The arrest of two human rights activists in Kerala last week after an alleged Maoist attack on a National Highways Authority of India office has drawn widespread condemnation from sympathisers who claim that the men are paying the price for expressing unpopular opinions. 

Jaison Cooper, an employee of the State Insurance Department, is a popular blogger in Malayalam who regularly raises human rights issues in his writing. He was arrested on January 29. The next day, the police arrested advocate Thushar Sarathy, the secretary of the Janakeeya Manushyavakasa Prasthanam or the People’s Human Rights Forum.

Both have been charged under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act.

On Thursday, Amnesty International in India condemned the arrests.  “Mere possession of certain kinds of literature cannot be a ground for arresting someone,” said Shemeer Babu, Programmes Director, Amnesty International – India, in a press release. “Authorities must respect the right to freedom of expression, which includes the right to seek and receive information of all kinds.”

An online petition is currently circulating requesting the Kerala chief minister to order their immediate release.

“We, the undersigned, believe that this police action is a well concerted political act to silence all voices raising critical questions about the political, economical and social issues in the country,” the petition posted by Tamil author Meena Kandasamy says. “The act of the police should be condemned by all people believing in the freedom of expression and the right to dissent.”

Quick arrests

Their arrests follow an attack by a group of alleged Maoists on the office of the National Highways Authority of India in Kalamaserry in Kochi district at around 9 am on January 29. The group burnt some files. The same day, the police arrested Cooper and raided the offices and residences of Sarathy, advocate PJ Manuel and Jolly Chirayath, convenor of the feminist collective Sthree Koottayma.

Sarathy was not even in Kochi at the time of the attack, says his wife Uma. He had left the house at 5.45 am that day to catch a train to Kozhikode, where he was preparing to organise a human rights convention on January 31. While his house was searched without a warrant on January 29, Uma says, he was arrested a day later.

Cooper and Sarathy have been friends since 2006, when they met at a campaign organised by the Janakeeya Manushyavakasa Prasthanam for the release of Binayak Sen. Together, they have been highlighting human rights issues in Kerala for almost 10 years. They have worked for the rights of migrant labourers and against illegal quarrying in the Western Ghats. Aside from this, they have also spoken against the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, under which they are today charged.

Before they were arrested, both had been under police surveillance for some months. In mid-2014, the Mananthavady police in Wayanad district had added the photographs of the two and also of leaders of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties to a Maoist lookout notice. After the two brought up the issue in the local media, the police apologised and withdrew the photos. Still, Sarathy’s phone was tapped, Kandasamy says. The police had in fact been calling those who contact Sarathy, asking how they knew him.

KG James, commissioner of police at Ernakulam, told that the police had arrested the two legally, but refused to comment any further. In an interview with the Indian Express, the Ernakulam police had said that Cooper and Sarathy were members of Maoist fronts masquerading as human rights organisations.

An Ernakulam court on Friday fixed Sarathy and Cooper's bail hearing for February 9 and remanded them to judicial custody until February 12.

Social activists targeted

Over the last year, the police in Kerala has intensified a crackdown on activists not affiliated with mainstream organisations or political parties.

Last week, the police arrested Raman, a young tribal from Nilambur, claiming that he had sent emails threatening a Kerala police station. His family and relatives say he does not even know how to use mail.

On Sunday, Shahid Shameem and Uday Balakrishnan were detained in Kannur when they were returning from a solidarity meeting for Tamil writer Perumal Murugan. The police suspected they were Maoists because of their unkempt hair and beards, and released them the next morning after questioning.

Two students, Sreekanth Prabhakaran and Arun Balan, were arrested in December in Palakkad for their alleged involvement in attacks on two fast food outlets on December 21. The police said they found “pro-Maoist” leaflets at their home.

Many of these arrests are in response to a deepening presence of Maoists in Kerala. Days before the attack on the highway authority’s office, alleged Maoists vandalised a Kerala Tourism Development Resort in Wayanad with anti-Barack Obama slogans on January 25. In November, a group of armed men similarly defaced a Japanese gelatine factory in Kochi.

On January 11, the Indian Express reported on the perception of a growing Maoist threat in the state, noting that many arrests have followed a suspiciously similar pattern.

In 2013, the Communist Party of India (Maoist), a banned organisation, had mentioned its difficulties in expanding its operations to Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu and how the state had “unleashed severe repressive measures [...] to nip our movement extension in the bud”.

Local media's response

The media in Kerala, according to Uma, has been projecting a one-sided version of events.

“The headline the day after the NHAI attacked was ‘Maoist attacks, two people in custody’,” she said. “Each paper reports very differently, but there were some saying that advocates giving legal advice to Maoists have been arrested, that Thushar was absconding.”

Kandasamy attributes this to political influence. “In Kerala, the media follows an unofficial gag order,” she said. “Jaison Cooper is very active on Facebook and speaks about things not in the mainstream.”

In a Facebook post on the topic, she added, “The Kerala Home Minister has himself said that such attacks were ‘grievance-hunting tactics’ and that highlighting their protests would give them public visibility.”

According to K P Sethunath, a senior journalist at the Deccan Chronicle in Kochi, the ham-fisted media response is because crime reporters, not political ones, are covering the issue. “There is largely the official version of stories in mainstream newspapers, though television channels do give the other side of the story,” he said. “Journalists think that Maoism is a crime issue when it really is a political one.”