Sudhir Dhawale - on Left- Arun Ferreira on Right

EPW –Vol – XLIX No. 28, July 12, 2014 | Anand Teltumbde

All the so-called Maoist cases, including those of radical political activists Sudhir Dhawale and Arun Ferreira, present a pattern which clearly brings out the mala fide intention of police to hold some selected persons in jail for as long as possible and thereby terrorise others from following in their footsteps. In law, the courts are supposed to punish the guilty, but in these instances the accused are already punished by the police even before their guilt is established.

Anand Teltumbde ([email protected]) is a writer and civil rights activist associated with the Committee for the Protection of Democratic Rights, Mumbai.

Sudhir Dhawale, a well-known social activist, who was arrested by the police for his alleged links with the Maoists, was released from Nagpur’s central prison after being acquitted of all the charges by the Gondia sessions court on 22 May 2014. He was in jail for 40 months. Along with him, the eight other co-accused persons were also acquitted. In 2005, quite like Dhawale, the dalit poet Shantanu Kamble was arrested on similar charges, tortured over a period of 100 days before he got bail. He now stands cleared of all charges by the court. The radical political activist, Arun Ferreira, was confined in jail for more than four years, tortured and harassed, repeatedly rearrested in fresh cases after being acquitted in the earlier ones, before he finally got bail in the last case. The lesser known cases of arrests of 12 members of the Deshbhakti Yuva Manch of Chandrapur in January 2008 and the arrest of Bandu Meshram from Nagpur on very similar charges also come to mind. They all have been acquitted but not before torture and harassment at the hands of the police and humiliation of jail over periods ranging from one to three years. One is also reminded of the arrest of Anil Mamane and two others when they were selling books at Deekshabhoomi in Nagpur in October 2007.

There are scores of other cases from remote rural areas wherein young women and men, incarcerated in jails, were arrested on vague charges of being Maoists, many without even the charges being framed, and nobody to provide legal and other aid, helplessly facing ruin with the passage of time.

Procedural Injustice

Sudhir Dhawale has been a political activist right from his college days in Nagpur when he was part of the Vidyarthi Pragati Sanghatana (VPS), a radical students’ organisation in the 1980s. He never hid his ideological leanings and association with the mass organisations that professed Marxism-Leninism, known loosely as Naxalism, and now as Maoism. But he denied having connection with the Maoist party or its activities, least of all, the violent actions committed by it. After coming to Mumbai, he became active in the cultural movement and took a leading part in organising an alternative Vidrohi Marathi Sahitya Sammelan in 1999 in protest against the mainstream literary gathering, which is hugely sponsored by the state. This initiative took the form of Vidrohi Sanskrutik Chalwal, with its own bimonthly organ, Vidrohi, of which Dhawale became the editor. Soon Vidrohi became a rallying point for radical activists in Maharashtra. He drew on his literary flair in writing pamphlets and books to propagate revolutionary ideas in support of the ongoing struggles of adivasis and dalits. He played a leading role in the foundation of Republican Panthers on 6 December 2007, which identifies itself as “a movement for the annihilation of caste”. He was active in the statewide protests that erupted after the gory caste atrocity at Khairlanji, which was irresponsibly termed by the home minister of Maharashtra as instigated by the Naxalites. Dhawale was placed on the police scanner since then. At the personal level, he lived a spartan life devoted to these activities, which was supported by his wife, his comrade in VPS, who worked at the Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar Memorial Hospital, Byculla in Mumbai.

After his arrest in Wardha, where Dhawale was invited to speak at a dalit literary conference, the police raided his house in Mumbai in a manner as though he was a dreaded terrorist. His wife, Darshana, and children had to undergo considerable hardship and humiliation. The education of his children was completely disrupted; his son failed in the 12th standard board exam. As regards a case of association on the basis of some statement by some accused person or the literature recovered from his house, evidence of this kind has been deemed inadequate in Supreme Court judgments in several cases. However, with an alibi that the courts would decide upon value of the evidence provided, the police irresponsibly persisted with its charge that he was involved in unlawful activities and Maoist conspiracy. The courts however acquitted him, trashing the police case, but to what avail? The police’s objective of punishing Dhawale and terrorising many activists like him was accomplished.

A Human Tragedy

There have been scores of cases before and after Dhawale’s arrest; Arun Ferreira’s is by far the most revealing of those featured in the media. Like Dhawale, people who knew Ferreira were outraged by the police charge and came forward to defend him until Senior Superintendent of Police Yadav, the then head of the Anti-Naxalite Cell had threatened that even they would be arrested as Naxal supporters. Ferreira underwent all kinds of torture and harassment, including a narco-analysis test, the result of which created a small stir as he had stated that Bal Thackeray was financing Naxalite activities in Maharashtra. Going by the authenticity which the police ascribe to narco-analysis, it should have at least interrogated Thackeray. Ferreira’s revelation under narco-analysis was far more authentic in terms of the police’s own schema than that of some accused person taking the very name that the police wanted him/her to state during interrogation. No charge against Ferreira could stick but police still managed to keep him in jail for over four years. Ferreira has sued the state for infringing his fundamental rights to liberty and freedom of movement, and demanded an apology and compensation of Rs 25 lakh. Others simply have to swallow the injustice.

The other eight persons, all dalits, acquitted along with Dhawale were also arrested on trumped up charges and were made to undergo torture, harassment, humiliation, and imprisonment. There are now 44 persons with a Maoist tag in Nagpur jail, seven of whom are women. Of course, they include the relatively recent inmates, Hem Mishra, Prashant Rahi and the Delhi University professor G N Saibaba. The latter cases were flashed in the media and the police’s actions were widely condemned. But the others are nameless and faceless adivasi youth from the interiors of Gadchiroli district of Maharashtra, most of them having been rounded up in the wake of some Maoist action nearby.

Two adivasi youth have been the oldest inmates of the Nagpur Central Prison. One is Ramesh Pandhariram Netam, 26, an activist of a student organisation, who is in jail for the last six years. His parents were reportedly activists in the mass movements identified as Maoist-inspired. His mother, Bayanabai, active in the Dandakaranya Adivasi Mahila Sanghatan, was arrested and killed during torture by the Gadchiroli police. The villagers had protested the killing but their voice never reached the mainstream media. His father is said to have surrendered two years ago. Whenever he was about to be released, the police would slap fresh charges and retain him in jail. This happened not once but thrice. Two months back, when he was about to be released upon the dismissal of all the cases against him, the police slapped two more charges to keep him in jail. The other adivasi youth is Buddhu Kulle Timma, 33, from an interior village of Gadchiroli district, who was also acquitted three years back but is still in jail as the police slapped six fresh cases on him. All the adivasi prisoners are illiterate peasants; one could well imagine the magnitude of their helplessness and the human tragedy that is unfolding.

Trial by Videoconferencing

The trials are being held by video-conferencing. The cases are heard in the Gadchiroli court with local advocates, but since the accused are not taken to court, there is no communication between them and their advocates. The accused are kept in the dark about what transpires in the court. They do not know what the witnesses deposed, what arguments were made and what the judge remarked. Videoconferencing effectively deprives them of all this relevant information. As a result, when they are required to make a final statement, they make it sans the context. There is at least one case in which a life sentence was given, which was mainly attributable to this misused technological application by the courts.

Wanton Misuse of Powers

Each one of the accused underwent inestimable agonies, their families suffered incalculable distress, faced humiliation and disrepute in society, ruination of family relations, and lost, on an average, four to five years of their productive lives, all this for no fault of theirs. Invariably each one has suffered illegal torture during their police custody remand and humiliating conditions thereafter during judicial custody. One may not quarrel about the professional privilege of the police in arresting people and framing charges against them based on whatever information they had, but these charges are subject to judicial scrutiny and may or may not hold. But what if this privilege is wantonly and grossly misused? Unfortunately, all the so-called Maoist cases present a pattern which clearly brings out the mala fide intention of police to hold some selected persons in jail for as long as possible and thereby terrorise others from following in their footsteps. In law, the courts are supposed to punish the guilty, but as we have seen in these cases, the person is already punished by the police even before his/her guilt is established.

How can the police, the keepers of law and order, be oblivious of the law of the land? The Supreme Court has held that mere association with any outfit or adherence to any ideology, or possessing any literature, cannot be an offence unless it is proved that the person concerned has committed a violent act or caused others to do it. Merely being a passive member of even a banned organisation does not constitute a crime. If this is the law of the land, surely the police are expected to know it. In every case, the courts adversely comment on the conduct of police, but the police repeat such behaviour with impunity. If Dhawale gets out, Saibaba gets in to recreate the saga of police illegality!