Dr. Binayak Sen’s prolonges incarceration has become iconic of the way Indian State is out to snuff out all voices of dissent, to crush anyone who talks of civil liberties or human rights.It is, however, by no means a small and isolated incident. The past year has seen an alarming increase in the number of such cases across the country. From peace and civil liberties activists to journalists, from labour rights activists to those opposing the loot of people’s resources, everyone is a target now. These cases tell the story of what this ‘world’s largest democracy’ is all about. They speak of the increasing intolerance and brutality of the State and the brazenness with which it set out to crush dissent. The scant respect shown for human rights and the fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution is shocking.
Some trends are unmistakably palpable. Increasingly, activists are being imprisoned not for specific actions or crimes, but for their supposed political views. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s declaration, in April 2006, that “the problem of Naxalism is the single biggest internal security challenge ever faced by our country”, forms and important backdrop to most of these arrests. Almost all those who have been arrested, are indicted either on false charges of working for Maoists or for having Pro-Maoist or Pro-ULFA sentiments! The Government is unashamedly using the self hyped “internal security threat” as a pretext to suppress peaceful people’s struggles, to persecute human rights defenders. The on-going Salwa Judum campaign in Chhattisgarh is a horrifying example of how the Indian state is using “internal security” to justify its support what can only be described as genocide.
The charges against most of the activists and journalists are astonishingly similar – ‘sedition’,‘waging war against the state’, associating with ‘unlawful organisations’. There is a clear propensity to utilise draconian legislations such as the National Security Act (NSA), the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) and state legislations, promulgated on similar lines, such the Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act (CSPSA) along with the with the ‘Offences against the State’ chapter of the Indian Penal Code. These criminalize perceived ‘intention’ or ‘tendency’ to disrupt law and order or association with a banned organisation, without any act actually being committed by the accused. This gives the State arbitrary powers to target anyone who questions the state, on purely subjective grounds. Further, banning organizations silences dissent and smothers varied political voices which are the very essence of democracy. Also, once a law declares all association with banned organisations as criminal, the intention of a doctor treating a patient, a journalist interviewing an activist or a civil liberties activist ascertaining jail conditions can all be construed as criminal acts.
Activists and journalists raising concerns regarding civil liberties, protesting against the plunder of people’s resources and fighting for the preservation of people’s lives and livelihoods peacefully are being ruthlessly targeted, nullifying the ideological difference between them and those fighting these issues by violent means. Binayak Sen, Mohan Rao, Arjun Samad, Saroj Mohanty, Govindan Kutty, Prashant Rahi and Santanu Sarma are just a few of them. What is at stake today is not just the right to liberty of these individuals but also the right to speech and expression and right to freedom and liberty, and above all, the right to life of every citizen of this country.
While State repression emerges as a serious challenge, the response of the diverse community of social and political activists and the large community of journalists and writers also calls for some introspection. Strong resistance on the ground by people’s movements and the tremendous political pressure have forced the government to even withdraw serious, albeit false charges, such as those under NSA on Roma last year. Why and how have we failed then to build enough political pressure in other cases? How have our responses been inadequate?
As these and several other questions and challenges loom large in front of us, we attempt chronicle some of the cases of incarceration of activists and journalists. We also briefly look at some of the draconian “security” legislations that have been employed therein in this issue of Update Collective.