Malegaon blasts case: Implications of Supreme Court’s conclusions in Lt Col Purohit’s bail judgment


We witnessed the unnerving casualness of the top court.

“I am a small fry... I blame my destiny”: Lieutenant Colonel Shrikant Prasad Purohit, speaking to the press on August 22, 2017, after the Supreme Court ordered his release on bail in the 2008 Malegaon blasts case.

We’ve done it and we’ll do it again”: Purohit and his co-accused, talking to other jail mates, at the time of their arrest, and their first entry into Arthur Road Central Prison in November 2008.

Both statements are true. The investigations initiated by Hemant Karkare, ATS chief in 2008, quite convincingly indicated that Purohit’s team “did it” – it executed a terror plan to engineer blasts in Malegaon and other Muslim-dominated areas. At the same time, it also seems true that he was not the prime architect of the larger terrorist conspiracy; he was relatively “a small fry”.

High-level involvement in terror plans

As pointed out earlier in our column, the conspiracy behind the Malegaon blasts and other similar Hindutva-inspired terror cases quite apparently extends high up, not only inside the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), but also within the state apparatus. Purohit was conducting the operations at the behest of higher-ups in the state apparatus and political setup of the country. He was thus, in reality, a somewhat minor foot soldier in a larger game plan masterminded by others.

The first judicial recognition of this fact came with the Supreme Court bail order of August 21, 2017. Among the reasons for granting him bail is the court’s “considered opinion” that Purohit “has refuted the claim of conspiracy on the ground of Intelligence inputs which he informed to his superior officers as well” (para 24 of the bail order). The Supreme Court thus accepted his contention that “it was a ‘covert operation’ of Military Intelligence” (para 14 of the bail order).

This is not the first time that Purohit has advanced the argument that he should be exonerated because his higher-ups in the Army were well-aware of the blasts plan. However, the judiciary had, until now, refused to accept either the truth or the logic of this claim.

The Bombay High Court had, less than four months earlier on April 25, 2017, specifically concluded that his acts “do not, prima facie, support the contention of the Appellant [Purohit] that he was acting under the ‘Covert Military Operation’ and was also working in discharge of his duties. If it was so, he would have immediately contacted his superior officers in the Army or, at-least, appraised the Police, who were investigating the case, about his role. At-least, he would not have any apprehension of being arrested in the case.” (para 158 of the order of the Bombay High Court rejecting Purohit’s bail application).

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Implications of SC findings

This logic of the high court and lower courts now, however, stands discarded after the setting aside of the entire April 25 judgment by the highest court of the land. The implications of this “considered opinion” of the Supreme Court are, to say the least, nightmarish. The apex court has — by setting aside the Bombay High Court judgment and agreeing prima facie with the Purohit version of “facts” that rope in his superiors — now become the first court in the country to incriminate the higher echelons of the military in a terrorist blasts conspiracy.

If Purohit is to be believed — that he was assigned as a mole and kept his seniors in the know about Abhinav Bharat’s terror activities — his bosses become equally culpable in the blasts for not passing on information in their possession to the investigation agencies. Karkare’s reasoning for keeping them out of the charge sheet was that he stood by the version that Purohit was acting on his own without the knowledge of his superiors.

This was earlier accepted by the judiciary. But now, with the Supreme Court holding otherwise, the door has been opened for seeing very senior military officers in a different light and even for implicating them in terror crime.

Hindutva communalists in high military ranks

The nightmare of Hindutva communalists in the high military ranks has often been flagged by those who have worked at those levels. Former Indian Naval Chief, Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat has even gone on record to say that he recalls briefings in the chiefs of staff committee, which were “communal and clearly biased against Muslims”. He has observed, “The RSS has always had an agenda right from 1947-48 to infiltrate the armed forces as well as the intelligence services and the bureaucracy.”

The post-bail scenes too have been extremely disquieting. The army establishment went into overdrive to organise a grand welcome for the terror accused. An advance team of officers visited the prison a day before Purohit’s release. He moved out of jail regally in an air-conditioned car with a six vehicle escort convoy of truckloads of army men. The pomp and pageantry on display could be explained, not by the excuse given of a “perceived security threat”, but more as a public assertion of the army brass as to where their sympathies lie.

Such assertions of celebration and support were also to be seen on several army and security websites and chat groups. The Military Intelligence (MI) community, in particular, went into self-congratulatory mode, with social media resounding with messages calling him “the pride of intelligencers” being circulated among MI and army personnel.

Few found it repugnant that a professedly professional army should freely fete a terrorist blast accused. It would be difficult to deny that this had to do with the religion of the accused and the religion of the targeted victims.

Charge sheet softened, Karkare slandered

Simultaneously, there has been a concerted attack on the hitherto unquestioned integrity of Hemant Karkare, the police officer who was killed in the 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks. His investigations had cracked the terror ring of Abhinav Bharat and exposed its links to higher-ups in the RSS and the state apparatus. These findings were diluted by the post-Modi NIA, who had even evicted Rohini Salian, Special Public Prosecutor, from this case, by telling her to go soft on the terror accused who had been nailed by Karkare.

Subsequent to Salian’s exit, the NIA filed a “soft” supplementary chargesheet that inexplicably dropped charges under the Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act (MCOCA), which Salian had fought all the way to the Supreme Court to preserve. This meant that all the confessions recorded under MCOCA could not be used as evidence.

The supplementary charge sheet also deliberately deviated from the original charge sheet, which had the findings of Karkare. This “variance” was the principal reason given by the court for granting bail to Purohit.

More shocking was the Supreme Court’s acceptance of Purohit’s claim that the investigators had planted RDX on the accused’s body. If Karkare were alive today, acceptance of such wild allegations by the top court would potentially have opened him to an indictment under section 194 of the Indian Penal Code for fabricating evidence in a capital offence, which carries a punishment of life imprisonment – a high price to pay for making the mistake of assuming that the Indian State is as secular as the Constitution proclaims it to be.

Bleak prospects of a secular republic

The outlook for secularism in the republic is decidedly bleak. Officers like Karkare with a will to follow the Constitution and rule of law are a rare and vanishing species. As Admiral Bhagwat had observed, the armed forces, intelligence agencies and bureaucracy have, since long, harboured ominous communal biases.

Under UPA, these biases ensured deliberate delays and feet-dragging on cases implicating the Hindutva terror outfits uncovered by Karkare. Under Modi, the bureaucracy and investigating agencies have taken definite steps to ensure the release and acquittal of culprits.

Now we have the unnerving casualness of the highest court, which, while giving credence to the claims of an accused that the highest military intelligence officers were all complicit in a terror conspiracy, does not deem it necessary to even initiate their indictment in this regard.

By Vernon Gonsalves and Arun Ferreira

http://www.dailyo.in/politics/lt-col-purohit-indian-military-malegaon-blasts-hindutva-saffron-terror-supreme-court/story/1/19210.html

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Inmate’s torture and murder in Mumbai’s Byculla Women’s Prison exposes horrors


The torture team was only keeping to a standard operating procedure that is commonly followed throughout the country’s prison system.

The recitation in the murder FIR against woman jailor Manisha Pokharkar and women jail constables Bindu Naikade, Waseema Shaikh, Shital Shegaonkar, Surekha Gulve and Aarti Shingne of Mumbai’s Byculla Women’s Prison describes deeds sinisterly similar to the acts attributed to the Nirbhaya killers, who recently had their death sentences confirmed by the Supreme Court.

On June 23, 2017, they mercilessly beat convict warder Manjula Shetye with sticks, all over her body and head. She was stripped naked, then two of the accused, Bindu and Surekha, held her legs apart and Waseema shoved her lathi into Manjula’s private parts.

Jailor Pokharkar and woman police constable Surekha Gulwe taunted her and took turns to assault Shetye. The Nirbhaya Supreme Court judgment’s adjectives – “brutal, barbaric, and demoniacal” – would well apply here too.

Nirbhaya and Byculla – similarities and differences

It is, however, the differences, rather than the similarities, that make the June 23 crime all the more chilling and horrific. The Nirbhaya convicts were all poor slum dwellers, who well knew that the crime they were committing had no social sanction and that they could have the might of the State upon them and likely face its consequences.

The Byculla killers, on the other hand, were middle class employees, who had been tutored and mentored to wear such violent crimes as a badge of honour, who were assured that the whole state machinery would not only protect them from any consequences, but also likely shower them with accolades.

Events so far show that their confidence in the state apparatus has not been misplaced. The office of the topmost prison official of the Mumbai Metropolitan Region – the  Special Inspector General of Police (prisons), southern region – literally overlooks the prison where the crime openly took. The murder took place under its oversight, its cover-up also would.

Beating, stripping and sexual assault

Manjula was brutalised in two installments. First, around 10.30 am, when she was called to Pokharkar’s office regarding her complaint of shortage in the supply of eggs and paav loaves and was viciously beaten and dragged by her hair, with her sari pulled round her neck, back to the barracks. The second round in the afternoon was a lengthy torture session, including stripping, sexual abuse and assault.

Sushma Ramteke, a former Byculla Prison inmate and victim of jailor brutality, recounts how the office, which is at some distance from the barracks, was the jailors’ choice locale for beating recalcitrant prisoners into submission.

While what transpired there will remain disputed, it seems the jail administration felt that a public power display was required to not only cow down Manjula further, but also to terrorise the prisoners who were objecting to the shortages and the corruption it implied.

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Standard operating procedure of prison torture

Jails in Maharashtra have an afternoon bandhi lock-up period between noon and 3pm, when all inmates are locked in their cells or barracks. It is at this time the torture team opened the locked barrack where Manjula was lodged and attacked her for the second time.

The torture team was only keeping to a standard operating procedure that is commonly followed throughout the country’s prison system: ensure that all prisoners have been locked in, perform the torture in view of those you want to terrorise, prevent both victim and captive audience from opening their mouths to the outside world.

It was as per this modus operandi that Manjula was tormented for over an hour and then left bruised and bleeding in the midst of the barrack as a lesson for all. Though it must have been amply clear to all the jail staff on duty that Manjula was in dire need of hospitalisation, the rule of silence in the jail torture protocol ensured that even the most sympathetic jail employee would not lift a finger.

A prisoner injured by torture is supposed to be denied medical aid, particularly outside medical help, until the wounds and bruises subside a bit, at least to the level of plausible deniability. If the prisoner dies in the meantime, then no problem – dead men (and women) tell no tales – and there is a highly accommodative and cooperative medical and law enforcement fraternity out there, who are willing to oblige in the cover-up.

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Operation Cover-up

This is just what happened on the night of June 23. It was only after the prisoners had been locked up for the night and after Manjula was clearly dead, that the jail medical officer was called to examine her lifeless body.

She was sent to the JJ Hospital, the principal government medical facility in Maharashtra, which is barely a kilometre away from the jail. She was declared brought dead. The first story given out by the jail administration was that Manjula had suffered a heart attack.

The prison medical officer, Dr Khan, is a qualified pediatrician, with around a decade of service at Byculla Prison, as well the much larger Arthur Road Central Prison. He has had a rich experience of examining jail torture victims over the years. There is no way he could have missed the severe bruises on Manjula’s body and scalp and mistakenly thought it to be a case of cardiac arrest.

But there is also no way the heart attack story could have been given by the jail officialdom without the assured connivance of Dr Khan. Thus, the good doctor and the good jail superintendent (Shri Indurkar, a 2016 President’s Meritorious Correctional Service Medal awardee, who was in Pune on the day of the murder) and quite probably the good Special IG Prisons next door (Shri Rajvardhan Sinha, a 2014 President’s Meritorious Police Service Medal awardee) came together to make up a story of heart failure in order to cover-up the murder by jail employees.

The JJ Hospital authorities did not show any signs of contradicting this false heart attack story, nor did the police register any FIR till well after a very public agitation broke out from the prison inmates themselves.

The bruises and bleeding on the body had been disclosed in the police inquest panchnama itself, so there could be no valid reason for the hospital to delay the postmortem for almost 24 hours and for the police to delay the investigation and FIR for a still longer time. The delay can only be explained by an apparent readiness to collaborate in the cover-up conspiracy.

Inmates’ protest brings out the truth

It was only the creative means that the women prison inmates adopted the next morning to publicise the murderous truth that put paid to the criminal collusions of the state organs. The Byculla jail is situated on Clare Road, a busy Mumbai artery, swarming with traffic for over 20 hours in a day.

The next morning, women climbed up on the terrace on one of the barracks that overlooks the road and managed through screams, banging of plates and burning of papers to attract the attention of passers-by and traffic.

Videos of the protest were taken from the road and started appearing in the electronic media. Male police were brought in for lathi-charging and beating the protesters into submission. All this forced the jail, police and hospital authorities to give up their plan of a total cover-up.

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Operation Cover-up Plan B

Plan B of Operation Cover-up is now in motion. The Addl DG Prisons announced the suspension of six jail employees for dereliction of duty and ordered an inquiry by the prison department led by DIG Prisons, Swati Sathe. While the macabre irony of referring to rape and murder as “dereliction of duty” was lost on the Addl DG, it was left to DIG Sathe to make clear, by her subsequent statements, that her inquiry was targeted not at tracking and tackling the violence of the murderers, but at nailing and punishing those who had brought these crimes to light.

The JJ Hospital authorities, despite having senior forensic professors available, assigned such a sensitive postmortem case to two trainees and a lecturer, who have not expressed an opinion on the sexual assault and the jail story of heart attack. The police, while being forced to register an FIR for murder, have not applied the sections pertaining to sexual assault and misuse of official position that are apparent from the complaint, nor have they shown any sign of investigating the larger conspiracy of the other staffers and seniors, who have backed the killers and covered up for them.

They even inordinately delayed the arrest of the torture squad by six days, giving them ample opportunity to fabricate a story, while even going missing to seek anticipatory bail. They have also imposed a case of rioting and criminal conspiracy on all 291 women jail inmates.

As it would be absurd to assume that each and every woman inmate, several having infants and children with them, could have conspired and participated in rioting, this move seems more as a move to silence potential witnesses.

The jail administration is also doing its bit by following Saturday’s lathi-charge with further threats of beating, mass punishments and jail transfers. As Operation Cover-up proceeds full steam ahead, the man who must be in the know, Maharashtra CM and home minister Devendra Fadnavis declares benignly, “Whatever the truth is, it will come out soon”.

Policy of condoning and rewarding perpetrators of custodial violence

Thus, despite the best efforts of the women prisoners of Byculla Prison, the likelihood of Justice for Manjula remains a distant dream. Three of the accused – Bindu, Surekha and Waseema – were named in March 2012 in a complaint of assault filed in court by political prisoners Sushma Ramteke, Angela Sontakke and Jyoti Chorge. Surekha and Waseema again figured in an assault on Ramteke and another Bangladeshi pregnant prisoner in November 2013.

After a fact-finding report by the Committee for the Protection of Democratic Rights (CPDR) and a complaint in court, an inquiry was ordered by the court, which remains pending. This “lax” approach of courts possibly encouraged them to new heights of cruelty.

Such condoning of custodial torture and violence however extends right up to the topmost levels of the judicial arm of the state. DIG Swati Sathe herself was indicted by the Bombay High Court for one of the most violent planned attacks on prisoners in Mumbai in recent times, when she was superintendent of the Arthur Road Central Prison in June 2008.

An inquiry into the attack by the principal district and sessions judge, Mumbai, had found that she had used excessive force for extraneous reasons and the high court had ordered criminal proceedings against her. However the Supreme Court, while paying lip service to the bane of custodial excesses, retracted the high court order and left it to the state government to decide whether or not to proceed against Sathe.

This was done by the apex court knowing full well where the State’s sympathies lay. The government had, during the pendency of the appeal against the high court indictment, already rewarded her with one of the earliest promotions of a prison cadre official from superintendent to DIG. With Sathe now in the lead of Operation Cover-up, the likelihood of the Byculla killers being applauded with similar career advances is firmly on the cards.

By Vernon Gonsalves and Arun Ferreira

http://www.dailyo.in/variety/custodial-torture-murder-devendra-fadnavis-byculla-womens-prison-manjula-shetye/story/1/18138.html

Saibaba, Maruti Suzuki and Aseemanand rulings: Burden of ‘development’ and Hindutva


Judiciary leans to favour a corporate development narrative; NIA remains soft on Hindutva terror.

“Saibaba ko phaasi do” was the slogan that greeted members of human rights organisations from across India assembled at Nagpur on April 8, 2017, for a meeting on “Repression on Social Movements and the Judiciary”. It was a demonstration outside the meeting venue by a clutch of self-styled anti-Naxalite organisations, led by the recently formed Bhumkaal Sanghatan.

‘Mastermind’ Saibaba

The demand of death sentence was for 90 per cent disabled Delhi University professor Dr GN Saibaba who, along with four others, had just a month earlier been sentenced to life imprisonment by the Court of Sessions of Gadchiroli, Maharashtra, for membership and support of the Maoist party.

The demonstrators told the press that their demand was justified, as Saibaba was the “mastermind” of Naxalite violence.

It may seem ridiculous that anyone could think it possible that somebody who is wheel-chair bound, with full-time teaching responsibilities at Delhi, over a 1,000km away, could be the mastermind of the Naxalite movement in central India. But think again before writing this off as the fevered rants of fringe elements.

In fact, these demonstrators were only echoing the outpourings of the ANO (anti-Naxalite operations) police cell. It is the ANO that had, through a press statement within a week of the Saibaba judgment, indirectly criticised the Supreme Court for ordering the release of Saibaba, by claiming that he was the mastermind of 72 violent offences that had been registered while he was out on bail.

This mastermind storyline was widely publicised in the media. Saibaba was in hospital for most of his bail period, but no one asked the ANO how he could direct violent operations over such a distance from his hospital bed. More importantly, no one thought fit to question the police why none of the 72 FIRs registered had even named this so-called mastermind.

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A fraudulent development narrative

This casual distortion of logic and truth has been a hallmark of much of what such agencies have spouted in recent years. Such stories aim at shoring up a fraudulent narrative that development – a nasty euphemism for big industry projects that displace and destroy local lives – is being held up by violent resistance devised and even directed by “white collar Naxalites” in far-off metros.

Organisations that are closely linked to security agencies would naturally be expected to remain faithful to this official “development” theme. Journalists are supposed to be more discerning, however, but even that is too much to ask of large sections of today’s mainstream media.

The problem however acquires disquieting dimensions when trial court judges start buying deep into this narrative. This can be seen in the judgment of Judge Shinde, the principal district and sessions judge of the Gadchiroli court.

The judgment seems to be gripped with a desire to see a particular type of “development” in Gadchiroli. Opposition to an iron and steel project at Surjagad is considered proof of being anti-development, and possession of a pamphlet against it is considering incriminating. Such is the judge’s fascination with this project that Surjagad is mentioned no less than 11 times in the judgment.

This despite the project itself being of dubious legality. Seventy gram sabhas in the area have voted against the project and without their approval, the project itself is rendered illegal as per the provisions of PESA (Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act).

Life sentence not sufficient

This however does not stop the judge from giving his understanding of development (or lack of it) a central place in his judgment. Even at the stage of pronouncing punishment, he says, at Para 1013 “…the situation of Gadchiroli district from 1982 till today is in a paralysed condition and no industrial and other developments are taking place because of fear of Naxalite and their violent activities. Hence, in my opinion, the imprisonment for life is also not a sufficient punishment to the accused (emphasis added by us) but the hands of the court are closed (sic)…”

He is so enthralled by the development narrative that he feels that the only appropriate punishment for those standing in its way is a death sentence – the only sentence harsher than life imprisonment. Since there is nothing in the charges, chargesheet or judgment that even alleges (leave aside proves) that any of the accused have engaged in violent activities, it seems that even non-violent opposition to big project “development” is a capital crime.

This bias is amply evident throughout the judgment. It ensured an undeserved conviction and an unjust sentence.

Maruti Suzuki: where unionisation becomes a criminal act

Another case decided around the same time was the Maruti Workers Union judgment decided by the Gurgaon (Gurugram) Sessions Court, Haryana. The case was vastly different and the socio-economic conditions of the two places too are vastly different – Gadchiroli is a forested, unindustrialised district, while Gurgaon is one of the most modern enclaves of the country.

However, here too the same development narrative, albeit another version, was being played out before the courts during the course of the trial.

In this case, an astonishing 148 workers had been implicated in the death of a manager who had been burnt in an unexplained fire during a protest at the Maruti Suzuki plant at Manesar, Gurgaon, in July 2012. They had all been kept in prison for long periods, many throughout the trial, which lasted four years and eight months.

Finally, 13 workers got a life sentence, 18 got imprisonment for various terms and 117 were acquitted. The workers’ actual crime was that they had formed a union of their choice and had demanded the regularisation of the contract workers in the plant.

This “crime” of fighting for their rights resulted in them being denied bail for years despite none having any previous criminal record and there being no substantial reason for keeping them behind bars. Courts at various levels who refused bail seemed to be bending backwards to satisfy big Indian and foreign corporates who wanted to crush the labour movement.

Clearing the way for foreign investors

The development narrative here was one of attracting foreign investment. It was voiced most articulately by Justice Puri of the Punjab and Haryana High Court who, while rejecting bail observed: “The incident is a most unfortunate occurrence which has lowered the reputation of India in the estimation of the world. Foreign investors are not likely to invest money in India out of fear of labour unrest.”

He thus apparently felt that it was the duty of the court to teach the workers a lesson and satisfy foreign investors so that they would be attracted to put their money in India.

Even at the time of sentencing of the workers, the special prosecutor demanded a death sentence by invoking these same words of the high court. He too, like the Gadchiroli sessions court, felt that standing in the way of “development”, here foreign investment, deserved death by hanging. Fortunately, here the court did not accede to this demand.

Nevertheless, the earnestness of the government to somehow bolster their “development” narrative by obtaining a conviction and stiff sentence was a constant pressure on the court throughout the trial. A special public prosecutor was specially appointed for this case who was assisted by a battery of lawyers, including a designated senior counsel.

The case was based on the false evidence of labour contractors, who were interested parties, interested in preserving the contract system that the union sought to abolish. The investigating police officers were in constant attendance to ensure that the witnesses were tutored to parrot before the court the stories that had been cooked up.

NIA shields Aseemanand

Contrast this with the approach of the investigating authorities in the Ajmer bomb blast case that was decided in the same week as the above two cases. Here, the prime investigating agency of the country, the National Investigating Agency (NIA), had worked to ensure that the acquittal of the prime accused and former RSS member Swami Aseemanand was a foregone conclusion.

The Swami had voluntarily confessed before magistrates to being behind a number of bomb blasts throughout the country, but the NIA did not make use of this confession at the trial stage.

The prosecutor, Ashwini Sharma, complained that the IO [investigating officer] did not come once for the hearing, even when he was called and said the witnesses are turning hostile. This attitude of the NIA seems to be their policy in bomb blast cases involving Hindutva accused, as can be seen in the disclosures in 2015 by Rohini Salian, prosecutor in the Malegaon bomb blasts case, that she had been told by the NIA to go soft on the accused.

Now the Hyderabad NIA officers who wanted to appeal against grant of bail to Aseemanand have been refused permission by their top brass in Delhi.

Thanks to the NIA, Swami Aseemanand, a self-confessed bomb blast mastermind, now roams free. Other Hindutva-inspired terror accused like Sadhvi Pragya Thakur are soon expected to follow suit.

Unlike Prof Saibaba, who opposed the displacement of the poor by big projects and the Maruti trade unionists, who stood against the contract system that foreign investors love, their terror acts pose no threat to the dominant “development” narrative of the ruling classes.

By Arun Ferreira and Vernon Gonsalves

http://www.dailyo.in/politics/saibaba-aseemanand-maruti-suzuki-judiciary-hindutva-terror/story/1/16614.html

Let justice take its course


The Gadchiroli court verdict in the Saibaba case shows disdain for established law and judicial principles.

On March 7, 2017, the Sessions Court of Gadchiroli, Maharashtra, pronounced a life sentence on Delhi University professor GN Saibaba and four others, and a 10-year imprisonment on another. Many are now questioning the wisdom of handing life sentences to persons who had no accusation of violence against them and had, at the most, been charged only with sympathising with and supporting the Maoist movement. The security agencies, in their turn, attempted to justify the court’s verdict through press statements that painted Saibaba as a “mastermind of many arsons, murders, and abductions”. The Maharashtra Anti-Naxal Operations (ANO) office even seemed to criticise the Supreme Court for granting him bail earlier, stating that “72 offences were registered during this period [when Saibaba was out on bail], which included the murder of two policemen in explosion and encounters, 15 other murder cases and other offences”.

Many in the mainstream media were quick to pick up the ‘mastermind’ angle, without pausing to ask how a person with 90 per cent disability, who spent much of the period in question in Delhi hospitals, could direct violent operations 1,200 km away in Gadchiroli.

Some did point out that the ANO statement conveniently did not specify whether the cases were registered against the professor after his release on bail in April 2016; 72 registered crimes “masterminded by Saibaba”, but without a single FIR in his name!

What’s more worrying is when trial court judges start buying into this narrative of “violent resistance directed by ‘white-collar naxals’ in far-off metros”.

The 827-page judgement of Suryakant S Shinde, the principal district session judge in Gadchiroli, displays a reasoning that runs counter to the maxim “Not only must justice be done, it must also be seen to be done.”

‘Not harsh enough’

In para 1,013, the judge says, “Hence, merely because the accused no.6 Saibaba is 90% disabled is no ground to show him leniency and though he is physically handicapped but he is mentally fit and he is a think tank and high profile leader of banned organization CPI (Maoist) and its frontal organization RDF and by the violent activities of accused nos. 1 to 6… the situation of Gadchiroli district from 1982 till today is in paralyzed condition and no industrial and other developments are taking place because of fear of naxal and their violent activities. Hence, in my opinion, the imprisonment for life is also not a sufficient punishment to the accused but the hands of the Court are closed (sic)…”

The judge makes it plain that he personally feels the accused deserved the only harsher sentence available in Indian law — death by hanging. The law restricts death sentence to only the rarest of rare cases when aggravating circumstances outweigh mitigating circumstances. Shinde, however, offers no convincing basis for his assertion in favour of a death sentence.

His mention of “violent activities of accused nos. 1 to 6” is without basis, as there is nothing in the charges, chargesheet or judgment that alleges (let alone proves) this charge against any of the accused. There is also no evidence linking the development of Gadchiroli, or lack of it, to naxal violence.

These assertions are merely the judge’s personal opinions, which have limited weightage under the Indian Evidence Act. They would, however, certainly have served to prejudice him in favour of conviction and the harshest possible sentence. This bias is also seen in the rest of the judgment, particularly during the crucial evaluation of evidence.

Rules bypassed

The case rests heavily on the authenticity of the electronic evidence — memory chips, hard disks, pen drives and the like — shown to be seized by the investigating authority. As it is easy to tamper with electronic evidence, the law is stricter on its admission. The essential requirement of a certificate under section 65B of the Indian Evidence Act has been bypassed under the pretext that “prosecution has proved beyond reasonable doubt that at no point of time there was any alternation (sic) or manipulation in the electronic data contained in electronic gadgets.”

A trial court cannot waive the statutory requirement, but Shinde just brushed it away.

Biased evaluation

Eighteen of the 23 witnesses examined were police or government officials, and most others were professionalpanchas(apanchais a person called to witness and check the truthfulness of a police action), who had been used by the police in several cases, and included one who was a home guard and another employed to clean the police station. Among the most crucial witnesses was Jagat Bhole, thepanchfor the search-and-seizure at the Delhi University home of Saibaba. Illiterate, he had been specifically picked by the police over the numerous professors and students present there at the time — possibly because they felt he would be more amenable to manipulation.

Bhole, however, told the court that “the police kept myself and Saibaba out of the house and locked the door from inside while the search was going on”. This obviously rendered thepanchnama(a record of the search) unreliable, as it violated the provisions for searches and evidence gathering.

Judge Shinde got around this by simply rejecting this part of the witness’s evidence. His logic: “It is to be noted that this witness is illiterate witness. He cannot read and write English language and his cross examination was held in whole day that too by eminent lawyer having standing practice of more than 25 years and this witness might have frightened because of Court atmosphere.”

But the judge did not use the same yardstick for other crucial evidence — for instance, the confessional statements of accused 1 and 2. Both young Madia and Gond tribals, they retracted their confession after alleging that it was extracted from them in police custody through torture and intimidation.

Judge Shinde chose to disbelieve the complaint of ill-treatment and used an unbelievable leap of logic to assert that Marathi, the language in which the confession was recorded, was known to the accused. He states that the confession was retracted through an “application in Hindi language and… accused no.1 Mahesh and No.2 Pandu also signed in Marathi language”. Since Hindi, Marathi and even Gondi (the mother tongue of the accused), all use the Devanagari script, it is meaningless to conclude that the “accused were well conversant with Marathi and Hindi” from their Devanagari signatures.

Contrast this with the confessions of Swami Aseemanand, a blast accused, that were made well after he was out of police custody and in jail. His subsequent retraction was accepted, leading to his acquittal.

Going bananas on evidence

The court uses the flimsiest of reasons to convict Prashant Rahi and Dilip Tirki. It says, “Finding of incriminating article i.e. Yatri card (Art.126) shows that accused no.4 Prashant Rahi was going from Delhi to Raipur and finding of newspaper with him which was usually used by the members of CPI (Maoist) and its frontal organisation RDF as identification code to recognize each other shows that he was going to forest area to meet underground naxals as alleged by the prosecution.”

The court arrived at this conclusion based on an article by award-winning Hyderabad journalist C Vanaja, who once reported how she established contact with Maoists by using a particular newspaper and bananas as identification codes. This article was shown to have been found on Saibaba’s computer and used as evidence at the trial — a bizarre reasoning that was considered sufficient to grant Rahi a life sentence.

Saibaba has been the joint secretary of the Revolutionary Democratic Front (RDF). In trying to establish that it is a terrorist organisation under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), the judgment attempts to take upon itself powers that only the Central Government has. Its logic: “there is photo of accused no.6 Saibaba and there appears a meeting under the head of banner “Release all political Prisoners unconditionally”… Saibaba is addressing to the people. This shows that accused no.6 Saibaba is the active member of banned organization.”

Similarly, elsewhere it states, “Slogan “Lal Salam” is used by naxals and members of banned organisation RDF and hence it is clear that accused no.6 is a member of banned organisation CPI (Maoist) and its frontal organisation RDF and inciting the people with slogans Lal Salam Lal Salam.”

The Supreme Court has often held that the implementation of procedural provisions must be more rigorous in the case of special and stringent laws such as UAPA. In a similar case involving writer-activist Sudhir Dhawale and eight others, the Gondia Sessions Court had acquitted all on the grounds, among other things, of the non-fulfilment of provisions under the UAPA. The State appealed against the acquittal, but was rejected outright by the Nagpur Bench of the Bombay High Court. In an order passed just seven days after the Gadchiroli judgment, the HC gave prime importance to the sanction order showing compliance with the mandatory provisions of law, such as an independent review within the time limit, and that the sanctioning authority was aware of material that would constitute an offence punishable under the UAPA.

Overlooking basic principles

In contrast, the Gadchiroli court has been lenient to the prosecution, holding that the relevant sections of the UAPA were non-mandatory, and non-compliance did not vitiate the proceeding. Another important provision of law was given the short shrift.

In a criminal case, the proof should be beyond reasonable doubt — that is, no other explanation can be derived from the facts except that the accused committed the crime. A civil trial, on the other hand, simply requires a preponderance of probabilities — that is, its version of facts is more likely than not the correct version, as in personal injury and breach of contract suits.

At several points the judgment has dispensed with the principle of proof beyond reasonable doubt. On the other hand, it seems to be applying the civil trial principle in what is clearly a criminal proceeding. “According to the defence, the newspaper Sahara dated 19-8-2013 was found in possession of accused no.3 Hem Mishra and newspaper Lokmat dated 20-8-2013 was found in possession of accused no.2 Pandu Narote. This shows that accused were arrested on 20.8.2013. However, merely because the accused persons were found in possession of newspapers dated 19-8-2013 does not mean that they were arrested on 20-8-2013. According to the prosecution, newspaper is used as identification code by the members of banned organization… Hence, the version of the prosecution appears to be more probable than the defence”.

Similarly, the principle of adverse inference — “evidence which could be and is not produced would, if produced, be unfavourable to the person who withholds it” — has been turned on its head. The prosecution admitted to obtaining the CDR (call details report) of accused 1 and 2 but withheld it despite the defence asking for it to be produced, as it would prove false the prosecution’s arrest story (according to the prosecution, the accused were arrested along with JNU student Hem Mishra on August 22, 2013, from Aheri, whereas the defence contends they were picked up from Ballarshah on August 20 and their phone SIM were removed. The CDR would have settled the question and, had the defence been found right, proved the falseness of the very FIR on which the whole case is based).

Judge Shinde blames the defence for not obtaining the CDR on their own, overlooking the fact that such information can be shared by a telecom company only on the orders of a court. The judgment abounds with numerous such transgressions. The defence plans to appeal before the Nagpur Bench of the Bombay High Court at the earliest, given the fragile health of Saibaba.

Apart from his disability and cardiac and orthopaedic problems, Saibaba is suffering from acute pancreatitis, for which he was hospitalised in Delhi for four days just ahead of the judgment. Amnesty International has raised the issue of the alleged denial of medical treatment to him in jail.

Saibaba the human rights activist, however, is more pained by the misinformation shrouding the case.

In a letter to his lawyer from prison, he says, “We are deeply pained by looking at the false and defamatory and negative propaganda stories in newspapers… targeted for exerting pressure and influencing public opinion, in turn seeking to affect the legal process.”

Several civil liberties activists and organisations have raised their voice against the judgment. Two members of the European Parliament from Spain and Germany have written to the European Commission, calling for measures to ensure “all legal guarantees are respected under the highest human rights standards for him and the rest of prosecuted people”. Saibaba and his co-convicts can only hope that, whatever be the views on the bench, they will not be permitted to stand in the way of justice.

By Arun Ferreira and Vernon Gonsalves

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated April 8, 2017)

Why Bombay HC granting bail to Hindu Rashtra Sena men in Mohsin Shaikh murder case is worrisome


The court’s logic for favouring bail in religious hate crimes will help heighten the existing communal bias of state agencies.

Proceedings in Justice Mridula Bhatkar’s courtroom at Bombay High Court are conducted briskly, even brusquely. A speedy pace of case disposal leaves scant cause for complaint due to delay.

However, one of the cases disposed in January 2017 has been the subject of much comment and criticism by the legal fraternity and other sections of civil society. A group of lawyers from Pune has even petitioned the Chief Justice of the court to take suo-moto cognisance and quash the order, which they feel gives sufficient ground for doubting the court’s religious impartiality.

Bail is welcome, but crimes claiming religious provocation cannot be entitled for favoured treatment

The court had granted bail, an act normally worth commending in a country where courts often do not implement the principle of “bail not jail” laid down 40 years ago by the Supreme Court. It was not the fact of grant of bail but the reasoning given by the court that was at issue.

The accused were three persons of the Hindu Rashtra Sena, charged with the murder of a Muslim engineer, Mohsin Shaikh. It was in the nature of a hate crime, with the religion of the deceased being the only reason for his killing. However Justice Bhatkar’s reasoning was that the religious motivation for the crime was a factor in favour of the accused, which entitled them to bail.

To quote the order,

“The applicants/accused otherwise had no other motive such as any personal enmity against the innocent deceased Mohsin. The fault of the deceased was only that he belonged to another religion. I consider this factor in favour of the applicants/accused. Moreover, the applicants/accused do not have criminal record and it appears that in the name of the religion, they were provoked and have committed the murder. Under such circumstances, I allow the Bail Applications.”

The court thus quite clearly seems to lay down that those murder accused who have religious hate motives against the person/s they have killed deserve more favourable consideration than accused having personal enmity motives. It also suggests that being provoked to murder in the name of religion can be claimed as a mitigating factor.

Unconstitutional and perverse reasoning

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The logic of this judgment has come in for all-round criticism, with former Supreme Court Justice PB Sawant even calling it unconstitutional, as it went “against the principles of secularism as well as equality”. He even argued that under such perverse reasoning one would also have to release jihadis accused of murdering people on the ground of religion.

There is however scant possibility of Justice Bhatkar applying her logic of religious provocation in the reverse direction – where the accused is Muslim. She in fact had, during her stint in the Bombay sessions court, faced protests of bias from the Muslim accused in the 2006 train blasts case.

They had even demanded that their case be transferred to another judge as they believed she was influenced by her husband Ramesh Bhatkar, who was purportedly linked to underworld don Chhota Rajan, known for several murders of lawyers and accused in terror cases.

Going by the trend in bail in cases concerning Muslim terror accused, the possibility of the Bhatkar judgment being of use to them to attain liberty is remote. The bias in the criminal justice system against Muslims framed as terrorists has been well documented in books such as Kafkaland and Framed as a Terrorist. The latter is the story of Amir Khan who had to spend 14 years in Tihar jail before being set free.

Jurisprudential opening for hate crime perpetrators to escape punishment

The real danger of this judgment lies in the jurisprudential opening it gives to those in the criminal justice system who are already using all present loopholes to ensure that Hindutva-inspired perpetrators of hate and terror crimes escape punishment.

Maya Kodnani, convicted of mass murder of over 90 Muslims during the Gujarat riots, is roaming free after serving less than two years of a 28-year sentence; her co-accused Babu Bajrangi has, in the space of just four years of his sentence, been released on temporary bail 14 times for periods extending from seven days to three months.

During the weeks after the Bhatkar judgment, the Bombay High Court was witness to repeated attempts by the NIA (National Investigation Agency) to facilitate bail for terror accused Sadhvi Pragya. The agency first gave a “no objection” to her bail plea and then dubiously claimed ignorance regarding crucial evidence against the accused.

They are only continuing along a path made clear when they moved to shunt out special public prosecutor Rohini Salian from this case, when she refused to play ball with their plan to go soft on the terror accused.

The NIA policy of softness towards such accused has already notched up its first “victory” on February 1, 2017, with the complete acquittal of Sadhvi Pragya and all her co-accused in a murder case in Dewas, Madhya Pradesh.

The NIA blatantly contradicted the earlier police evidence that implicated the Sadhvi and her group. “The contradictory evidences by the police and NIA in the case raised serious doubts in the whole case,” is what the additional sessions judge observed, leaving him no option but to acquit the accused.

Deeper malaise of religious bias of the Indian state

As has been pointed out earlier in these columns, these moves are emblematic of a deeper malaise of the religious bias of the Indian state. Thus far many judges, at both the lower and higher levels, have refused to cooperate with the designs of the investigative and prosecuting agencies. The Bhatkar judgment provides just the judicial opportunity that such agencies have been waiting for.

Faizan Mustafa, vice chancellor NALSAR University of Law, Hyderabad, has, while drawing attention to the shocking and dangerous way in which the order rewrites the jurisprudence of provocation, naively suggested that it be used to rewrite “our law on bail… to make bail a rule, jail an exception”.

But the harsh reality of long years of bail resistance of the courts, despite extreme overcrowding of jails with undertrials, does not indicate a possibility of liberal change anytime soon.

Rather, there is a distinct possibility of other courts selectively advancing along the jurisprudential direction indicated by Bhatkar, to provide succour to those involved in similarly inspired hate and terror attacks. The devilish consequences for our society and polity can well be imagined.

Justice Bhatkar is a published poet. Her collection of poems Kavita Manatlya- Kavita Courtatlya (poems from heart, poems from the court) was released last year. One of her “poems from the court” is Nirnay (ruling).

In it she asks,Tula maahit aahe ka?/Nikaal zari tujha asla tari nirnay maajha asto/Krus zari tujha asla/tari khaanda maajha asto (Do you know? The decision may affect you, but it’s always “my” ruling/The cross may be yours to bear/ But the shoulder’s always mine.)

It will need more than strong shoulders to bear the cross of this ruling.

By Arun Ferreira and Vernon Gonsalves

http://www.dailyo.in/politics/mridula-bhatkar-judgment-hindu-rashtra-sena-mohsin-shaikh-maya-kodnani-nia-jihadis/story/1/15465.html

How political dissenters end up languishing in jails without bail


Deliberate delays and denial of bail has amounted to sentencing without trial.

Activists of the Kabir Kala Manch, perhaps one of the best known progressive cultural troupes of Maharashtra, heaved a sigh of relief on January 3 when three of their members finally walked out of jail after three-and-a-half years. A Supreme Court bench granted bail to Sagar Gorkhe, Ramesh Gaychor and Sachin Mali.

The apex court’s bail order pointed out that though the state had told the Supreme Court in July 2016 that the trial would be completed within six months, it had, till January 2017, only partially completed the examination (leave aside cross examination) of just one of the 147 witnesses it proposed to examine. Such a rate of progress in trial would have meant a lifetime of waiting for its completion. The bench ordered their release.

Method in the madness of trial delays

While it has become customary to blame the backlog of cases in courts for these seemingly crazy delays in trial, there is at the same time a method in the madness that is quite clearly at work, particularly when in comes to political dissenters.

The delays are often the fruit of a deliberate dalliance between police and prosecution to postpone service of summons, hold back witnesses, neglect bringing the muddemaal or physical evidence to court and other such means to ensure that the trial process is effectively paralysed.

This strategy is deployed because the prosecution is aware that most cases against political detainees are weak and often falsely fabricated by the investigating authority and likely to end in acquittal. These “political” cases are normally instituted under harsher laws like the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) and the Public Security Acts of various states. Such laws allow arrests on vaguely defined charges with insubstantial evidence. They also prescribe bail norms which render it difficult for courts to grant bail.

Inordinate delays then become the prosecution’s means for imposing a “sentence” of long years, which entails rotting in jail as an undertrial without bothering to go through the hassle of obtaining a conviction. Thus, though the accused are finally found to be innocent, the judgment offers small comfort for someone who has already spent almost the maximum possible sentence as undertrial.

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Inordinate delays then become the prosecution’s means for imposing a ‘sentence’ of long years rotting in jail as an undertrial without bothering to go through the hassle of obtaining a conviction.

Protection for the perpetrators

Such tactics, while being criminal, neither hold consequences for the investigator or the prosecutor; nor are there any redressal for the victim. A classical case in this regard was related to the Akshardham Temple terror attack of 2002. Six accused in the matter remained in custody for 12 years before being finally acquitted in 2014 by the Supreme Court. The judgment, quoted then in DailyO, explained how the case had been fabricated and the accused framed through concocted statements.

The accused then filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court asking for redressal and compensation for the years lost. Despite the unequivocal observations of the 2014 SC judgment indicating that the accused had been falsely implicated, the same court refused to either punish the perpetrators or compensate the victims. If, in a case which the SC itself has held to be fabricated, there is not scope for recompense, there is obviously nothing much the judicial system can offer by way of righting such wrongs committed by the police-prosecutor combine.

Laxity of the courts

In fact it often seems that the bench too is, unwittingly or otherwise, part of a system that ensures that political dissenters are “punished” without trial. In the case of the KKM members too, though the SC granted bail, almost half of their period spent in custody was during the pendency of their application before the same court.

In another similar case of a political prisoner from Maharashtra, Sudhir Dhawale, editor of the magazine Vidrohi, the Nagpur Bench of the Bombay High Court rejected bail, but ordered a timebound trial within a period of six months — only to extend this period three times over, while each time rejecting Sudhir’s bail. He was finally declared not guilty — but only after serving a “sentence” of 40 months as an undertrial.

Reluctance to grant bail

The irony is that, even where the duplicity of the investigating agency is prima facie quite apparent, the courts have been reluctant to exercise their power to grant bail. A recent case is that of the team of lawyers and human rights activists from Telengana who, in December 2016, were on a fact-finding mission to Chhattisgarh to probe accusations of police atrocities in Bastar. Though they were arrested in Telangana they were taken across the border to Chhattisgarh so that they could be charged under the severe Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act. The basis shown for arrest was the purported seizure of demonetised notes of one lakh, which they were allegedly taking to “help” naxalites in Bastar.

Despite the illogicality of the argument of lawyers carrying demonetised notes from Telangana to naxalites in Bastar, despite the notes being obviously planted and despite there being no law or rule in force prohibiting the possession of one lakh of demonetised notes, the bail applications of the team members were denied first by the magistrate’s court of Sukma and then by the sessions court of Dantewada. The Dantewada court felt that it was premature to grant bail.

The option of approaching the Chhattisgarh High Court in Bilaspur is not only cumbersome but also, considering the delaying tactics of the prosecution, likely to be long drawn out. The Telangana lawyers, research scholars and journalists who are part of this team will now have to prepare themselves to eke out a few months, if not more, in Bastar’s jails — a “sentence” being imposed without any realistic case at all.

Death sentence by encounter

But perhaps they should consider themselves lucky. In their very own state of Telangana, the police have taken the lead in taking this practice of delivering prison sentences to their logical conclusion. On April 7th 2015, five Muslim prisoners, who were on the verge of completion of their trial where they expected acquittal, were killed in cold blood while being taken to court. The Telangana police probably decided that they deserved not acquittal but the death sentence. They executed accordingly.

A similar dubious “encounter” killing of eight undertrial accused of the Students Islamic Movement of India whose trial was reportedly approaching acquittal was executed by the Bhopal police on October 31 2016.

Despite widespread protest by human rights organisations, the political establishment has indicated that those who have carried out these killings enjoy its support. Pehaps an indicator of the forms of justice delivery in the days to come.

By Arun Ferreira and Vernon Gonsalves

http://www.dailyo.in/politics/chattisgarh-maoists-bastar-kabil-kala-manch-political-dissenters-fake-encounters-cases-trial-delay-jail/story/1/15045.html

What India’s TV wars with Pakistan don’t tell us about our wars without witness


Thousands have died in internal battles waged against its own people in Kashmir, Chhattisgarh and the Northeast.

 There are wars and there are the TV wars and it is the second variety that has been raging over the last few weeks in the media studios throughout the land. The September 18 attack on Uri Army headquarters provided the trigger for TV anchors, ruling politicians and sundry other warmongers itching to declare war on Pakistan.

The luminaries of the political and defence establishment, who, despite Pathankot, had ignored security and were guilty of facilitating 19 soldiers’ deaths by the gross negligence of lodging them in inflammable tents, escaped all scrutiny. All lapses were well hidden behind a smokescreen of war clouds of their own making.

The shrillness of the war cries yet shows no signs of abating. A variety of war games are being played out on prime time. Many media outlets had, even before the announcement by the Indian Army of surgical strikes, already invented and announced surgical strikes of their own.

As the media sets up televised war rooms complete with maps and digital models, every actual, notional or imagined step of the armed forces is being chalked out and projected – more surgical strikes, Indian fidayeen units, hot pursuit, and implementation of doctrines  of cold start, and even limited nuclear war. The “war” with Pakistan is being fought out in full media glare even before it actually begins.

A make-believe war

An actual war with Pakistan is yet a remote possibility. Military confrontations in these times are usually proxy wars, with one or the other big power backing each of the sides. Both India and Pakistan being well within the same American camp, the likelihood of the US consenting to declarations of war on each other is extremely low. Meanwhile, major military moves contrary to Washington’s wishes are not options either country’s ruling class is willing to contemplate.

But a make-believe war too has its fair share of backers. The party in power can reap a rich harvest of votes; a jingoistic anchor and his channel can rake in the TRPs; a corporate house entering armaments can speed up the contracts.

So, war or no war, the business of warmongering will carry on. Under the camera glare, politicians will thump their chests and anchors will shout themselves hoarse, creating choruses from all corners.

Real and lethal internal wars

But TV wars are not the only type of wars. There are some very real and very lethal wars being waged by the Indian state in various parts of the country. Some of them have been on for decades with death counts far surpassing anything on the Line of Control (LoC). The news of these, however, rarely makes it to the newspaper headlines or prime time TV.

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In just the last three months of protests in Kashmir, the casualty count has been 92 dead and over 12,000 injured.

One such war is the one waged against the almost three-decade-long mass insurgency for self-determination in Jammu and Kashmir, which has caused a death toll between 44,000 and 1,10,000 as per various estimates.

In just the last three months of mass protests against the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen commander, Burhan Wani, the casualty count has been 92 dead and over 12,000 injured, including 1,000 blinded in firing and shot-gun pellet attacks by security forces. These figures far outstrip the numbers of Indian citizens killed and injured in all the external conflicts waged by India since 1947.

Another conflict is the five-decade-old attempt by the Indian state to wipe out the Naxalite movement. The toll here too runs to several thousand. While the estimates for earlier years are disputed, government figures for the last 20 years run to around 14,000.

In the last seven months, Chhattisgarh’s Bastar region alone has seen more than a 100 adivasis killed in encounters shown by civil rights groups to be fake.

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Jammu and Kashmir figures in the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s most militarised zone.

Jammu and Kashmir figures in the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s most militarised zone. It has seven lakh military and paramilitary personnel in comparison to a population of only 125 lakh giving a soldier-people ratio of 1:18. A similar situation exists in the Bastar division of Chhattisgarh, which has one lakh paramilitary forces for a population of 31 lakh, that is, a soldier-people ratio of 1:31.

A report submitted to the United Nations by the Working Group on Human Rights in India points to similar intensified militarisation in the northeastern states. It has been a conflict zone right since 1947, with many groups fighting for self-determination. Government statistics admit to 21,400 fatalities from these conflicts in the last 25 years.

Wars without witness

As the body counts in such war zones grow grimmer, information flows from these parts get scantier. In fact, there has been a concerted attempt by the state and mainstream media to ensure that news and views on these wars remain highly restricted and are even fabricated.

The recent resignation by Naseer Ahmed, a senior Kashmir journalist with the Ambani-owned TV channel IBN7 brought to light the role of the Delhi-based media centres in fabricating news reports as per state directives and preventing factual reporting of the killings and unrest.

Raids on Kashmiri newspaper offices, Facebook censorship and a ban on the Kashmir Reader newspaper were some of the methods used to curb the local media. Well-known human rights activist Khurram Parvez was first prevented from traveling to Geneva to attend a session of the UN Human Rights Council and then was placed under arrest.

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The wars that the state wages on its own people are kept far away from the media glare.

In Bastar, the tool of arrest has been used rampantly by the state against journalists who refuse to toe the police line. The last year has seen at least four journalists being forced to spend months in jail on cooked-up charges. One of them is yet behind bars.

On October 15, two Mumbai-based writers were picked up from a Bastar jail merely for attempting to meet a woman Maoist prisoner with the jail superintendent’s permission. Lawyers and rights activists too have been systematically hounded and even evicted from the area. Amnesty International India has documented what it calls a near-total information blackout in the state in a report titled “Blackout in Bastar: Human Rights Defenders Under Threat”.

Thus, unlike the jingoistic TV wars with Pakistan, which the ruling classes relish and revel in, the wars that the state wages on its own people are kept far away from the media glare.

These are the wars which lay bare the lie of the democratic credentials of the Indian state. The dark designs of these wars must therefore be planned in secret. Their brutal consequences must be blacked out.

They must be wars without witness.

By Arun Ferreira and Vernon Gonsalves

http://www.dailyo.in/politics/india-pakistan-war-tv-media-kashmir-burhan-wani-chhattisgarh-bastar-naxals-fake-encounters-surgical-strikes/story/1/13452.html

Sexual violence by armed forces rising, and Modi wants to celebrate Women’s Day?


The more immediate and ongoing tragedy is occurring in Chhattisgarh’s Bastar district.

The yearly sarkari tokenism around International Women’s Day reached a new low with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s proposal that this year “only women parliamentarians should speak in Parliament on March 8”.

The stark emptiness of the proposal was provided by the context across the country, where attacks on women and the suppression of their voices have seen no let up and there have hardly been any real steps to remedy the situation.

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The harsh irony is most sharply evident in the conflict zones of the country, where it is the government’s forces themselves which have been accused of the worst type of atrocities against women.

Around the time the prime minister was making his suggestion for Women’s Day celebrations, the Kashmir Valley was resounding with protests marking 25 years of awaiting justice for the victims of the Kunan-Poshpora rapes of February 23, 1991. The case against Rajputana Rifles personnel lies pending before the Supreme Court. Manipur’s 12-year-old Manorama rape and murder case against Assam Rifles personnel similarly remains pending before the courts.

Sharp spurt in sexual assaults by police

The more immediate and ongoing tragedy is occurring, however, in Chhattisgarh’s Bastar district. There, the paramilitary forces, police and state-sponsored vigilante gangs have over the last few months been on a continuous campaign of loot, sexual molestation and rape.

After a fact-finding visit to the area, Nandini Sundar, professor of Sociology at the Delhi University reports: “Between October 19-24, 2015, 40 women of Peddagelur, Budgicheru and Gundam villages were sexually assaulted, beaten, and stripped by the security forces; two women were gang raped. On January 12, six women from Kunna village in Sukma district were sexually assaulted and between January 11 and 14, 13 women were gangraped in Belam-Nendra village in Bijapur district. In all these cases, the rapes were accompanied by extreme physical and verbal abuse, and the looting of their homes.”

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Violence on women and other human rights violations in Bastar by the security forces most often remain unrecorded and unnoticed by the outside world. This time, however, it was somewhat different.

Over the past three years, first with the moving in of three women lawyers of the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group (JagLAG) in 2013 and later with the release and return of adivasi political prisoner and activist, Soni Sori in 2014, the villagers of Bastar have been better able to organise themselves to try and reclaim their legal rights and even to protest atrocities through mass mobilisation, often directed at forcing the police to register crimes in this regard.

In 2015, the noted scholar Bela Bhatia and Scroll.in journalist Malini Subramaniam also moved to Bastar. They, too, played a significant role in taking the stories of blatant law violations and repression and torture of the local population to the outside world.

A repressive police machinery is always allergic to the truth. Soni Sori’s leadership through padayatras and demonstrations, JagLAG reports of false implication and incarcerations of hundreds of innocent tribals, Bela Bhatia’s push for registration of FIRs against rapist cops and Malini Subramaniam’s posts on forced surrenders and numerous other unlawful practices all posed a threat to the unquestioned criminal acts of the law machinery.

Forced eviction of activists, lawyers and journalists

At first, indirect threats to fall in line and not oppose the police were given. When these did not have effect, the next step was to apply the brand of Naxal or Maoist on the local population and launch open campaigns against them. Bar Associations under BJP leadership passed resolutions against the lawyers as outsiders and tried to prevent them from practising in the courts.

Organisations propped up by the police with names like Samajik Ekta Manch, Nagrik Ekta Manch, Vikas Sangharsh Samiti, started demonstrating and issuing threats and even resorted to acts of violence like stone-throwing on Malini’s house and car.

The next step was outright eviction. Landlords of the places where the JagLAG lawyers, and where Malini were staying were called to the police station and forced to serve notice on their tenants. They were thus forced to pack up and leave. Soni Sori was told that she did not have proper title to the house she was staying at.

When she did not back down, she was attacked and had some chemical substance applied to her face. With continuing threats to her life, she had to be taken outside Bastar for treatment.

The police under the leadership of Bastar region inspector general, SRP Kalluri, has announced Mission 2016 during which he promises to crush Naxalism in Bastar. This has seen a rapid rise in forced surrenders and false encounters, besides rapes and molestation of women.

Whole villages are being forced out with all young men being detained and tortured in police camps until they agree to fake surrenders. As pointed out earlier in these columns, the stage has already been set for aerial attacks, which could result in even thousands of deaths of Indian citizens.

As Mizoram this week commemorates the 50th anniversary of the bombing of Aizawl – the last time that the Indian Air Force (IAF) was used to attack the people within the country’s borders – it seems that similar operations may form part of Kalluri’s Mission 2016.

When Sri Lanka had launched a similar assault in Mullaitivu in the last phase of its war on the Tamil Tigers, it had been called a “war without witnesses”. Sri Lanka had first ensured that all journalists, human rights activists and observers were thrown out of the area. The similarities in the recent evictions from Bastar carry grim portents.

Bastar’s mothers and daughters in danger

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As the dirty war deepens, women will likely face the major brunt. The record of the past few months shows that governments that thrive on slogans of “Bharat Mata ki Jai” have had no compunction in plotting and perpetrating sexual assaults and violations of the matas and daughters of Bastar. As the days grow darker the need to bear witness to the darkness and stand in opposition will be felt all the more. It is in this context that the absence of the activists recently ejected will be felt all the more.

The evicted activists have, however, vowed not to give up. The JagLAG members, in an interview, have said that though they have now been forced out of Bastar, they want to go back. Though severely scarred by the chemical attack, Soni Sori has declared that she will not bow down.

On the eve of International Women’s Day, she is even scheduled to address the students of JNU, some of who may well be inspired to rise in her support. The state, by clamping down, may actually be giving birth to new forces in opposition to it.

by Vernon Gonsalves and Arun Ferreira

http://www.dailyo.in/politics/womens-day-bastar-narendra-modi-chhattisgarh-naxalism-maoism-soni-sori-jaglag-rape/story/1/9423.html