Goondas Act

Act of suppression

Print edition : August 18, 2017

M. Valarmathi (right) and Jayanthi who were arrested by the Salem City Police on July 12 for distributing pamphlets with objectionable slogans. Photo: E. LAKSHMI NARAYANAN

A protest in front of the Collectorate in Salem condemning the detention of M. Valarmathi under the Goondas Act, on July 22. Photo: E. LAKSHMI NARAYANAN

Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami. He justified Valarmathi's detention on the floor of the Assembly. Photo: E. LAKSHMI NARAYANAN

Divya Bharati, documentary film-maker, who was arrested in a case registered against her in 2009.

In Tamil Nadu, preventive detention laws have become a convenient tool in the hands of the State government, which sees dissent as a threat.

M. VALARMATHI, 23, a final-year postgraduate student of mass communication and journalism at Periyar University in Salem, would never have imagined that she would be dubbed a “goonda” by the Tamil Nadu government and detained by the police under the Goondas Act. Her offence: organising protests for public causes and distributing a few pamphlets to students in Salem town in support of the ongoing protests against the ONGC’s oil exploration projects at Neduvasal in Pudukottai district and Kadiramangalam in Thanjavur district.

Activists said the charges were “frivolous” and did not justify the use of the Goondas Act. This was, they pointed out, probably for the first time that a girl student had been booked under the Goondas Act in Tamil Nadu. Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami, who also holds the Home portfolio, defended her detention on the floor of the Assembly by saying that she “has been causing disturbances to the public by taking part in various protests”.

Six cases, according to the Chief Minister, were registered against Valarmathi under various sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), and she, despite these cases, “refused to mend her ways”. He also warned that those who were found to be causing disturbance to public peace would be detained under the Act, which has emerged as the government’s favourite weapon. Political observers said this implied that dissent of any nature would not be tolerated.

Soon after the Chief Minister’s statement, the police, under the guise of maintaining law and order, arrested a few activists and youth under various sections of the IPC for being proactive against the acts of commission and omission of both the State and Central governments. Among them were the Dalit woman activist and documentary film-maker Divya Bharathi, 28, of Madurai and A. Kuberan, 32, a research student at Annamalai University in Chidambaram. Two youths who put up posters against the “abuse” of the Goondas Act in Madurai and another youth from Madurai, Senthil Murugan, who put a poster on the wall of the Director General of Police’s (DGP) office in Chennai against the gutkha scam in which a few senior police officials are allegedly involved were also arrested. Human Rights Watch called it “criminalisation of social activism”.

‘Defective’ in nature

Legal luminaries and activists claimed that the detention order against Valarmathi was “defective” in nature. “The reasons cited for Valarmathi’s detention under the Goondas Act are far from convincing,” said R. Parthipan, a lawyer and Salem district president of the Bahujan Samaj Party. He said that on July 12, Valarmathi was arrested along with Jayanthi, 40, her friend’s mother, a housewife, on the charge of distributing pamphlets to students of the Government Women’s Arts and Science College, Salem, on the Neduvasal and Kadiramangalam issues. Frontline has access to an e-copy of the pamphlet, which prima facie does not have anything objectionable, although it exhorted students to extend support to the agitating farmers of the two villages. “While Valarmathi was detained at the Salem Women’s Prison, Jayanthi was released on bail by the Salem Fourth Judicial Magistrate for want of sufficient evidence,” said Parthipan, who argued their case for bail at the Salem court.

However, on July 17, the government, acting on a note from Salem City Police Commissioner Sanjay Kumar, claimed that Valarmathi “has acted in a manner prejudicial to the maintenance of public order and public peace and as such she is a ‘goonda’” and gave its nod to detain her under the Tamil Nadu Prevention of Dangerous Activities of Bootleggers, Drug offenders, Forest offenders, Goondas, Immoral Traffic offenders, Sand offenders, Slum grabbers and Video Pirates Act, 1982 (TN Act 14/1982), known otherwise as the Goondas Act. Justice K. Chandru, retired judge of the Madras High Court, told Frontline recently that the use of the Goondas Act was an “act of perversion”.

The Police Commissioner’s note, a nine-page classified document on the proceedings that laid the grounds for her detention, which Frontline has in its possession, traced her activities from her days at Annamalai University, where she did BSc in agriculture. According to the note, two cases were registered against her and a few other students at the Annamalai Nagar police station in August 2014 for attempts “to hold a revolt against Annamalai University”. Cases under Sections 294(b), 447 and 506(i) of the IPC were registered against her. But her father, Madhaiyan, claimed that she had staged only a brief dharna on the university premises to demand the disbursal of scholarship amounts meant for Dalit and Most Backward Class students.

The note further claimed that the Salem City Police had registered two other cases against her in March 2017 for staging road blockades in Salem town—one for demanding a compensation of Rs.1 crore for the family of Muthukrishnan, a Dalit PhD student of Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi, who was found dead under mysterious circumstances, and another in support of the Neduvasal farmers.

In yet another case, which reportedly had come to the adverse notice of the State government, she and six other activists, all youths, were arrested at the Kulithalai railway station when they were on their way to Neduvasal on April 15, 2017, for which the police invoked Sections 153 and 505(i)(b) of the IPC read with 7(1)(a) of the Criminal Law Amendment Act. Valarmathi was arrested and later enlarged on conditional bail by the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court. Other cases against her, according to the Police Commissioner, were pending in various courts.

Referring to the Kulithalai case, the Commissioner pointed out: “[They] planned to spread wrong information among the public, so that they can illegally raise the public to cause revolt against the government… launching warfare against the government by the way of arson attacks, bombings against Central and State government properties such as trains, bus transports and vital installations.” Ironically, he also claimed that at the time of arrest, the police had seized from them a musical instrument (thappu vathiyam) with stick, chart paper and cardboard with mssages in Tamil condemning the Neduvasal project, besides Rs.305 in cash. These articles were recorded in the seizure mahajar too. He said in the note that if they were allowed to proceed, these persons “would cause destruction, damage to Central and State government properties”.

While mentioning the July 12 incident in Salem, in which pamphlets were distributed, he alleged that both Valarmathi and Jayanthi, belonging to the Iyarkkai Padukappu Kuzhu (Nature Protection Council) and the Pothunala Maanava Ezhuchi (Students’ Public Welfare Rise), had “induced the students by asking them to destroy, demolish the Central, State government properties during the demonstration, and thereby the said ladies conspired to burst out a huge law and order problem in the entire State of Tamil Nadu”. Valarmathi “acted in a manner prejudicial to the maintenance of public order and peace, [and hence] she is a goonda as contemplated under Section 20(f) of the Act”, he argued.

Despite stiff opposition from activists and civil society groups, Valarmathi, who was in judicial custody, was served with the Goondas Act order and shifted from Salem to the Coimbatore Special Prison for Women on the night of July 17. A senior police officer told Frontline that the police had been monitoring her activities closely since she hailed from Veemanur-Chinnanur, a hamlet near Pallikoodathanur village in Veeranam block in Salem district, which in police records has long been noted as one among a cluster of villages having strong Maoist-Leninist leanings.

‘Paranoid over protest’

In fact, the State Q Branch (intelligence wing), which deals with issues relating to naxalites and religious fundamentalists, launched a campaign to paint the student activist as an extremist element. Several political leaders and activists condemned her arrest. “The State government appears to be paranoid that even a tiny spark of protest, if permitted, would end up as a spontaneous struggle similar to the one on the Marina in January this year. Hence, they react snappily with force,” said the Dalit writer R. Ravikumar, who is also a senior functionary of the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK).

Tamil Nadu Makkal Urimai Katchi (TMUK) State president Poomozhi said that detaining a girl student under the Goondas Act was outrageous. “It is her right to freedom guaranteed under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution. Based on it, she executed her public responsibility. Trying to portray the girl as an extremist shows the present dispensation’s fascist approach to its citizens. This would stifle the involvement of women in public causes,” he said.

The Salem-based environmentalist Piyush Sethia, who faces multiple cases for his activism, pointed out that those who talked about their rights and on water and common land issues were viewed as anti-nationals. “Any responsible citizen, leave alone activists, if he or she comes out for their rights, is an anti-social today. For a case involving sedition charges registered against me in 2010, the Salem Police filed a charge sheet in 2017. It is how they studiously build up a case against voices of dissent. It is a puppet government. The opposition parties such as the DMK [Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam] are meek against such oppression,” he said.

Madhaiyan told Frontline that he and his family members were informed late on the night of July 17 about his daughter’s detention and subsequent shifting to the Coimbatore prison. “She is not a criminal. She took part in protests in support of the people. Is this not a democratic country? We do not know what to do and whom to contact. When the looters of public money and natural resources, smugglers, corrupt and rowdy elements, drug peddlers, etc., are roaming free, my daughter, who has been raising her voice in support of the poor and the needy, is being harassed and hounded. It is a shame on the government to detain a girl student under the Goondas Act,” he said.

Cases against activists

Before the detention of Valarmathi, the pro-Tamil movement activist Thirumurugan Gandhi of the May 17 Movement and four others who organised a candlelight vigil on the Marina in memory of dead Sri Lankan Tamils were detained under the Act. The Tamil Nadu unit of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) and Amnesty International India too strongly condemned these arrests.

On June 30, the police arrested and jailed 10 people, including the anti-methane project coordinator Prof. T. Jayaraman, an academic, for staging a protest against the ONGC project in Kadiramangalam. Ironically, the State government has not spared even women, children and common people protesting against common livelihood issues such as water scarcity and liquor shops in their localities. Such protests either are not permitted or are put down with force.

A dispassionate perusal of the arrests of activists and civil society members who fight for their rights reveals a pattern. If the police find no sufficient reason to invoke the detention laws, they, by peddling incredible claims, invoke stringent non-bailable sections of the IPC, read with 7(1)(a) of the Criminal Law Amendment Act, and Section 124 (a) of the IPC, also known as the sedition law, to muzzle the forces that fight against social injustice. All these sections that are routinely used against protesters deal with wrongful restraint, voluntarily causing hurt, trespass, and disobedience to public servants, thus shrinking the space the Constitution provides its citizens.

Political vulnerability

The excessive use of preventive detention laws seems to indicate the State government’s vulnerability at the political level. “It fears everything since it is suffering from instability. Allegations of scams and scandals against Ministers make it further susceptible. Even a primary school student who carries a placard denouncing a liquor shop in his village in Kancheepuram district can ‘scare’ the government and pose a ‘threat’ to its sovereignty. His parents were summoned and warned,” said a Dalit activist in Kancheepuram who served a term under the Goondas Act a few years ago.

Why else would the police arrest a research student of Annamalai University who mobilised support on social media for the people of Kadiramangalam? Divya Bharathi, who made a compelling documentary on manual scavenging, Kakkoos (Toilet), was arrested on July 25 in a case registered against her in 2009 when she was a student of the Madurai Law College.

She was released on bail the same day by the Madurai Judicial Magistrate Court II although a senior officer of the Madurai City Police claimed that it was “a routine legal procedure of executing a pending warrant issued by the Madurai court”.

“The police told me that a warrant was pending in a case against me for organising a road blockade in front of the Government Rajaji Hospital, Madurai in 2009 to demand better living conditions in the Madurai Adi Dravidar Boys’ Hostel after a resident died of snakebite. But today they sprang up all of a sudden, arrested me and took me to the court directly from my house. The police have banned the screening of my documentary on manual scavenging in cities and towns across the State saying that it would create a law and order problem. I smell a rat. We will wait and watch,” said Divya Bharathi, who belongs to the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist). CPI(ML) State committee member Chandramohan, in a statement, condemned the arrests of the women activists in Tamil Nadu.

Ravikumar said that Tamil Nadu today was witnessing two types of dissent—spontaneous and organised. “Spontaneous dissent is people-centric, while the organised one is by political parties. When political parties fail, people come out on the streets to fight for their rights. Spontaneous dissent started with the Koodankulam stir and moved on to the Marina and Neduvasal and Kadiramangalam protests. It shows an erosion of the people’s trust in the political class, besides the murky political manoeuvrings and a shift in the leadership at the top in the ruling party,” he reasoned. He said that detentions for minor infractions stifle the voices of dissent and contravene the tenets of fundamental rights as guaranteed in the Constitution.

The actor Kamal Haasan was the latest victim of intolerance. He had to face verbal abuse from a bunch of All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) Ministers for his comments on corruption. “Those who raise their voices in dissent are put down brutally. The State government is a monolithic entity and hence dominant and authoritative and intolerant,” said Ramu Manivannan, Professor and Head of the Department of Political Science and Public Administration, University of Madras, who extends support to the actor on this issue.

Said A. Marx, social activist and writer: “After facing raids from Central agencies such as the Income Tax Department and more allegations of corruption, the present dispensation is afraid of an ‘invisible’ force that remotely operates it by employing threats and intimidation. If we go through the cases behind the arrests of both Valarmathi and Thirumurugan Gandhi, we can find a link. They were arrested for their anti-BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party] stance.”

Valarmathi took part in a road blockade in Salem organised as part of a protest against Union Minister Pon. Radhakrishnan when he came to pay homage to the Dalit student Muthukrishnan. “Among the many cases against Thirumurugan Gandhi are those for his participation in protests against demonetisation and against the decision of the Centre to classify the public distribution system into priority and non-priority households. Now it will be easy to recognise those who are behind such repressive acts in Tamil Nadu,” said A. Marx.

The senior lawyer N.G.R. Prasad told Frontline that any detention law violated the very spirit of the rights enshrined in the Constitution. “Detentions should be subjected to the natural process of law and trial. The provisions of the Goondas Act violate all these democratic and constitutionally guaranteed principles. The Act has become a convenient tool in the hands of the State government to silence voices of people. It only shows the failing democracy here,” he said. The higher judiciary, he said, should debate whether preventive laws are needed for a constructive administration.

The lawyer Balu Kaliyaperumal of the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) said whenever the government was questioned or it found itself in an embarrassing situation, it resorted to such “anti-people and anti-democratic” acts. “Anyone can be detained as a goonda if the government wishes. Activists, politicians and people from all walks of life should come on a platform to fight against its abuse,” he said, adding that when 108 PMK functionaries were detained under the Goondas Act some three years ago, no one had come to their support.

Ramu Manivannan said that such oppressive acts were not unexpected when a proxy government was in power.

“The government looks powerless today. It attempts to run its administration through its police. De-socialising youths and students to prevent them from being socially conscious is what the government is attempting now. Targeting activists and civil society members for their pro-people approach by suppressing their voices bares one dominant factor, the decay of the political culture, which also needs a public debate,” he said. The simmering anger in civil society is too obvious to be missed today. So are the despair and fear of the government’s surveillance tactics against its own people. A State that has witnessed strong movements of historical, social and cultural importance in the seven decades since Independence may now be standing at its lowest point in democratic governance.

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