Prison hunger strikes are part of struggle for azadi and democracy


When the cases are false, the authorities try all means to extend the period of the trial.

Naxalism, Odisha, Prison Reform

It is a battle for democracy and justice, a battle for azadi. It does not have the sound and lights and the cadence of the catchy “azadi” sloganeering of the current student agitations.

But that does not make it less of a fight for rights and freedoms than any of the other struggles that have captured the imagination of the country and its media over the last few months.

It is a silent, grim, almost wordless fight that is going on right now in Odisha, behind the walls of Bhubaneshwar’s Jharpada Special Prison.

There are no marches, no speeches, just a bare statement, by seven prisoners, asking for implementation of the most basic fundamental rights granted by law and by the country’s highest constitutional court – the right to a speedy trial and the right to be produced regularly from prison in order to be present at one’s own trial.

Those raising these demands are undertrial prisoners, mostly tribals and Dalits, implicated in cases of Naxalite violence. But the only violence in this struggle is the violence caused to their own bodies by their chosen mode of protest – hunger strike.

As these words are being written, the ongoing hunger strike of the political prisoners in Odisha, which began on March 30, 2016, is in its third week. This is the stage when the medical condition of the person on hunger strike worsens dramatically and it becomes difficult to even stand.

Two of the seven hunger strikers have already been shifted to hospital. The authorities, however, are not showing any signs of acceding to any of the demands. In fact, the delays in trial are mainly owing to deliberate non-appearance of police witnesses on several dates.

Since the cases are false and mostly end in acquittal, the authorities try all means to extend the period of trial so that the prisoners remain as long as possible in jail as undertrials. The police are in no mood now to give up this strategy.

The experience of the Odisha political prisoners is nothing new. Arun Ferreira (one of the authors of this article) had himself undergone a 27-day-long hunger strike along with 12 other political prisoners at the Nagpur Central Prison in 2008.

The demand of the hunger strike then too was a mere implementation of the law. They were demanding a stop to the illegal practice of re-arresting political prisoners at the prison gates immediately on their acquittal and release in earlier cases.

A recent example was the two-month-long hunger strike in August-September 2015 by 26/11 Mumbai attacks accused Zabiuddin Ansari at the Arthur Road Prison in Mumbai. He was protesting his illegal solitary confinement and non-production in court.

Thus the demands of these and numerous other strikes of political prisoners over the years have mostly been to merely secure implementation of the law and to stop violations of rights guaranteed under the Constitution.

pic_041716043431.jpg

Prisons follow colonial standard operating procedure for hunger strikes

It is, however, rare that the prison and police authorities accede to the demands of political prisoners. The standard practice is to turn a deaf ear to even the most reasonable of demands while ensuring that the prisoners on hunger strike are kept completely cut off, not only from the society outside, but also from the other prisoners. During the present Odisha prison struggle, the striking prisoners have been denied all visits – even by close relatives or defence lawyers.

Meanwhile, while keeping each hunger striker separate, all attempts are made to dupe or tempt them into giving up the strike. If such attempts fail, the next method is force-feeding. This standard operating procedure was laid down during British rule and is still followed in all the prisons of the country. It is mostly successful in breaking a hunger strike without acceding to the demands.

In spite of the low possibility of the administration agreeing to their demands, political prisoners still very often resort to hunger strike. As Arun has explained, hunger strike is often the only option to get basic human rights in prison. This was also the approach of the revolutionary prisoners during the struggle against British rule.

Bhagat Singh launched several such hunger strikes during his period in jail. It was during one such hunger strike in 1929 that the revolutionary Jatin Das gave up his life after going 63 days without food. His death anniversary on September 13 is commemorated to this day by political prisoners in jails across the country. His protest was against the discrimination between Indian and European prisoners and the inhuman conditions in prisons. Soon after his death, some changes came about.

Hunger strikes in prisons increase the democratic space

Even if demands are not immediately agreed to, the mere assertion and determination involved in a hunger strike in prison is an announcement to those who rule that the political prisoner is not one to take things lying down.

This in itself often manages to open up a democratic space where none existed and forces a re-working of the equations of power in jails. When such struggles are repeated by the same prisoners and by future batches of prisoners, the administration is forced to give in to some, if not all the demands.

The results of such repeated struggles can be seen in better prison conditions in places where political prisoners have fought for their rights, such as Punjab, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh. Struggles have even forced the administration and judiciary to ensure better implementation of the principle of bail as the rule and jail as the exception.

In most states, however, prison conditions continue to be extremely inhuman with the deliberate violation of most constitutional guarantees. It was Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky who said: “The degree of civilisation in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”

By that yardstick, the civilisational standard of our society would be pretty low. But all is not bleak. Struggles in prisons, like the present one in Odisha, are growing. Many of these struggles may not achieve their immediate demands. But they will nevertheless make their own significant contribution to the ongoing struggle for azadi and true democracy.

By Vernon Gonsalves and Arun Ferreira

http://www.dailyo.in/politics/prison-reform-odisha-naxalism-mumbai-attacks-bhagat-singh-maoist-azadi-british-rule/story/1/10131.html

Students Spring advances amidst violent State onslaught


Latest phase of student movement draws new centres and sections into ideological battle

Finance minister Arun Jaitley’s latest claim to ideological victory in the nationalism debate seems to have a more timid tone than his earlier assertion of triumph. Earlier, while speaking at the National Convention of the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha (BJYM) on March 6, he claimed, rather grandiosely, to have won the “ideological war”. His claim, made just three days after JNUSU President Kanhaiya Kumar’s release from jail, was based on the Jai Hind slogan Kanhaiya raised and the tricolor that was waved at JNU during his release speech. Interpreting these acts as acceptance of defeat, the BJP ideological general’s proclamation had the degree of finality one normally associates with the adversary signing a document of surrender.

Just 20 days later, Jaitley’s claims had been considerably scaled down. While addressing the Executive Committee meeting of Delhi BJP Jaitley continued to claim “victory”, but this time he merely said that it was the first round that had been won and that the ideological battle would continue. A very significant section to call Jaitley’s bluff was within his very camp.

The lieutenants in his army had been quick to realize that the students’ movement was far from defeated. As Jaitley was speaking to the BJYM, one of its district chiefs had even announced a five lakh reward for Kanhaiya’s tongue; another organisation offered eleven lakh for Kanhaiya’s head. Such calls and the wide applause they received from the Sangh Parivar foot-soldiers on the social media battlefield, could hardly have emerged from victorious ideological warriors. They rather resembled the reactions of the school bully who resorts to strong-arm methods to recover ground lost in an argument.

01_033016124754.jpg

Violence on students continues and grows

Strong-arm has been and continues to be an inseparable part of Jaitley’s ideological war against the students. In the earlier phase in the University of Hyderabad (UoH), when the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) was in constant retreat in the face of the growing ideological influence of Rohit Vemula’s Ambedkar Students’ Association (ASA), the power of government was brought into play to punish the students with a central minister branding them as casteist, extremist and anti-national. Students later protesting for #JusticeForRohithVemula were physically attacked by RSS members in Mumbai, Kolkata, Delhi and other places. The JNU phase saw a cocktail of coercion: FIRs and arrests based on doctored videos, violence by BJP affiliated lawyers, Sangh mobilisation of surrounding neighbourhoods to attack JNU student residents. The latest upsurge of student agitation following last week’s re-installation of the UoH Vice-chancellor has seen brutal use of police, not only in Hyderabad, but also in Kozhikode, Chennai, Mumbai and elsewhere.

The widespread and growing use of violence by the BJP and the Sangh Parivar organisations, both directly and by deploying the government’s coercive apparatus lays bare the lie of the Jaitley claim to victory in the clash of ideas. No ideological victor needs to resort to armed might to seal an argument from which s/he has emerged triumphant.

It is obvious that the Sangh Parivar and its government is experiencing an unusually high level of insecurity in the face of the rising tide of the students movement and the unsettling stirring of ideas it has generated. Challenges to caste discrimination in academia, outright rejection of Dronacharya and Manu and the audacious dream of annihilation of caste; interrogations of nationalism and assertions of the right of nations to self-determination; determined defence of dissent and radical redefinition and re-imagination of existing premises and promises of democracy are all ideas which have, in the last two and half months, broken free of the narrowness of small group discussion behind university walls and have forced themselves onto the streets and into public spaces in ways they have not done before in recent times. It is this churn that the ruling party and its government are trying to violently put down.

02_033016124836.jpg

New centres and issues of struggle

The physical violence is viciously one-sided with only one receiving end – the students. The numbers too are definitely stacked up heavily against them, with only a minority in the country being today supportive of ideas of caste annihilation, azadi and dissent. The David-Goliath face-off should have, by all conventional ruling class calculations been a walkover. Something however went horribly wrong (for those in power) and the students succeeded in turning traditional wisdom on its head. Rohith Vemula’s death became a historical rallying point that brought in an extremely wide ranging coalition of forces to demand #JusticeForRohith. While the motives of some supporters like the Congress were largely suspect, the Rohith movement generated genuine, active participation of a wide spectrum of students and youth from various regions, classes, castes and communities who are ready to not only fight against the immediate injustice, but also to carry it ahead towards the goals of social justice and annihilation of caste.

The movement seriously impacted the Sangh Parivar plans to make inroads into Dalit communities and appropriate the legacy of Ambedkar in his 125th Birth Anniversary year. The BJP, whose Central ministers were the prime focus of attack, was thrown on the backfoot and found it impossible to effectively tackle the challenge head on. The Parivar therefore chose the path of diversion by selecting what they thought would be an easier battle-ground – that of nationalism and the question of Kashmir. Their elaborate plan complete with doctored videos by crony media and sedition cases by a compliant police commissioner however had not taken into account the determination of the average JNU student and teacher and of the student and teaching community across the country to stand up in defence of dissent.

Broader and deeper student unity

After some initial “success” in using the bogey of anti-nationalism to divert and divide those standing for #JusticeForRohith, the Parivar plan was beaten back by a student unity that refused to see any difference between the anti-national branding of Rohith Vemula and the anti-national branding of the JNU students who organised the programme on Afzal Guru. At universities across the country, the sight of red flags mingling with blue amidst cries of Jai Bhim-Lal Salaam became the new nightmare of the Sangh Parivar. As azadi became the new war cry resounding at every student protest meet, it became the slogan uniting those fighting for various types of azadi – from azadi from poverty and caste oppression to the azadi to choose one’s own nationalist slogan or not at all. The green flags of Muslim student organisations are also being raised in protest as they join in significant numbers.

03_033016124905.jpg

The latest phase of this ongoing Student Spring has followed the attempt by the vice-chancellor of the UoH, an accused in the death of Rohith Vemula, to sneak back to his seat in the early morning of March 22. The ones who planned this from the seat of government grossly underestimated the intensity and unity of the resistance to the VC’s return. Despite tough police action and even arrests in Hyderabad, solidarity demonstrations have been a daily occurrence in several universities across the country, often resulting in clashes with the police or Sangh Parivar organisations.

In fact more centres, more universities, more organisations and students have been adding their voices in support. The increase in numbers has also meant wider differences in ideological orientation with an increase in the criticism on each other within the movement. This criticism, often conducted openly on social media sites, does not seem to have however hampered the unity and expansion of the students’ movement. In fact openness of criticism and openness to criticism can actually have helped to cement a more mature and wider unity.

Meanwhile the responses from the other side have been marked by a lack of credibility and coherence. Arun Jaitley and Venkaiah Naidu have both recently tried to debunk the ongoing student movement as the work of a handful of ultra-leftists and a few Jihadis or separatists in two-three universities. Considering the impact the student movement has had on the country’s political discourse over the last two and half months these statements seem to be quite an exercise in self-delusion.

Just a week after the BJP National Executive passed a resolution stating that refusal to say Bharat Mata ki Jai was unacceptable, Mohan Bhagwat, the chief of its parent organization, the RSS made a statement that the slogan cannot be forced upon the people. These confusions and general disarray in the face of an advancing students’ movement can only be expected to increase in the coming weeks.

By Vernon Gonsalves and Arun Ferreira

http://www.dailyo.in/politics/students-spring-rohit-vemula-hyderabad-university-kanhaiya-kumar-anti-national-bharat-mata-ki-jai-rss-mohan-bhagwat-jnu/story/1/9792.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.

panel-011_030816012005.jpg

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.”

image-2_030716102132.jpg

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

image-3_030716102151.jpg

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

Pardon Headley, punish Kanhaiya: How RSS plays nationalism game


Kowtowing to USA plus jingoism towards neighbours plus branding all internal dissent as anti-national equals to Parivar patriotism.

The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) mouthpiece Organiser‘s last issue has its editorial and another separate story on David Coleman Headley’s depositions at the second 26/11 trial before the Mumbai Sessions Court. It lists the admissions of Headley about the reconnaissance he did and numerous plans he conceived for terror attacks in India and other countries. It points to his claims to being within the top coterie of Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) providing advice and suggestions andtalks of his links with senior officers of Pakistan’s ISI.

The article also refers to Headley being a “double agent for American spy agency CIA”.  Thus the Organiser points to the many things that make Headley the top-most terrorist to have appeared before an Indian court in recent times.

One would have expected these self-proclaimed nationalists to launch a frontal attack on this terrorist and the American state. [Not only did the Americans not share such intelligence, which could have prevented the Mumbai attacks, but they also entered into a deal with Headley to ensure that he is not handed over to face justice in India].

No not a whisper against the Americans. They raise a point about the exposure of Pakistan as the fountainhead of terrorism. But the main focus of the RSS attack is directed within the country. They hit out at pseudo-seculars, i.e., all Indian citizens who disagree with their viewpoint.

arun-1_022316120756.jpg

They cling on to the statements of this double agent and self-confessed top terrorist, as if Headley is the latest poster boy of their brand of Hindutva nationalism. Headley did not even mention Ishrat Jahan’s name until prosecutor Ujwal Nikam suggested it to him through multiple-choice questions. But Organiser uses it to hit out at those who, in 2004, had opposed her murder by the Gujarat police in a fake encounter. Obviously, even if Ishrat had been a member of the LeT, it would not make any difference to the crime by the Gujarat Police.

But such rationale is lost on the RSS, which goes to any lengths to twist things to fit their logic. Thus, they drag in the issue of the JNU programme against the hanging of Afzal Guru and say that tomorrow these JNUites may even stand by Headley. This absurd argument ignores the fact that it is they who are standing by Headley and his every word, and it is their government that asked the court to pardon him.

There is no equivalence whatsoever between an Afzal, who maintained his innocence right upto the gallows, and a Headley, who proudly proclaims his terror record and earns a complete pardon from the Indian state.

‘Nationalist’ doublespeak and doublethink

But doublespeak to induce doublethink is second nature for the Sangh Parivar. During the Independence movement, RSS nationalism kept away from any anti-British activity. Today, their nationalism prevents them from questioning the American superpower. Their nationalism concentrates on war-mongering against neighbours, attacks on religious minorities and on all ideologies opposed to their Hindutva thinking.

RSS is bent on crushing all forms of dissent. For their cadre and sympathisers, brought up to doublethink in true Orwellian fashion: continuous war on internal “threats” is peace, freedom means slavery to all big powers and ignorance of anything other than what is preached by the Pariwar is their strength.

It is this brand of nationalism that is trying to crush the anti-nationalismof dissent by the students and youth across the country. Using the strong arm of the state machinery, this government has applied the brand of “anti-national” to members of some of the best universities in the country – from Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) to IIT-Madras, from Hyderabad Central University (HCU) to Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) to Jadavpur University (JU).

Rohith Vemula was branded anti-national and punished for being a Dalit who exposed the Parivar’s role in organising the Muzaffarnagar riots and for his opposition to the hanging of Yakub Memon. Umar Khalid is being branded anti-national and punished for being born a Muslim and for daring to oppose the hanging of Afzal Guru and Maqbool Bhat. Kanhaiya is anti-national and put behind bars merely for standing in defence of the right to free expression.

arun-2_022316120817.jpg

There is however a method in the madness. In line with Samuel Johnson’s dictum that “patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel”, the present government is increasingly resorting to the nationalism mantra to save itself from the mess it is in. The achhe din promise has rapidly failed on all counts. Sensex and rupee are at pre-May 2014 lows, inflation is out of control despite low international oil prices and unemployment has been on the rise with no new employment generation despite the hype of Make in India.

Voter disillusionment seen in the loss of Delhi and Bihar has bitterly shaken the ruling party. The Sangh attempts to control and saffronise the universities has met with stiff resistance from the students and there has been a massive upsurge of the student movement culminating in the countrywide movement for #JusticeForRohith. It was therefore only to be expected that the Modi government would evolve some very devious tactics to divert, divide and crush the opposition against it.

An elaborate fascist conspiracy

An elaborate plan was drawn up on classic fascist lines with the launchpad being a strike upon JNU, which has been in the forefront of the students’ battles. Ironically and with typical fascist hypocrisy, the programme selected to start the attack was on the issue of opposition to Afzal Guru’s hanging – an issue regularly raised by the Peoples’ Democratic Party, under whose leadership the BJP has been in government in Kashmir.

Pressure was brought on the JNU administration to withdraw permission to the programme, it was attacked while videos were taken by crony media, doctored videoswere deployed by immoral anchors to create a frenzy of nationalistic fervour against the students, lawyers and other goons were massed at the university gates and court rooms to physically assault students, faculty, journalists and anyone remotely suspected of being in any way linked to or supportive of JNU and all this was done with total connivance of the police machinery.

In typical fascist fashion, those bombarding the “anti-national” students’ questioning of the Supreme Court’s decision on Afzal Guru were the same “nationalists” who used the terrorist Headley’s word to counter Supreme Court and high court decisions on Ishrat Jahan.

The attack has been well met by a variety of progressive forces, particularly the students and faculty of JNU and other universities in the country and abroad. The #JusticeForRohith movement too continues with a broader canvas of a campaign for social justice in universities and all spheres in society.

Meanwhile, while nationalistic lawyers were on the rampage in the Delhi courts, the focus shifted away from another lawyer, Ujwal Nikam who quietly closed his examination of witness, David Headley. After five full days of questioning, the witness had not been asked, nor had himself volunteered a word about the only accused in the trial, Zabiuddin Ansari.

Headley obviously knew nothing about the accused and had nothing to do with the trial. Headley had been summoned merely to be given a pardon so that he may spout things which could be used against any opponents of the regime, while protecting his American handlers. But this is the way of nationalism, the way of fascism.

by Vernon Gonsalves and Arun Ferreira

http://www.dailyo.in/politics/pardon-for-david-headley-and-punishment-for-rohit-kanhaiya-umar-are-two-sides-of-the-nationalism-coin/story/1/9172.html

#JNU #Hokkolorob to #JusticeForRohithVemula: India’s student uprising is upon us


The Dalit scholar’s suicide has proved a catalyst for the explosive coming together of young people across an extremely wide spectrum.

“Don’t politicise the young man’s death”, was a refrain repeated ad nauseum by Smriti Irani and the rest of the Sangh Parivar brigade in the immediate aftermath of the death of Rohith Vemula, whose suicide has sparked a wave of protest throughout the country. Sanctimonious sermonising is a preferred mode of defence for a political party caught in a bind. And the BJP, with its unholy lien on smugness and piety, could only be expected to scramble pathetically to grab some moral ground. Some sections of media, also expectedly, joined the chorus, with anchors and panelists voicing alarm that students were being “instigated” and “diverted” from their primary avocations in the degree factory.

rohit-1_012816121754.jpg

Pontifications that students need stay away from politics are perhaps as old as the organised educational system itself. The preachers would well do to listen to Lala Lajpat Rai, one of the most dynamic leaders of the freedom struggle. In his presidential address to the first All India College Students’ Conference, held in Nagpur in December 1920 he had said, “I am not one of those who believe that students ought not to meddle in politics. I think it is a most stupid theory and an impossible theory too. It is the creation not of confused brains but of dishonest brains.”

Smriti’s dishonesties are legion enough to require no recounting here. Meanwhile, more and more students throughout the country have been voting with their feet on the lines of Lala Lajpat Rai and pouring out, in the campuses and on to the streets, on a variety of issues concerning the academic community and society as a whole. The last year and the first month of 2016 have seen a dramatic upsurge in the students’ movement throughout the country – a veritable Student Spring. Student agitations have seen a scope and sweep not seen since the decades of the sixties and seventies.

Resurgence of student political activism

The present phase of mass student agitation could be said to have started with the Hokkolorob movement, which began in September 2014 as a demand for action on an incident of molestation on the campus of Jadavpur University, Kolkata. When attempts were made to crush protests with a show of police brutality, it rapidly grew to involve tens of thousands of students in Kolkata and then spread to support actions from students throughout the country. The title of Hokkolorob – loosely translated as “let there be a noise” – that the movement took on signified in more ways than one the resurgence of the student political activist on the Indian campus scene – with a bang.

Though recent years had seen major mass movements with a considerable student presence, such as the December 2012 “Nirbhaya” movement in Delhi and the four year long movement of 2009-2013 for a separate Telengana state, Hokkolorob was significant for being a movement that had emerged from a campus issue and had carried within its sweep not only students from a number of other universities, but also teachers, parents and other participants from society at large. It met with success, with the government having to finally give in to the main demand of removal of the vice-chancellor who had ordered the police clamp-down. Soon after, two other prestigious universities of Bengal – Presidency and Shantiniketan – saw student agitations, though the impact was not as widespread as Hokkolorob.

In May 2015 the Smriti Irani led Ministry of Human Resources Development (MHRD), on the basis of an anonymous complaint, prodded the administration of the IIT-Madras to derecognise the Ambedkar-Periyar Study Circle (APSC), a students’ body functioning in the institute. Among the “charges” in the complaint was that the APSC was “trying to create hatred against the honourable prime minister” and trying to make SC/ST students “protest against the MHRD and Central Government”. The perverse governmental interference in an academic institution brought about a surge of protest from students in similar institutions against the obviously casteist and undemocratic act. The government and institute were again forced to hastily retreat, but not before a host of similar APSC bodies starting blooming in other campuses all over the country – potential watchdogs against casteist and autocratic institution managements.

Around the same time on June 12, 2015, the students of the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) began a strike against the appointment of Gajendra Chauhan as the Chairperson of the FTII Governing Council, despite him having nothing of note to qualify him for the task, except his loyalty to the party in power. They too received countrywide support, not only from other students but also from alumni, film personalities and other intellectuals. The government however did not relent and the strike was withdrawn on its 140th day, with the promise to continue the struggle from within. Chauhan’s first visit to the campus was only in January 2016, accompanied by protests, lathi-charge and arrests amidst fortress like security. Thus the FTII dispute continues to simmer with its enduring and deep impact on the student and intellectual community at large.

Occupy UGC is the next ongoing agitation that has spread across the country. It started in Delhi in October 2015 with the students’ occupation of the premises of the University Grants Commission (UGC) to protest its decision to, among other things, scrap non-NET scholarships (which provide small grants to research scholars who are outside the ambit of the National Eligibility Test – NET).

The students were forced out two days later by the police in a pre-dawn swoop, but their pick-up and detention only seemed to serve to further steel their resolve to harden and widen their protest. The protesters have continued since then to stay put at the UGC gates, providing a standard for research students across India to rally around and organise their own protests. There have been been All-India mobilisations at Delhi which have been lathi-charged and water-cannoned, but the movement shows no signs of abating. The government, by referring the matter to a review committee, has tried to send signals of a softening of its stand, but the students have pressed forward with a call for an “all-universities strike” on February 18, 2016.

rohit-2_012816121822.jpg

Rohith Vemula – resistance icon

It is in this situation of ferment that Rohith Vemula has proved a catalyst for the explosive coming together of students across an extremely wide spectrum, which in turn is providing a rallying point for the sundry forces who have felt the need to stand up against the repressiveness of the current casteist and communal regime.

Though Rohith had been targeted as a Dalit who refused to bow and submit to the casteist dispensation around him; though he, as his suicide note points out, had been reduced in his lifetime to “his immediate identity and nearest possibility”; in death, he rose high, above such categories and limitations, ascending to become the resistance icon of all struggling sections. As this is being written the protests snowball, with the figure for protest actions in various parts of the country on just one day – January 25, 2016 – reaching two hundred and forty two.

Bangaru Dattatreya, the Union Minister who pushed for action on the ASA activists, had, in his letter claimed that the University of Hyderabad (UOH) had become a den of casteists (read Dalits, tribals and all sections desiring the annihilation of caste), extremists (read all those putting up resistance to oppression and exploitation) and anti-nationals (read minorities, particularly Muslims, and all others opposed to the Sangh Parivar’s  Hindutva project). Rohith’s martyrdom has united such “casteists”, “extremists” and “anti-nationals”, not only in the UOH, but across the country. Joint Action Committees demanding justice for Rohith, formed in various universities and centres are now moving to form an All India Joint Action Committee for Social Justice.

The Parivar, though thrown on the defensive, has not remained silent. Organised attacks by RSS members on pro-Rohith protestors have already taken place in Mumbai, Kolkata and other places. These attacks may grow, but their efforts seem pitiable in the face of the rising wave of the Student Spring. This could lead to the more intensive use of the repressive state apparatus. But the movement for democracy and social justice seems to have already become quite a mass phenomenon which would require some stopping. The poet Pablo Neruda would have said, “They can cut all the flowers, but they can’t stop the spring”

By Vernon Gonsalves and Arun Ferreira

http://www.dailyo.in/politics/from-hokkolorob-to-justiceforrohithvemula-the-student-spring-sweeping-across-india/story/1/8689.html

Pardon to David Headley in 26/11 trial is travesty of justice


Fahim Ansari was tried for same acts for which the US citizen was let off.

Fahim Ansari – accused No 2 after Ajmal Kasab in the 26/11 Mumbai attacks trial – is one of those quiet, gentle types. The several interactions that one of the authors of this piece (Vernon) had with him in the Anda Circle of Mumbai’s Arthur Road Central Prison left the impression of a person polite to a fault, who rarely, if ever, lost his temper. It would not however be surprising if even the serene Fahim were to fume with fury at the proceedings in the Mumbai courtroom of Additional Sessions Judge GA Sanap on December 10, 2015.

December 10, 2015 was when the court pardoned US citizen David Coleman Headley in the same case and guaranteed him protection from punishment for the very same charges for which Fahim had earlier been indicted. Headley has admitted, among other things, to performing the same role of reconnaissance for which the same prosecution had implicated Fahim. But the Special Public Prosecutor, Ujwal Nikam was proudly proclaiming in the Court, “Now David is my witness also.” This was the Nikam who had, despite Fahim’s acquittal in the Sessions Court, gone right up to the Supreme Court trying to fix his conviction and death sentence. Now the very same Nikam had no qualms in claiming that another man had actually done the crime and that he should be pardoned – because this other man was “his” witness.

story-1_010616012905.jpg

Pardon-plea or Plea-bargain?

The dealings in the courtroom were businesslike and lacked any notions of mercy or magnanimity that one would associate with a plea for pardon. It sounded more as if Headley was negotiating an agreement rather than praying for indulgence. His statement through video conferencing from the US was short, ending with a curt, “I appeared here ready to answer questions regarding these events if I receive a pardon from this court. That’s it. Thank you.” A veteran of several plea-bargains, Headley has, in America, got out of two earlier drug charges and clinched a leniency deal with the US government to save him from a death sentence and extradition to India to face trial for his role in the 26/11 attacks. On December 10 he knew that Indian courts have no control at all over him and any pretence to place conditions on him was just a farce.

One of the conditions required for pardon under Section 306 of the Code of Criminal Procedure is that the person being tendered pardon “be detained in custody until the termination of the trial”. In Headley’s case he has been tendered pardon without being even arrested or detained by the Indian police. The other more important condition is that he should make “a full and true disclosure of the whole of the circumstances within his knowledge relative to the offence and to every other person concerned, whether as principal or abettor, in the commission thereof.” That this condition, which Sanap explained in some detail to Headley, will see breach rather than compliance goes without saying.

No ‘full disclosure’

It is widely known and even documented that David Headley, born of a Pakistani father, was a double agent for America’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) who, while working with Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) and the Lashkar-e-Toiba, had shared information with US agencies about impending Mumbai attack targets. The US therefore has no interest whatsoever in Headley making any “full disclosure” before an Indian court. As long as he remains in US custody, these agencies will ensure that disclosures will be restricted and refurbished according to American interests. What then is the national interest in the Indian state granting pardon to a Pak-American ISI/CIA agent, who has succeeded in causing deadly damage on Indian soil?

The fatuous argument that Headley’s evidence would bring out the truth behind 26/11 hardly warrants serious consideration. That leaves us the prosecution objective of using Headley to strengthen the case against Indian national Zabiuddin Ansari, who is currently facing trial. The evidence of a double agent should by definition be dubious. When such proof is being proffered over video-conferencing from a place out of your courts’ control, the insincerity of the exercise is palpable. Should the state go to such loutish lengths to somehow nail an Indian citizen in the conspiracy, while absolving the Americans of all responsibility?

Prosecution pursued Fahim despite knowledge of Headley’s guilt

As another Ansari goes to trial, one cannot help but recall Fahim Ansari’s anxieties and anticipation during the first 26/11 trial in 2009-10. First the dismay at the fabrication of falsehoods in the charge-sheet; then the elation at the exposure in court by Adv Shahid Azmi, his defence lawyer, of the patently fabricated nature of the maps, which Fahim had been tortured and forced to draw while in police custody. The elation then was also moderated by the realisation that it would be extremely unrealistic to expect a Sessions Judge to go only by the evidence and not succumb to state, media and public pressure. A discussion that particularly comes to mind took place on February 11, 2010, when Fahim related how he sensed a more sympathetic shift in the Judge’s attitude after news reports that Headley had been indicted in December 2009 in an American court. But that was also the day that Shahid Azmi was shot dead and there was again the worry whether another lawyer would be able to put up as good a defence.

Fahim finally came to be acquitted of all charges by the Sessions Court on May 3, 2010 with the judgment (particularly at paras 1248 to 1251) pointing out in detail the doubtful nature of the prosecution evidence against him. The prosecution, despite being well aware that it was not Fahim but Headley who had done the recce, continued to appeal in the High Court and Supreme Court against the acquittal. But the Supreme Court judgment (at para 595) too found the evidence of the prosecution’s star witness against Fahim to be “completely unacceptable”.

story-2_010616012937.jpg

Zabiuddin, however, is likely to meet a different fate. The fact that the state is seizing on suspect sources such as double agent Headley to prop up its case obviously means that the evidence they claim to have against him is at best flimsy. But it is also a pointer to the extent to which it is ready to go to fabricate falsehoods to prove a point convenient to its narrative. And this time Adv Shahid Azmi will not be around.

By Vernon Gonsalves and Arun Ferreira

http://www.dailyo.in/politics/pardon-to-david-headley-in-26-11-trial-is-travesty-of-justice/story/1/8303.html

Why Modi sarkar is not serious about Paris Climate Change goals


Tribal resistance to deforestation offers better hope.

The years of negotiation leading up to the Paris agreement on climate change have spawned a whole new jargon of its own. In the days during and following the consensus reached on December 12, some of the catchphrases are spilling over into the public domain. Thus we had Prime Minister Modi tweeting that “climate justice” has won. Minister for environment, forests and climate change (MoEF&CC), Prakash Javadekar complained that actions of developed countries are far below their “historical responsibilities”.

panel-01_122315012042.jpg

Hypocrisy of climate change rhetoric

It is interesting to see Modi and Javadekar talk of justice and responsibility with respect to the environment. Thus far they have shown scant concern for either. Soon after coming to power they have done all they can to clear the tracks for rampant exploitation of the environment by corporate India.

Dilution of pollution norms, removal of restrictions on projects near national parks, clearance for mining projects without public hearings, disempowerment of gram sabhas by removing provisions for their consent for industrial projects in forest areas were some among a slew of measures that amount to a veritable war on the environment. A simultaneous intensification of the war on the Maoist movement was announced by the home ministry. Apart from the political imperative, the declaration was to demonstrate a resolve to rid the forests of central and eastern India of the Naxalites, who are seen by India Inc as the prime obstacle to their plans to evict the local tribal population, clear the forests and exploit the vast mineral resources lying there.

Thus duplicity has long dominated the government’s climate change discourse. Javadekar talked tough and sanctimonious on the moral principle of equity and of the historic responsibility of those countries which have historically emitted the most, at the UN Climate Change Summit at New York in September 2014. This was the same month when he was plotting the amendment to the Forest Rights Act to deny the same equity to his country’s forest-dwellers by removing their right of consent to projects entering their areas. He also declared then at the UN that India was serious about acting on climate change and would act on its own volition. But, given the government’s policy measures, the hollowness of this claim seemed as apparent as the hypocrisy in the rhetoric.

Deepening the forest carbon sink

Climate change control/reversal is not only about limiting carbon emissions through so-called clean technologies, but also about preserving and expanding the forests which are the lungs of the earth. It has been estimated that around 90 per cent of CO2 emissions are caused by land-use change or deforestation. Forests are recognised as “carbon sinks” that absorb CO2 from the atmosphere and store carbon in wood, leaves, litter, roots, and soil and thus act to moderate the climate. Thus the extension and deepening of forests is essential to any programme of controlling climate change.

The government, however, has shown no real inclination of moving in that direction. An earlier environment ministry document, which dealt with the subject of forests as carbon sinks, seemed more interested in their valuation in monetary terms equivalent to “carbon credits”. The trouble with such an approach of linking India’s forests with the global carbon trade is that it leads to government reports being more interested in presenting a rosy and wrong picture of expanding area under tree cover, without bothering about its real impact on absorption of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

panel-02_122315012027.jpg

Delhi’s forest cover up 13-fold?

Javadekar is leading from the front in this window-dressing. He, in July 2015, issued an intra-ministry circular, directing ministry officials to replace the word “diversion” of forest land with “reforestation” in all communications. An earlier CAG audit found compensatory afforestation on non-forest land to be only about seven per cent of the forest land taken over by projects. Further, as has been pointed out, even where “compensatory afforestation” actually takes place, it is normally in the form of plantations, which do not really compensate for natural forests that are “diverted”.

But the environment minister insists on covering up this reality. The same is with the Forest Survey of India’s 2015 figures for forest cover, which show an increase which is essentially a statistical creation due to changed definitions and satellite imagery techniques that bring even small one hectare patches with ten per cent canopy being counted as forests. The figures are so absurd as to show Delhi having increased its forest cover almost 13-fold from 15sqkm to 189sqkm over the last 30 years. But Javdekar could not care less. He was quick to assert that increased tree cover has deepened India’s carbon sink and that the figures would prove useful to negotiators at Paris to showcase India’s “commitment” to arresting climate change.

Since Javadekar was quite likely not the only figure-fudger at Paris, it would perhaps be unfair to single him out. It would be only an indicator that the actual implementation of the Paris Agreement would fall far short of the targets set.

Prospects post-Paris

Meanwhile business continues as usual post-Paris. It has recently been reported that the MoEF&CC has recommended forest clearance for the expansion of the country’s largest open cast mine in Singrauli, in an area of “very dense forest” that had earlier been classified as inviolate or out of bound for mining. The Centre is also considering a home ministry proposal seeking an eight-fold rise in forest clearance cap for projects in 117 Left-wing extremism hit districts, which also happen to be densely forested. This is in continuation of earlier decisions since 2011 to relax norms first in 60 districts and then in 57 more districts. Though environment ministry officials have raised initial objections, the trend so far indicates that the likelihood of the proposal being cleared is pretty high.

Such clearances and policy changes have, however, not always resulted in the clearing of forests to make way for projects. In many cases the struggles of the local tribal communities under the leadership of the Maoists has ensured that deforestation does not take place. One such struggle is building up in the Eastern Ghats, where the tribals have vowed to oppose the Andhra Pradesh government’s plan to deforest the hills for bauxite mining. The zonal committee of the CPI(Maoist) in the area has extended its support to the locals. In the face of such opposition, the AP government will possibly be forced to retreat and the bauxite may yet stay in the mountains. It is popular resistance such as this that will probably provide greater promise for the protection of the environment and forests.

By Arun Ferreira and Vernon Gonsalves

http://www.dailyo.in/politics/modi-prakash-javadekar-maoist-naxalites-paris-climate-change-goals-india-inc-co2-emissions-singrauli-bauxite-mining-andhra/story/1/8090.html

Letter to Nitish Kumar from Bhagalpur Prison’s death row


The re-elected chief minister of Bihar needs to show whether he has the will to render justice to the oppressed castes.

The election of the new mahagatbandhan government in Bihar has raised hopes of various sections, with many expecting a lot from the alliance that defeated Narendra Modi. A number of demands and appeals are landing at the newly sworn-in chief minister’s door. We thought it only appropriate to appeal for justice on behalf of four prisoners rotting in jail on death row.

Dear Nitish Kumarji,

We are four citizens who reside in Bihar and wish to congratulate you on becoming the chief minister of Bihar once again!

At the outset itself we want to make it clear that we did not vote for you. But we did not even vote for Narendra Modi. In fact we did not vote for anyone. We have not been allowed to vote for anyone from almost twenty four years. That’s because we have been in jail since then and no one in jail is allowed to vote in any election.

We have spent more than fourteen of these years on death row, in the shadow of the scaffold, knowing that we could be the next to get the hangman’s noose. Over twelve-and-a-half years have been spent waiting for the government to decide on our mercy petition and we still do not know where it has reached.

panel-a-new_112415125812.jpg

Death sentence for dalits, acquittal for upper castes

Nitishji, you may have heard of our case, where we have been convicted in an offence where 35 upper caste Bhumihar landlord men were killed in February 1992. In the Supreme Court the judgment of one of the three judges pointed out how the police investigation was “totally defective” and how the evidence was unreliable. He acquitted one of us and removed the death sentence of the other three because the only evidence against us was that we were present on the spot. This evidence too we must say was totally false.

The other two judges however gave all of us death penalty because they felt that the offence was such that the collective conscience of the community demanded the death penalty. They felt that the act was “depraved” and those who committed it were “beast”.

But the courts did not use the same principle of collective conscience for judging the upper caste men who were accused of killing 21 Dalits at Bathani Tola in 1996 or of massacring 58 Dalits at Laxmanpur Bathe in1997, or of butchering 23 in Shankarbigha in 1999, or for any of the numerous other caste massacre crimes committed throughout the country, where children, women and men of oppressed castes have been killed. It seems that those who calculate collective conscience only favour the upper castes. This naturally not only makes us believe that injustice has been done to us as individuals, but also makes all the oppressed castes feel that they cannot expect justice from the casteist system.

panel-b-new_112415125740.jpg

Justice for oppressed castes

We therefore appeal to you as the CM of a mahagatbandhan, which has come to power with promises to ensure the welfare of the backward castes, minorities and dalits, to do something to ensure justice for us and for the numerous members of the oppressed castes and exploited classes who are behind bars in the jails of Bihar.

Please decide immediately regarding our petitions to the government which have remained pending since March 2003 and which now appear to have been lost. This long delay itself has been a punishment and we deserve to be released.

Please try and ensure that the casteist investigative and judicial machinery, which gives death sentence to Dalits for the death of upper castes but acquits upper caste accused who have massacred Dalits and other oppressed castes, is corrected.

Nitish Kumarji, the Bihar State Legal Services Authority (BSLSA) has recently done a survey of all the prisons in Bihar during which the surveyors visited all the jails and met many prisoners, including us in Bhagalpur. The BSLSA has brought out a Status Reort – 2015 which points out that  there are over 30,000 prisoners rotting for years in Bihar’s overcrowded jails. This report has given various suggestions for improving prison conditions and changing rules. These suggestions should be implemented and the numbers in the jails should be reduced, by releasing on bail or personal bond or otherwise the countless inmates from the exploited and oppressed classes who are suffering only because they do not have the money and resources to get the legal help to set them free.

While making this desperate appeal to you we must nevertheless make it clear that we doubt whether you will give us justice or even try to give us justice. You have been the CM of Bihar for ten out of the twelve-and-half years that our mercy petition has remained pending, but your government did not even try to find out whether the petition had been lost and take a decision. But since you are now again re-elected we have no option but to ask you to decide.

We also know that you too are very much a part of the casteist state structure that is biased against the oppressed castes. When you got elected in 2005, one of the first things you did was to dissolve the Justice Amir Das commission that was investigating into the caste massacres of the Ranvir Sena and its political links. At that time many in your alliance and your party were involved in providing money, arms and political backing to the upper casteist killers. I hope you will be different this time because you have been elected through a mahagatbandhan which claims to speak for the backward and oppressed sections of society.

Hope in a hopeless situation is perhaps foolish, particularly after spending almost a quarter century behind bars. But do we have a choice? Without hope what would we be?

Krishna Mochi,

Nanhe Lal Mochi,

Bir Kuer Paswan and

Dharmendra Singh

Prisoners on Death Row, Bhagalpur Central Prison, Bihar.