Despite its mode of expression, the much-maligned Naxalite movement is essentially an act of dissent, a public protest, a fact occasionally acknowledged by the government itself, although the actions of the latter never reflect this admission. The state has always preferred to criminalise Naxalites, to the extent of waging a full-fledged war upon tribal populations in the guise of fighting Naxalism. It extends this attitude to all those who question the government’s violations of civil rights. The government labels them as Naxalites/Maoists and unleashes its repressive might on them. Many legal luminaries and activists, who have taken it upon themselves to defend the civil rights of citizens as per the Constitution, aver that the ordinary laws available to the government are capable, if operated equitably, of tackling any criminal activity of which the state accuses Naxalites. Instead, the government has preferred to create a range of draconian laws expressly to deal with the Naxalite “menace”. There is no empirical evidence that such laws have achieved anything apart from misrepresenting the notion of security: alienating the interests of state security from the security of the population.
Invariably, they have operated as oppressive tools against defenceless people and thereby aggravated the very problem that they were supposed to solve.
Sudhir Dhawale, a well-known social activist in Maharashtra, who was arrested by the police for his alleged links with the Maoists, was released from Nagpur’s central prison in May 2014 after being acquitted of all charges. Yet, he had had to spend forty months in jail as an undertrial. Eight of his co-accused were also acquitted with him. In 2005, the Dalit poet Shantanu Kamble was arrested on similar charges and tortured for over a hundred days before he got bail. He now stands cleared by the court of all charges. The radical political activist, Arun Ferreira, confined in jail for well over four years, was tortured and harassed, repeatedly arrested in fresh cases after being acquitted in earlier ones, before he could finally get bail in January 2012.
The lesser known cases of the arrest of twelve members of the Deshbhakti Yuva Manch of Chandrapur in January 2008 and of Bandu Meshram from Nagpur on very similar charges also come to mind. All these people have been acquitted but not before undergoing mistreatment at the hands of the police and the humiliations of jail life. There are scores of other cases from remote rural areas where young women and men were arrested on the vague charge of being Maoists, many without the charges even being framed, who now face the ruin of their youth and future as they await trial without any support or legal aid.
As the state opened hostilities against its own people, it came out with the high-pitched propaganda about Naxalites building an urban network.
It implied the threat that any criticism of government action against the Naxalites would be construed as support for them and attract the wrath of the state. In 2007, an example was made of Binayak Sen, a revered doctor with an impeccable record of public service, who was sentenced to life imprisonment. Sen – out on bail currently by order of the Supreme Court – paid a heavy price for exposing the Chhattisgarh state’s unconstitutional operations.
While the anti-national tag has come to refer to all left-liberal civil rights activists and protestors in urban spaces, another accusation hurled repeatedly, if they dare to protest against the state, is that they are simply subsets in the Venn diagram of Naxalites.
In Maharashtra most people arrested as Maoists are Dalits and Adivasis. The Maoist label is compounded by their caste identity which already renders them vulnerable.
Although the ruling classes have succeeded in enervating the Dalit movement, the Ambedkarite consciousness among Dalits remains alive. It occasionally manifests itself in militant outbreak against the system’s excesses, as in the wake of the Khairlanji murders and the more recent actions of the Bhim Army in response to the violence against Dalit households in Saharanpur, UP. It is this kind of incipient dissent the state wants to nip in the bud by pinning the label of Maoism or Naxalism on Dalit and Adivasi youth in particular. Sudhir Dhawale expressed this idea in clear terms to the Indian Express (May 23, 2014), following his release from prison:
Dissenting voices are stifled. We rarely see the oppressed caste fight back. Sustained agitation that we saw post-Khairlanji [against caste atrocities] is no more a common sight. Many of us who participated in protest rallies then (post-Khairlanji) have been booked in cases. We were labelled as “Naxals”.
With the arrest of Dhawale, the well-known Dalit social activist and editor of Vidrohi, yet another Binayak Sen emerged. Not an exact copy, as Binayak Sen comes from a bhadralok family, earned his postgraduate degree from a prestigious medical school, has an enviable academic record and certain well-deserved decorations received in the course of his professional life. Sudhir Dhawale comes from a poor Dalit family, he is moderately well-educated and has lived without any notable social acclaim so far. What makes their cases similar, apart from their unflinching dedication to the oppressed, is the neurotic behaviour of the state towards them.
Sudhir Dhawale has been a political activist right from his college days in Nagpur when he was part of the Vidyarthi Pragati Sanghatana, a radical students’ organisation in the 1980s. He never hid his ideological leanings or association with the mass organisations that professed Marxism-Leninism, loosely identified as Naxalism, and now lumped together with Maoism by the state, after the merger of the most militant Naxal parties – CPI (ML) (Peoples’ War) and the Maoist Communist Centre – into CPI (Maoist). He denied any connection with the Maoist party or its activities, least of all the violent actions committed by it. Starting in 1995, Dhawale worked actively to resist atrocities against Dalits and campaigned for the effective implementation of the PoA Act. After moving to Mumbai, he became active in the cultural movement and took part in organising an alternative Vidrohi Marathi Sahitya Sammelan in 1999 in protest against the mainstream literary gathering which is heavily sponsored by the state government. This initiative took the form of the Vidrohi Sanskrutik Chalwal (Forum for Cultural Resistance), with its own bimonthly organ, Vidrohi, of which Dhawale became the editor. Soon Vidrohi became a rallying point for radical activists in Maharashtra. He drew on his literary flair to write pamphlets and books propagating revolutionary ideas in support of the ongoing struggles of adivasis and Dalits.
After the Bombay police gunned down ten Dalits and injured several persons protesting the desecration of an Ambedkar statue in Ramabai Nagar on July 11, 1997, Dhawale was among those at the forefront seeking justice.
He played a leading role in the foundation of Republican Panther on 6 December 2007 – Ambedkar’s death anniversary – which identifies itself as “a movement for the annihilation of caste”. He was active in the state-wide protests that erupted after the gory caste atrocity at Khairlanji, protests perversely attributed to the Naxalites by the then Home minister of Maharashtra, RR Patil. That was when Dhawale came under the police scanner.
Dhawale was arrested by plain-clothed police officials on January 2, 2011 at the Wardha railway station, while returning from a literary conference held in the town. He was charged under Section 124 of the IPC and Sections 17, 20 and 39 of the UAPA, which amounts to sedition and waging a war against the state. When questioned over the arrest, all the police had to say was that they had found incriminating literature in his house and that one Bhimrao Bhoite, an alleged Maoist who was arrested earlier, had mentioned his name. The literature in question was eighty-seven books by Ambedkar, Marx, Lenin and Arundhati Roy, confiscated by the police in a raid on his house during which they ransacked the place and took away his computer and books, the possession of none of which is remotely illegal. Rather, the illegality lay, as he alleges, in the entry and search of his Mumbai apartment in the presence of only his two children, both minors.
These cases represent the plight of thousands of tribals and Dalits in India. A plethora of constitutional provisions are in place to protect the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, and yet, in practice no SC/ST law comes to their rescue or penalises the culprits. Why? Because they have been given the dreaded label of “Maoist”, an identity inconsequential in law as decreed by the Supreme Court but deemed self-evidently criminal by the police. To be designated a Maoist is to be implicitly considered “the greatest internal security threat to our country”, to use Dr Manmohan Singh’s words on Naxalism. The facts speak otherwise. The police who abuse and insult the poor, beat and torture them, molest and rape women, indulge in forgery and lies and foist false cases on innocents to cover up their own misdeeds are the main catalysts in manufacturing Maoists. Politicians who tacitly promote police criminality and endanger democracy are the real internal security threat to our country.
A cursory look at the so-called Maoist cases will reveal that the main intention of the police is to harass people by keeping them in jail for as long as possible.
Their muddled logic informs them that such heinous treatment of leading activists would terrorise the general public into submission. Empirical evidence goes to show the contrary. Neither are the activists who are subjected to such blatant atrocities and injustice scared into giving up their activism, nor has there been any decline in the incidence of dissent. Rather, these acts of lawlessness by state actors further alienate people from the system and impel at least some of them to become Maoists.
All that is reflected in these episodes is the Indian state’s intention to harm its own people, no matter how high the costs to the country. There are thousands languishing for years in Indian jails for the “crime” of being Maoist. Invariably each one has suffered illegal torture during police custody and humiliating conditions thereafter during judicial custody. Custodial torture and lawlessness of the police are the norm in our democracy. India signed the “United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment” in 1997 but is yet to ratify the treaty in domestic law. India does not have any specific law against custodial torture, nor does it have robust procedural safeguards against custodial violence. This directly feeds into the lawless behaviour of the police. One may not quarrel with the professional privilege of the police to arrest people and frame charges based on whatever information they may have, but these charges are subject to judicial scrutiny.
When executive privilege is wantonly and grossly misused – as repeatedly established – one expects that some kind of check would be instituted against the lawlessness of the police. As it turns out, there is effectively none.
The police can arrest anyone they want as a Maoist, torture and entangle them in a few dozen cases, which would easily mean jail time for a minimum of four to five years irrespective of what the court finally decides. One can see a pattern in Maoism-related cases where police lawlessness emerges as the sole culprit.
Excerpted with permission Republic of Caste: Thinking Equality in the Time of Neoliberal Hindutva, Anand Teltumbde, Navayana.