Political prisoners in India: A blot on the conscience of the nation

July 3, 2014


By Partho Sarathi Ray

In 2005 the Supreme Court of India sentenced a man to death, not based on evidence by the admission of the learned justices themselves, but to “satisfy the collective conscience of society”. This man, Mohammad Afzal Guru, accused in the 2001 Parliament attack case of “waging war against the state”, vilified and sentenced to death by media trial even before his actual death sentence, was finally hanged to death on February 8, 2013. During this decade long period hundreds of other men and women have been arrested and thrown into prisons all over India, where they have been spending years behind bars, not because they have committed crimes such as murder or robbery or rape, but because they have responded to the call of their conscience to end oppression and exploitation in society.

Amitava Bagchi, Angela Sontake, Asutosh Soren, Chatradhar Mahato, Gour Chakrabarty, Kobad Ghandy, Prasant Rahi, Shila didi, Soni Sori, Vernon Gonsalves, Venkateswara Rao – these mostly unfamiliar names are all part of that long procession of people who are imprisoned, or have been imprisoned, in various jails in India over the past decade or more, accused of waging war against the Indian state. Coming from various regions of India, speaking different languages, from different professions and backgrounds, all these men and women have the same identity now – they are all political prisoners. The central government and various state governments of India are so worried about their activities that it is unthinkable that they can remain free, and making them rot in jail for year after year has become a mainstay of state policy.

The general public mostly remains ignorant about these people, and the government’s efforts are constantly directed towards maintaining that ignorance. Sometimes, some news appears about them, hidden in the inside pages of newspapers, which soon fade out of public memory. The only people concerned about these prisoners are a few human rights organizations and activists, some political organizations, and their hapless relatives who hope that one day their near and dear ones will again breathe in the free air. It is unprecedented in recent history that such a large number of people accused of political offences have been imprisoned for such prolonged periods of time by a state which claims to be democratic and which is officially not at war. The only possible comparisons are the juntas and dictatorships of Latin America in the 70s and 80s, but they did not have the democratic pretensions of the Indian state. It is not the life of Afzal Guru, someone needs to tell the learned justices of the Supreme Court, but the continued imprisonment of these people who are the successors of Bhagat Singh and Surya Sen and Khudiram, that is the blot on the conscience of Indian society. And to remove that blot, a strong and united voice demanding the unconditional freedom of the political prisoners has to emanate from society, a voice which will reach the ears of the ruling elite usually deafened by the echoes of their own clamour about a “shining India” or oncoming “acche din”.

Who is a Political Prisoner?
Although there is no universally accepted legal definition of a political prisoner, and although the Indian state has deliberately tried not to formally define it, it is generally accepted throughout the world that any individual who has been accused of an offence, committed not with a motive of personal benefit, profit or gratification, but with a larger, collective objective, should be considered as a political prisoner. Anyone who is accused of sedition under Sec. 124A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) should therefore automatically come under the status of political prisoner.

The term “prisoner of conscience” was also coined by Peter Berenson in 1961 to refer to anyone imprisoned for their political beliefs, and applies to political prisoners in India, many of whom are imprisoned for just being members of political organizations banned by the Indian government. However, the central government and various state governments of India constantly try to obscure the difference between political offences and criminal offences, so that the usual public sympathy towards political prisoners can be suppressed, and it becomes easier to make the conditions and sentences of the political prisoners harsher. For this reason the Indian state has promulgated a series of laws, which although nominally supposed to control or prevent organized crime or terrorism, practically becomes the main weapons in the hands of governments to suppress political dissent.

Historically these laws have included the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act (TADA), Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) and their latest avatar, the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), which was amended a number of times in the last decade to give it more teeth and make it more draconian. It has been observed that each of these laws have led to gross violations of human rights by broadening the definition of “terror” or “unlawful activities” to criminalize political dissent and by reversing the presumption of innocence which is the bedrock of the criminal justice system. Governments of the right, left and centre have used the undemocratic and human rights violating UAPA, which rejects many of the universally-accepted norms of criminal jurisprudence and natural justice, to keep hundreds of people imprisoned for years during the last decade.

Strategies of the State
The recent actions of the Trinamool Congress (TMC) government in West Bengal, led by the redoubtable Mamata Banerjee, have been especially nefarious in this regard. West Bengal had one of the most progressive laws related to political prisoners in India, viz. the West Bengal Correctional Services Act, 1992, passed by the previous Left Front government, under pressure from the long-standing movement on political prisoners in the state. Section 24 of this act recognized the status of political prisoners in state prisons and accorded them some privileges. The TMC came to power with promises of releasing the political prisoners imprisoned by the previous regime, which made it garner a large number of votes in the Jangalmahal area from where many people have been arrested and were languishing in jail, and also made a section of civil society in West Bengal get on to the TMC bandwagon.

However, once it came to power, it obfuscated on this issue by making a so called review committee, incorporating some of the members of civil society allied to it, and when the review committee brought up the issue of recognition of political prisoners by asking political prisoners to appeal to the courts for such recognition, the TMC government opposed this in the Supreme Court. And even without waiting for the Supreme Court verdict it went ahead and amended section 24, making it illegal for members of banned organizations, or someone who has not been arrested from a “legal struggle” to have the status and rights of political prisoners. In effect, the TMC government’s actions nullified the only law in India that recognized the formal status of political prisoners. However, in certain states such as Andhra Pradesh which have a long history of radical Left movements, so-called “Naxalite prisoners”, enjoy some de facto rights as political prisoners, although without any formal recognition.

Together with charging people under the special laws such as UAPA, the police routinely charges political prisoners with multiple criminal cases related to murder, attempt to murder, rioting, conspiracy and use of arms and explosives etc. so that they can be kept imprisoned for prolonged times and obtaining bail becomes very difficult. Also, this helps in creating a negative attitude in the minds of the general populace towards political prisoners and political movements. In nearly all cases, these charges are finally found to be false, and most of the political prisoners get acquitted of these charges after a lengthy legal process which takes years during which they remain imprisoned.

Therefore, the Indian state uses a vicious and cynical combination of draconian laws and false criminal charges to keep thousands of people imprisoned in order to suppress political dissent and resistance to oppressive policies. As the neo-liberal aggression by the Indian state, and the corporations whose interests are served by the Indian state, on the lives and livelihoods of people have intensified over the last two decades, resistance against these policies have also intensified. And so has the number of political prisoners. Numerous people have been imprisoned because of resisting this state aggression and for trying to change the prevailing oppressive social order, and added to the numbers of political prisoners.

Types of Political Prisoners
It is unfortunate that we do not have any real idea about the total number. The main reason is that it is very difficult to keep track of how many people have been imprisoned, or are being imprisoned on a daily basis, in various states under UAPA or similar state laws (such as the Chattisgarh Special Public Security Act) or charged under various criminal cases. From data collected from various civil liberties organizations, lawyers representing political prisoners and individuals involved in providing legal aid to political prisoners it appears that the number goes up to many thousands. Many of them are from the most marginalized sections of society, and even the names of many are unknown. In order to understand who comprises the political prisoners in India, I will try to categorize them in a few categories for the ease of discussion, so that we can develop a comprehensive idea about the different types of people whom the Indian state has kept imprisoned just for their political ideologies and actions.

Members of Banned Organizations
First, there are the leaders and workers of various organizations banned under the UAPA. Although, under the Supreme Court ruling on February 4, 2011, in the case of Arup Bhuyan who had been accused of being a member of ULFA and sentenced to imprisonment by the Designated Court, mere membership of a banned organisation “will not make a person a criminal unless he resorts to violence or incites people to violence”, the Indian government routinely disregards this judgement and imprisons many people for simply being members of such organizations. These organizations include secessionist organizations or organizations involved in movements of nationalities or religious minorities such as ULFA, SIMI or Laskar-e-Taiba, or revolutionary Left organizations such as the CPI(Maoist).

Among these, the members of the CPI(Maoist), which has been involved in a struggle over large parts of India against state oppression and in the adivasis’ struggle to resist the plunder of natural resources and their livelihoods, and has thereby gained the epithet of the “single largest threat to internal security” from the government of India, has been especially targeted. Under the nearly war-like conditions of the Operation Green Hunt, which has been continuing over the last six years to destroy their organization, more than half of their high-ranking leaders have been imprisoned. More than 55 members of the politbureau, central committee and various state and regional committees of the CPI(Maoist) are imprisoned in Andhra Pradesh, Chattisgarh, Odisha, Jharkhand, Maharashtra, West Bengal, Karnataka and Delhi.

Many of these senior leaders are old and critically ill, and as there are no concrete charges against many of them, they are imprisoned under UAPA or tagged to a plethora of criminal cases. Many of them are accused under false cases in multiple states, and as they obtain bail in some of these cases, new cases are brought against them, so that they can continue to be kept in prison. These people include octogenarians such as Narayan Sanyal and Sushil Roy (who passed away recently in captivity after a prolonged struggle against cancer), women such as Padmakka and Shila didi, and many more such as Kobad Ghandy, Amitabha Bagchi, Balraj Singh, Vijay Arya, Varanasi Subramanyam, Chandrasekhar, Panduranga Reddy and others.

The government follows the same modus operandi in arresting and imprisoning most of these people: they are picked up from various locations by plain clothes police without warrants (some of the state police forces such as the Greyhounds of Andhra Pradesh and the STF of Maharashtra has gained special notoriety in this regard) and spirited away to different states, produced in courts after several days, during which they are kept in police custody in contravention to constitutional procedures (high ranking leaders bear the risk of being murdered in cold blood during this period, as happened to Azad and Kishenji) and then charged under UAPA and multiple criminal cases and remanded to police or jail custody. Thus begins a period of prolonged imprisonment in which the legal right to bail of these people are denied, they are shunted from state to state to stand trial in various cases and sometimes beaten or tortured in police custody. All this is part of the Indian state’s concerted attempt to annihilate the leadership of the CPI(Maoist) and destroy what it considers to be the single greatest threat to itself and the corporate interests it serves.

Members of Mass Organizations
The second category of political prisoners includes numerous people who are either members of some mass organization or participants in mass movements. Many of them have been accused of connections with or being supporters of some banned organization and imprisoned. Most of them have been accused of ties to the CPI(Maoist), although a sizeable number of Muslim youth has been accused of being supporters of SIMI (Students Islamic Movement of India) or the Indian Mujaheddin and charged with bomb blasts and similar offences. The 2004 amendments to the UAPA broadened the definition of supporter of banned organizations to such an extent that anyone who merely opposes or criticizes any state policy which is also opposed by these organizations can be brought under its purview. And as the policies of the government have become more anti-people in nature, more and more organizations and individuals have opposed them and become targets of state repression.

Among this category of prisoners probably the most well known is Dr. Binayak Sen, who was a popular and established doctor in Chattisgarh. However, being the president of the civil rights organization PUCL (Peoples Union for Civil Liberties) in Chattisgarh, he was also a strong critic of the government’s genocidal Salwa Judum policy. Together with this he was also involved in arranging for legal and medical aid for various political prisoners imprisoned in jails in Chattisgarh as part of his responsibilities in PUCL. Because of this, the state government decided to target him and accused him, and Piyush Guha, a tendu leaf trader, of providing material and moral support to the Maoists. He was imprisoned for many years as an undertrial, and was subsequently sentenced to life imprisonment by the trial court in Chattisgarh. As a result of the worldwide criticism and protests against this, he was granted bail by the Supreme Court during the appeal process. Binayak Sen and Pijush Guha are now free under bail, but their treatment over the last few years clearly shows how the state is hellbent on suffocating any voice of protest or criticism.

There are many other political prisoners under this category. In West Bengal there are Prasun Chattopadhyay and Raja Sarkhel, members of the Gana Pratirodh Mancha, who were arrested from their homes and charged under UAPA and various criminal cases without a shred of evidence. They are in jail for the last five years. There is Chatradhar Mahato, spokesperson of the Peoples’ Committee against Police Atrocities (PCPA) of Lalgarh, together with many other leaders of the Lalgarh uprising who were arrested by the joint forces of the central and state governments and charged under UAPA and nearly 50 criminal cases. Although Chatradhar Mahato has obtained bail in every one of these criminal cases, he continues to linger in jail because of the UAPA charges.

In Jharkhand there was the well known adivasi cultural and political activist Jiten Marandi who was falsely accused in a case of mass killing in 2008 and imprisoned for more than three years. In 2011, a district court in Giridih even sentenced him, and three others, to death. As a result of the protests by various people and organizations and due to the continuous efforts of his wife Aparna Marandi, the Jharkhand high court revoked this sentence and finally acquitted him of all charges. However, even after that he was kept in jail by being charged in multiple cases, and in December 2012, Aparna Marandi and her infant son were also arrested in another case. Finally, Jeeten Marandi was released on bail in 2013, after spending five years in jail. Jeeten Marandi’s “crime” was that he criticized the policies of the government in his songs and speeches, and therefore had to bear the brunt of state repression.

There are many other people such as Chatradhar Mahato and Jiten Marandi who, although not being members of any banned organization, have been imprisoned because of their opposition to government policies or to the current socioeconomic system, or for trying to organize people in resisting oppression and exploitation. There are people of all professions, ages and communities among these. Although some have been released after periods of imprisonment, many are still in jail. In 2011, dalit activist and ex-teacher Angela Sontake was imprisoned in Maharashtra, being accused of connections with Maoists. She is still in prison although the police have not been able to submit any evidence against her in court. Three days after Angela’s arrest, six other dalit youth were arrested by the Maharashtra police, all of whom belonged to some profession or the other, and whose only crime was that they were acquaintances of Angela Sontake. Amongst these was Dipak Dengle, who was a member of the dalit cultural organization Kabir Kala Manch. The police declared all members of the Kabir Kala Manch to be associated with Maoists, as a consequence of which they were forced to go into hiding. Dipak Dengle subsequently got bail as the police had no evidence against him, but in 2013, when four other members of the Kabir Kala Manch surrendered to the state government in a process of a “satyagraha” demanding a just trial, one of them, Sheetal Sathe was released on bail, while the other three, Sachin Mali, Sagar Gorkhe and Ramesh Gaichor, are still languishing in prison.

Similar has been the trajectory of events in the case of Abdul Shakil Basha, an NGO worker from Gujarat. He had been working for a long time with the unemployed mill workers of Gujarat and the victims of the anti-Muslim pogrom of 2002. He had worked with the NGO Aman Biradari set up by Harsh Mander and then set up his own NGO called Haq. As his activities were not to the taste of the Gujarat government led by Narendra Modi, he was arrested in 2010 and accused of ties with the CPI(Maoist). He was arrested on the basis of an FIR which did not name anyone, but was against “various known and unknown leaders of banned organization CPI(Maoist)”. This sort of nameless, “omnibus” FIRs are now being frequently used by the police to arrest activists of mass movements whenever they want.

In the movements against the proposed POSCO steel plant in Odisha and the Koodankulam nuclear power plant in Koodankulam, there are instances of multiple such FIRs against entire villages. In the case of Abdul too, within a few months of his arrest the Gujarat police arrested sixteen other people which included adivasi activists, labour organizers in textile, diamond, stone quarrying and other industries, labour lawyers, peace activists even an ex-officer of the customs department. Which means that in Narendra Modi’s “vibrant” Gujarat, nearly all activists of mass movements can be imprisoned on the basis of a single political case by accusing them of complicity with the Maoists. Today, Narendra Modi is the prime minister of India, and there are strong fears that similar things will be replicated at the all India level, especially in the backdrop of the recent leak of an IB report that accuses nearly all environmental activists and organizations of anti-national activities.

In a similar way over the last few years people all over India have been subjected to the political vengeance of the government and imprisoned. This includes the journalist Prasant Rahi from Uttarakhand, who was out on bail from an earlier imprisonment but was again picked up from Raipur in Chattisgarh when he was arranging for legal help for political prisoners and taken to Gadchiroli in Maharashtra where he was added to the case against another political prisoner Hem Mishra; the journalists and human rights activists Seema and Vishwavijay Azad in Uttar Pradesh; the trade union activist Gopal Mishra and his cultural activist wife Kanchan Bala in Delhi; the first graduate student among the Malekudia adivasis of Karnataka, Vithal, activist and leader of anti-displacement struggles in Jharkhand, Dayamani Barla; former atomic physicist and civil rights activists from Tamil Nadu, Gopal, who was arrested together with six other people including two minors from Kerala and many more.

In each of these cases the fault of the accused is that they have spoken out in protest against the oppression and exploitation by the ruling classes or have tried to make people aware and organize them to demand their just rights. This was enough to make the state consider their activities seditious and throw them into prison. The state is becoming more and more ruthless and increasingly disregarding even the minimum of legalities or humane behaviour. The latest case in point is that of the Delhi University professor and activist G N Saibaba, who was abducted by plainclothes policemen from Maharashtra while returning from work and flown to Maharashtra where he has been lodged in Nagpur jail under inhuman conditions disregarding his overwhelming physical disabilities and health problems. He has been made a co-accused in the case against Hem Mishra and Prashant Rahi and his bail plea rejected by the sessions court.

Participants in People’s Struggles
The third category of political prisoners includes the most number of people with the least being known about them. These are those innumerable common people, mostly from adivasi, dalit and the most marginalized sections of society, who have been imprisoned for participating in struggles to protect their lives, livelihoods and dignity in various parts of India, or for just being present in the areas where these struggles have been going on. We do not know the names of most of them, and have no comprehensive ideas about their numbers. There are cases of sedition against many of them, and a variety of criminal cases. These prisoners include eighty year old grandmothers to fifteen year old children. Sometimes, some of their names get to be known, for example the adivasi school teacher from Chattisgarh, Soni Sori, who was imprisoned by the Chattisgarh government after being accused of complicity with the Maoists and then brutally tortured and sexually assaulted by high-ranking police officers while in custody. But in most cases, we do not even get to know about them.

In West Bengal, during and after the Lalgarh movement, hundreds of people were arrested from the Jangalmahal area many of whom are still imprisoned in jails in West Midnapur, Bankura and Purulia. They have been accused of various offences such as carrying arms and explosives, exploding land mines, murder, dacoity etc. The only documentation available about them are the six letters from the PCPA addressed to democratic rights organizations and intellectuals in Kolkata. Similarly, people who were arrested from Nandigram during the movement against land acquisition are still languishing in jail, although Mamata Banerjee has reaped the political benefits from the movement. In Jagdalpur and Raipur jails in Chattisgarh, more than thousand such people, mostly adivasis, are imprisoned. Many of them are accused of being dalam (squad) or sangham (militia) members of the CPI(Maoist).

Wherever the struggles to protect land-water-forests and livelihoods are going on, wherever there is resistance against the plunder by corporations, numerous people have been imprisoned in this manner. Besides this, in various places there are sedition cases against thousands of people, without mentioning their names. In Koodankulam in Tamil Nadu, where the local farmers and fishworkers have been resisting the nuclear power plant, there are sedition cases against ten thousand people from three villages, which is an unenviable record in world history. In Jagatsinghpur district of Odisha, where the anti-POSCO struggle is going on, whenever people are leaving the villages to attend to medical or other emergency needs, they are being arrested under such omnibus FIRs that includes hundreds of people without naming them. Thousands of such people are imprisoned all over India. In many cases these poor, marginalized people do not even get a chance of proper legal representation, and their families which live in remote places cannot even afford to visit the jails to meet them. Whole communities are being victimized by the Indian state in this manner for daring to resist the state and the interests it serves.

From this brief discussion about political prisoners in India we should at least realize that the issue of political prisoners raises questions of immense ethical and social significance in front of the nation. How can a so-called democratic state imprison thousands of its citizens solely on the basis of their political beliefs and actions, or for just trying to live in dignity and peace? This question today faces the conscience of the nation, and only a strong movement to secure their release and to ensure a life of dignity for them can try to address these questions.

Any movement on political prisoners needs to demand at least four important things which are closely linked: a. the formal recognition and unconditional release of political prisoners,
b. the repeal of the draconian laws that create prisoners out of political dissenters,
c. end of the impunity of the police and the security forces which gets away with arresting thousands of people under false cases and then imprisoning them for prolonged periods, and
d. an end to the corporate aggression on the lands, lives and livelihoods of people which creates the conditions for the imprisonment of people.

And the immediate tasks for such movements is also fourfold:
a. arrange legal aid for the prisoners,
b. attend to their material needs in prison,
c. take care of their families who are suffering in silence, and
d. develop a broad-based political movement for the release of political prisoners.

Movements for the release of political prisoners have been hamstrung for a variety of reasons. Together with the disunity and ego-based clashes amongst the ranks of activists involved in the issue of political prisoners, this includes popular apathy to the issue, in contrast to the post-emergency period when this was a burning issue in front of the country, and finally made the Janata Party government order the release of all political prisoners.

Possibly at that time as many individuals from middle class families were imprisoned, this was an issue close to the hearts of the vocal and visible classes. In the recent period, as the vast majority of the prisoners are from poor families or marginalized communities, this issue gets hidden behind the facade of normalcy that we see around us every day. Therefore as elections and cricket matches are fought and won, as the Sensex goes up and down, and more and more malls and multiplexes are built to show that “good days” have come, the political prisoners continue to suffer in prisons throughout the country.

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