POTA against an Editor

Published : May 09, 2003 00:00 IST

The Jayalalithaa government's arrest of and invocation of POTA against a Chennai journalist who is critical of it marks a new high in its attempts to intimidate the press.

in Chennai

THE arrest of R.R. Gopal, Editor of the Tamil magazine Nakkheeran, under the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) and the slapping of a sedition charge against him mark a new low in the intolerance of the Jayalalithaa government in Tamil Nadu towards the press.

The Crime Branch-Criminal Investigation Department (CB-CID) of the State police arrested Gopal in Chennai on the night of April 11 as an accused in the alleged murder of a police informant, Rajamani, by forest brigand Veerappan in 1998. The CB-CID filed another case against Gopal under the Arms Act and Section 124-A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), which deals with sedition, claiming that at the time of his arrest Gopal had in his possession an unlicensed revolver with ammunition and a pamphlet in support of a banned extremist organisation, the Tamil National Liberation Army (TNLA). On April 16, Section 4 (a) of POTA, which deals with "possession of certain unauthorised arms" and so on, in a notified area, was invoked against Gopal.

Gopal's arrest and incarceration signals the beginning of another round of vindictive measures against witch-hunt of the magazine and its journalists by the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) government. He is the latest in the list of Nakkheeran staff arrested and sent to prison after the AIADMK returned to power in May 2001. The others are P. Sivasubramanian, Makaran and D. Prakash. Sivasubramanian was in prison for almost a full year after seven cases were booked against him by the Tamil Nadu and Karnataka police relating to Veerappan. He is out on bail now. Makaran, a Coimbatore-based Nakkheeran reporter, is now in judicial custody at the Central Prison, Coimbatore, after having been made an accused in the alleged murder of a police informant, Bhakthavatchalam, by Veerappan. Prakash, a reporter was in judicial custody for nine days in December 2002 in connection with five cases, all relating to his reports concerning a sex scandal involving two district-level AIADMK women leaders. After he was enlarged on bail, the AIADMK high command expelled the two women from the party.

The arrests, especially that of Sivasubramanian, were ominous straws in the wind for Gopal. There is a history of antagonism between the AIADMK and Nakkheeran. The party made brutal attempts to suppress the magazine during its previous tenure (1991 - 1996). At that time, 146 cases were registered against Nakkheeran and its journalists; thousands of copies of the magazine were seized and burnt; its sale prevented; and one of its reporters was severely beaten, causing fractures. When it returned to power in May 2001, the AIADMK began efforts to use Veerappan's abduction of Kannada film actor Rajkumar in July 2000 to implicate Gopal and Sivasubramanian in the abduction itself.

(The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) government headed by M. Karunanidhi in Tamil Nadu and the Congress government led by S.M. Krishna in Karnataka sent Gopal and Sivasubramanian as official emissaries to negotiate with Veerappan the release of Rajkumar. They were chosen because they had interviewed Veerappan several times earlier. Gopal had also negotiated in July 1997 the release of nine Karnataka Forest personnel abducted by Veerappan. While negotiating the release of Rajkumar in August 2000, Gopal discovered and made public that two Tamil extremist groups, the TNLA and the Tamil Nadu Retrieval Troops (TNRT), had made common cause with Veerappan. At that time, Veerappan's demands included the release of five TNLA extremists from prison.)

Gopal's arrest was a foreseen development. What caused shock waves was the circumstances of the arrest: the use of POTA, the cloak-and-dagger manner in which the arrest was made around 8.40 p.m., his interrogation stretching into next morning and the press being kept in the dark about his arrest.

An official press note later said Gopal was arrested in connection with the killing of Rajamani by Veerappan and his associates. It said that the CB-CID's investigation had revealed that Gopal and his reporters had "conspired with Veerappan and the Tamil extremist groups such as the TNLA/TNRT (both banned by the AIADMK government) to achieve one of the goal (sic) of creating a separate Tamil nation. In pursuance of this conspiracy, Veerappan decided to do away with police informants in order to terrorise the general public not to give any information about this movement to the police." The press note further alleged that Gopal "was instrumental (sic) passing on the information to Veerappan that the said Rajamani was a police informant" and that on receiving this information, "Veerappan and his associates killed Rajamani". It claimed Gopal, at the time of his arrest, was "found in possession of an unlicensed revolver with ammunition and a pamphlet in support of TNLA". Consequently, a case was registered against him at the CB-CID headquarters under Section 25 (1-B) (a) of the Arms Act, 1959, and Section 124- A of the IPC, it said.

On April 16, the police slapped Section 4 (a) of POTA on Gopal. Section 4 says: "Where any person is in unauthorised possession of any (a) arms or ammunition specified in columns (2) and (3) of Category I or Category III (a) of Schedule I to the Arms Rule, 1962, in a notified area ... , he shall be guilty of terrorist act... , and be punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend to imprisonment for life or with fine which may extend to rupees ten lakh or with both." In an unpublicised move, entire Tamil Nadu has been declared a "notified area".

Nakkheeran's Associate Editor, A. Kamaraj said "the singular aim" of the government was to "liquidate Nakkheeran". He asserted that Gopal carried neither a revolver nor a pamphlet in support of the TNLA when he was arrested. He pointed out that although Veerappan had allegedly murdered Rajamani in 1998, the police at Sathyamangalam had registered only a "man missing" case three years later, on June 28, 2001. Based on the confession of Mohan Kumar of Kanyakumari district, who was taken into custody in July 2001, the police arrested eight persons and the "man missing" case metamorphosed into one of murder. Most of the accused in the case have been let on bail while Veerappan is absconding. Besides, Kamaraj said, no charge-sheet had been filed in the case. The Paris-based Reporters Without Borders described the arrest as "the latest twist in a long-standing effort to intimidate Gopal and his journalists for their reporting on Veerappan and his gang, whom the police had been hunting for several years."

N. Varadarajan, State secretaryof the Communist Party of India (Marxist), objected to Gopal being first arrested on an allegation and then being booked under POTA. He wanted the constituents of the National Democratic Alliance to prevail on the government at the Centre to repeal POTA. Varadarajan asked the State government to withdraw the POTA case against Gopal.

Karunanidhi said it was reprehensible that after POTA was invoked against Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam leader Vaiko, Tamilar Desiya Iyakkam leader P. Nedumaran and others in Tamil Nadu, an editor had been arrested under its provision. The former Chief Minister said he was prepared to be in the vanguard of an agitation for the repeal of the Act.

There were portents about the impending arrest of Gopal. Two days before the arrest, Jayalalithaa told the State Assembly that she had asked the Directorate of Vigilance and Anti-Corruption (DVAC) to probe the issue of "payment of a ransom" to obtain the release of Rajkumar. She referred to the book Veerappan's Prize Catch: Rajkumar, written by former Karnataka Director-General of Police C. Dinakar, and asked "how much money was handed over as ransom to then Chief Minister Karunanidhi for securing Rajkumar's release. She queried, "Of the ransom, how much did Karunanidhi keep for himself? How much was given to Veerappan?" She claimed that the book had revealed the "activities" of Karunanidhi in association with persons called "emissaries" (Gopal and Sivasubramanian). At a press conference in Chennai on September 2, 2002, Jayalalithaa had expressed her intent to start a probe into the payment of ransom.

Gopal was aware of what lay in store for him. After the CB-CID interrogated him for 10 days from June 20 to 29, 2002 at Gobichettipalayam (Tamil Nadu) in connection with the Rajkumar abduction case, Gopal told a press conference in Chennai in July 2002 that "their (police) aim is to liquidate Nakkheeran and brand it an extremist magazine... . They declared that I was an extremist and that it has been proved. They wanted to take my fingerprint." Two other aims of the CB-CID, according to Gopal, were "to implicate the former Chief Minister" (Karunanidhi) and "belittle" film actor Rajnikant who struck a high profile in the efforts to secure Rajkumar's release.

Apart from the Rajamani murder case, the police have included Gopal as an accused along with Veerappan in four other cases. One relates to the alleged abduction of Prof. Krishnaswamy by Veerappan. Two cases relate to the murder of Bhakthavatchalam and Kandavel by Veerappan. The fourth case related to Veerappan's abduction of Rajkumar. Although the cases relating to the murder of Bhakthavatchalam and Kandavel were registered in 1998, Gopal was included as an accused only after the AIADMK returned to power in 2001. So also in the Rajkumar abduction case.

For several months before the arrest, the police had mounted a surveillance on the Nakkheeran office. Plainclothes policemen kept a watch on Gopal's home. The CB-CID also interrogated, for several hours, a highly respected journalist, "Chinna kuthoosi", who writes a column in Nakkheeran. The police could do nothing because Gopal had obtained anticipatory bail in the four cases. But on April 11, when Gopal drove out of his office in the busy Zam Bazaar area in Chennai, the CB-CID personnel stopped his vehicle and took him away.

Protests against the vindictive arrest are gathering strength. On April 15, Nakkheeran employees went on a one-day fast demanding the release of Gopal. N. Varadarajan of the CPI(M), R.Nallakannu, State secretary of the CPI, and C. Kuppusamy, DMK Lok Sabha member, addressed them. In Pondicherry, reporters wore black badges and held a demonstration in front of the Assembly building on April 18. They did not cover the day's proceedings.

The Madras Union of Journalists, the Chennai Press Club and the Journalists' Action Group have given a memorandum to Tamil Nadu Governor P. Rama Mohana Rao, stating that the State government, by using POTA against Gopal, has grossly misused the law enacted to tackle terrorism.

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