A law and its victim

Published : Nov 07, 2008 00:00 IST

A poster of the Committee For The Release Of Ajay TG, which was formed to campaign against the arrest.-PHOTOGRAPHS: WWW.RELEASEAJAYTG.IN

A poster of the Committee For The Release Of Ajay TG, which was formed to campaign against the arrest.-PHOTOGRAPHS: WWW.RELEASEAJAYTG.IN

The detention for 90 days of a film-maker under the Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act points to the laws dangerous nature.

I DO not ask for mercy. Section 124(A), under which I am happily charged, is perhaps the prince among the political sections of the Indian Penal Code [IPC] designed to suppress the liberty of the citizen. Affection cannot be manufactured or regulated by law. If one has no affection for a person or system, one should be free to give the fullest expression to his disaffection, so long as he does not contemplate, promote, or incite violence, said Mahatma Gandhi during his trial after his arrest during the Non-Cooperation Movement.

The Mahatmas address to the jury was, perhaps, the most revealing description of the political impasse created then by a piece of British legislation. Section 124 of the IPC, framed by the British, continues to remain in force. This section, which describes sedition, says, Whoever, by words, either spoken or written, or by signs, or by visible representation, or otherwise, brings or attempts to bring into hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards the Government established by law in India, shall be punished with imprisonment for life, to which fine may be added, or with imprisonment which may extend to three years, to which fine may be added, or with fine. The expression disaffection includes disloyalty and all feelings of enmity.

Sixty-one years after India managed to break away from the British colonisers, the dreaded impasse seems to persist in the State of Chhattisgarh. On May 5, Ajay Thachhappully Gangadharan, an independent documentary film-maker and a freelance journalist, was arrested by the Chhattisgarh Police and sent to jail on allegations of association with the Communist Party of India (Maoist), an unlawful organisation, and sedition.

He was kept behind bars for three months. The Chhattisgarh Police, investigating the case, failed to file a charge-sheet against him within the mandatory period of 90 days. Ajay was, therefore, granted statutory bail by the Durg District Court and released from prison on August 5. Despite finding no evidence against him, the police have not closed the case. The bail order required Ajay to present a personal bond of Rs.50,000, two sureties of Rs.25,000 each, and an affidavit with a list of his movable and immovable property, and appear at the local police station on the second Monday of every month. The bail also denied him the right to travel outside India without the courts permission.

A committee for the release of Ajay was formed after his arrest. It includes names such as playwright Habib Tanvir, social activists Aruna Roy, Harsh Mander, Sudhir Patnaik and Banwari Lal Sharma, academic Kamal Mitra Chenoy, law researcher Usha Ramanathan, journalist Siddharth Varadarajan, and film-makers Ranjan Palit and Amar Kanwar.

The committee has been organising shows and public meetings all over India to sensitise people, not just about Ajays case but also about the draconian impact of the Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act, 2006 (CSPSA), and Section 124(A) of the IPC. Several petitions condemning Ajays arrest have been subsequently filed by the Peoples Union of Civil Liberties (PUCL), the Peoples Union for Democratic Rights (PUDR), some film-makers and Amnesty International.

Amnesty International says, We have reason to believe that the charges against Ajay are politically motivated. Ajay has been actively engaged since 2004 in documentation of human rights violations as part of the PUCLs ongoing efforts to protect the rights of Adivasi communities in the face of escalating violence in the Bastar-Dantewada area of Chhattisgarh between banned Maoists and Salwa Judum, an armed anti-Maoist militia campaign widely regarded as supported by the State government.

Historians such as Ramachandra Guha have also voiced their support. I know Ajay and can attest, as a mutual friend puts it, that for all forms of violence he has a deep and abiding distaste, Guha says. The CSPSA, under which Ajay was arrested, contains a broad definition of what constitutes an unlawful activity (Section 2), which can be invoked to clamp down on the freedom of expression and the rights of journalists.

Punishment of up to seven years imprisonment is prescribed under the law for uttering words, or writing or making visual representations that create risk or danger for public order, peace or public tranquillity (Section 8).

Moreover, any organisation can be declared unlawful by issuing a government notification. But Usha Ramanathan says that although the government is obliged to specify the reasons for declaring an organisation unlawful, it may dispense with that requirement if, in its opinion, that is against the public interest to do so (Sections 2 and 3). She adds that the Act gives the powers to notify and take possession of the places and the property used for the purpose of unlawful activities (Sections 9, 10 and 11).

The Chhattisgarh Police picked up 42-year-old Ajay on May 5 on charges of being part of an urban network of naxals. The Director-General of Police of Chhattisgarh Vishwa Ranjan told a national magazine that the police had recovered a letter written by Ajay addressed to the spokesperson of the Maoists saying either return the camera I gave you or pay me in place of that. The incriminating element is I gave you, Ranjan asserted. He admitted that there was nothing that directly implicated Ajay but added that under the law, one cannot have any contact or commerce with members of a banned organisation.

The letter, written by Ajay, was recovered from the house of Malti Rao, the wife of Gudsa Husendi, the Maoists spokesperson, after the police claimed they busted the naxalite racket on January 21. Ajay was under the police scanner since then.

Ajays wife, Shobha, said that on January 22, three policemen came to their Ayyappa Nagar house at eight in the morning. They searched the house and took away Ajays computer and other belongings such as his camera manuals, research material and the master tapes of his films, which are still with the police. The police also showed him the letter recovered from Malti Rao.

Ajay admitted that he had written the letter but had also told the police the circumstances under which it had been drafted. Ajay told Frontline that in April 2004, while he was filming in Bastar in Chhattisgarh, an armed Maoist squad threatened and detained him. They had, then, taken away the camera from him. The letter, he said, was to tell them to return his camera as he could not afford another one to start working again. It is important to note that the Act under which Ajay is charged came into existence in April 2006, while the letter is supposed to have been written in 2004.

The police, however, are convinced that Ajays arrest is not linked to the 2004 incident. While emphasising this is a totally different case, they have overlooked a vital detail. The letter is undated. So while the police may want to believe Ajay wrote the letter much after the 2004 incident, they cannot negate the possibility that it was written as a sequel to the incident that took place two years before the CSPSA came into force.

But none of this counts as a slip-up for the police. Running contrary to the very spirit of fundamental rights, the CSPSA authorises the police to arrest anyone with political leanings or associations that question state policies. Ajay, a State executive member of the PUCL, is the second PUCL member to be arrested. The first, famously, was Dr. Binayak Sen, who was arrested on May 14, 2007.

Ajay and Shobha live with their 20-month-old son in Bhilai, Chhattisgarh. Ajay grew up in a joint family that migrated from Kerala. His uncle came to Bhilai in 1959 to set up a tea shop near the steel plant. Eventually, Ajay had to leave school and work.

A chance encounter with Jonathan Parry, the well known anthropologist from the London School of Economics who was in Bhilai for a research project, was the turning point in Ajays life. He became Parrys research assistant and developed a keen interest in the history and life of Chhattisgarhi people.

After learning basic film-making skills, Ajay and Shobha made films about social issues and over the years acquired a camera, microphones, cables and an editing computer. Ajays concerns led him to becoming a member of the All India Youth Federation, the wing of the Communist Party of India (CPI), and the State convener of the Campaign Against Child Labour.

The couple later opened a school for 25 poor girls in a slum cluster of Bhilai. Meanwhile, in his documentaries, Ajay began exploring the issues of migration and human rights. He became a voluntary member of the PUCL.

His recent films, made before he was arrested, were about the March 8 Womens Day celebrations and the lives of working women in Chhattisgarh, the police attack on Hero Honda workers in Gurgaon in Haryana, and on the work of Dr. Binayak Sen. Ajay was also a strong opponent of Salwa Judum, the state-run programme to counter Maoists in Chhattisgarh. Salwa Judum has been criticised by many political and civil society organisations for violating human rights through its alleged state-sponsored violence.

Ajay is still an accused under Section 124(A) of the IPC and under the CSPSA. According to Vrinda Grover, a lawyer, the definition of the Act and the section suggests that if the state finds the views of anybody film-makers, journalists, writers, actors, academics, social activists even mildly critical of the government, they can be targeted. Such acts create a situation where the police will have to do less investigation and even a person with a tendency to interfere with the personnel of the state can be booked under the law, she said.

A debate on the utility of the draconian laws enforced in the name of protecting the Indian state is long overdue. Proponents of these laws argue that the country is in the grip of multiple insurgencies seeking to dismember it and is the target of both indigenous and global terrorist networks.

Most civil society groups agree that terrorism in all its forms must be resolutely countered, but they point out that the means employed by constitutional democracies must not violate the core rights and freedoms that form the bedrock of civilised society.

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