Last week, two years after he'd been freed on bail, he was acquitted in the last of those cases. The state had not been able to prove even one of its charges against him. On January 29, Arun Ferreira truly became a free man.
Despite being tortured and abused in prison, an ordeal he described in a horrific article in Open magazine a few months after he was granted bail, Ferreira said that his resolve to fight state oppression has only been strengthened. He is now studying to be a lawyer so that he can help other innocent people who have fallen into the clutches of the law. He is also researching the history of Mumbai’s democratic rights movement and is associated with the non-profit Committee for the Release of Political Prisoners.
“I want to work for the cause of political prisoners because I have realised that any struggle inside jail will die out without support from outside,” Ferreira, 42, told Scroll.in.
Ferreira's brutal encounter with the Indian legal system started in May 2007, when he was detained by the anti-Naxalite cell of the Nagpur police. Since his student years in Mumbai's St Xavier’s College in the 1990s, he had been involved with several left-wing organisations that help tribal and rural people organise themselves against injustice.
Over the course of four years, he had ten cases slapped against him under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, which is applied to those deemed as terrorists by the state. On several occasions, he was acquitted of one case, only to be immediately rearrested for another. In September 2011, when he was released and rearrested, the case against him was registered three days before the police recorded statements by witnesses, a violation of basic criminal court procedures.
Throughout his jail term, Ferreira saw his family only twice every three months, and did not meet his young son at all.
While Ferreira has now been cleared of all charges, many others arrested under the UAPA still await justice. Among them is Vernon Gonsalves, another social and political activist from Mumbai, who was arrested in 2007. Though Gonsalves is out on bail after six years in prison, he still has one case against him pending in court. In April 2013, Sachin Mali and his pregnant wife Sheetal Sathe, members of Pune-based cultural group Kabir Kala Manch, were arrested in Mumbai. Sheetal Sathe was given bail in June, but cases against her and Mali are still pending.
Ferreira, who suffered severe physical torture at the hands of the police, believes his case drew attention from the press largely because he stood out as a person from Mumbai. “Many tribals from Gadchiroli and other districts are routinely arrested and abused like this,” he said.
Despite his traumas, Ferreira harbours no anger towards the policemen who tortured him. “The lower officials were just doing their job,” he said. “But what’s worrying is that in the past ten years, the amount of torture of prisoners has increased.” This intense kind of violence, says Ferreira, is reserved for those accused of Naxalism or insurgency, and meted out with the blessings of the state.
The number of political prisoners has also increased and fewer of them are given the option of bail. This intensified after the UAPA was passed in 2004, which gave the state the power to arrest various kinds of people suspected of being Maoists. The UAPA bans not only the Communist Party of India (Maoist) but also “all its front organisations”.
“Who decides what these front organisations are?” said Ferreira. “The government is fair if it wants to arrest someone for violence, but here, people are being arrested for their ideology.”
The Indian Penal Code, he says, has fixed definitions for every crime, but new Acts such as the UAPA, TADA (Terrorist and Disruptive Activities Prevention Act) and POTA (Prevention of Terrorism Act) have broad definitions that can implicate anyone doing or saying anything against the state.
Ferreira believes the growing number of arrests and re-arrests under such acts are an attempt by the authorities to artificially inflate their statistics of Naxalites that they have acted against. “As an incentive by the state, all officials get an 11% salary hike for taking action against a high number of Maoists,” he said.
Once arrested, a suspected Naxalite has no option but to wait out the lengthy judicial process, in which cases can take years to appear in court. The period of waiting for a trial itself becomes a punishment, even if the accusations are eventually dismissed, as they were in Ferreira's case.
“Arrests made by the state are assumed to be in good faith,” said political activist Vernon Gonsalves. “So even when a person is innocent, the investigating authority is rarely questioned or doubted at the time of registering a case.”
According to Ferreira, the ultimate intention of the state is to quash leftist ideology. “There is a tract of mineral resources in central India that the state would like to exploit, and the people they label as Maoists are their biggest opposition,” said Ferreira. “But people’s movements against the state will continue.”
The main challenge is to question the existing model of development – something that neither of the two largest political parties, the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party, are doing, says Ferreira. “The questions we need to ask are, how can this country be developed, and for whom? How much influence does the power of capital have on our lives? Can we keep exploiting our resources?”
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