After the genocide in 2002 and a string of fake encounters targeting Muslims, the 'Hindutva lab' is again active. Now, secular social activists are being branded as Maoists and jailed
Sadiq Naqvi Delhi
"The Gujarat government likes to keep stories on terror alive," says Mukul Sinha, leading human rights lawyer based in Gujarat. Thirteen people have been arrested recently under one omnibus FIR for alleged propagation of the banned Maoist ideology in 'Vibrant Gujarat'.
The FIR (No. I-37/2010, dated February 25, 2010, under sections 120 (B), 121 (A), 124 (A) and 153 A (B) of the Indian Penal Code, and Sections 38, 39 and 40 of Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Amendment Act, 1967) was lodged by Ravindra B Nikam, a sub-inspector with the Special Operations Group of Gujarat Police. It alleges a conspiracy against the State and points to the Maoist movement in Gujarat and north Maharashtra. It does not name any of those who have been arrested. Ironically, not a single instance of Maoist violence has been reported from Gujarat.On June 17, 2010, Abdul Shakeel Basha, a well-known social activist, was picked up by the Special Cell of the Delhi Police while he was leaving for work. His wife, Anju Shakeel, had no clue where he was until Special Cell officers brought Basha to his house in south Delhi for collecting evidence.
Basha, the Gujarat Police alleges, was an active member of the CPI-ML (People's War) (now CPI-Maoist) from 1996 to 2004 and was trying to spread the Maoist movement in urban areas even after that. Sources close to Basha reveal that he was being followed for 20 days before he was finally arrested. "They even knew what he ate on the platform in Bhopal where he had gone for a public meeting on the gas tragedy," says one of them. The police even tried linking him with some Islamist organisation, but failed to find any evidence."I know Basha since 2004 and he has been working with us till 2008. As far as I know, he has no connections with the Naxals," says Harsh Mander, member of the National Advisory Council (NAC).
Basha worked with him in Aman Biradari, an NGO working with the victims of the 2002 Gujarat genocide and for the homeless in Delhi, before founding another organisation, Haq, in 2008."Basha has been fighting for the rights of the homeless and poor in Delhi. I have known him since 2004 and he was working closely with us," says Indu Prakash Singh of Indo-Global Social Service Society, a Delhi-based NGO. He adds that even if Basha had Naxalite links earlier, he has now completely disowned the ideology and was leading a normal life. "How can they arrest someone because he was a member of an organisation that was banned after he had quit it?" he asks.
Hardnews learnt that even the police admit Basha is a "good man" and has an absolutely clean record since 2004. A source revealed that the police is pressurising Basha to become a police approver.Basha had worked in Mumbai after the 1992 pogrom of Muslims, helping the people to start their lives afresh. Shifting to Gujarat later, he worked first with industrial workers and then with Nyayagraha, a campaign of Aman Biradari for providing legal aid to the victims of the 2002 genocide.Basha's activism has repeatedly exposed illegalities committed by the BJP-led government in Gujarat. "Two years ago, a young boy had been picked up by Gujarat Police from Seelampur in east Delhi. Basha had been instrumental in getting him released. The police had to pay a compensation of Rs 3 lakh to the boy," informs a close aide of Basha.
Basha is not the only activist behind bars in Gujarat. There are 12 others who were arrested without any evidence of involvement in Maoist activity. One of them, Sulat Pawar, was recently released on bail after the court found no prima facie evidence against him. Pawar, the police alleged, had gone to Kerala for arms training.The civil society in Gujarat is aghast over the spate of arrests. All the arrested activists were working within the framework of the Indian Constitution. Avinash Kulkarni (57) was working with tribals in Dangs district for the last two decades, with the latest thrust being on the implementation of the Forests Rights Act. He was also opposing attempts of the Hindutva forces to instigate tribals against other minorities.
Bharat Pawar (40) was a local resident who had housed Kulkarni in Dangs. Makabhai Chaudhuri (49) and Jayaram Goswami (52) fought for the rights of quarry workers and diamond labourers, while Satyamrao Ambade (47) and Niranjan Mahapatra (37), nabbed from Surat, worked with textile workers' trade unions. KN Singh (47), arrested from Bhavnagar, worked for local and migrant industrial workers, representing their cases in labour courts."
No act of violence has been reported till date in which Kulkarni was involved. The police allege that he had sent two people to Kerala for arms training some 10 years ago. So how come they did nothing violent all these years even after being trained?" asks Ambrish Mehta, a civil rights activist who has worked with Kulkarni.Ten of the 13 accused have been arrested on charges of being members of CPI-ML (Janashakti). "Janashakti has been an overground organisation since 1992. Is it a crime to be a member of an overground organisation?" asks Kavita Srivastava of People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL).
Charge-sheets have been filed against 10 of the accused, in which the police claim that they are "professional revolutionaries" and "members of either CPI (Maoist) or CPI-ML (Janashakti)", and that intending to usurp political power through violence, they had formed a 'Surat Area Committee' of the Maoist party. Mukul Sinha rubbishes these allegations, saying there is no Naxal presence in the area. Activists believe it is a ploy to get more funds from the Centre."
Nothing has been recovered from Basha. The police have not been able to provide any evidence of the conspiracy, neither have they recovered any arms. One of the accused had named Basha in his confession to the police. That confession obviously does not hold ground in the court of law," Basha's lawyer Bilal Kagzi told Hardnews from Surat. Indeed, the bail of Sulat Pawar has created hope for activists. "There is no evidence against any of them, except the so-called 'naxal literature' the police claims to have seized from the accused. All of them will be ultimately released by the court of law," says Mehta.
Activists point out that this repression is part of Narendra Modi's agenda of 'development', pitched to assure the corporates that no one will be allowed to stand in their way. "The people who have been arrested are all secular and progressive, and were opposed to this Hindutva regime," says Hiren Gandhi of Darshan, an NGO where Shrinivas Kurapati (34), another activist arrested for alleged Maoist links, used to work. "Now that the Modi government has been exposed and discredited on the Islamist terror front, this seems to be the new tactic," says Srivastava."
It's a ploy to create a fear psychosis in the state," says Sinha. This view is also echoed by Harsh Mander. "POTA was indiscriminately used against Muslim youth in the early part of the decade. Now, social activists seem to be their new target," he told Hardnews.
Police action apart, there are other sinister ways to silence activists. Amit Jethwa, a prominent Right to Information activist, was shot dead near the Gujarat High Court on July 20, 2010, where he had filed a Public Interest Litigation charging Dinubhai Boghabhai Solanki, BJP MP from Junagadh, with running illegal mines and stone crushers in the Gir forest and on the Saurashtra coast. Jethwa's father has alleged that the MP is behind this brutal murder. The MP is since absconding."Anybody taking up issues that concern the bread and butter of the poor can be branded a Maoist. This witch-hunt is going on across the country," says Gautam Navlakha, PUDR.Many others share this view. "The State does not want people to organise themselves. All those arrested are either trade unionists or were organising the tribals.
Anybody engaged in organising tribals can be termed a Maoist and put behind bars," says Colin Gonsalves, senior Supreme Court lawyer.