Activists' arrest

Fighters for rights

Print edition : September 28, 2018

P. Varavara Rao, Telugu litterateur and Marxist ideologue, has been arrested yet again for being a naxalite sympathiser. Photo: PTI

Sudha Bharadwaj practises in the Chhattisgarh High Court and works among tribal people. Photo: PTI

Arun Ferreira, civil rights activist-turned-lawyer, takes up the cause of political prisoners. Photo: Vibhav Birwatkar

Vernon Gonsalves, academic and writer, and his lawyer-wife Susan Abraham have organised public demonstrations in Mumbai on rights issues. Photo: Prashant Waydande

Susan Abraham, wife of activist Vernon Gonsalves and Anand Teltumbe, Dalit activists whose residence in Goa was raided, at a press conference to condemn the arrest of the five human rights activists in the Bhima-Koregaon case, in Mumbai on August 29. Photo: Shashank Parade/PTI

Gautam Navlakha Photo: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

The five prominent persons targeted recently by the Maharashtra police come from various walks of life but have a common thread connecting them: they have been fighting for the rights of the underprivileged and the vulnerable in different parts of the country.

 

Poet activist

“The poet is by no means a lion

But a stream

It is in the nature of a river

Not only to leap from peaks but

Also to flow steadily in plains,

Circumventing the hurdles

Stopping at dams

And if time favours,

Breaking them down and move on

In branches and in canals....”

In a literary career spanning well over six decades, Pendyala Varavara Rao has authored very many poems, but “The Poet is no Lion, but a Stream” is read by his followers as a metaphor for his life. Rao’s credentials as one of the foremost litterateurs of the Telugu language is well established, by dint of both his creative lyricism in poetry and his incisive literary criticism founded on Marxian aesthetics and sociology. His poetry collections, published from 1968 to 2014, as well as his seminal thesis on “Telangana Liberation Struggle and Telugu Novel: A Study into Interconnection between Society and Literature”, stand testimony to this. But another defining parameter of Rao’s life is his open advocacy of and proclaimed affiliation to Marxist and Maoist political philosophy, ideology and organisational practice right from the late 1960s, the period of the Naxalbari rebellion in West Bengal and the emergence of the naxalite movement in different parts of India. It is in the background of these twin streams that this poem is perceived as a sort of self-analysis.

The poem is interpreted as one that seeks to dispel a tendency among his admirers to portray Varavara Rao as a charging revolutionary lion. By emphasising his identity as a poet and equating it to a river, Varavara Rao underscores that while he would indeed leap from peaks with gusto, there are also times and places when he would have to flow slowly and steadily, circumvent hurdles and stop when dams are built to restrain him. But his intent is certainly to break the hurdles and dams when time favours and flow on to the branches and canals, which are, of course, in the grass roots.

Varavara Rao had written these lines while being held as a detainee during the Emergency, in one of his several stints in jail since the early 1970s. He was one of the few detainees who were kept in jail even after the Emergency period—June 25, 1975, to March 21, 1977—was formally over. The argument of the authorities in charge of the jail was that it was too dangerous to let him out. Sections of the leadership of the then newly formed Janata Party, the first ever non-Congress Central government in the country, had to take a special interest and make extra efforts to get him out of prison after the Ministry was sworn in. But such special attention did not ensure the Leftist poet, critic and ideologue relief for long. He was repeatedly arrested in the following decades in several cases, including conspiracy cases which, as sought to be advanced currently by the Pune Police, charged Varavara Rao and his associates in the Maoist movement with attempts to attack security agencies, the administrative machinery and the political leadership in order to overthrow the Indian establishment. Since the mid 1970s, Varavara Rao has undergone five major terms of incarceration and innumerable short-term detainments.

Conspiracy cases

The first of the conspiracy cases was filed n 1974 when Varavara Rao, along with 41 others, including fellow writers and literary activists such as Cherabanda Raju, K.V. Ramana Reddy, T. Madhusudana Rao and M.T. Khan, were charged in what was called the Secunderabad Conspiracy Case. Even as the proceedings in this case were going on, he was slapped with another similar case in 1986. This case was known as the Ramnagar Conspiracy Case. Varavara Rao was arrested and jailed in 1973, even before the Secunderabad case was registered in May 1974. Both the cases went through long trial periods lasting over a decade. Varavara Rao was ultimately acquitted in both cases: in the Secunderabad case in 1989 and in the Ramnagar case in 2003. After the first acquittal, Varavara Rao settled in Hyderabad as an academic, teaching and guiding university students. However, persecution, including assaults by the police as well as organised gangs nurtured by his adversaries in the political and social realms, constantly pursued him. At one point, during the trial of the first case in 1985, the attacks became so acute that Varavara Rao voluntarily appealed to get his bail cancelled and went back to jail.

Among the five social activists targeted by the Pune Police, purportedly on account of Maoist links to the December 31, 2017, Elgar Parishad held in Pune, Varavara Rao is the one with the most overt connections with the naxalite movement and the Communist Party of India (Maoist). The CPI (Maoist) came into being through the merger of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist), the People’s War (People’s War Group) and the Maoist Communist Centre of India (MCCI) in 2004. Intelligence agencies have repeatedly stated on record that Varavara Rao has been seen at Maoist meetings, including clandestine ones, time and again. The records mention “sightings” as recently as June-July 2018. The agencies also argue that the Revolutionary Democratic Front (RDF), of which Varavara Rao is the national president, and the Virasam or Viplava Rachayitala Sangham (Revolutionary Writers Association), are front organisations of the CPI (Maoist). On his part, Varavara Rao has denied these assertions, stating that the RDF is “an all-India organisation that supports all people’s movements in the country” and that Virasam has nothing to do with the banned naxalite organisation as its governing body includes retired justices of the Indian judiciary.

However, Varavara Rao has contended in many public forums that the political line propagated by the CPI (Maoist) has its own relevance in contemporary India. He has also been at the forefront of highlighting the extrajudicial killings and torture that are part and parcel of the anti-Maoist drive of the Indian state.

Varavara Rao’s sustained involvement had a larger ramification in May 2004 when the newly elected Congress government decided to initiate reconciliation talks with the CPI (Maoist). The CPI (Maoist) deputed Varavara Rao, the poet Gaddar and the novelist G. Kalyana Rao as the party’s initial emissaries. The trio started negotiations in July 2004, which was followed by discussions with various naxalite organisations in October 2004. However, the talks could not be sustained beyond January 2005 as the naxalite parties withdrew from the process, alleging continued anti-Maoist encounter killings even as the negotiations were on. Varavara Rao and Kalyana Rao withdrew from the talks and were almost immediately arrested. The cases registered at that time were quashed a year later, in 2006.

The developments in the current investigations of the Pune Police would essentially mark a sense of deja vu for this doyen of Telugu literature. Varavara Rao has been charged repeatedly with attempts to destabilise and overthrow the Indian establishment, even though the judicial process has never been able to establish the charges. His advocacy of Maoist principles and forms of struggle was also occasionally perceived by the establishment in a positive light since it helped it to initiate a dialogue with Maoist and naxalite groups when it wanted. However, this aspect never gets mentioned in the periodic discourse on patriotism and “anti-national activities” launched by the current ruling dispensation and other players in the mainstream polity. On his part, Varavara Rao has persisted with his advocacy of Maoist political philosophy and his opposition to extrajudicial killings and human rights violations. His followers argue that this open advocacy is based on the foundations of the tenets propounded in yet another of his poems. He had stated thus in that poem:“If crime itself assumes authority and power, /And hunts down people, holding them criminals, /Everyone endowed with a mouth who keeps silent, /Becomes [a] criminal himself.”

Lawyer-fighter

Sudha Bharadwaj’s quiet world turned upside down when the Pune Police descended on her small apartment in Faridabad without any warning at 7 a.m. on August 28. The police team rummaged through her flat for five hours, opening every almirah and cupboard, taking into their custody any gadget that could store information such as mobile phones, laptops and pen drives, and seizing all gmail, Instagram and social media accounts, including that of her daughter, Anu. The police then took Sudha Bharadwaj away to the Surajkund police station.

Sudha Bharadwaj practises in the Chhattisgarh High Court and works among tribal people.   -  PTI

 

Sudha Bharadwaj, who is a rights activist, a practising lawyer at the Chhattisgarh High Court and a Visiting Professor at the National Law University (NLU), Delhi, has been in the cross hairs of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leadership for several years now, owing to her work among labourers in mines and in industrial plants in Bhilai, Chhattisgarh. She has also been fighting for the rights of Dalits and the tribal people, especially their land rights. As general secretary of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties in Chhattisgarh, she has been at loggerheads with the Chhattisgarh government for many years now. She is also the vice president of the Indian Association for People’s Lawyers. An IIT Kanpur alumna, Sudha Bharadwaj started working with the labour leader Shankar Guha Niyogi in his Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha after completing her studies. After having lived in Bhilai for close to 30 years, she moved to Faridabad a year ago where she currently lives with her daughter, Anu Bharadwaj.

In a conversation with Frontline on August 31, Anu Bharadwaj recalled being jolted out of half-sleep when the doorbell rang early on the morning of August 28. She heard her mother saying loudly, “Aise kaise aap ghar ki talashi le sakte hain. Aapke paas koi search warrant bhi nahi hai.” (How can you search the house like this? You do not even have a search warrant.) She said, “They [the police] opened all the almirahs, cupboards, each and every drawer. [They] seized all our mobile phones, laptops, even pen drives. They asked for the passwords of all our gmail, Instagram, Twitter and Icloud accounts and opened everything.”

Anu Bharadwaj, who is taking a break from her studies after Class 12, told this correspondent that it was unnerving to find her home being taken over by a swarm of policemen and she and her mother being treated like criminals for no reason. “Initially I was scared. But I got very angry because of the way they took all our passwords and opened all our accounts. I felt violated. I was also getting very angry at the absurd things they were saying about Mummy, like she was involved in some conspiracy and all that.”

Anu Bharadwaj admitted that she got really scared once the police took Sudha Bharadwaj away, leaving her alone at home. “I could not even say bye to her properly and then she told me on the phone from the Surajkund police station that they might take her to Pune. I was very scared then. I cried. Mummy was telling me not to worry and go to some aunt or uncle’s place, but I kept repeating I won’t go anywhere, I will stay at home.”

Even as Anu Bharadwaj spoke to Frontline, her mother remained under house arrest, prevented from meeting or talking to anyone or using her phone or social media accounts. Outside the house, policemen sat on watch, some in plainclothes, some in uniform.

Anu Bharadwaj says that while she was aware of her mother’s activist role, the absurd allegations levelled against her on social media were making her angry. “How can you just call anyone a naxal? Just because you are saying something which the government does not like, you don’t become a naxal. It is horrible to see people abusing us on Youtube. People have no idea what the reality is, still they go on passing judgments. Why is there so much negativity? Why be so irresponsible in talking about things you don’t know?” she said, displaying a maturity beyond her age.

 

Prisoners’ friend

Arun Ferreira, civil rights activist-turned-lawyer, takes up the cause of political prisoners.   -  Vibhav Birwatkar

 

Arun Ferreira, 48, is probably the original “urban naxal”. He was dubbed “the Bandra naxal” when he was arrested in 2007 on charges of being a Maoist, having grown up in the locality of Bandra. Ferreira is a familiar face in Mumbai, well known and respected for his work with marginalised sections in western Maharashtra’s remote districts, which are part of the “naxal belt”.

His arrest has shocked the activist community. For those familiar with the mild-mannered social worker, Ferreira seems an unlikely candidate for the kind of terror operations that he is accused of instigating and carrying out. Frontline has followed his story closely, and until now it is not clear why he was targeted. The only plausible explanation is that the state had to show that it was being proactive about the growing “naxalite menace”. Ferreira had not been present at the Elgar Parishad, which the authorities claim set off the anti-Dalit violence at the Bhima Koregaon site in January. Ferreira has worked with the Kabir Kala Manch (KKM), one of the main organisers of the Elgar Parishad, in a few cases. He reportedly provided legal help to a few activists who were arrested in June 2018 (also on the grounds of being naxalites) and were accused, among other things, of planning a “Rajiv Gandhi-type” assassination of the Prime Minister.

Perhaps, and more significantly, as a lawyer points out, “They just want to get him somehow. They had to eat humble pie when Ferreira was released and have since kept a close watch, hoping to find an excuse to nab him again.” The lawyer was referring to Ferreira’s 2007 arrest in Nagpur; he spent five years in Nagpur Central Jail as he underwent trial on false charges backed up by fabricated evidence that linked him to naxalites in the region. He was with the Naujawan Bharat Sabha, an organisation that works among the marginalised; he was an easy target and became the fall guy.

He was granted bail in September 2011; but in a traumatic replay of 2007, he was rearrested at the gates of the jail and taken to Gadchiroli, where he was charged as a naxalite who had attacked the police. Photographs of Ferreira released to the media by the state to prove his guilt showed a dishevelled man with obvious signs of having undergone torture. In his prison memoirs, Colours of the Cage, Ferreira described the ordeal, but he said that he had been luckier than some others who faced more severe forms of torture.

In 2014, after a relentless legal battle, Ferreira was acquitted in all 11 cases foisted on him. Ferreira once told Frontline that prison did not break him; instead, he resolved to fight for political prisoners and raise the issue of the inhuman condition of undertrials. While in prison, Ferreira began studying for a law degree that would equip him in his mission. He acquired that degree in 2016 and has since been practising criminal law, working specifically with political prisoners.

Ferreira and Vernon Gonsalves, the other arrested activist, have written extensively about the conditions in Indian prisons, human rights violations, injustice to political prisoners and so on. Not cowed down by the current climate of harassment, witch-hunts and the lack of maturity on the part of the present government in understanding dissent, Ferreira and Gonsalves continue their fight.

Last month, in a website known for publishing opinion pieces, Ferreira and Gonsalves dissected the “letters” that have incriminated the activists. Categorically calling them fake, they wrote: “These so-called letters, which have been refused to the defence lawyers of those arrested, are being freely ‘leaked’ and being read out on live television. The sole purpose seems to be to whip up a false narrative, favourable to the current regime. Sidetracking the demands of the Dalit movements to punish the Hindutva leaders and the organisations responsible for the attacks of January 1, 2018, on the congregation at Bhima Koregaon can be another probable purpose.”

Ferreira hails from the East Indian community, whose members were among the original inhabitants of Mumbai. His veering towards Left ideology appears to have begun in his family; an uncle of his, in particular, was a priest with strong views on social justice. Activism perhaps took root while he was a student of the prestigious St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai, where Ferreira was known to campaign for various causes, including that of the college’s canteen workers who demanded better wages. After his graduation, Ferreira worked with organisations in the area of human rights, eventually devoting himself to helping marginalised communities in the Vidarbha region.

The soft-spoken activist is a humble and generous person with an iron will to survive adversity. He has always worked for the downtrodden and perhaps always will, says a Mumbai activist who knew him from college. Ferreira is a skilled caricaturist with a wry sense of humour that packs a powerful punch. Colours of the Cage features several of his drawings made while in prison. From time to time, the articles he has co-authored with Gonsalves are accompanied by tongue-in-cheek sketches that have obviously made him a thorn in the side of the establishment.

Targeted teacher

A few months after the social worker Arun Ferreira was arrested in 2007, writer-activist Vernon Gonsalves was picked up by the Maharashtra Police from his residence in Andheri, a Mumbai suburb. Gonsalves, the police said, was a “top-level naxal” who possessed a huge arms cache meant to be used for anti-national activities. He became the second “urban naxal” to be nabbed that year and it made the police look like they were doing an exemplary job.

Like Ferreira, Gonsalves spent six years in various Mumbai prisons before he was released for lack of evidence in 17 cases against him. One of the cases slapped on him under various sections of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act and the Arms Act accused him of holding “numerous accounts” with huge funds that were conjectured to be used towards “anti-national attacks”.

Gonsalves maintained that he was completely innocent and that the accusations and evidence against him were fabricated. In 2013, Gonsalves walked out of jail as the prosecution failed to prove that he had abetted war against the nation or the government. As with Ferreira, his ordeal in prison only made him more determined to expose the rot in the system, and he has since fearlessly taken on the establishment.

In an interview to a website soon after his release, Gonsalves said, “The falsehood was evident even to the magistrate. During the trial, the explosives expert was called in to give his assessment. He said the kind of explosives mentioned could blast a whole [railway] station and I was supposed to have stored it at home! It is absurd for such things to be stored in the matchbox-sized house of sorts that we live in. The expert did mention the unlikelihood. It was all absurd.”

Gonsalves is a Mumbaikar. An academic and writer by profession, he is also an activist deeply involved in social issues. He is married to Susan Abraham, a well-known civil rights and labour lawyer. Be it human rights issues, issues of communalism, women’s rights, or any manner of injustice, this couple has always spearheaded demonstrations across the city. The 61-year-old Gonsalves has taught in HR College of Commerce and Economics and Akbar Peerbhoy College of Commerce and Economics. He became better known when he changed track and went into full-time social work and activism. It was in jail, he says, that he took to writing. Both Gonsalves and Susan Abraham are under the scanner for their left-leaning world view, but Gonsalves, for reasons best known to the state, has been targeted from time to time.

Vernon Gonsalves, academic and writer, and his lawyer-wife Susan Abraham have organised public demonstrations in Mumbai on rights issues.   -  Prashant Waydande

Susan Abraham, wife of activist Vernon Gonsalves and Anand Teltumbe, Dalit activists whose residence in Goa was raided, at a press conference to condemn the arrest of the five human rights activists in the Bhima-Koregaon case, in Mumbai on August 29.   -  Shashank Parade/PTI

 

 

The only plausible reason for the present charge, says an activist unwilling to be named, is that Susan Abraham is defending Surendra Gadling, a human rights lawyer from Nagpur who was arrested in June this year for his alleged involvement in the Elgar Parishad. Perhaps Gonsalves and Susan Abraham’s close connection and involvement led the police back to him, especially since he spent time in jail as an undertrial in the past and it is easier to go after somebody who has a “record”. Gonsalves’ name reportedly appears in these “letters” that the police have seized, which they say furnish proof that he has a hand in the Elgar “conspiracy”.

Mihir Desai, the lawyer for Ferreira and Gonsalves, calls the allegations “a larger conspiracy” and “rubbish”. He told the media that the entire episode appeared to be part of a larger plan by the government. Desai said the family members were not told why Gonsalves was arrested and much of the evidence, particularly the letters, seemed fabricated.

A read-through of Gonsalves’ and Ferreira’s articles may give a clue about why the establishment is out to get them. The articles are topical and speak bluntly of the BJP government’s repeated failings and spreading of untruths. Their articles are always backed up with facts, so it is hard to counter them. They ask pointed questions, expose fake news and bring out interesting angles that are clearly uncomfortable for the current regime. These include issues pertaining to Hindutva activism, the arrest of communist leader Kobad Ghandy, the Malegoan blast investigation, and the treatment of political dissenters.

“If we are a true democracy, political dissent in the form of writing is completely allowed. That is why we have the right to freedom of speech and expression. Just because he questions the regime they cannot persecute them,” says an associate of Gonsalves.

In the context of the incriminating letters that have led to the activists’ arrests, Gonsalves and Ferreira wrote about BJP spokesperson Sambit Patra waving one of these letters on television claiming proof that those arrested are part of an anti-national conspiracy. They wrote:

“But he [Patra] deliberately remained silent on the glaring contradiction between the date mentioned in the very first sentence of the fabricated letter and the one mentioned at the end. It is supposed to be a letter, conveniently dated January 2, 2018, the day after the violent attacks on the congregation at Bhima Koregaon. Its first sentence, however, refers to an ‘upcoming fact finding of December 6’.

“Both Patra and Times Now, the channel which first released this letter, spent considerable time to lay great stress on the purported date of the letter, but made no attempt to explain how a letter dated January 2 could ever refer to December 6 as an ‘upcoming’ date. It is obvious that this discrepancy appears because of a hasty fabrication.”

Kashmir connection

Based in Delhi, Gautam Navlakha is so far removed from both the Elgar Parishad that was held in Pune in December 2017 and the Bhima Koregaon incident in early January that his arrest in this connection appears absurd.

Gautam Navlakha   -  Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

 

Navlakha, an author, journalist and activist who works with the People’s Union for Democratic Rights, is among the five activists who were recently arrested and charged under sections of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act for their “alleged naxal activities”. The police claim that Navlakha is aware of Maoist operations that pose a threat to national security. They say, as they do in the other four cases, that there is “incriminating” evidence to prove this. Navlakha’s lawyer is not sure of either the charges or the evidence.

The only plausible link between Navlakha and the current issue is that his recent work is focussed on Chhattisgarh, which lies in the region of Maoist influence. A well-respected civil liberties and human rights activist, Navlakha has been deeply involved in the Jammu and Kashmir issue for three decades. He is well known for his prolific writing on Jammu and Kashmir exposing the state’s atrocities against the local populace and demanding demilitarisation of the ravaged region.

Activists and lawyers whom Frontline spoke to said that Navlakha was an uncomfortable presence for the present government because of his work in Jammu and Kashmir and writings on the issue. They believe the Maoist link is an excuse to shut him up.

Navlakha’s statement reads: “This entire case is a political ploy against political dissent by this vindictive and cowardly government, which is bent upon shielding the real culprits of Bhima Koregoan and thus divert attention from its own scams and failures, which stretch from Kashmir to Kerala.

“A political trial must be fought politically and I welcome this opportunity. I have to do nothing. It is for the Maharashtra police, working at the behest of their political masters, to prove their case against me and my comrades who, too, have been arrested. We in PUDR have fearlessly fought for more than forty years for the cause of democratic rights and I, as part of PUDR, have covered many such trials. Now I myself will be a witness to a political trial with a ringside view.”

Navlakha is also an editorial consultant for Economic and Political Weekly (EPW). In 2012, he worked with the International People’s Tribunal for Human Rights and Justice in Kashmir (IPTK) to compile a report titled “Alleged perpetrators: Stories of impunity in Jammu and Kashmir”. The tribunal published explosive data on human rights abuses and “hypermilitarisation” in Kashmir, including facts on extrajudicial killings and the involvement of armed forces personnel in rights violations.

When he was denied entry into Srinagar in 2011, Navlakha wrote: “We have been brought up to think that Kashmir is an integral part of India territorially but not as far as people are concerned. We really do not care about the people, otherwise we would be out in the streets protesting against the atrocities that have been committed against people in Kashmir in the last 27 years.”

Born in Kolkata, Navlakha was educated at the Scindia School in Gwalior. He graduated from a college in Kolkata and went on to complete a master’s degree in political science, history and social anthropology from Stockholm University.

The Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society, which works closely with Navlakha, issued the following statement on his arrest: “The state successfully uses media to criminalise any kind of dissent, thus creating an atmosphere of fear for activists, journalists, poets, or artists. Emboldened by the lack of accountability of its conduct against voices of dissent in Jammu and Kashmir and also across India, the state apparatus has begun its crackdown even against the most prominent activists in India.

“Gautam Navlakha has had a very long history with people of Kashmir and with Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS). He has been visiting Kashmir regularly from 1990 onwards and has been part of several reports and campaigns that highlighted the ugly truth about the State violence in Jammu and Kashmir. Gautam was one of the first to visit Kashmir in 1990 as a part of a fact-finding team. In a zone of extensive surveillance, Gautam’s work has been public and widely known to civil society and the state. The present allegations are therefore clearly an attempt to malign a credible rights activist whose work has consistently been principled. Gautam Navlakha is one of the most respected Indians in Kashmir, for being truthful and courageous. Gautam never minced his words to even criticise the role of non-state actors when they were involved in human rights violations.”

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