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When the state turns lawless

BY PRAFUL BIDWAI

27 May 2007
DESPITE its democracy, India isn’t exactly safe for human rights or rights activists. Noted rights activist Binayak Sen has just been detained under the Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act, 2005 (PSA). Sen, general secretary of the Chhattisgarh People’s Union for Civil Liberties, and PUCL’s national vice-president, was arrested for his alleged links with Maoist groups. This has caused widespread outrage.

The critical charge is that Sen met Maoist leader Narayan Sanyal more than 30 times in recent months in the Raipur jail.

The charge is preposterous. Sen met Sanyal with the authorities’ knowledge and consent and always in a jailer’s presence. It’s his legitimate function to meet detainees and defend their fundamental rights. Whether he met Sanyal 35 times or 100 times is irrelevant.

Yet, the Chhattisgarh government cavalierly levelled defamatory and scandalous charges against an activist-intellectual of Sen’s standing, who has an illustrious record as a 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. …..

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

Sen isn’t a Naxalite, or a Maoist sympathiser. Everyone who knows him, as I’ve done for years, will testify to his commitment to a peaceful struggle for a compassionate, humane society.

Yet, the government arrested him under the draconian PSA. This law allows for detention of a person on the vaguest of charges, including committing acts with a “tendency to pose an obstacle to the administration of law” and actions which “encourage(s) the disobedience of the… law”.

It 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 before the police had a shred of evidence against him. They have since searched his house and collected “hundreds of incriminating documents”.

Now, most of the documents are in the public domain. They include newspaper clippings, CDs on “fake encounters”, and letters from victims of state repression, since published. Much of the material pertains to Sen’s work as a civil liberties activist.

These malicious allegations are of the same variety as those filed in 2002 against The Kashmir Times journalist Iftikhar Geelani. He too was accused of possessing “classified” documents, suggesting links with terrorists. The police were forced to retract the charges when it was established that Geelani’s “secret” documents were obtained from public-domain sources.

Geelani was detained for eight months — and released without apology — because he is a Kashmiri related to separatist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani. Sen is being harassed because he’s a civil liberties activist who has exposed police atrocities.

These, remarkably, include 155 “fake encounters” in Chhattisgarh in 2 years. The latest was the murder of 12 Adivasis on March 31 — which made headlines even amidst the shocking revelations about the “encounter” killing of Sohrabuddin Shaikh 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, the Indian courts have a duty to prevent such miscarriage of justice. 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 usually misused. They create impunity, in which no official is held accountable for his/her misconduct.

It bears recalling that the conviction rate under the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act was less than 2 percent. This speaks of gross abuse of the law. The police didn’t bother to collect evidence but used TADA (and 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 alarms about terrorism and threats to “national security”.

Yet, it’s this way of thinking that led the Chhattisgarh government to set up Salwa Judum, a right-wing band of thugs who 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. No fewer than 47,000 people have become homeless owing to its depredations. However, Chhattisgarh’s anti-Naxalite juggernaut rolls on, setting Advasi against Adivasi, village against village, and bankrupting the state of its legitimacy.

The government now plans to use helicopter gunships to intimidate villagers, cut down prime forests, and repeat the “Strategic Hamlets” strategy during the Vietnam War. And yes, they plan to use grenades in skirmishes with Maoists.

There’s a larger purpose behind the anti-Naxal operations. 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.

The consequences of this strategy have become obvious—in Jharkhand and Orissa, besides Chhattisgarh. In Orissa, there’s popular resistance to the South Korean 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 POSCO’s goons.

This insanity must stop. The monstrous industrial projects must not be cleared by bypassing environmental and rehabilitation scrutiny. Or else, the state will lose its popular legitimacy.

Then, the Maoists will have really achieved their purpose.

Praful Bidwai is a veteran Indian journalist and commentator. He can be reached at praful@bol.net.in

May 27, 2007 - Posted by | articles

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