Our democracy, like another it attempts to emulate, takes one step forward, two steps back. A victim of paranoia like the one it emulates, it is undermining its own founding principles by emphasising order and wilfully sacrificing the law. Without the guiding hand of a civil society conscious of its rights, it may well fall on its face, as it did during the Emergency.
In April 2013, when Sheetal Sathe and Sachin Mali of the Kabir Kala Manch (KKM) did a satyagraha for freedom of expression and gave themselves up outside the state assembly to an anti-terrorist squad (ATS) that had supposedly been hunting for them for two years, it seemed to have established a healthy precedent. Within a month, encouraged by the fact that under intense public scrutiny no torture of the arrested took place, Ramesh Gaichor and Sagar Gorkhe of the KKM also gave themselves up, expecting that the due process of law would restore their freedom of expression.
The KKM is a Pune-based cultural troupe largely composed of working class Dalit poets and artistes. Two years ago, they went underground after a member, Deepak Dengle, was arrested and tortured into giving a ‘confession’ by the ATS. The ATS implicated him and others under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) as persons associated with a banned Naxalite party. It may be recalled that the ATS notoriously got similar ‘confessions’ from Muslims, who ‘admitted’ to bombing their own mosque at Malegaon. When Hindu terrorists later owned up to the bombing, the ATS was left with not just egg on its face, but the blood of innocents on its hands. Torture is an unreliable method of investigation.
After a KKM defence committee was formed by members of a civil society that had begun to learn about and appreciate its cultural and political contributions, the media started to take positive notice. Finally, in March 2013, Justice Abhay Thipsay of the Bombay High Court in a landmark judgement granted bail to six accused under the UAPA, including Dengle. The judgement pointed out that while it wasn’t proven that the accused were Naxalites, even assuming they were, merely belonging to a banned body did not constitute a crime. The Thipsay judgement followed logically from an SC judgement upholding the principle that even under the UAPA, which criminalises membership of a banned outfit, a distinction had to be made between active and inactive members. These judgments helped those who argued that under no circumstances can one criminalise expression.
Back in April, we learnt that the KKM’s Sheetal was six months pregnant. Thankfully, she was remanded to judicial custody. The government prosecutor said they were not asking for her police custody, as they did not want to risk harming her baby! Does one need more proof of what is considered routine in police custody?
Since then two months have elapsed. In the sessions court Sheetal’s bail hearing kept getting delayed, and was finally rejected. Bail is denied to those who might run away. Sheetal and the KKM came out of hiding voluntarily and are hardly a security risk. Yet, her baby may now be born in jail.
It is nobody’s case that the KKM participated in violence, but there are two possibilities. One is that they were mistaken as Naxalites because of the militant nature of their songs. The other is that they were attracted by Naxalite ideology, but later changed their minds. It is the latter that prevents their release. The government does have a mechanism where Naxalites, even those with a violent past, are given financial rewards in return for turning state witnesses. Such people are relocated at government expense and given ‘protection’, but are regarded as mercenaries by their own and often lose self-respect. The KKM chose a third, more honourable path. They deny any wrong-doing and refuse to turn approvers. They merely express the desire to live an open life in a democracy. Will they be granted this space?
Meanwhile, in court and in the media, the atmosphere has changed. The massacre in Chhattisgarh has seen to that. Horrific as the event was, the indiscriminate use of state violence in tribal areas and the use of draconian measures in court, together with the blanket tarring of all dissidents, can only aggravate the situation. Naxalites are undeniably fighting for and with the most oppressed people. It is their hearts and minds that must be won. Increased state repression will do the opposite. Attempting to restore order while abandoning the rule of law will do exactly what the bombing of Iraq and Afghanistan did to restore democracy.
(Anand Patwardhan is a documentary film-maker)