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

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How Maharashtra robbed Dr Saibaba of his rights


BannerUntil police can be compelled to respect basic human rights, we will continue to remain far removed from the democracy we claim to be.

“I hope you are doing well, despite the fact that you are all in a larger penitentiary, as Uncle Sam would call it. I have been in a smaller enclosure here for the last ten months. My wish to join you back in the larger prison-house has been thwarted once again. I am sure you all understand the anxieties of your friend’s existence in the claustrophobic sealed concrete enclosure of an ‘anda cell’ behind seven heavy and gigantic gates.” Gokarakonda Naga Saibaba’s words (written over three months ago from the confines of the Nagpur Central Prison) carry that gritty tone characteristic of the man ‘guilty’ of supporting and participating in sundry issues and causes of the poor and dispossessed in various parts of the country over the last three decades.

Dr Saibaba, a Delhi University Professor in English, with 90 per cent permanent physical impairment of his lower limbs, was abducted on May 9, 2014 from a Delhi road by the Maharashtra police and has since been behind bars. His story is a telling commentary on the biases of a criminal justice system that readily releases convicted film-stars and politicians but insists on incarcerating those accused of committing the ‘crime’ of supporting or believing in thought contrary to the ruling ideology. Despite many Supreme Court rulings and the recent Kerala High Court assertion that ‘being a Maoist is no crime’, the reality is that it is just this accusation that keeps Saibaba and hundreds of others like him in prison for years on end.

Excuses for Denying Prof Saibaba his Rights

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In the last thirteen months, Saibaba has had his bail rejected four times – thrice in the Sessions Court and once in the High Court. Despite his severe disability and his rapidly deteriorating medical condition, the State has not only vigorously opposed bail, but also gone out of its way to deny him proper medical care. Whenever Saibaba has applied for bail on medical and disability grounds, the prosecution has adopted the tactic of ensuring that facilities were provided in the jail when the bail application came up for hearing, but after the bail application was disposed of, those facilities are withdrawn.

It was these tactics leading to a rapid deterioration in Saibaba’s health that prompted the bench of the Chief Justice of the Bombay High Court to take suomoto cognisance of the matter and pass orders on June 17, 2015 directing that Dr Saibaba should be taken from jail to a private hospital within 24 hours and be allowed to be accompanied by his wife and brother and a court-appointed doctor, where he was to be kept for a week until further orders of the court. Despite the detailed order of the High Court, the prison authorities, under the directions of the police anti-Naxal operations (ANO) department, did not implement the court’s directions and no one except the police were allowed to be with Saibaba when, as a formality, he was taken to the hospital for an hour and returned back to jail. Though Dr Saibaba is in jail custody and the court directions were to the jail and medical authorities, it was the ANO’s Inspector General of Police, Ravindra Kadam, who was directly supervising operations and even giving medical updates to the press on behalf of the doctors. It can now be expected that the doctors’ earlier report submitted to the court, which showed he required hospitalisation, will now, under police pressure, be changed to show some miraculous recovery. The long weary battle of Saibaba to salvage his health and reclaim his liberty is likely to continue its uphill course.

His letter relates an earlier experience when the Chief Medical Officer (CMO) of Nagpur was questioned by the Sessions Court why his treatment constituted primarily of diclofenac tablets. The CMO explained that this was because all physically handicapped persons were affected by excruciating pains for which medical science had found no answers except pain-killers. All this when Saibaba was known to have a number of medical problems, including stones in the kidney, heart problems, neurological and orthopedic issues, which were continuously being aggravated by the jail conditions.

Meanwhile the prosecution sees that the trial is deliberately delayed so that Saibaba can remain imprisoned as long as possible. Aside from the first production in court, there has been no attempt to take him to court – on the plea that the police lack a low-carriage vehicle suitable for the physically challenged. This was also a reason earlier given at an earlier hearing for not even taking Saibaba to the hospital, until a strict order from the court forced the authorities to bring such a vehicle, which had always been in their possession.

Have your say. You can comment here.The High Court is now seized of the matter and has again on June 22, 2015 taken serious note of non-compliance by the state of its earlier directives and has passed further orders in this regard. But for a Dr Saibaba, long languishing in Anda dungeons, this perhaps would bring scant comfort. One could not fault him if he were to be a bit cynical of the outcome of such orders – he has after all seen the casual contempt with which the authorities have treated many such judicial orders thus far. Until ways can be found to compel the police to respect basic human rights and the rule of law, we will continue to remain far removed from the democracy we claim to be.

By Vernon Gonsalves and Arun Ferreira

http://www.dailyo.in/politics/dr-saibaba-gadchiroli-police-high-court-maoist-anti-naxal-operations-naxalites-human-rights/story/1/4555.html

The relevance of Kawasi Hidme’s unheard story


Sushmita

Being an adivasi, a woman and being born in a region desired by greedy multi national companies does not serve one well. That is the story of Hidme and many more like her in the regions of Bastar, Chattisgarh. Kawasi Hidme was a young girl, full of energy from Borguda village in Sukma, Bastar region. She helped her widowed aunt till a small piece of land. The rice grown was just enough for them and Hidme would, during the season, sell Mahua in the local market. Like every girl of her age, she would be excited about the occasional fairs from where she can buy colourful bangles and other items which were otherwise not available in the local market.

In January 2008 just after harvest, as in previous years, a fair was organised in Ramram, the nearby village. Kawasi accompanied her aunt and her other cousin sisters to the fair and to buy ribbons andchoodis. There she joined a group of other tribals who were dancing and singing. Having danced vigorously, she soon became thirsty and approached the nearby hand-pump for water. But as soon as she held the pump, someone very forcefully grabbed her. She looked up angrily and was shocked to see Police personnel. They had surrounded her and began dragging her by her hair towards their vehicle parked outside the fair. With hands and feet tied, she was thrown on the floor of the truck and driven to the Police station.A

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Art : Sushmita

This was just the beginning- the start of the atrocities that were to be perpetrated on Kawasi Hidme for the subsequent seven years or so. As the staff at one police station would satisfy themselves, she would be sent to another. Repeated torture resulted in a death like situation for her. The policemen however, got apprehensive that she might die in the station itself. That would be a major problem. Her detention had to be formalised and she had to be sent to prison. This was not something uncommon for this area- adivasi girls like Hidme were detained and tortured for months on end and would ultimately be falsely charged under draconian laws such as the Chattisgarh Public Security Act, UAPA, etc.

However before sending her to the prison, the formality of producing her before the court remained. Kawasi’s condition was such that she had to be admitted to the hospital. It was only after a few days that she was produced before the local Magistrate. The Police had conveniently accused her of an offence that related to the murder of 23 CRPF personnel and the Magistrate remanded her to the Jagdalpur prison. On reaching the prison, the excessive physical and possibly sexual torture ultimately paid its toll and her body suddenly ejected her uterus. She bled profously. Horribly scared, she somehow attempted and suceeded in putting her flesh back into her body.

Till then, she couldn’t share her experience with anyone, but now in prison she would be comfortable to talk to the other Gondi speaking women inmates. The next day as her uterus was again thrown out of her body, Kawasi decided to cut it off. She asked an inmate for a blade and when all the girls had gone out of the barrack, she sought to operate herself so as to end the pain. As she was about to act, a girl entered the barrack and screamed on seeing the bleeding Hidme. The other women inmates gathered. The blade was taken away from her and the jailor was called, who sent her to the city civil hospital for treatment. After a surgical operation at the hospital she was brought back into jail.

In court, the fabricated case against Kawasi was not progressing. The Police had mentioned two women and two policemen as witnesses. The two women never came to depose before the court and the two policemen denied having any information about her involvement. The evidence put up was itself suspicious at face value. The offence in which Kawasi was alleged to be involved, took place on the 9th September 2007. Statements of police personnels (with ‘remarkable memories’) were recorded on 5thDecember 2007, mentioning names of around 50 Naxalites supposedly calling out to each other. This list did not contain Kawasi Hidme’s name. However after 15th December 2007 when the police personnels added a few more names, her name suddenly appeared in newly recorded statements. And finally in court they denied her involvemnet.

Soni Sori, an adivasi teacher, was also in prison during this period and could interact with Kawasi. Soni Sori had undergone a similar treatment in police custody. She was administered electric shocks and stones were inserted in her private parts. After her release Soni Sori had informed human rights activists about Hidme’s condition who in turn, with sympathetic lawyers, started raising their voices for Kawasi. One such lawyer argued before the Court that as all the witnesses were complete, orders to release Hidme should be given. The judge replied that since she had already spent seven years in jail, there should not be a problem in spending a couple of months more! So Hidme stayed incarcerated for many more subsequent months. Finally in late March 2015, as none of the charges against her could be proved the Court ordered her release.

On the date of her release, Soni Sori and her nephew, Linga Kodopi went to receive her from Jagdalpur jail. When Linga took her back to her village, her friends failed to identify her and as she called out to each one of them, they started weeping. Though she was now free, her body was almost completely wasted. She had undergone multiple operations for gallstones. And each operation resulted in further exhaution. The mental injury is almost beyond repair. She regularly faces depression and sudden mood swings. On the other hand, the IG of Bastar, Kalloori has planned to fabricate Kawasi in a further case as she continues to speak of her violations and join Soni Sori in their fight against these injustices

This is not just the story of Kawasi Hidme, but rather the story of thousands of Adivasi women and men incarcerated for longest years of youth and vitality.The hard question we need to ask here is, who is going to compensate for their lost years? In the absence of legal aid, the torture these young women and men have undergone are never proved . The even more shocking part is that we do not hear such stories in the mainstream media. Soni Sori was one of the few women whose voice did reach mainstream media, the reasons being her own courage and the extent of gruesome torture she underwent. Though among aware citizens, it is not unknown that the Police frame adivasis and vulnerable people in regions like Bastar in false cases by branding them as naxals, but serious documentation on it especially when it comes to women still remains minimalistic. But all this fades in the midst of the footage that mainstream media devotes to coverage of the IPL, paid-news reports or events that do not concern us. This has created an illusion in the minds of our youth that a good life means a good job and abundant money with no concern for society at large. The few courageous women who decide to stand up against the mighty and powerful state apparatus face hostility at every step of their work. Recently when Soni tried to help Bhima Madkam, a local injured in a police firing, from Madenar village in Bastar to file a complaint, the police started harassing and threatening her saying that they will send her back to the jail by getting her bail order cancelled by the Court on grounds that she is ‘instigating people against the State’.

Apart from investigatng the case and arresting people, the police in these areas also assume the role of delivering justice. The growing impunity they enjoy is disturbing. The power that comes from holding the gun with absolutely no accountability is indulging. They assume the role of the overarching patriarchal figure who under the pretext of ‘protecting’ society, extracts ‘small’ (sexual or otherwise) favours, ‘teaches’ the accused a lesson and gets away easily unnoticed. Unless we broaden the discourse and dialogue on these issues, there is faint hope that anything is going to change for the better.

Hidme’s question keeps haunting us: “I was never involved in any Maoist activity… What was my fault?” We, as concerned citizens, have to decide if we are prepared for more such questions or are we going to stand up and challenge these injustices?

(Note : Support for the facts related to Kawasi Hidme’s case has been taken from Jagdalpur Legal Aid group’s lawyer, also a large part has been translated from information available in Hindi on activist Himanshu Kumar’s facebook page. The relevance of Kawasi’s story in our lives is becoming more important than ever before, hence I chose to talk about her story. All views expressed are mine)

References:

http://www.indiaresists.com/bastar-villager-injured-in-police-firing-police-harasses-activist-soni-sori/

http://www.youthkiawaaz.com/2015/04/magdalene-mailpidi-village-maoist/

http://indiatoday.intoday.in/story/maoists-naxals-jharkhand-ranchi-crpf-cobra-battalion-camp-police/1/431818.html

http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/other-states/acquitted-after-7-years-tribal-woman-says-she-was-tortured/article7050393.ece

http://dantewadavani.blogspot.in/2015/03/blog-post_28.html

http://www.dnaindia.com/india/report-can-carrying-a-vessel-get-one-jail-yes-if-you-are-a-tribal-in-maoist-belt-2072969

Kerala cops’ campaign to criminalise dissent


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

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

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

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

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

UAPA provisions criminalise thought!

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

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

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

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

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Resistance to Repression

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

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

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

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

What US President Obama would have told Prime Minister Modi on 2015 Republic Day


The Republic Day 2015 Parade was a great occasion for Prime Minister Modi and President Obama to cosy-up and share experiences of governing two of the largest and most complex countries. Floats passing by, weapons on display and planes flying past was an ideal backdrop for a heart-to-heart exchange of ideas on development, good governance, and all those myriad little things that go to make great democracies. Stories Unscene tries to capture what a one-on-one tête-à-tête may well have been.

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Modi: Barackbhai, how are you enjoying your stay here? Hope everything is as you like it.

Obama: Saaru che Narendra, it’s been great! Everything’s simply awesome! Delhi’s a glorious city; long history, massive population… must be millions out there cheering the parade – though of course, can’t see much in this blessed fog. How do you do the security? Must be tough.

M: Oh, it’s easy. We just close down the Metro and cordon off the roads in advance; only let in those we want. No public, no trouble no? They can see it on TV. We all watch cricket that way.

(Shouts of of “Modi, Modi” fill the fog.)

O: How’re the Delhi elections going? Saw your hoardings all over – but who’s that guy in the muffler – your man for Delhi, huh?

M: Hey Bhagwan, not mine, not mine! He’s Arvind, an anarchist! I told him to go join the Naxalites. I’ll send him packing this time – no more elections for him.

O: So sorry Naren, no offence meant. But what’s this Naxalite business?

M: No business Barackbhai, those Naxal guys are anti-business. They’re Maoists.

O: Good God! You’ve got Chinese here? Get them out pronto. On that I’m with you all the way.

M: Not Chinese, Barackbhai. These guys are Indians. My biggest internal security threat. Those guys just don’t want us to do good business. They’re worse than those environmentwallas. They’re mostly adivasis and won’t allow us to clear forests and forest dwellers. So many of our mines, big dams, power projects are all on hold. No development!

O: Real backward guys, huh? Wall Street boys won’t like it one bit. You’ve gotta be firm man. Cannot let a few aboriginals get in the way of a country’s growth. We too had our Red Indians. If we hadn’t cleared them out where would the US be? Development comes with a price you know. Someone’s got to sacrifice for the greater good.

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M: Yeah yeah. No sweat Barackbhai, it’s as good as done. Our Raj is on the job. His home department has brought a new policy to handle this stuff. Clear, hold, build, you know. Clear out the locals, hold on to the land, build on top of their ruins. You guys did it Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq. Some say you guys made a mess, but Raj and I know you’ve done a great job. And no time to lose now. Our own chaps – Tata, Mukesh, the lot – are also getting irritable. Can’t blame them no? There’s gold to be got under those jungles – and lots to go around. That’s why I want more of your boardroom guys taking interest.

O: Our big boys will come on board, but they’ll need some guarantees. Can’t run around taking risks. Put in billions and then see them rot while some half-naked natives call the shots.

M: That hurts Barackbhai. We’re doing our best. (Just then an aging Chetak hovers over sprinkling rose petals. They wave to the helicopter and to the cameras.)

M: We’re putting in all we have to shove the adivasis out. We’ve even started using some of these helicopters. But those fellows have starting firing on them and our air-force boys don’t want to go in.

O: Our Apaches and Chinooks will come in handy for you. We’ve got real armoured choppers. But you can’t go on being so delicate. You’ll need carpet-bombing someday soon. We’ve learnt all this the hard way. No namby-pamby in things like this.

M: I know Barackbhai, I know. But these human-rightswallas go on creating a fuss. They say that adivasis are our own people, our own citizens. Some judges say our Constitution won’t allow it.

O: Aw Naren, we too have a Constitution. But that does not stop us from finishing off our citizens, when it’s got to be done. And all very legal, mind you. I myself sign the warrants. I’m using drones. Wonderful machines! Something like video games. Zero in… Wham, bam, boom.  There are mistakes here and there and many others get knocked off, but you can’t cry over collateral damage. You too must have them.

M: We’ve started on that. Manohar, our military boss is smart and will push through all deals in a jiffy. But don’t your courts and media guys raise a stink.

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O: You give them the right laws and the courts will do their job.

M: We’ve got UAPA, an anti-terror and unlawful activities law. But some judges are watering it down.

O: “You Paa” … Doesn’t sound too good. We’ve called our anti-terror law PATRIOT. Great name  and helps to get everyone on board. Everyone wants to be a patriot, most of all the media. Of course for the media you’ve got to get the owners on board.

M: I’ve got most of them to fall in line. And Mukesh and other friends can mop up some more. If anyone goes too far we’ll clamp down on them.

O: But … don’t you have First Amendment Rights – you know Freedom of Expression and all that.

M: Yeah, we have our First Amendment – Nehru got it passed. But it wasn’t for granting freedom of expression – it was for restricting it.

O: Wow! Our Founding Fathers didn’t think that way. Sometimes I wish they had.

M: Barackbhai, you’re just my sort of guy. May the force be with you! (And it was then that Michelle got into conversation mode and started asking about Jashodhaben’s health. That really spoilt the mood.)

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Why Modi won’t remove some colonial-era repressive laws


Decoding sedition, preventive detention, unlawful activities, armed forces special powers.

Once upon a time a group of traders came to India from a cold distant land called Britain. Bit by bit they took over the country and came to rule through a combination of trickery and tyranny. They built up their system of rule around an elaborate scheme of laws governing all areas of people’s lives. Each time the Indian masses rose to oppose British rule, more stringent laws were brought in to sustain their regime.

Law of Sedition and Other Colonial Laws

Thus, soon after the First War of Independence in 1857 was crushed, the British Crown brought in the Indian Penal Code 1860, where the initial chapters defining crime were all political and dealt severely with offences against the state, armed forces, public tranquility, etc. Later, as discontent continued, the British introduced Section 124A, which prescribed life imprisonment for the “crime” of sedition. It defined sedition as an attempt to excite “disaffection towards the government established by law”. It was soon used repeatedly against all leaders of the independence movement, including Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Mahatma Gandhi, Annie Besant and others. Gandhi in his defence statement in court said, “Section 124 A under which I am happily charged is perhaps the prince among the political sections of the IPC designed to suppress the liberty of the citizen. Affection cannot be manufactured or regulated by the law.” History proved him right. Section 124A did not succeed in gaining any affection of the Indian people for the British Crown.

But that did not stop the Britishers from introducing other laws to try to halt the rising tide of disaffection of the Indian masses. They brought in Preventive Detention laws like the Defence of India Act 1915 to imprison political activists even before they committed any offence. The Rowlatt Act – called the Anarchical and Revolutionary Crimes Act 1919 – was the first “anti-terror” law designed to suppress revolutionaries like Bhagat Singh. When all these failed and the masses took to the streets during the Quit India movement, the British brought the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Ordinance, 1942 giving powers to armed forces personnel to shoot to kill the protesters agitating for Quit India, without fear of prosecution. But all these were of no avail and the movement against British Rule went on rising, finally forcing them to retreat and hand over power to another set of rulers from the Congress in 1947.

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New Rulers, Same Laws

Post 1947, it was naturally expected that the new government had the affection of the people and did not need any of these laws. As Gandhi had said and British experience had shown, affection could not be manufactured by law. The Constitution, which came into effect in 1950, guaranteed freedom of thought, expression and association, the right to life and liberty, and various other fundamental rights which were to override all the repressive enactments of the British period. The government would now win the affection of the people by its actions, not demand it by fiat.

But that was not to be. The Constitution itself allowed preventive detention and the Preventive Detention Act 1950 was introduced within a few weeks of the Constitution coming into force. This was supposed to be a temporary measure for one year, but it lasted for 19 years. It was then replaced, within two years, by the Maintenance of Internal Security Act 1971, the notorious preventive detention law used widely during the Emergency of 1975-77. This was withdrawn by the post-emergency government in 1978, only to be substituted by a new preventive detention law, the National Security Act, 1980, which is in use to this day.

The First Amendment to the Constitution provided another indicator of how soon the new rulers would revert to the ways of the British. It was brought to restrict Article 19(1)(a), the right guaranteeing freedom of expression, because the courts had ruled in favour of certain political magazines critical of the government. Later, when the High Courts struck down Section 124A as being ultra vires of the Constitution, the government fought in the Supreme Court to preserve sedition law in the statute books. The Supreme Court preserved Section 124A but prescribed that it should only be applied when there was a direct incitement to violence.

This of course was not to be. Sedition today is being applied in more harsh and absurd ways than ever before. Award-winning Doctor Binayak Sen has been sentenced to life imprisonment for providing human rights assistance to Maoist accused prisoners; Kashmiri students in Meerut who cheered Pakistan during a cricket match on TV faced sedition charges which soon had to be removed; a Muslim youth who did not stand during the National Anthem in a movie-house in Kerala is in jail for sedition; and more than seven thousand cases of sedition have been registered against opponents of a nuclear plant in Koodankulam, Tamil Nadu.

The “anti-terror” Rowlatt Act too was brought back in much harsher form, first with the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities Act 1986, then with the Prevention of Terrorism Act 2001 and now with the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. And for places like the North-East and Kashmir, where the level of disaffection of the people towards the government is seen by the authorities to be as high as it was towards the British during the Quit India movement, the government has enacted the Armed Forces Special Powers Act 1958. It is a copy of the British Ordinance of 1942 with the difference that the British government gave power to order shooting to kill to the level of Captain and above, whereas our government has given the same power to even a non-commissioned officer who is several ranks below.

Thus we have the irony of a situation where, sixty-seven years after the end of British rule and almost sixty-five years after the Constitution, we have in use all the repressive laws that the imperial rulers had unsuccessfully deployed to hold down the Indian people. Many of the laws have had harsher provisions added to them, but there are no signs that they are achieving the objective of reducing the disaffection of the people they are targeted against.

Naturally many democratic rights organisations and activists are campaigning for the repeal of these colonial-type oppressive laws. Since these laws are basically undemocratic, many would like to see them join the list of obsolete and archaic British period laws that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has vowed to junk by January 26, 2015. But there is no likelihood of such desires being fulfilled. As struggles of the people continue to grow, these laws are being used frequently and more intensively. If anything, these laws are only likely to get further strengthened and entrenched.

How Chaitanya Tamhane’s award-winning film Court mirrors courts in Bastar and beyond


The film has been called a damning critique of a criminal justice system that crushes the poor and exploited underfoot.

With ten awards and counting, Chaitanya Tamhane’s debut feature film Court has had a remarkably successful run so far on the Film Festival circuit. Opening with two prizes at its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival in September, it has so far picked up honours at Turkey’s Antalya Golden Orange Festival, the Mumbai Film Festival, the Austria Viennale, the Hong Kong Asian Film Festival, Ukraine’s Kiev Molodist Festival and Belarus’ Minsk Festival.

Director Tamhane’s script revolves around the proceedings of a trial in Mumbai of an aging Dalit cultural and social activist, Narayan Kamble (Vira Sathidar), indicted on patently sham charges of his songs having incited a sewer worker to commit suicide. Unlike Bollywood courtroom drama, Tamhane’s Court is striking for its undramatised, realistic portrayal of court proceedings. It also has an unusual and disquieting depiction of the ordinariness of the lives of officials like the Public Prosecutor and Judge and their mechanical approach to the judicial processes that decide destinies. The litigants, meanwhile, remain mere bystanders in various states of dazed despair. As the trial drags on endlessly, Kamble is finally bailed out by his human rights lawyer, only to be quickly re-arrested under draconian provisions of law like sedition and the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act [UAPA]. The film has been called a damning critique of a criminal justice system that crushes the poor and exploited underfoot.

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Tamhane’s characters are admittedly fictional and located in the big metropolis, but the story they tell is never far away from real life court-room and prison tragedies played out everywhere – whether in metros, district towns or remote forests. Take the abetment to suicide charge for example. Reviewers have variously called it absurd, ridiculous or plain farcical and seen it to be merely a satirical play – something that does not actually happen in real-life. But reality often throws up cases much more absurd, particularly if the police have got orders to target someone, often a dissenter.

Court’s lead actor – A victim in real life

Vira Sathidar from Nagpur, who plays the lead role of Kamble in the film, but is a distributor of progressive books in real life, has often himself been at the receiving end of such action. On October 15, 2006, he was picked up by police from the Diksha Bhoomi grounds at Chandrapur, Maharashatra, where he was selling books during the annual commemoration of the historic Dalit conversion to Buddism. He was interrogated over two days in a case registered under Section 18 UAPA, which carries punishment of life imprisonment. Though Sathidar was let go, 200 of his books, covering 41 titles, mostly by Dr. Ambedkar and some by Shahid Bhagat Singh, were seized, never to be returned. The police never thought it was ridiculous to suggest that selling such books could constitute conspiracy or abetment of a terrorist act, which is what Sec. 18 of UAPA is about.

Though the case did not reach the stage of a charge-sheet or trial, the police have not, till date, formally informed whether the charge has been withdrawn or not. Sathidar thus, to this day, carries the very real fear of his fictional Kamble, facing trial for abetting suicide through song becoming a real-life Sathidar, facing trial for abetting terrorist acts through books.

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Sathidar has had to again face more such book seizures in 2010 and again in 2013. But he has at least been saved the misfortune of the many others who have remained for years in prison on the basis of highly bizarre allegations.

Recently a report from a group of lawyers based in Bastar, Chattisgarh, gave details of numerous such cases, most from Dantewada District. One of the cases was of a 65 year old tribal, Kawasi Rajkumar, shown to be arrested in 2010 with a bow and some arrows and charged under the Arms Act and Explosives Act, who is still in prison awaiting trial. Many more like him continue to be denied bail and rot in jail.

Tarikh pe tarikh in Dantewada Court

The tarikh pe tarikh routine common to practically every court in the country is starkly shown in Court, where the investigating officer goes on asking for adjournments, sometimes for the lack of papers, at other times for illness of a witness. This tale of delay however takes on an altogether new dimension in the Dantewada courts, where almost all adjournments are because the police officers themselves refuse to show up and court summons and warrants are simply ignored for months and years on end.

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The Bastar lawyers’ report tells of a case where there are only five witnesses, all police, including two investigating officers, but the trial has yet to commence while accused remain in jail for six years. Court summons have been issued calling these police personnel no less than 30 times since April 2010, but not a single one of them has appeared even once to give evidence.

In another case, Kunjami Posca, a 60 year-old has been waiting in jail for seven years for his trial to complete. The case has been at a total standstill for over four years since May 2010 as the court waits for two witnesses – the post-mortem doctor and the investigating officer. Though both are government officials drawing regular salaries, they blatantly refuse to comply with court summons.

All this continues under the benign gaze of the courts, which do not use any of their powers to haul up the officials and halt deliberately delayed proceedings, often on charges that are clearly unsustainable. It often happens that the chargesheet produced by the police is not read before the trial by any officer of the court – not the judge, not the prosecutor and not even the defence advocate.

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In the case described above, where 30 summons have not yet produced a single witness, two of the three accused, Midiyam Lachu and Punem Bhima, are not even mentioned once in the whole charge-sheet. It was only after they had been six years in prison that this was shown to the judge, who promptly scolded the prosecutor, who in turn pointed out that it was the Honourable Court that had framed charges against the two without even bothering to read whether the charge-sheet had anything against them. The advocate for the accused was a court-appointed legal-aid lawyer who too had not cared to look at the charge-sheet.

This Kafkaesque scenario was complete when, despite discovering that the two had been wrongly imprisoned, the court did not have any procedure to even order their release. Since the charges had already been framed over four years ago, the Code of Criminal Procedure did not have any provision for the court discharge the two, so it ordered bail. Since Lachu and Bhima did not have the resources to provide bail, they could not get released. Since the police, who are the witnesses, continue to ignore summons the trial cannot proceed. Since the trial cannot be completed the accused cannot be acquitted, and, despite the judge and every other court officer knowing that there is nothing against them, they continue to remain in jail.

In the film, Tamhane has a scene where the camera remains still as the court closes and descends into emptiness and darkness. Lachu and Bhima are rarely taken from prison to court because the police rarely provide escort guards for court production. But if they did attend court they would very likely be overcome by a similar sense of emptiness and darkness.

My Prison Diaries


DemocracyHung
Mumbai-based activist Arun Ferreira kept a prison diary during his incarceration in Nagpur Central Jail. We reproduce here a  shortened version of his experiences and some of the sketches he drew in prison
Hell
Prison nurtures spirituality. It has the merit of at least temporarily inducing the type of peace obtained by casting your lot with the supernatural (Illustration: ARUN FERREIRA)

Prison nurtures spirituality. It has the merit of at least temporarily inducing the type of peace obtained by casting your lot with the supernatural (Illustration: ARUN FERREIRA)

After spending about five years in jail, Mumbai-based activist Arun Ferreira was released on bail in January this year. In May 2007, he was arrested in Nagpur on charges of being a Naxalite. The police claimed that he along with a senior Naxal leader, Ashok Satya Reddy alias Murali, was planning to blow up the historical Deekshabhoomi complex (where Babasaheb Ambedkar embraced Buddhism in 1956). In September 2010, he was acquitted of all charges by a Nagpur court, but was re-arrested by plainclothes policemen and charged with an alleged crime that occurred when Ferreira was locked up in jail. An alumnus of Mumbai’s St Xavier’s College, 39-year-old Ferreira kept a prison diary during his incarceration in Nagpur Central Jail. We reproduce here a  shortened version of his experiences and some of the sketches he drew in prison.

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The anda barracks are a cluster of windowless cells within the high-security confines of Nagpur Central Jail. To get to most cells from the anda entrance, you have to pass through five heavy iron gates, [and] a maze of narrow corridors and pathways. There are several distinct compounds within the anda, each with a few cells, each cell carefully isolated from the other. There’s little light in the cells and you can’t see any trees. You can’t even see the sky. From the top of the central watch tower, the yard resembles an enormous, airtight concrete egg. But there’s a vital difference. It’s impossible to break it open. Rather, it’s designed to make inmates crack.

The anda is where the most unruly prisoners are confined, as punishment for violating disciplinary rules. The other parts of Nagpur jail aren’t quite so severe. Most prisoners are housed in barracks, with fans and a TV. In the barracks, the day-time hours can be quite relaxed, even comfortable. But in the anda, the only ventilation is provided by the gate of your cell, and even that doesn’t afford much comfort because it opens into a covered corridor, not an open yard.

But more than the brutal, claustrophobic aesthetic of the anda, it’s the absence of human contact that chokes you. If you’re in the anda, you spend 15 hours or more alone in your cell. The only people you see are the guards and occasionally the other inmates in your section. A few weeks in the anda can cause a breakdown. The horrors of the anda are well-known to prisoners in Nagpur jail, and they would rather face the severest of beatings than be banished to the anda.

While most prisoners spend only a few weeks in the anda or in its cousin, the phasi yard, home to prisoners sentenced to death, these sections were where I spent four years, eight months. This was because I was not an ordinary prisoner. I was, as the police claimed, a ‘dreaded Naxalite’, ‘Maoist leader’, descriptions that appeared in newspapers the morning after I was arrested on 8 May 2007.

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I’d been arrested at Nagpur railway station on a brutally hot summer afternoon. I was waiting to meet some social activists when about 15 men grabbed me, bundled me into a car and drove away at high speed, kicking and punching me all the while. They took me to a room in a building my abductors later told me was the Nagpur Police Gymkhana. They used my belt to tie my hands and I was blindfolded, so that the police officials involved in this operation could remain unidentified. From their conversations, it became evident that I had been detained by the anti-Naxalite cell of the Nagpur Police. The assaults never stopped. Through the day, I was flogged with belts, kicked and slapped, as they attempted to soften me up for the interrogations that were to follow.

I had my first brush with social activism as a student at Mumbai’s St Xavier’s College in the early 1990s. I’d organised camps to villages and welfare projects for the underprivileged. The religious riots of 1992-93 really shook me up. Thousands of Muslims were displaced in their own city, and we helped run relief camps. The callousness of the state, which allowed the Shiv Sena to conduct its pogrom unimpeded, could not have been on better display. I soon joined the Vidyarthi Pragati Sanghatan, a student organisation that aimed to build a democratic, egalitarian society. We organised many campaigns in rural areas to help the dispossessed assert their rights. In Nashik, tribals were organising themselves against atrocities of the Forest Department. In Dabhol, villagers were resisting the Enron power project. In Umergaon, Gujarat, fisherfolk were protesting their imminent displacement by a gigantic port. Looking at these struggles up close made me aware that [offering] relief to the poor wasn’t as important as helping them question the skewed relations of power and justice and organise themselves to claim their rights.

However, post 9/11, there was a change in the way peoples’ movements came to be perceived. The so-called War Against Terror made security the prime motive of State policy. In India, special laws were promulgated to squash inconvenient truths. Organisations were banned, opinions were criminalised and social movements were branded ‘terrorist’. Those of us who worked to organise tribals or the oppressed in rural areas were termed ‘Maoists’.

In 2010, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh declared that Maoists were “India’s greatest internal security threat”. Some were ‘encountered’ or ‘disappeared’, while others were arrested. In places like Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand or Vidarbha in Maharashtra, all non-partisan political activity was branded as ‘Maoism’ and dealt with accordingly. In the months before my detention, many Dalit activists in Nagpur had been arrested on charges of radicalising the Amberkarite movement by infusing it with the politics of Naxalism. All this meant that I wasn’t entirely unprepared to be arrested myself.

Despite having contemplated this hypothetical situation, I wasn’t quite prepared to become a target of [State] excesses myself—to be arrested, tortured, implicated in false cases with fabricated evidence, and locked away in prison for several years.

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At midnight, 11 hours after I had been detained, I was taken to a police station and informed that I had been arrested under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, 2004, which is applied to people the State believes are terrorists. I spent that night in a damp, dark cell in the police station. My bedding was a foul-smelling black blanket, its colour barely concealing just how dirty it was. A hole in the ground served as a urinal and could be identified by paan stains around it, and its acrid stench. I was finally served a meal: dal, roti and a couple of abuses. Having to eat from a plastic bag with jaws sore from [the day’s] blows wasn’t easy. But after the horrors of the day, these tribulations were relatively insignificant and allowed me a brief moment to pull myself together. I managed to ignore the putrid bedding and humid air and doze off.

Within a few hours, I was woken up for another round of interrogation. The officers appeared polite at first but quickly resorted to blows in an attempt to make me provide the answers they were looking for. They wanted me to disclose the location of a cache of arms and explosives or information on my supposed links with Maoists. To make me more amenable to their demands, they stretched my body out completely, using an updated version of the medieval torture technique of [the wrack]. My arms were tied to a window grill high above, while two policemen stood on my stretched thighs to keep me pinned to the floor. This was calculated to cause maximum pain without leaving any external injuries. Despite their precautions, my ears started to bleed and my jaws began to swell up.

In the evening, I was made to squat on the floor with a black hood over my head as numerous officers posed behind me for press photographs. The next day, I would later learn, these images made the front pages of papers around the country. The press was told that I was the chief of communications and propaganda of an ultra-left wing of Naxalites.

I was then produced before a magistrate. As all law students know, this step has been introduced [to the legal process] to give detainees an opportunity to complain against custodial torture—something I could establish quite easily since my face was swollen, ears bleeding and soles so sore it was impossible to walk. But in court, I learnt from my lawyers that the police had already accounted for those injuries in their concocted arrest story. According to their version, I was a dangerous terrorist and had fought hard with police to try to avoid arrest. They claimed that they had no option but to use force to subdue me. Strangely, none of my captors claimed to have been harmed during the scuffle.

That wasn’t the only surprise. In court, the police said that I’d been arrested in the company of three others—Dhanendra Bhurule, a local journalist; Naresh Bansod, the Gondia district president of an organisation called the Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmulan Samiti; and Ashok Reddy, a resident of Andhra Pradesh, people I had never met before. The police claimed to have seized a pistol and live cartridges from us. They said we had been meeting to hatch a plan to blow up the monument at Deekshabhoomi in Nagpur. If the police could convince people that Naxalites were planning to attack this hallowed shrine, this could convince Dalits not to [have any] truck with leftists.

But mere allegations couldn’t suffice. They needed to create evidence to support their claims. The police told the court that they needed us in custody for 12 days to interrogate us. While the journalist and I were kept at Nagpur’s Sitabuldi police station, the other two were taken to the Dhantoli police station. Every morning, we would be transported to the Police Gymkhana for continuous rounds of interrogation that lasted late into the night. First, they attempted to force us to sign a confessional statement they had drafted. When that failed, they got the court to agree to allow us to be subjected to the scientifically dubious practice of narco-analysis, lie detectors and brain mapping tests, which they hoped would bolster their allegations. So although legally I was no longer in their custody, the police could still interrogate me under the guise of conducting these forensic tests. Preparations were made to transport us to the State Forensic Science Lab in Mumbai.

Before that, we were formally admitted to Nagpur Central Prison. I stooped through the low narrow door into the complex that would be my home for 54 months. In keeping with procedure, first-time prisoners are presented before the gate-officer. Tradition, and perhaps training, demands that even the most mild-mannered gate-officer be at his aggressive best while dealing with new entrants, who, in jail slang, are called ‘Naya Ahmads’. It is the gate officers’ job to give the newcomer a crash course in meekness and mindless subservience. A lathi at his side serves as a teaching aid.

The officer is also supposed to enquire whether the new prisoner has suffered injuries due to torture in police custody, and, if so, record his statement. In my case, I had a bleeding ear, swollen jaws and sore feet. But in reality, the officer threatens anyone trying to make a complaint. By custom, all injuries are recorded as having existed before the prisoner was arrested. A strip search followed, standard protocol for new entrants to the prison. I was stripped to my underwear and ordered to squat in a line with the other new entrants awaiting my turn with the jadthi-amaldar (the man in charge of searches). Our every belonging was scrutinised and thrown on the dirty road for us to humbly gather together again. Hazards like packets of biscuits and beedis were pocketed by the staff.

We were unfortunate to arrive in isolation, but if the prisoner’s wait at the gate coincides with the entry or exit of one of the senior jail officials, he is privileged to witness a ceremony of colonial vintage. Senior jailors and superintendents can’t be expected to bend low to enter through the door. So the main gate is swung open to allow these sahibs to walk through, heads held high. When they are sighted at a distance, the gate guard issues a yelp of caution: “All hup!” All staff stand to attention and all lower life forms are swept into corners out of sight or forced to their haunches.

Most Naya Ahmads are then taken to the After Barrack, where they spend a night or two before being assigned to a fixed barrack. This waiting period allows the jail staff, convict-warders, inhouse extortionist gangs and other sharks to assess what they can extract from the latest catch. Middle and upper class entrants are easy targets. They are softened up with dark stories of prison-life horrors and not-so-veiled threats. Young boys are targeted for free labour and as sex toys. Contacts are made and deals are struck to ensure better treatment when moved to the regular barracks.

Next is the mulaija or check-in-process. New prisoners are lectured on the value of prison discipline by a convict warder or jailor. Each new inmate has his identifying marks noted and is weighed, measured and examined by a doctor and psychologist, before being presented before a phalanx of prison divinities, led by the Superintendent. A Body Ticket is presented to each prisoner, listing his prisoner number and offences registered against him. These offences form the basis of how he will be classified, and, to some extent, how he’ll be treated in jail.

Even though the law proclaims that an accused person is innocent until proved guilty, such niceties lack meaning behind prison walls. The allegations of the police are sufficient evidence for the jail authorities to punish even those awaiting trial. Alleged rapists and homosexuals are routinely targeted by officers and other prisoners at the encouragement of the staff. Those implicated in murder cases are compelled to wear a convict prisoner’s uniform and are consigned to special ‘murder barracks’. As a sign of their patriotism, many jail superintendents personally preside over the beatings of people accused of terrorism.

Before the mulaija, procedure requires the new entrant to be bathed. However, shortages of soap and water often prevent the diligent observance of these rules. Instead, most Naya Ahmads are rushed through the rough-and-ready hands of the nai kamaan (literally, the Barber Command), one of the work groups to which prisoners could be assigned later. The Naya Ahmad’s next stop is the Badi Gol, the area in Nagpur Jail that houses the prisoners awaiting trial. Each is allotted a barrack. That, theoretically, is where I should have been headed too. But in my case, the procedures were all jumbled up. Twelve days after I had been picked up by the police, I was hurriedly put into the anda barrack, given a prison uniform, and after a quick meal at 4 pm of besan and chewy rotis, [put on my way] to Mumbai by train.