The Kerala government’s response to Maoist attacks is to systematically round up activists and sympathisers with scant evidence or probable cause. Can one not follow one's convictions, asks Nikhila Henry.
The room was tense and the air intimidating,” Jaison C Cooper, arrested for alleged links to a Maoist attack in Kochi, reminisced about his time in custody. Charged under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), Cooper, a human rights activist, was in police custody for eight days and in judicial custody for 36, until the Kerala High Court granted him conditional bail on March 17. Police officers, both in plain clothes and in uniform,questioned him relentlessly to establish his alleged link with the attack on National Highways Authority of India office in Kochi that took place on January 29.
It was during one of those interrogations that Cooper got wind of a police master plan to put several human rights activists like himbehind bars. An investigating officer patiently broke it down for him, he said. “The plan was to pick up en masse all those who ideologically supported ultra-left or even left politics till the Maoists stopped their attacks. Such a plan had earlier silenced the Ayyankali Pada, an urban guerrilla action squad that had staged attacks to protest several social injustices.It is a plan to suppress all voices of dissent. You can’t move as you feel trapped.”
In the past year, some 20 activists have been arrested or taken into custody in Kerala for alleged Maoist links. Many others, including students, social workers and media personnel, were questioned and kept under surveillance,activists say. Houses were searched, public enquiries made and literature seized, setting the stage for one of the biggest hunts for Maoists in the country.
Who gets arrested for what, and with what evidence, is almost always a mystery now in Kerala, and the deadly M-word looms large over most activists in the state. “All democratic movements are being suppressed by alleging ties to the Maoists,” explained Reny Ayline, national secretary of the National Confederation of Human Rights Organisations (NCHRO). “In the name of a Maoist hunt, the state is terrorising people.”
Even as Cooper, a founding member of the Janakiya Manushyavakasha Prasthanam (JMP) or People’s Rights Movement, awaits another arrest, Amnesty International and National Human Rights Commission have sought an explanation from the state police on the rampant arrests of human rights activists without probable cause. “A chargesheet was filed in my name for participating in the Menstruation Struggle (Aarthava Samaram), where people were protesting patriarchal stigma against menstruating women,” he said over the phone from his Palluruthi residence.“On the day of that protest, seven people were picked up. It seems like I could get arrested yet again.” It was not very long ago that he had led several democratic protests in Kerala against land acquisitions, illegal evictions and environmental pollution.
Adv Thushar Nirmal Sarathy, another human rights activist and the secretary of the JMPwho was also arrested a day after Cooper under the UAPA,said that the seven days he spent in police custody made the state’s understanding of protest movements clear to him. “They used derogatory language against members of the JMP. They spoke of Kiss of Love, a movement where people kissed on the streets to protest moral policing, using bad language.”
Life is hard in Kerala, and it could get harder. Cooper, a clerk at the Kerala State Insurance Corporation, is now under suspension as a departmental enquiry is underway. For the next few months, he expects just a meagre amount to reach his salary account. Sarathy is looking for a house, as his landlord was unwilling to rent to a “Maoist”. The JMP, a registered organisation under the Travancore Societies Act, is now branded a frontal organisation of the CPI (Maoist); despite its record of being at the heart of numerous agitations—for the release of Dr Binayak Sen, against the proposed nuclear plant at Kudankulam, against the Nitta Gelatin Company’s alleged pollution of the Chaliyar river, among others—other human rights forums seem to be less keen in collaborating with it.
According to the response to a question under the Right to Information Act, the state government spent Rs 10.5 crore in 2013 on tackling Maoists. Activists allege that the amount for 2014-15 is at least Rs 26 crore. The state’s police chief, DGP KS Balasubrahmanian, however, claimed that his department has not set aside any funds for “tackling Maoists”, adding that the state police does not indulge in illegal surveillance or arrests. “We have not hunted human rights organisations or activists,” he said.“We have only arrested people on different cases and produced them before the court and court has acted on our report.”
Is a systemic violence playing itself out in the state, where anyone is a suspect on whom UAPA or sedition charges could be slapped? Two students, Shahid M Shameem and Uday Balakrishnan were picked up from Kannur in early February for suspected Maoist links. The reason for the police’s suspicion? “They asked us why we were travelling and participating in human rights movements,” said 22-year-old Shameem. “Questions were raised about why we carried author Arundhati Roy’s book with us and who the girl they spotted with us was. We were under the police scanner ever since we conducted a solidarity meet for the Standup Struggle (Nilppu Samaram) that the Adivasi Gothra Mahasabha had organised.”Last August, Salmaan Mohammed, a 25-year-old student of Kerala University, Trivandrum, was arrested under sedition charges for one of his posts on social media. “The conditional bail I got prevents me from participating in protests led by social groups,” he said.“For five months, I have been giving my attendance at Thambanur police station twice every week and even now the police has not filed a chargesheet.”The police repeatedly asked him whether he had any links with militant Islamist groups. “My Muslim identity was what they focussed on.”
Cooper’s stint in the Ernakulam districtjailin Kakkanadu brought to him several sordid tales of unproven charges and lasting judicial custody. “There was a man who was arrested for his alleged link to a case where Popular Front of India (PFI) workers had chopped off a college lecturer’s hand for blasphemy. The only evidence against this prisoner was that he had used the banner of PFI’s sister organisation, the Social Democratic Party of India, to mend a leaking roof.”
The case against Cooper had a similar irony; one of the pieces of evidence the police submitted to establish his Maoist links is an article he possessed that is critical of Maoism. Besides, ideological affiliation with any political group is not unlawful in the country. A Gujarat High Court ruling in 2010 said that the “possession of material without there being any overt act or actual execution of such ideas by itself would not form or constitute any offence.” The Bombay High Court also ruled in 2012 that possession of material “having a social or political” philosophy does not warrant criminalisation. But in Kerala, it didn’t take much conviction for police to search the office of the magazine Keraleeyam before taking into custody three of its journalists for questioning in December last year. “What we do, we do with proper legal support. Not even an inch of illegal police action takes place in Kerala. It is simply not done in this state,” said the Director General of Police.
But despite their crimes not yet being proven, activists in Kerala remain caught in a web of suspicion. As early as January 2014, Sarathy filed a petition alleging police-sponsored phone tapping. Soon after, a lookout notice that had the names of 40 people, out of which 38 were human rights activists, was pasted in Mananthavadi police station in Kozhikode. “The police is open about the fact that the phones of 130 people are tapped, out of which 30 are media professionals and others activists. The state has become draconian,” said the NCHRO’s Ayline, against whom an informal police enquiry was made under suspected Maoist links.
The state that insists on curbing unlawful activities does little to stick to legal procedures during arrests. “The police came to my office and took me into custody without producing an official letter that is a requirement while arresting government servants,” Cooper remembered. For him, what others call police violence has become a way of life. In November, when he was questioned for three days in relation to a Maoist attack on Nitta Gelatinin Kochi, he was manhandled. “The first round of questioning lasted for 24 hours with no breaks,” he said. “They grabbed me by my throat and pulled my hair during the grilling. Despite that they were not able to establish that I was part of the attack.” The second arrest was not violent, physically.
Can one not follow one’s convictions? Kerala’s activists are at a loss. But even after his release, Cooper stood by his ideology. “My worldview is Maoism. I am entitled to have an ideology of my choice.” What worried Cooper the most when he was in prison was police action against his friends under the guise of Maoist hunt. “Most of my contacts were viewed with suspicion,” he said, “and among them was a young man, an activist who is barely eking out a living even as his family was dependent on him. I was scared whether they would hound him down. If that happened, their lives would have come to a standstill.”Police was quick to reach the village of the young man soon after Cooper spoke of him. Life has already come to a halt for many. No more should be added to the list of those trapped in the legal tangle for no apparent fault of theirs, Cooper insisted.