Kerala cops’ campaign to criminalise dissent


Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act is being used to harass and arrest activists and snuff out criticism and opposition to government policies.

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Malayali social media is known to be substantially alive to people’s issues. Within that, the Facebook page of Kerala social activist and blogger, Jaison C Cooper is a particularly lively space. Here, support for the long-standing adivasi “Standing Struggle” protest and anger at indiscriminate environmental degradation rub shoulders with opinion and debate on Kiss of Love and Obama’s visit – all actively shared, liked and vigorously commented upon. From 29th January, 2015 however, an eerie stillness rules – that was the day Jaison was picked up from his office at the State Insurance Department in Kochi and placed under arrest.

The very next day, Adv Thushar Sarathy, secretary of the People’s Human Rights Forum and of the Kerala Chapter of the Committee for the Release of Political Prisoners (CRPP), was picked up at Kozhikode from the site of a press conference. Both Cooper and Sarathy were charged with the crime of ‘unlawful activity’ u/s 13(b) of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act [UAPA]. Their crime was “spreading Maoist thought“. The evidence against them was nothing more than the “pro-Maoist” literature allegedly seized from their homes.

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The two arrests were part of a much larger crackdown spread out over many of the districts of North Kerala. The Kochi city special branch even conducted a combing operation of the men’s hostel of Maharaja College in search of Maoist sympathisers, but only ended up booking two students for possession of ganja. On the evening of 1st February, Students Islamic Organisation leader Shahid M Shameem and Uday Balakrishnan of Youth Dialogue were picked up off a street in Kannur merely because their appearance aroused suspicions in the police that they were Maoists. They were released the next afternoon after intense online and offline protest. Similarly activists in Ernakulam and Wayanad districts, whose houses were raided at night, could prevent their books being taken off by demanding that the police give a seizure receipt – a statutory requirement which they did not want to comply with. On 22nd-23rd December, the midnight knock came for the Thrissur office of a monthly magazine, Keraleeyam, noted for highlighting tribal issues. Computers and materials were seized and three staffers sleeping on the premises were taken in only to be released the next day after extensive protests.

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Not everyone has however managed to get let off. The last week of December 2014 had seen the arrest in Palakkad district of Sreekanth Prabhakaran, a B.Ed student, and Arun Balan, a journalism student. Raids on their homes in Kasargode, Kerala’s northernmost district, had allegedly yielded pro-Maoist and other Left literature and this was considered sufficient evidence to hold them under UAPA. They continue to remain in jail due to the stringent anti-bail provisions.

UAPA provisions criminalise thought!

Thus the Kerala police are adopting the classical model of security agencies throughout the country of using UAPA and other anti-terror laws to stifle protest and stamp out resistance to the establishment viewpoint. The bare provisions of the UAPA law do not require that any physical act of violence or intimidation be committed to constitute a terror crime. The enunciation of various penal and procedural provisions related to “unlawful association”, ‘unlawful activity”, “terrorism”, “terrorist organization”, are so all-encompassing as to make it easy to ban an organization and to criminalise anything indicative of even sympathy or support for an ideology or organization, or espousal of causes similar to those taken up by an ‘unlawful’ association.

Recently there has been a perceptible groundswell of genuine opposition from large sections of civil society in Kerala on a number of issues, particularly the exploitation of tribals and their displacement from traditional homelands in Kerala’s northern forests and the large-scale grabbing of scarce natural resources and poisoning of the environment by foreign and big Indian corporates. A number of peoples’ organizations have been successful in mobilizing in large numbers against government policies in this regard. Simultaneously, the CPI(Maoist), which is proscribed under UAPA, has also been championing similar demands and taking stands against the government and corporates. This commonality or even mere similarity of objectives has been treated by the police as sufficient ‘proof’ to target activists for ‘terrorist’ or ‘unlawful’ activity. This perverse logic extends to even the simple possession of literature that propagates issues that the CPI(Maoist) has talked about.

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Thus the list of subversive literature submitted in court as evidence of Adv Sarathy’s culpability under UAPA includes an article collection entitled “Vinasa Vikasanam” (destructive development). This collection, published in 2012 and prefaced by eminent economist Dr MA Oommen, comprises essays critical of the Emerging Kerala Summit held by the State Government promoting Kerala as an investment destination for private capital. Police reasoning here is apparent – if you propagate against, or even possess material that propagates against government development policy and big corporates, you are guilty of ‘unlawful activity’ or probably even “terrorism”. Sarathy’s investigating officer would probably make the absurd contention that since the CPI(Maoist) too, in statements and interviews, has talked on ‘destructive development’, Adv Sarathy’s possession of a booklet of the same name shows a link and warrants his arrest.

Of course most courts do not buy such arguments. The Supreme Court itself has ruled that the penal provisions of the UAPA and similar laws would only be applicable if the accused actually committed violence or incited to imminent violence. Thus most trials end in acquittal, but that is only after several years spent in custody due to denial of bail under the harsh UAPA provisions. Accused in similar cases, Hem Mishra, a cultural activist and student of Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, arrested in August 2013 and Dr. G N Saibaba, a professor of Delhi University, arrested in May 2014, continue, to this day, to stoically soldier on in the Anda Barrack of Nagpur Central Prison due to the power of the bail denial provisions of UAPA. They too were prominent activists in the forefront of opposition to state policies. Their continued incarceration is a standing testament of the power of such law to criminalise and penalize dissent.

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Resistance to Repression

And it is this law that the Kerala police pins its hopes on, to push resistance into retreat. The current phase of their arrests, combing, raids, seizures, interrogations, commenced in April 2014 with the release of a so-called look-out notice listing many of the most prominent names active on civil liberties and people’s rights. This and the later raids were intimidatory acts designed to frighten off at least some of those named and targeted, and to isolate the rest, who could then be put behind bars.

This may have had some impact and created some sense of aloneness among those standing, a feeling probably intended to be expressed in Jaison Cooper’s last post on his Facebook page – “I am a lone monk walking the world with a leaky umbrella”. It is Mao Zedong’s concluding comment at the end of a conversation with American journalist, Edgar Snow in December 1970.

Whatever be the import of Cooper’s post, he nevertheless would have no reason to feel alone in the response that has arisen to his and Sarathy’s arrest. There has been a surge of support throughout the country and even internationally. Within a short time Kerala has seen many protests to the arrests. Among others, Amnesty International has also called for the release of the four in prison in Kerala. A number of noted intellectuals and activists, including Arundhati Roy, have also petitioned the chief minister for releasing Cooper and Sarathy.

Have your say. You can comment here.They have unequivocally declared, “We, the undersigned, believe that this police action is a well concerted political act to silence all voices raising critical questions about the political, economical and social issues in the country.” It remains to be seen whether the silencing will succeed, or whether the reaction to the police action will build up into a movement that will bring into focus an alternative voice and view on crucial questions that concern us all.

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