Saturday, October 18, 2008

Denial of democratic rights in the name of fight against terrorism

The Naxal era is taking rebirth in Malayalam cinema. As the the thunder of spring echoes belatedly in Jairaj's Gul Mohar and Madhupal's Thalappaav, some questions arise naturally. Also a reminder that the problems the Naxalite movement highlighted are remaining unsolved.

Is the Naxal era taking rebirth in the Kerala police too? What prompts this question is the arrest of M.N.Ravunni and the case the police has registered against him. When we remember the experience of P. Govindan Kutty, Editor of People's March, who was arrested some months ago, this cannot be seen as an isolated incident.

Police arrested Ravunni when he went to the office of the Deputy Superintendent of Police, Agali,on September 29 in response to a summons to record his statement in connection with a complaint lodged with the State Human Rights Commission. Sunil Babu and Vinod, activists of Porattam, had been taken into custody by the Agali police on August 31. In the complaint to the Human Rights Commission, Ravunni, who is General Convener of Porattam, had stated that their arrest was illegal and that they were subjected to torture.

There is an investigative wing under the Human Rights Commission. Its members are on deputation from the State police. An investigation wing has been set up under the Commission to facilitate independent and impartial inquiry under its direct control in matters that come up before it. The Commission's action in asking the impugned Agali police to investigate the complaint instead of entrusting the responsibility to its own investigative wing can only be described as strange. The Agali police made the complaint the accused. It made Ravunni also an accused in the case registered against the Porattam activists.

The main charge against Ravunni and his colleagues is sedition. Sunil Babu and Vinod were arrested for being in possession of videos of arms training by Maoists in Nepal. Videos of this kind are widely seen on television in the 21st century. To put it mildly, it is infantile to charge one with sedition for seeing or possessing them invoking a provision written into the law by the colonial rulers in the 19th century. In the feudal era, those who challenged the rulers were charged with treason. The Indian police has a tradition that goes back one and a half centuries. In this period, it has prosecuted people for waging war against the King of England leading to their imprisonment or transportation. With the king, treason disappeared, but sedition remained. Although police has charged many people with sedition after Independence, it is doubtful if any of them has been punished. Let us be grateful to the judges who liberated themselves from the colonial traditions.

A fact-finding team with PUCL State Secretary Adv. P. A. Pauran, National Confederation of Human Rights Organizations State Secretary Dr. Abdul Salam and Janakeeya Manushyavakasa Prasthanam Convener Adv. Thushar Nirmal Sarathy as members, which conducted an open investigation, concluded that the arrest of the Porattam workers was illegal and the case against them was false. The observations made while granting bail to Ravunni indicate that the court too is not impressed with the police story.

It was a similar case that the police had registered against Govindan Kutty, who was arrested in December 2007. He was arrested after a police team from Andhra Pradesh apprehended a top Naxalite of the State from his hideout in Kerala. His publication used to carry reports on the activities of Naxalite groups active in different parts of the country. The state has the power to cancel the licence of the publication and take action against the editor if it did anything unlawful. Instead of taking this course, the police arrested the editor, seized his professional equipment including the computerand threatened the owner of the press. This was done on the strength of the old traditions.

The ruling class has turned terms like Naxalite and terrorist into code words that can be used to keep the administration at the feudal-colonial stage overriding the concepts of democracy, secularism and socialism enshrined in the Constitution. This has been made possible as terrorist activity has spread and the commonsense logic that counter-terrorism is needed to deal with terrorism has gained currency. The mainstream political parties, both Right and Left, subscribe to the belief that if elections are held once in five years there is democracy; if a non-Hindu is installed as President in alternate elections, there is secularism; and if concessions are offered in the name of those below the poverty line there is socialism.

The media reported in 2004 that Naxalite violence and the insurrection in the Northeast have replaced terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir as the main challenge to internal security. Based on statements of Security Adviser M. K. Narayanan, they said Naxalites were active in 125 districts of 12 States. According to data furnished by Narayanan last year, Naxalites were active in 186 districts of 16 States. The spread of Naxalite activity to more areas shows that the government measures are not succeeding.

Narayanan is of the view that our security agencies do not violate human rights. In support of this claim, he points out that they do not use helicopters to fire at Naxalites hiding in the jungles. The government can also take pride in the fact that it has not used tanks as the Communists did in Hungary and China. But the claim that there are no human rights violations is not in accordance with facts. There are human rights violations, and human rights organizations have been raising their voice against them. Narayanan's own words show that though their voice is feeble, the government finds it disturbing. In an interview given to the Strait Times of Singapore recently, he accused the 'intellectual elite and civil liberties groups' of helping Left extremists in the area of agitprop and other activities. He added it would not be easy to defeat the Maoists without divorcing them the intellectuals.

Viewed in the light of these observations, the sedition charge flung at a number of persons from Dr. Binayak Sen, who was arrested in Chhattisgarh last year, to Ravunni has to be seen as part of a conscious attempt to brand human rights defenders as troublesome elements and get them out of the way. All terrorism have definite political character. The police can only tackle the law and order problems that they create. The political issues that they raise have to be handled by the political leadership. It must be able to understand that democracy cannot be saved by denying civil rights. Tanks and helicopter guns may be able to exterminate rebels. They cannot sustain an establishment that has lost its credibility.

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