Characterised by a loose cotton half sleeve shirt, loose trousers, spectacles, a jhola and a hearty laughter, Vernon Gonsalves comes across as an effervescent wise man. Gonsalves gets along well with everyone from the age of six to sixty. His demeanour reflects an inner happiness. He started a band in college, but gave it up to be a part of people’s movements. His songs still hold the flavour of 70s rock.
Vernon’s pen is as sharp as his vision for an equitable, just society without distinctions of class, caste, race, with principles of gender equality and justice at its core. He is an acute political observer and makes nuanced arguments about complex sociopolitical-economic issues. Vernon has shown a keenness to understand the latest undercurrents in progressive politics.
He was born to a Mangalorean Catholic couple and grew up in a chawl in a modest locality in Byculla in Mumbai. Vernon was always good with academics and won a gold medal in Commerce from Mumbai University. Subsequently, he left his corporate job in Siemens to work with trade unions, workers, slum dwellers and the working class in Mumbai. During this period, he taught in prominent colleges in Mumbai including Ruparel College, HR College of Commerce and Economics, and Akbar Peerbhoy College of Commerce and Economics. Very few know that, in college he wanted to be a musician. Rumours say that he had also started a band but could not find meaning in it.
Around 1983, he moved to Chandrapur near Nagpur to work with unorganised sector workers including the coal-mine workers in the area. In 1984, he married fellow activist Susan Abraham. It was a union of two unique and fiercely independent minds. They worked in Chandrapur for a decade. After their son Sagar was born in 1994, they returned to Mumbai.
On 19 August 2007, the Maharashtra ATS arrested Vernon from his residence in Andheri, Mumbai. His arrest was falsely shown as from the residence of his co-accused S. Shridhar in Govandi. They were charged with being “top-level” Naxalites having explosives in their possession. For some months prior to this, Vernon had been working for the rights of tribal communities in the Maharashtra district of Chandrapur. 20 cases were filed against him. He spent nearly six years in jail while his trial dragged on as an undertrial. He was acquitted in 18 cases, convicted in one against which his appeal is pending in the Nagpur HC while the application for discharge in the last case in Gujarat is pending before the High Court.
During his years as an undertrial in jail, Vernon spent most of his time writing. He is now working on a collection of prison writings. He edited a set of short stories written while imprisoned, one of which, “Jailbird Jabbar” was written in a typical staccato Bambaiya patois style. He also translated stories by Annabhau Sathe from Marathi to English for Aleph Publication’s “A Clutch of Short Stories.” After his release he wrote articles on prevailing law, rights of Dalit and tribal communities, the condition of prisons in India, land grabbing by the nexus of Corporates and the Government, misuse of the criminal justice system by the governments against marginalised communities, and scrapping of UAPA. One of his last published articles titled “Harsher Punishments and Retributive Criminal Justice” is a landmark commentary on the trends of crime control vis-a-vis justice system in the country.
Vernon’s son Sagar sums what everyone close to him feels about him:
“Among the many things that I admire greatly about my father is his commitment to his beliefs and ideals.To stand up for what is right and help those whose rights are denied – he has always done that and will continue to do so. This did not deter him the last time and will not do it now as well. He has an unbreakable spirit and will always stay true to what he believes in.”
WHO IS VERNON GONSALVES?
Vernon Gonsalves is trade unionist, activist, an academic (former professor of business management in a college in Mumbai) and a writer, who writes extensively on Dalit and adivasi rights, the conditions of prisons in India and the routine violation of rights of prisoners. Along with Arun Ferriera, he has authored a number of popular articles on the condition of Indian jails, the abuse of authority by Indian police, and draconian laws such as the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), a piece of ‘anti-terror’ legislation with a wide ambit and vague concepts, which allows its misuse against academics, lawyers and human rights defenders. Equally importantly, their writings expose the hypocrisy of democracy in India.
In one of their scathing reports on ‘fake encounters’ – a routine extra-legal killing carried out by the Indian police, they write:
Fake encounters are murders by the state and therefore a gross contempt for rule of law and this is known to all in the political, bureaucratic, judicial and media establishment.
Nevertheless they have become so routine as to acquire the acceptance and even silent approval of those running Indian “democracy”.
They continue to show the shocking levels of impunity enjoyed by the police thus:
In Maharashtra, a “successful” encounter by the police claimed more than 40 adivasi lives in Gadchiroli in April 2018, without a single police personnel being injured. The Maharashtra Police celebrated their “success” with a party of song and dance at the Gadchiroli police headquarters. The videos were not only shared on social media but also publicised approvingly by all the mainstream networks. One national daily called it a mantra of “Work hard, party harder!” Rare are the stories of even Nazi occupation armies celebrating and jubilating at the mass killings of the citizens they subjugated. For a force presumably tasked with the protection of the people, the death at their hands of more than 40 fellow citizens from the poorest of poor communities of their land should have been cause for regret, if not mourning. While their obscene display of delight is thus a telling commentary of how they have been instilled with contempt for the country’s laws and its people, the loud cheers from the sidelines by the media — the self-admitted fourth pillar of any democracy — is a more damning comment on the pathetic state of India’s polity.
Not surprisingly, both Arun Ferreiera and Vernon Gonsalves have incurred the wrath of the same police and security personnel.
Vernon Gonsalves was born to a Mangalorean Catholic couple, and grew up in a lower-middle class chawl in Byculla in south Mumbai. He graduated with highest honors from mumbai University. He started as a management trainee at Siemens before becoming a social worker in Maharashtra’s Chandrapur area. He has taught business management and economics at various colleges in Mumbai, including Ruparel College, HR College of Commerce and Economics, and Akbar Peerbhoy College of Commerce and Economics. Gonsalves is married to Susan Abraham, a lawyer who is also defending Advocate Surendra Gadling – one of the B-12 arrestees. They have a 23-year old son, Sagar.
Gonsalves, along with Arun Ferreira, writes regularly on prevailing law and order issues, and is critical of the establishment. He also writes extensively on Dalit and tribal rights, the condition of prisons in India, and is a vocal about wanting UAPA to be scrapped. In their detailed critique of the UAPA, Vernon and Arun explain why it should be repealed. They have also co-authored a number of articles on the Daily O, one of which for instance, exposes the nonsensical claims made by the Pune police for the arrests.
Commenting on the alleged ‘Rajiv Gandhi-type’ assassination plot to kill the Prime Minister (an allegation made as part of the charges against many of the B-12 arrestees), Gonsalves writes:
“The sole purpose seems to be to whip up a false narrative, favourable to the current regime. Sidetracking the demands of the Dalit movements to punish the Hindutva leaders and the organisations responsible for the attacks of 1 January 2018 on the congregation at Bhima Koregaon can be another probable purpose.”
Gonsalves has been previously arrested under UAPA in 2007, and kept in jail for six years before being acquitted of all the cases against him except one, which is still pending. Vernon was not a regular writer prior to 2013. It was during his time in prison from 2007-2013 that he started writing short stories. He started writing regularly in early 2014, months after he was released from the prison.
On 19 August 2007, the Maharashtra Anti-Terror Squad arrested Gonsalves from his residence in Mumbaii. They alleged that he was a “top-level” Naxalite, who possessed explosives, that he was an ex-central committee member and former secretary of Maharashtra State Rajya Committee of the Maoists. He was charged in 20 cases under the UAPA. On June 27, 2013, Gonsalves was released from prison. He was acquitted in 17 cases against him, discharged in one, with one underway trial, and convicted in one case for which he had already spent time in jail.
Speaking to Rediff after his release, he said:
“The falsehood was evident even to the magistrate. During the trial, the explosive expert was called to give his assessment. He said with the kind of explosives mentioned, it could blast a whole station and I was supposed to have stored it here? It is absurd for such things to be stored in a match-box-size house of sorts that we live in. The expert did mention the unlikelihood. It was all absurd.”
Gonsalves’ son, Sagar, who is now witnessing Vernon’s most recent arrest observes: “Any form of freedom of expression and dissent is only tokenism. If you have ideals and they question you and your authority, then you will be arrested.” He continues about his father:
“Among the many things that I admire greatly about my father is his commitment to his beliefs and ideals. To stand up for what is right and help those whose rights are denied- he has always done that and will continue to do so. This did not deter him the last time and will not do it now as well. He has an unbreakable spirit and will always stay true to what he believes in”
India Civil Watch
E-mail: indiacivilwatch at gmail.com