G Sampath  | Saturday, January 21, 2012

One guy killed seven people and spent one month in jail. Another killed nobody and spent 56 months in jail. As they say, we are all equal before the law, aren’t we.

The double standards of the Indian state — mind-boggling benevolence in one case, calculated viciousness in another — are nowhere more apparent than in the case of two Bandra boys, one a Pereira, the other a Ferreira, both of whom were in the news earlier this month. The contrasting ways in which the two were treated by our law enforcement machinery is a parable that says much about the kind of society we’ve become.

Allister Pereira, 25, is the son of a rich businessman. On November 12, 2006, driving under the influence of alcohol, he ran over 15 labourers sleeping on the pavement on Carter Road, killing seven. By any yardstick, this was an open-and-shut case of a man killing seven people.

But in the five-and-a-half years from November 2006 to January 2012, Pereira spent exactly one month in jail. In April 2007, a sessions court convicted him, awarding him six months imprisonment and a fine of Rs5 lakh. It’s not clear what verdict Pereira was expecting, but he chose to challen ge this judgment in the Bombay High Court. The high court upheld the conviction, but extended his sentence to three years. It also lambasted the manner in which the Mumbai police went about investigating the crime, and criticised its tardiness in submitting the report. We can’t say for sure why the Mumbai police was lacklustre in its investigation; we can’t say why the cops were so slow in filing their report; and we can’t say why the sessions court handed out a sentence that was found to be too lenient by the higher court; but the reasons are not difficult to guess.

Pereira, who was out on bail, appealed to the Supreme Court. This January, the apex court upheld his sentence of three years, and cancelled his bail bond. Pereira surrendered, and finally, more than five years after his crime, it looks like he will serve out his punishment.

Cut to Arun Ferreira, a 40-year-old social worker. Ferreira was picked up by the police in Nagpur on May 8, 2007. He was charged with conspiracy to plant bombs, and over the years, slapped with nearly a dozen cases, ranging from murder, to attacking the police, to burning a railway engine. In September 2011, he was acquitted of all the charges.  But the moment he stepped out of the jail, he was illegally re-arrested by cops in plain clothes, and charged in two more cases. He again rotted in jail till January, when, after the police failed to produce a shred of evidence against him for any of the charges — he was acquitted on 10 of the 11 cases and given bail on one — he was allowed to go home. In all, from May 2007 to January 2012, Ferreira was made to spend four years and eight months in jail even though there was no evidence of him having committed a single crime.

The contrast with Pereira couldn’t be starker. Why would the state let a spoilt brat who killed seven people, live in freedom for five years, and in another case, imprison for almost five years, on false charges, a man who has been working for the welfare of the most marginalised of Indians — the poor, the working class, the Dalits?

So what exactly was Ferreira’s crime, which, in the eyes of the state, merited a far more stringent prosecution than Pereira’s? Well, the police believe him to be a Naxal sympathiser. Yet strangely enough, they cannot put him in jail for being a Naxal sympathiser. Why not? This may come as news to many people, but according to the Constitution of India, a citizen has the right to believe in any ideology, and believing in Naxalism or Maoism is no crime, so long as he or she does not indulge in violence or break any law.

Ferreira, as a matter of fact, is a self-proclaimed Naxal sympathiser, but there is no evidence linking him to any act of Naxal violence. Nevertheless, his work and his ideology — especially the idea of rights and entitlements that he was busy transmitting to the downtrodden — was not palatable to those who control the levers of power in this country. What if more and more of the poor and marginalised start fighting for their rights — as has been happening in Jaitapur, in Kudankulam, in Kalinga Nagar, in Manesar, and in the mineral belt stretching from Chhattisgarh to Bihar to Orissa?

Well, then Indian democracy might actually start functioning a little, and for the corporate-funded political class that plays musical chairs in New Delhi every five years, that’s a scary proposition. Hence the importance of keeping the Ferreiras in jail. According to media reports, the number of political prisoners in Maharashtra has gone up from 40 in October 2010, to 125 in December 2011. And as the global economy worsens, putting greater pressure on third world natural resources and entitlements of the poor, the crackdown on rights-oriented activists (as opposed to the welfare-oriented ‘CSR activists’ whom big business and the state love) is only set to get worse. As of today, it’s the Pereiras who call the shots in India, and they don’t want any Ferreiras running wild in the countryside.