Arun Thomas Fereira was arrested on May 8, 2007 and eight cases under UAPA were foisted on him in Maharashtra. His arrest had made headlines in the media at that time. None of the charges against him could stand up to legal scrutiny in the courts. In 2008, he was implicated in a case in which eleven students from Chandrapur were arrested for Maoist links. Though he was in jail at the time, Arun was also added on as an accused. On Friday 23rd September, 2011, he was acquitted in this case as well.
After spending four years and four months in prison as an under-trial in which period he was subject to various degrees of torture, Arun was supposed to be released on 27th September, 2011 at 2.30 pm from Nagpur Central Jail, acquitted of all charges that the state of Maharashtra had foisted against him over the years. His father, mother and brother were at the prison waiting for his release. So was his lawyer. As Arun was walking out of the jail, some unidentified persons forcibly pulled him in front of the jail gate, covered his mouth with hands, held him by his neck, dragged him to a numberless Tata sumo, forcibly pushed him inside the sumo and left the jail premises. All of this took place in front of Arun’s family and his lawyer.
When his lawyer asked the police officials at the jail to intervene, they stayed put and instead assaulted and threatened Arun’s lawyer. Later in the evening, Arun’s lawyer was informed that he had been taken to Purada police station and arrested in Crime No. 14/2007 which was a case registered in 2007 at Puroda Police Station. Arun was abducted by commandos of CGO, Gadchiroli.
This is another in a long line of incidents where complete mockery of justice is the norm rather than exception. We have witnessed repeatedly in the last two decades draconian action by police in different states encouraged and directed by the executive machinery. The various avatars of draconian anti-terror laws have given the police unmitigated powers in exercising their birth-rights (inherited since colonial times and perpetuated in the subsequent post-independence decades) as abductors, torturers and encounter killers.
The mainstream media did report Arun’s abduction in a few lines tucked away in a corner and suitable blasé to ensure that it catches as little attention as possible in the world of ‘competing news’. Binayak Sen had become too big a celebrity to be ignored. But the other Binayak Sens who are not called Binayak Sen are a different matter.
Why is Arun a threat to the state?
Custody deaths, torture, long periods of incarcerations without trial are part of the unfolding story of a vicious cycle of violence and encounter killings perpetrated by the state in the name of justice. Arun is one of many young civil rights activists in India. His crimes maybe listed out as the following:
1. While in Nagpur prison, he wrote a thesis on ‘Political Prisoners in India’ as part of the requirement for his long distance Two Years Distance Learning Postgraduate Programme in Human Rights in which he made the following points:
· In recent history, and especially after the 9/11 events, many democratic and struggling people throughout our country have been subjected to State repression. The then US President led ‘global war on terror’ has come to mean a war against peoples’ movements. Hundreds and thousands of such activists or supporters of such movements have been tortured, imprisoned or eliminated in false encounters. In almost every State of the country, struggles waged by the people for the fulfilment of their constitutionally guaranteed rights have met with such forms of ‘State terror’.
· In such a situation, any opposition to State rule or dissent is viewed as a threat, necessitating it to be persecuted and silenced. Thus increasing the number of politically motivated arrests, false encounters and disappearances. The democratic space for dissent has been minimised with this state repression.
· The further plunder by MNCs or big corporate houses like those afore mentioned has caused more and more land to be ‘legally confiscated’ in the name of SEZs or big projects from the peasants or tribals, forcing their widespread displacement. Struggles against these ‘projects’ have broken out in hitherto ‘peaceful’ areas such as in Singur and Nandigram ( W. Bengal), Kalinganagar, Niyamgiri (Orissa), etc. Further with decreasing government expenditure on social and economic benefits for the marginalised sections, the cities and metropolitan areas too have become centres of struggles against price rise, unemployment, slum demolitions, retrenchment of workers, etc. These struggles, too, have faced state repression and many of its participants have been arrested, in total violation of their rights to expression and association.
· Apart from these instances of suppressing peoples’ revolt by ‘law and order’ methods, the exploiting classes have also resorted to fascist attacks on religious and ethnic minorities. In the past couple of decades, it has been the Muslims and recently the Christians who have become victims of these attacks. While the perpetrators of these crimes of genocide such as Gujarat (2002) or Kandhamal (2008) have easily evaded imprisonment, many innocent Muslims on the other hand have been imprisoned merely on suspicion, as Bangladeshis or because they choose to organise themselves and defend themselves from attacks on their community. Today, thousands of such Muslims are incarcerated in the prisons across the country on the pretext of being ISI agents or anti-nationals.
· In this scheme of silencing those who dissent, the prison has become an important component. Tens of thousands of such struggling masses have been imprisoned because they dared to speak and act in the interest of the people, even if such acts would constitute ‘a crime’ as defined by the State. For political reasons, it is in the interest of the State to see that these proclaimed ‘enemies of the state’ or ‘terrorists’ be incarcerated under charges that appear to be ‘serious’ enough to justify prolonged imprisonment. For this purpose the Indian State has gone beyond its colonial legacy and has enacted several special legislations down the years… By such legislations, the armed forces are provided with extraordinary powers and relaxed conditions to ‘effectively deal’ with insurgencies regardless of human rights norms, as in the case of Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, Disturbed Areas Act, etc. Further, existing provisions for bail and examination of evidence are ‘amended’ so as to ensure incarceration and convictions as in the case of Terrorist and Disruptive Activities Act (TADA), Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA), Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act ((MCOCA), etc. Such special laws not only aim to criminalise such movements as acts (read offences) of terrorism but have also sought to criminalise a thought or intent. The POTA, and its replacement, ie the currently effective Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967, (amended in 2004 and 2008) has declared a number of political organisations illegal and ‘terrorist’ and has defined membership or support of such organisations as ‘crimes’.
· Once arrested and put into prison, the stigmatization and persecution of such a political rebel continues. Such jails become centres of torture and the rights of the now imprisoned rebel are denied or compromised on the pretext of security. Any remaining spirit of rebellion or self respect is now sought to be crushed in the prisons’ daily humiliating conditions. Such an activist or individual is continuously kept in prolonged incarceration by implicating him/her in numerous cases under special laws or by re-arresting after acquittals in earlier cases or by forcing convictions through fabrication of evidence or by denial of bail given the stringent provisions of these special laws. It is in this stigmatization process of being branded as ‘criminal’ or ‘terrorist’ that such a prisoner forcefully reasserts the true political reasons of his/her incarceration and his/her legitimate struggle by demanding the recognition of ‘political prisoner-hood’ and struggles for the same. True to his/her political nature, such a political prisoner also mobilizes opinion within and outside the prisons for reform in the oppressive prison conditions.
2. Arun not only completed his Masters degree from prison, but kept up his relentless campaign against draconian anti-terror laws. In his article in the EPW in May 2010 on The Prevention of Torture Bill, 2010, he showed how the bill only pays lip service to the obligations set by the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment to which India is a signatory and is nothing but a mere eyewash. The proposed legislation is not only a climb- down from the standards set by the UN Convention against Torture, but, in many ways, is in direct opposition to the basic norm of adherence to at least the minimum standards set down with respect to the right to freedom from torture.
3. Arun organized along with his fellow political prisoners in Nagpur against the plight of political prisoners. In his ‘field report’ from the prison on ‘ State of Human Rights in the State of Maharashtra’, he wrote:
I have been incarcerated as an under trial in the Nagpur Central Prison, for more than three years. Due to which, I have come in close contact with the workings of our criminal justice system and all its constituents – be it the police, judiciary or prison administration. Incarcerated for my political belief and convictions, I along with other political prisoners have continuously sought to stand up and speak against human rights violations, especially those perpetuated by the State. We have tried to expose such violations by numerous legal representations, petitions, press statements, public appeals and symbolic hunger strikes. Experience in prison has exposed us to blatant injustices and violations by the administration which are at times unbelievable to the larger public.
The Paranoid March of Liberal Democracy
Arun Ferreira obviously refused to be silenced. That was his only crime and for which he is a threat to the state. However there are many who have stood up for him for daring to commit this crime including his alma mater St Xavier’s College, Mumbai.
From Mumia Abu Jamal to Babar Ahmad, the world has been witness to the heinous crimes against individuals who have dared to stand up to victimization by the biggest terrorists in this world –the imperialist state machineries and their cavorting corporate partners. In India after two decades of unbridled neoliberal experiments, with the narrowing of the class basis of the state and the concomitant rise in anti-state struggles of those who have been at the receiving end of the state supported plunder by corporates of life, livelihood and habitat of the ‘people of the country’, state functionaries from the highest level to the lowest have become paranoid to any kind of resistance that dares to fall out of line with the docile path of ‘good governance’ and conservative conforming prior-approved controlled dissent.
But there is method in this paranoia. NREGA activist, Niyamat Ansari’s murderers who were self-confessed Maoists are yet to be apprehended while civil rights activists like Arun Ferreira and others are incarcerated on the basis of concocted frivolous charges of being Maoists and/or possible perpetrators of ‘unlawful’ activities.
Democracy for an insignificant minority, democracy for the rich–that is the democracy of capitalist society. If we look more closely into the machinery of capitalist democracy, we see everywhere, in the “petty”–supposedly petty–details of the suffrage (residential qualifications, exclusion of women, etc.), in the technique of the representative institutions, in the actual obstacles to the right of assembly (public buildings are not for “paupers”!), in the purely capitalist organization of the daily press, etc., etc.,–we see restriction after restriction upon democracy. These restrictions, exceptions, exclusions, obstacles for the poor seem slight, especially in the eyes of one who has never known want himself and has never been in close contact with the oppressed classes in their mass life (and nine out of 10, if not 99 out of 100, bourgeois publicists and politicians come under this category); but in their sum total these restrictions exclude and squeeze out the poor from politics, from active participation in democracy. (V I Lenin, State and Revolution)
Acknowledgments: Jawahar Raja, Susan Abraham and Haridas