Arun Ferreira smiles easily. The four years and eight months of incarceration, as an alleged Naxalite/Maoist, sit lightly on the 40-year-old quintessential Bandra boy. Released on January 5 from Nagpur Central Jail—acquitted in 10 of the 11 cases and bailed in one—Ferreira is taking his time to readjust to his life with family and friends in Mumbai. He must build anew the relationship with his son, who was barely two-and-a-half years old when he was arrested on May 8, 2007. And everyday technology, like mobile phones, is no longer what he remembers it to be. “I tried texting and I was all thumbs,” he says. “There’s some adjustment to do there.” Ferreira’s wife Jennifer, a sociology lecturer, didn’t visit him in jail for months for fear of being arrested as a Maoist sympathiser too.
Ferreira’s easy manner and smile belie his personal pain, and the weighty larger issue of political prisoners, individuals arrested and tortured for holding and propagating ideologies. Ferreira is a statistic in the long list of those taken into custody since Prime Minister Manmohan Singh termed Naxalism and Maoism the “gravest threat” to the country. But Ferreira’s is also the story of how law enforcement authorities make a mess of addressing the “threat”, if indeed it is one.
Ferreira was arrested in Nagpur in 2007 while he was on “social work”, along with alleged Naxal leader Arun Satya Reddy alias Murali, local leaders Dhanendra Bhurule and Naresh Bansod. Eight cases under Sections 10, 13, 18, 20 of Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) and one under the Arms Act were lodged against him. The Maharashtra police, at that time, stated that Ferreira was the Maharashtra chief of communication and propaganda wing of the CPI (Maoist) and was in Nagpur to carry out a conspiracy along with his comrades. Ferreira, according to the police, operated under several aliases—Sanjay Chaudhary, Shukla among them.
In December 2009, Ferreira was “re-arrested” on a fresh set of charges. By September 23, 2011, Ferreira was acquitted in these cases by a court in Chandrapur. He was, legally speaking, no longer an alleged or suspected Maoist. Four days later, his aged parents waited at the Nagpur Central Jail to welcome him as a free man, but Ferreira did not walk out. Inside the jail gate, he was accosted by burly men in plain clothes, a towel thrown over his face and he was whisked away in a van ostensibly by the Gadchiroli police. He was produced the next day in court with two new charges pressed against him, cases that he had not been made aware of all the four years he spent in prison. It was plain and simple abduction, says his lawyer Surendra Gadling even if the authorities called it a “re-arrest”.
That episode galvanised Ferreira’s friends into action; online and offline petitions garnered some 6,000-plus signatures, the condemnations came fast and furious from the prestigious St Xavier’s College, from where Ferreira had graduated in mathematics in 1990; the Bombay Catholic Sabha, the Catholic Secular Forum and so on. Congress MP Priya Dutt wrote to Maharashtra chief minister Prithiviraj Chavan. The three others, arrested along with Ferreira, had all been acquitted. “This is the modus operandi,” says Ferreira. “It begins with false cases and chargesheets, opposing bail without grounds, then abducting or re-arresting those who have been acquitted or given bail by the courts. The idea seems to be: you are a so-and-so and I will keep you behind bars somehow or the other.”
Citing his case, the Indian Association of People’s Lawyers (IAPL) filed a writ petition before the Nagpur bench of the Bombay High Court for infringement of fundamental rights of liberty and freedom of movement, demanded a judicial inquiry into his abduction, a compensation of `25 lakh and apology for harassing him by implicating him in false cases. “There has been a spate of such cases in Maharashtra in the last couple of years. It’s a larger issue of political prisoners,” says Justice (retd) Hosbet Suresh. “If I work for downtrodden children or hold a particular opinion, I can be arrested. This cannot go on. In a sense, we have many Binayak Sens.” In fact, rights activists have prepared a list of nearly 30 such abduction-rearrests by Gadchiroli police between July and December 2011.
Maharashtra home minister R.R. Patil declined to comment, but analysts have their knives out already. “If, as the state police said, he was ‘a prize catch’, how come he was acquitted? It means the police were not able to prove anything at all,” says a rights campaigner. Ferreira’s case shows, among other things, the high-handedness, followed by embarrassment, of the law enforcement agencies—initially desperate to show the arrests of those with uncomfortable or extreme ideologies but unable to make those charges stick.