Print edition : December 15, 2006

There are serious allegations that democratic protest and social activism are being curbed in the wake of the Khairlangi murders.

LYLA BAVADAM in Nagpur

ASHU SAXSENA HAS 20 criminal charges against her. She believes she is being victimised for fighting for the Dalit victims in Khairlangi.-VIVEK BENDRE

THE slightest sound from the window causes Ashu Saxena to stop in mid-sentence and turn questioning eyes on her friends who get up to investigate. The sounds are inconsequential ones - a car halting, a passing motorbike that slows down, voices from downstairs - that you would not notice unless, like Ashu Saxena, you are underground. Her fear is so great that even the hinges on the front door are left unoiled: "Pata chalta hai jab koi andar ata hai" (We know when someone enters) is the terse explanation of the owner of the house.

Ashu Saxena lives in the twilight world common to many social activists in the districts of Nagpur, Amravati, Bhandara and Gadchiroli in east Maharashtra. Although she is not wanted officially by the state, she was picked up and detained by the police. Arrests such as these are random and the charges applied are either of a general nature or inaccurate. Activists say they have noticed a trend in these arrests. They say it happens whenever there has been some social disturbance or injustice. "We either come together to protest it or we do it individually. And the state doesn't like this so we are accused of anti-national or subversive activities and arrested as a precautionary measure or on some vague charges," said Ashu Saxena.

The social injustice that sparked the arrests is related to the state's inaction after four members of a Dalit family were tortured and murdered in Khairlanji village on September 29. The murder, believed to involve a land dispute, was undoubtedly a caste-related killing. The victims' bodies were dumped in a canal. The investigation was handled in a slipshod manner and it was only the pressure exerted by Dalit organisations and others that brought the Khairlanji murders to the notice of the general public.

Ashu Saxena is like a taut wire. Just released from jail, she is exhausted but alert. She sits rigidly, unable to relax even though she is in a safe-house and is meeting with people whose credentials have been vouched for. Her six-year-old son comes in from time to time. She says he is still traumatised by the memory of waking and finding his mother was not there.

Ashu Saxena was arrested from her home at 5a.m. on November 9. She was refused permission to ensure care for her son. She was taken from one police station to another and charged with 20 criminal actions including associating with naxalites. While the police claimed she was a key leader of the violent November 6 peace march, Ashu Saxena said, "I was involved with organising the commemorative long march that had been planned for November 12, but this never took place because of the absence of police permission."

She was not present during the November 6 agitation and believes she is being victimised for her work with marginalised people and for forming the Khairlanji Dalit Hatyakhand Kruti Samiti, a group fighting for justice for the four victims. It seems that Ashu Saxena's only `crime' is to be a full-time activist of the Mahila Jan Andolan Samiti, a group that fights for women's rights that is affiliated to the Communist Party of India (Marxist). A former Student Federation of India member, she fought the 1992 elections to the Nagpur Municipal Corporation on the CPI(M) ticket. She was arrested, released, rearrested and released between November 9 and 12, and the police seem to be looking for a reason to take her into custody again. She has decided that it is best to stay in hiding for a while.

Anil Borkar and Sanjay Fulzale of the People's Democratic Front of India (PDFI) went through the same sequence of arrests, releases and rearrests. Borkar is the Nagpur convener of the PDFI, a left-leaning organisation concerned with social issues. He and Sanjay Fulzale were arrested from their homes on November 8.

Recounting the sequence of events, Borkar said, "Neither of us was present at the peace march [of November 6]. But on November 8, after Deputy Chief Minister R.R. Patil said that there could be naxalite involvement in the Khairlanji protests, we were arrested. Both of us were arrested separately - neither knew of the other's arrest. First, we were called to the police station for some inquiries. Then we were taken from station to station. No charges were framed and we were kept through the night.

"The next day the police told the Magistrate we were responsible for inciting violence against the state at Indora [the location of the march] and that we were naxalite supporters. On November 11, we were released on condition that we report twice daily to the police station. That very night we were rearrested on the same charge and then released on the night of November 12 [the day the banned long march to Khairlanji was planned]. On November 14, we came to know that the police were looking for us again." They are also in hiding. As Anil Borkar put it, "the harassment of the workers of people's movements has increased after Khairlanji".

Accusing someone of being a naxalite gives the police a carte blanche to carry out arrests. In a State that sanctions the misuse of power, it appears the police use this to crack down on moderate left-leaning social activists. The obsession with naxalism is so great that the net of arrests is spread wide.

In October, the police in Nagpur accused Sunita Narayan, an independent publisher, of selling anti-national literature and arrested her. She was harassed for three days and framed as a naxalite. Sunita Narayan was selling books on democracy and people's struggles (none of them banned) at the 50th anniversary celebrations of B.R. Ambedkar's conversion to Buddhism.

Post-Khairlanji, the Nagpur police were so jittery that they banned the performance of Ramu Ramanathan's play Cotton 56 Polyester 84 about the plight of Mumbai's textile industry. Saxena said, "The police uses its fight against naxalites as a two-edged sword. They arrest Left leaders under various charges including associations with naxalites and this way they manage to convey to their masters that they have checked subversive activities. At the same time they manage to stamp out any legitimate protests against social injustices. The whole thing is a facade for showing that the police have a situation under control."

The spate of arrests after Khairlanji bears out this thinking. But what is the advantage to curbing healthy social protest, especially with regard to the cover-up in Khairlanji? The answer is simple. The Khairlanji investigation was shoddy. It was shoddy because it was four Dalits who were killed and no one cared. When Dalit groups and others took up the issue it exposed the state's mishandling.

The arrest of protesters and activists is just the state's way of covering up its lapses. The police justify their actions by saying that Dalit protest meetings are being infiltrated by naxalites. However, even a basic analysis of Dalit thinking and naxalite ideology reveals there is absolutely no common ground between the two. Dalits agreed that their movement had weakened considerably in Maharashtra, but rejected the idea that it was guided by naxalites.

If left-leaning activists are harassed at a time like this, it is not difficult to imagine what happens to ordinary Dalits. Karuna Siddharth Gharde was picked up by the police on November 10 at a peaceful dharna in Nagpur, for protesting against the Khairlanji murders. Gharde's participation was limited to sitting with a group of fellow Dalits. No charges were framed nor was she interrogated. Her 10-hour stay at the police station can thus only be interpreted as intimidation. Likewise, Kamlabai Narnavre was arrested on the same day although she had nothing to do with the protest meeting. She was picked up from Nagpur's Gittikhana Buddha Vihar, which she visits regularly. The septuagenarian, who finds it difficult to walk, said she was hit on her back. She too was kept at the police station for 10 hours without any formal reason being given. The women said no woman constable was present either at the time of being picked up or at the police station. They were kept there without charge until many hours after sunset.

Kishor Gaidhane, a Dalit social worker, was severely beaten by the police because he lodged a complaint against policemen who had beaten some Dalits unconscious after the November 6 peace rally. Seven policemen were transferred and Gaidhane was asked to withdraw it. He refused. Later, the police framed false charges of pelting a bus with stones against a 16-year-old Dalit boy. Gaidhane says the harassment continues.

Raju Narayan Ramteke, a Dalit autorickshaw driver was arrested from his home. His front door was smashed down by the police and charges of rioting were slapped on the bewildered Ramteke, who said he had only participated in a peaceful protest. He was jailed for three days. He alleged that he and others were subjected to casteist abuse at the Gittikhana police station.

Allegations of casteism have been levelled by Ashu Saxena against senior administrative officers in the region. Ashu Saxena is thankful that the Khairlanji case has been transferred to the Central Bureau of Investigation. She believes that the administration has an anti-poor, anti-Dalit, anti-Left agenda that is being directed at curbing healthy social activism.

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