Tuesday, 29 May, 2007

Against State Brutality

The detention of noted human rights activist Binayak Sen under the Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act, 2005 (PSA) and the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act has attracted nationwide condemnation. Sen, general secretary of the Chhattisgarh People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), and the union's national vice-president, was arrested for his alleged links with banned Maoist groups.

The critical allegation is that Sen met senior Maoist leader Narayan Sanyal more than 30 times in recent months in the Raipur central jail. On the very face of it, the charge is preposterous. Sen met Sanyal with the authorities' knowledge and consent and always in the presence of a jailer. As a civil liberties activist, it is his legitimate function to meet detainees and ensure that their fundamental rights are respected. Whether he met Sanyal 35 times or 100 times is totally irrelevant.

It speaks poorly of the Chhattisgarh government that it cavalierly levelled defamatory and scandalous charges against an activist-intellectual of Sen's standing, who has an illustrious record as a public-spirited paediatrician connected with the people's health movement. Sen was involved with the setting up of the Shaheed Hospital, an initiative of the great trade unionist Shankar Guha Niyogi who was murdered at the behest of rapacious industrialists.

The hospital, owned and operated by a workers' organisation, remains unmatched anywhere in India for helping the population of a backward tribal area callously neglected by the state. Sen was on the official advisory committee that drew up one of India's most successful community-based primary healthcare programmes.

It's nobody's case that Sen is a Naxalite, or a Maoist sympathiser. Everyone who knows him, as this writer has done for many years, will testify to his commitment to a peaceful struggle for a compassionate, humane society. Yet, the Chhattisgarh government arrested him under the draconian PSA. This extraordinarily repressive law allows for detention of a person on the vaguest of charges. The charges include committing acts with a "tendency to pose an obstacle to the administration of law” and actions which "encourage(s) the disobedience of the established law". This law criminalises even non-violent protests, including Gandhian civil disobedience. It's a disgrace that the PSA remains on India's statute books.

Sen was detained even before the police had obtained a shred of evidence against him. Since then, they have searched his house and claim to have collected "hundreds of incriminating documents", which include compact disks, pamphlets and other papers. Now, most of the documents are in the public domain. The list includes newspaper clippings, CDs on "fake encounters", and letters from victims of state repression, since published in newspapers. Much of the impounded material pertains to Sen's work as a health and civil liberties activist.

Clearly, these malicious police allegations are of the same variety as the charges filed in 2002 against The Kashmir Times Delhi bureau chief, Syed Iftikhar Geelani. He too was accused of possessing "classified" documents, suggesting links with terrorists. The police were forced to retract all such charges when it was established that Geelani's "secret" documents were obtained from public-domain sources, none of them remotely connected with terrorism.

Geelani was detained for eight months -- and released without apology or explanation -- because he is a Kashmiri and related to separatist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani. Sen is being harassed because he's a civil liberties activist who has courageously exposed a number of police atrocities. These, remarkably, include 155 "fake encounters" in Chhattisgarh in two years. The latest was the cold-blooded murder of 12 Adivasis on March 31 -- which made the headlines even as the public was absorbing the shock from revelations about the "encounter" killing of Sohrabuddin Shaikh and Kausar-Bi by DIG Vanzara in Gujarat.

It would be an even greater injustice if Sen has to languish for months in jail before the charges against him are disproved. Surely, Indian courts have a duty to prevent such miscarriage of justice. Surely, top politicians and bureaucrats have learned some lessons from the sordid stories of abduction and outright killings committed by trigger-happy policemen. Surely, it has not escaped the attention even of India's creaking justice delivery system that draconian laws, which allow preventive detention and forced confessions, are liable to be -- and usually are -- misused. They create a climate of impunity, in which no official is held accountable for his/her gross misconduct.

It bears recalling that the rate of conviction under the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act was less than two per cent. This speaks of gross abuse of the law. The police didn't bother to collect evidence, which would help their case stand up. They used TADA (and later POTA) to bung people into jail and extract confessions from them under duress, including threats of "encounters". Such laws became excuses not to conduct diligent investigation, while raising alarmist fears about extremism, terrorism and threats to "national security".

The PSA was used in Chhattisgarh four times earlier -- for instance, to arrest a petty shopkeeper for selling groceries to Maoist sympathisers (of whose identity he probably wasn't aware), and to harass a Class XII student who was in love with a suspected Naxalite.

The Chhattisgarh police are now planting stories about a "close relative" of Dr Sen's, who is subversive by virtue of having studied at Jawaharlal Nehru University! Only a warped khaki brain can think in such philistine, irrational ways. Yet, it's precisely this way of thinking that led the Chhattisgarh government to set up Salwa Judum, a viciously right-wing band of thugs who target and kill Maoists. They have razed villages, raped women and looted what little the poor possess -- with police collusion. Salwa Judum has ignited a civil war and done incalculable harm to ordinary Advasis. No fewer than 47,000 people have become homeless owing to its depredations.

However, the Chhattisgarh government's anti-Naxalite juggernaut continues to roll on, setting Advasi against Adivasi, village against village, and bankrupting the state of all its legitimacy. The government now plans to use helicopter gunships to intimidate villagers, cut down prime forests, and repeat the "Strategic Hamlets" strategy of the United States during the Vietnam War by creating "Naxalite-free" villages. And yes, they plan to use grenades, not just bullets, in skirmishes with Maoists.

There's a larger purpose behind the anti-Naxal operations apart from trying to liquidate Maoists. It is to make Chhattisgarh safe for huge mining and industrial projects, which dispossess people. Chhattisgarh is selling its precious mineral wealth cheap to promote neoliberal capitalism. It has signed more than 30 memoranda of understanding with business houses, including multinationals with a terrible human rights record. The human consequences of such a strategy have become obvious -- especially in Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, and Orissa. In Orissa, there's growing popular resistance to the South Korean company POSCO's steel plant and the Tatas' steel mill. 2006 began with the gunning down of 13 Adivasis at Kalinganagar. And last fortnight saw attacks upon peaceful protestors by goons hired by POSCO.

This insanity must stop. The monstrous mining and steel projects, in which the people have no stake, must not be granted clearance by bypassing environmental and rehabilitation scrutiny. Or else, the state will lose all its popular legitimacy. Then, the Maoists will have achieved their purpose.

By Praful Bidwai

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