A few days after Delhi University professor GN Saibaba was arrested by the Maharashtra Police and accused of having Maoist links (Silencing dissent with a ‘Maoist’ tag? by G Vishnu, 24 May), a Mumbai-based activist, Sudhir Dhawale, who had been in jail since January 2011, was acquitted from similar charges by a sessions court. There is a striking similarity in the way the police went about their work in the two cases, both under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA).
Around eight months before Saibaba’s arrest, the police had raided his residence in Delhi University’s North Campus, purportedly looking for evidence linking him with the Maoists. The police had secured the search warrant after the arrest of two other activists, Hem Mishra and Prashant Rahi, from Maharashtra. The wheelchair-bound Saibaba had then expressed apprehension that the police could plant some incriminating evidence to haul him into jail in a false case. After his arrest in May, the police claimed that the interrogation of Mishra and Rahi had led to their nailing the DU professor, who was later suspended from his teaching job.
Similarly, Dhawale’s arrest on 3 January 2011 was based on an alleged confession by another activist Bhimrao Bhowte, who had been picked up a few days earlier along with four other activists on 26 December 2010. Dhawale, 45, was arrested from the Wardha railway station, two days after he arrived at the city to address a gathering of the Yuva Ambedkari Sahitya Sammelan.
Saibaba, 48, has been a vocal critic of Operation Green Hunt, the government’s counter-offensive against the Maoist insurgency. Starting as a direct engagement of the security forces with armed formations of the Maoists, the counter-offensive seems to have acquired new dimensions over time, with critics calling it an attempt to suppress any form of activism, legal or underground, that gives voice to the predominantly tribal population in the remote, forested terrain of central India.
Counter-insurgency officials and advisers consider Left-leaning intellectuals to be the torchbearers of radical ideology and, therefore, the greatest threat. They see people like Saibaba and Dhawale as “urban Maoists”, who galvanise people’s sympathies for the same causes that the Maoists claim to fight for.
Soon after Mishra’s arrest last September, the outlawed CPI(Maoist)’s Western Regional Committee spokesperson Srinivas had alleged that the police was trying to “terrorise intellectuals and activists”. “First, it was TISS student Mahesh Raut, then Mumbai University student Harshola Potdar and now it is Hem Mishra,” said the Maoist leader, claiming that the persecution was aimed at clearing the way for corporate mining interests in Surjagarh, Kamderi and Korchi in eastern Maharashtra.
There had been several encounters between the Maoists and security forces last year in this region. The Maoists had claimed that the encounters were fake and that “by arresting activists, the administration wants to instil fear in them and suppress the truth about the arrests and killings”.
However, the line between legitimate dissent and outlawed Maoist activity runs through a grey zone that needs to be reinterpreted. For instance, Dhawale told TEHELKA that he had been a part of the Maoists’ frontal organisations and agrees with the Marxist-Leninist-Maoist ideology, but does not support any form of violence. Dhawale’s lawyer Surendra Gadling points out a Supreme Court directive that the doctrine of association by guilt cannot be applied to such cases.
As a student in Nagpur, Dhawale was a cultural activist with the Vidyarthi Pragati Sangathana and Ahwan Natya Manch from 1985 to 1994. During that period, he had met many senior Maoist leaders, including alleged politburo member Kobad Ghandy, who is currently lodged in New Delhi’s Tihar Jail. Later, when the Maoists stopped operating in Nagpur, Dhawale moved on to other forms of activism. At the time of his arrest, he was working as a Dalit rights activist.
“In Maharashtra, there are village-level committees of an organisation called the Mahatma Gandhi Tanta Mukti Abhiyan, which are similar to the khap panchayats (caste-based councils) of north India. The upper-caste Marathas run these as an instrument of oppression against any form of assertion by the Dalits,” says Dhawale.
The chargesheet against Dhawale names eight other accused, all of whom were cultural activists rooting for Dalit rights. While the mainstream media only reports incidents of violence and extreme oppression, several insidious forms of discrimination in the rural and forested belts remain hidden. No wonder, activists such as Dhawale often find themselves on the same page as the Maoists because both sets of people believe they are fighting for the same causes. Many such people eventually end up in jail, waiting for trial in cases hobbled by the lack of evidence.
A closer look at Dhawale’s case is quite revealing. The police had initially accused him of putting up posters for the People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army, the armed wing of the CPI(Maoist). That charge had to be dropped later as Dhawale proved that he was at a public event in Mumbai on the day of the alleged offence.
A day after Dhawale’s arrest, the police raided his residence and seized electronic devices, including storage devices, in which they claimed to have found Maoist literature and pamphlets such as Prabhat, a magazine published by the outfit’s Dandakaranya Special Zonal Committee.
During the trial, the court rejected the police’s claim that Bhowte had identified Dhawale as a Maoist. There was no signed confession or any other documentary evidence to the effect. The courts have repeatedly observed that in the absence of proper gathering of evidence, the police often extract false confessions from the accused in custody.
Dhawale’s lawyer Gadling also proved that the materials seized from Dhawale were tampered with and most of the so-called Maoist documents were available online. He also argued that possessing banned literature and sympathising with Maoist ideology was not sufficient reason for conviction. In 2011, the Supreme Court had held that “mere membership of a banned organisation will not make a person a criminal unless he resorts to violence or incites people to violence or creates public disorder by violence or incitement to violence”.
While Dhawale was released after nearly 40 months in jail, 44 undertrial inmates, including seven women, continue to languish in Nagpur Central Jail, waiting for a verdict in similar cases. “The Centre sanctions a huge amount of funds for counter-Maoist operations. When the police fail to apprehend armed Maoists, they arrest unarmed activists to justify the expenditure,” says Gadling.
One of the biggest challenges before the newly-formed Narendra Modi government is to end the Maoist conflict, which is one of the promises made in the BJP manifesto. During the UPA-2 regime, the then rural development minister Jairam Ramesh had remarked that the first step towards that could be to free around 6,000 “innocent” tribals who have been lodged in jails in Maoist-related cases.
“Recently, Sonimata Kowase, a tribal woman was released after awaiting trial for four years. I had to arrange for someone to accompany her to her village because she could not go back on her own. Her family had not visited her in Nagpur jail even once as they could not afford the train fare,” says Gadling, who is fighting the cases of many such tribals.
Meanwhile, the Maoists’ central committee, their top decision-making body, has released a statement condemning the arrest of Saibaba because he spoke out against police atrocities. The police, however, claim they have records of Internet chats between Saibaba and Maoist leaders.
Saibaba has been held under the UAPA, India’s anti-terror law. The courts are usually reluctant to grant bail to those charged under this law. So, it is doubtful if Saibaba will get bail easily, if at all.