on the Naxal issue opened up a new dimension. That put this story in a new, grey zone.

Ferreira, by his own admission, is both a victim and a Naxal sympathiser. The black-and-white Naxal story now had some perplexing shades of grey. Does a radical like him have the right to State protection? Should he just be locked away forever because his beliefs include supporting those who choose armed resistance against the State?

There are no easy answers to the polemical debate. But Ferreira is in jail. So that is the obvious starting point in telling this story.

If Ferreira had been charged for sedition, for his political views, for rallying people against the State, it would be a clear case of armed resistance against the State, chargeable under various sections of the law, including the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act. It would also, arguably, be easy enough to make those charges stick. That, however, is not what happened.

Despite being a Naxal sympathiser, Ferreira’s work on the ground, in his own reckoning and also of those in contact with him, was that he was not a Maoist with a gun. Not inciting people to violence. But working with Mumbai’s slum dwellers. And with youth groups in Mumbai and Nagpur, as part of an organisation called the Vidyarthi Pragati Sangathan. And also in organising protests against atrocities like the massacre of a Dalit family in Khairlanji in 2006.

But this is only Ferreira’s version of the story. If there was evidence of political activism that marked him out as part of “India’s greatest internal security threat”, as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh described the Naxals, then surely the police would have been able to produce it?

The fact is that there was nothing to join the dots from Ferreira’s activism and political beliefs to sedition.

And so, on 8 May 2007, Ferreira was picked up from Nagpur for a clear-cut criminal case. Accused of being part of a conspiracy to plant bombs. From then on, seven other cases were stacked against him, all of which his lawyers claim were false. The cases were all ostensibly Naxal- related violence raging from attacking the police to murdering youth to burning a railway engine.

To understand why Ferreira and his lawyers say that the charges against him seem like part of a larger plan, it’s instructive to look at just two cases against him.
If there is evidence against Ferreira, why is the police shying away from producing it?

ON 23 January 2006, Naxalites fired at a police outpost in Bonde in Maharashtra at around 11 pm. Ferreira is accused of conspiracy in this case, under various sections of the Indian Penal Code, the Arms Act and the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act. But neither the complainant nor the witnesses name him. They describe “someone who is fair-complexioned ” as having been associated with the scene of the crime. In another case, where Naxals were caught with weapons on 6 January 2008. Ferreira, who was accused No. 10 in the case, was already holed up in the Nagpur jail, allegedly part of the conspiracy from inside his cell.

Which is why, in September 2011, the court, hearing the last of these cases, concluded that there was no evidence against him. Each one of the cases was thrown out.

During his four-year jail stint, Ferreira completed a post-graduate diploma in human rights by correspondence from the Indian Institute of Human Rights. The subject of his thesis, ‘Political Prisoners in India’, was bizarrely going to turn into the script of his life in the days ahead. He was writing about how the state government was picking up radical thinking activists and sometimes tribals who simply belonged to ‘Naxal-affected’ or controlled areas of Gadchiroli district, and repeatedly arresting them in different cases one after another. The police would pick them up, mark them out as Naxals and then set up a chain of cases in which they were implicated. Counting on the fact that by the time the cases would be heard and the victims acquitted, a few years would pass, and so they’d be in jail and away from the political activism for some time.

From his cell, Ferreira and fellow activist-inmate Vernon Gonzalves drafted a petition for a tribal couple from Gadchiroli who had 40 cases against them. As soon as the court acquitted the couple, new cases were slapped on them.

FERREIRA WROTE of how this pattern of re-arrests was actually illegal. “Without any justification, such re-arrests would be unjust, unfair and unreasonable and in contempt of the orders for release by the court.” And also his own deductive logic behind the pattern — “Violations under the garb of countering Maoism, which hitherto remained confined to the hinterland, has now reached cities like Delhi, Surat, Kolkata, etc. Given the Centre’s patronage, every state police department is eager to show the arrest of Naxal suspects by fabricating evidence, conjuring crimes of sedition and prolonging the incarceration by re-arrests. Such strategies will enable the states to join the anti-Naxal bandwagon, resulting in a free flow of funds and assistance.”

The strange twist to Ferreira’s thesis was this: exactly the same was about to happen to him.

The cases against Ferreira, leading to his immediate re-arrest, date back to February and March 2007. Why, ask his lawyers, didn’t the police come up with the chargesheets earlier?

“The idea seems to be — Let him rot in jail and when he’s out we will slap on a few more cases,” says lawyer Susan Abraham, who’s familiar with Ferreira’s predicament and is also fighting to free her husband, Gonzalves. “The judge acquits but it is the police that is imposing a life sentence.”

Journalist Gurbir Singh says he took the cases of Ferreira and other activists to Maharashtra Home Minister RR Patil, with questions about whether Ferreira was being targeted for his beliefs. “If you take the case of Arun Ferreira or the Dalit poet activist Sudhir Dawale (similarly arrested) who are supposed to be sympathetic to the Maoists, they never charge them with these crimes,” says Singh.

When TEHELKA confronted Patil, the minister pointed out that Ferreira’s acquittals only mean those cases didn’t stand up in court. “Just because people are let off in cases on technical grounds does not mean they are not Naxals or connected with Naxals,” he says. What was the proof that Ferreira had committed the crimes attributed to him, or even organised resistance? Patil went on the defensive. “I will go by what the court advocate says and then get back to you,” he retorted.

The heart of the matter is this. If Ferreira should be arrested for his ideas, then where does this process of measuring the danger quotient of an idea really stop? Are we allowing the State to turn itself into a Thought Police?

But attached to this is another equally uncomfortable question. If a Naxal ideologue can be held guilty of crimes against the State for his ideas, then so can a politician be accused for inciting a mob in the 1984 anti-Sikh riots or the 2002 Gujarat riots, or the tearing down of the Babri mosque in 1992 that later led to the 1993 Mumbai blasts and riots. And this trajectory of questions leads up to a larger question. What kind of democracy are we and what would we like to be? How much dissent is okay before it amounts to tearing away at the State? On the other hand, do we give the right to the State to put us away only for our ideas?

Nagpur University professor Shoma Sen knows Ferreira as a fellow activist and is someone whose husband is also in jail for similar reasons. She sketched out this ‘grey area’ more clearly. “There is no crime such as Maoism or Naxalism. The ideology is not a criminal offence. So what the State does is to book these people under certain criminal offences.”

Mahrukh Adenwala, a Mumbai-based lawyer who has been fighting a clutch of cases like Ferreira’s, says that in the purely legal sense, this is an open-and-shut case. Where the State is the oppressor and Ferreira its victim.

“The State is attacking a particular ideology. It is deciding which ideologies are acceptable to them and which are not and that I feel is incorrect,” she says. “An urban person going to an area, who’s intelligent enough to reach out and create public opinion against some of the State’s policies is something they are extremely scared of. Because people do start listening.”

The political ‘grey area’ doesn’t explain the vacant look on Ferreira’s father’s face as his wife tries to describe what it’s like to live in waiting. The couple, in their mid- 70s, in their simple, spartan flat in a bylane in Bandra, spoke of the day he was to be released. Of having cooked up a storm after four years, expecting their son to come back home, only to see the jail gates open and then suddenly ram shut, with a police jeep whisking away Ferreira again.

‘Grey area’ also doesn’t explain the fact that Ferreira’s wife has to let their fouryear- old son believe his father’s on work abroad and is saving to buy him a car. “We were on holiday when we heard about Ferreira’s arrest in 2007,” says his mother, her voice faltering. “I said, if my son has done all these things, then please God, take him away. But I knew he can’t. That’s not him.”

And then his family showed his letters from Nagpur Central Jail. Here’s one dated 25 June 2010:

Dear Mummy,

You seemed worried… I know things seem to be dragging endlessly but as you said, worrying isn’t going to change anything.

And another one dated 25 December 2008:

Enjoy yourselves this Christmas. Especially feast on the vindaloo and sorpotel. My mouth has already begun to water.
Given the Centre’s patronage, every state police is eager to show the arrest of Naxal suspects

BANDU MESRAM, a former inmate who made friends with Ferreira at the Nagpur Central Jail, has an equally grisly story to tell. Sitting in his one-room tenement in Nagpur, the tailor says the police picked him up on a Naxal-related charge purely in a case of mistaken identity. “But no matter how many times I told them, I am not Bhanu, I am Bandu Mesram, a tailor, they refused to listen. Then they produced a false witness, testifying that I’m in fact Bhanu, allegedly someone who supplied Naxals with an AK-47 rifle.” Then, bizarrely, the real Bhanu was found… but not arrested in this case! For that, Mesram continued to be in jail. His plea fell on deaf police ears, who he claims put him through extreme torture. Electrodes to his nipples while he was made to stand in water. Beaten with a whip made from the conveyor belt material — ‘falanga’ that leaves no marks — something Ferreira was also subject to and has written about. “Confess, confess, confess,” he was told. Now Mesram is back home, revisited by the nightmares of what he was put through in jail. And a wife that pleads with him to give up his activism.

Which brings us right back to the original question: Is this story about a victim or a Naxal? There are no easy answers. But a few things are amply clear. If Ferreira’s voice is blotted out or ignored, that could feed into the large machine of State repression. And allow the State to virtually become the Thought Police.

But what has to be taken on board alongside, is the added complexity — where Ferreira’s political views collide with that of the State. And inhabit a grey zone, in which Naxal activism operates. It’s perhaps in seeing the greys that it is possible to see the State as oppressive but also pushed to the wall in self-defence. And activists as the oppressed but also as people who can also have their share of doublespeak. Sometimes shifting conveniently from radical, anti-State anarchists, to citizens demanding their rights from the same State they have just torn apart.

Ferreira’s freedom may even have to do more with the greys of the political tapestry than the black-and-white legal space. His chances of staying out of jail may, if his version of events are to be believed, depend on it. Indeed, one-third of our country that’s grappling with one form of violence or another emanating from India’s “greatest internal security threat” is also looking in a larger sense, at what Ferreira is. For a way out of the mess. A good start could be to see the picture as not a stark, fissured land, but a more layered set of discomfitures on both sides.

For now, the representative of this ‘grey zone’ smiled as the inspector rapped his baton on the door. It was time. “Write a larger story, that’s not just about me,” Ferreira said and walked away. Leaving many unanswered questions on our plate. Having opened up a whole new way of looking at the vexing Naxal question.

Revati Laul is a Special Correspondent with Tehelka.

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