Political Prisoners and Activism in the Current Dispensation – An Interview with Arun Ferreira

February 14, 2015


[Arun Ferreira is a political activist based in Maharashtra. He was arrested in 2007 by the anti Naxal force on the charges of being an alleged Maoist. He was subsequently granted bail in 2012 and acquitted of all charges by various courts in January 2014. His book on his prison experiences titled – ‘Colours of Cage’ was released in 2014.

He continues to be politically active and has been since then associated with issues concerning rights of political prisoners. Through this interview we seek to talk about his current work as a political activist, his views on issues pertaining to incarceration of political activists in Maharashtra, as well as on issues concerning radical left and left movements in Maharashtra and India.

– Interviewed by Neeraja and Prathamesh]

Q. Can you tell us something about your current work?

A. I’m currently helping a few organizations working on prisoners’ rights and with lawyers in cases pertaining to incarcerated political activists. I’m also studying law.

Q: Can you tell us more about cases in Mumbai regarding the arrest of political activists in which you have been helping with their defense?

A: Some of these activists implicated are Angela Sontakke, Sushma Ramtekke, Jyothi Chorge, Nandini Bhagat, Anuradha Sonule, Siddharth Bhonsle and Deepak Dengle. The first five of them are from Vidarbha and a few had been earlier implicated and made accused in a conspiracy case regarding the Deshbhakti Yuva Manch in Chandrapur. Siddarth and Deepak were members of the Kabir Kala Manch in Pune. The State has been attempting to project the Kabir Kala Manch as a Maoist Front organization and hence this case. The second batch of prisoners namely Sheetal Sathe, Sachin Mali, Sagar Gorke and Ramesh Ghaichore were later on arrested in this case. All of the accused except Angela, Sachin, Ramesh and Sagar are presently on bail.

It has been the traditional tactic of the state when arresting political activists to frame a criminal conspiracy in such cases. In this case, all are accused of membership and association with the CPI(Maoist), an organization deemed terrorist and thus banned under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA). These accusations are made on basis of possession of books and other literature.

Q. Is guilt then proven by association?

A. The UAPA allows for the determination of guilt on the basis of association and ideology. This is inconsistent with existing constitutional provisions of freedom of expression, ideology or association. The Supreme Court thus rightly concluded in the Arup Bhuyan and Indra Das judgements that mere passive membership in a banned organization does not make a person guilty. In that case the accused were allegedly members of a banned organization i.e. the ULFA. The Bombay High Court further developed on this interpretation while granting bail to Jyothi Chorge and others. But subsequent bail applications for Angela, Sachin, Ramesh and Sagar were not successful although the defence claimed parity in the application of the HC judgment. Many a time bail is granted on the subjective opinions of the presiding judge of the Bench.

Q. How does UAPA play a role here?

A.  The list of banned organization, which is referred under UAPA schedule, mentions that ‘CPI(Maoist) and all its fronts’ are banned. It is a rule in interpretation of statutes, that penal laws including any such list should be precisely worded. The question of an organisation being ‘a front’ is determined by an act of the armed forces or Intelligence agencies rather than concrete evidence. This determination allows organizations like the Kabir Kala Manch, or even National Civil Liberties organizations to be easily branded as Maoist fronts. It also makes this determination a subjective  whim of the police authority or the political bosses in power to declare any social and political organization as a front. Similar to the logic of how Greenpeace is now considered as anti-national by the IB. But here it is even more dangerous as such a determination causes a person to be detained for years on end.

Existing law allows for ‘abettors’ and ‘conspirators’ of an offence to be made culpable. However UAPA by determining guilt by association further stretches this interpretation of who is an abettor or co-conspirator. The use of law is such that many find themselves slapped with these charges, without concrete grounds of them being involved in a specific offence or an act of violence.

Q. How is membership of an organisation established in courts?

A. It is usually done by the means of establishing ideological moorings which in turn is often established by possession of books or computer files. Surrendered Naxalites are also used to give statements against the accused to prove membership or association. Under the Government’s Surrender policy, such persons will not be arrested or tried for offences they have committed on the condition that they co-operate with the police agencies. This so-called co-operation implies acting on the directions of the police authorities and fabricating statements as per their wishes. This makes their testimonies in court highly suspect.

Q. Can you tell us about arrests under UAPA in Maharashtra in recent times?

A. In Maharashtra, there are three types of arrests under UAPA. One would be those muslims arrested in blast cases, whether involved or falsely implicated. Secondly persons arrested for association with Naxalism. These primarily consists of Adivasis and Dalits. And lastly, some members of Hindu fascists associations such as Abhinav Bharat and Sanathan Sansthan. In Western Maharashtra, most of the political prisoner cases are on Muslims, with a comparatively few of Naxal related cases. In Vidarbha (Eastern Maharahtra) on the other hand, the bulk of the cases are Naxal related.

Recently in September 2014, Arun Bhelke and his wife Kanchan were arrested in Pune under charges of Naxalism. Arun Bhelke was the president of the Deshbhakti Yuva Manch, a youth organization in Chandrapur and a co-accused in one of my cases. Subsequent to these arrests police authorities started harassing activists of other mass organizations. This is the modus operandi of the State vis-à-vis suppressing organizations they perceive as a threat.

Q. How do you see the difference between the terror accused and those accused of being Naxalites?

A. Muslims arrested in terror related cases are tortured and treated more brutally. The anti-minority bias of the State is apparent in such treatment. They are sometimes even prevented in arranging lawyers for their defense— a direct violation of their fundamental rights. Innocent victims in all such cases, many a time fail to complain against such brutality and speak up in court. On the other hand, activist, whether members of SIMI or mass organizations alleged to be associated with Naxalism have always boldly defended their rights both before the Court and in prisons. They have historically been the leaders of prison Hunger strikes and struggles.

Q. In a comment of yours on Sanhati pertaining to the debate on Kabir Kala Manch Defence Committee, you supported the opinion of how the state sometimes uses Civil society organisations as a co-opting tool. Would you like to elaborate on that?

A.  My comment was in response to the debate that followed Advocate P. A. Sebastian’s opinion on ‘Co-option’. I thought that it was necessary to intervene as many comments advocated that Civil liberty organizations should further help bring rebels in the mainstream and surrender before the State. This is an extremely dangerous trend. Historically Civil liberties and democratic rights activists had a role in standing up for political activists and fighting for their freedoms, when they were arrested. Defense committees in the aftermath of the Telanghana struggles and during the Royal Indian Mutiny trials come from this tradition. If activists on their own accord choose to court arrest, civil society can then step in to defend their rights. However it would be wrong for Civil Society to act on behalf of the State to facilitate this act. This is a worrying trend.

Q. Can you briefly tell us about the history of progressive movements and activism in Maharashtra?

A. Historically two progressive movements have taken root in Maharashtra. One a strong anti- brahmin movement and the other emerging from the Socialist tradition. Communist movements had strong bases among the earlier industrial working classes. But this has declined down the years. The workers’ movements in Bombay started declining in the 1980s. The phase of militant trade unionism in 1980s can be described as a historic attempt for their survival against the assault of Capital which had other financial plans for Bombay.

The period of neo-liberal Globalization in Bombay saw a transition from Mills to Malls. This was also the phase that saw the rise and maturing of the right wing. With the Shiv Sena- BJP government in power major political events shaped city’s politics of the 1990s. One was the 1992-93 riots and the other was the slum demolition drives of 1996-97. Both changed the geography of the city and mindset of its inhabitants.

In Bombay, with the decline of its earlier working class movements, the landscape in activism is largely being dominated by NGOs. However there is a both a need and scope for newer forms of radical left politics to emerge, which could correctly address the issues of the people and also creatively defend itself from the onslaught of State repression. In the last ten years throughout the country, this repression has systematically destroyed all expressions of radical left in the cities.

On the other hand, in eastern Vidarbha, the existence and growth of the Naxal movement in Gondia and Gadchiroli despite severe repression remains a source of inspiration for every emerging generation.

Q.  Do you see resistance growing stronger, in the wake of the aggressive neoliberal agenda being pursued by Modi government? How do you see the political landscape changing in the Modi era?

A. It should happen, but one cannot be too deterministic about such matters. It is not a strict one to one correspondence between degree of exploitation or oppression and the rise of peoples’ resistance. Although the latter is determined by the former, other factors too have a role to play. The emergence of the present government has created an umbrella like situation, under which all forms of reaction are offered patronage. Be it the killers of Narendra Dabholkar, the perpetrators of caste atrocities or the attacks on Minorities in the form of Love Jihad and Ghar Wapsi. Even defenders of the environment are perceived as anti-development and hence ant-national. These are some of the dangers that are emerging. This in fact is what the corporate ruling class wanted in getting this government in power. However even in this situation, possibilities of mass resistance are immense. There are opportunities for the radical left forces to forge broad alliances with other sections. Broad fronts against Brahminical Fascism, against displacement and against the attack on established Civil Rights are bound to be the future scenario of the Modi-era.

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