Drawing by Arun Ferreira
By People’s Union for Civil Liberties – Chhattisgarh
Release All Political Prisoners!
Repeal Draconian Laws!
Stop Gagging the Media!
June 25th, 2020: On this day in 1975, the then-Indian Government imposed the State of Emergency in India, suspending all fundamental rights and commencing one of the darkest periods of Indian democracy. Today, after a span of forty-five years, we the people of India find ourselves in a similar situation, living in a de facto state of emergency, which has not been officially declared, where scores of ordinary citizens to who dared to criticize the government are being arbitrarily arrested under draconian laws meant only for rarest cases of international terror. The Chhattisgarh chapter of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties is observing this day as the Anti-Emergency Day –to demand the release of arrested human rights workers, and to renew our pledge to uphold the Constitution of India, with all its promises of freedom and equality, in its true spirit.
Imprisoned Human Rights Activists
It has been two years since the arrests in the infamous Bhima Koregaon case started in June 2018. While eyewitnesses alleged that the anti-Dalit violence during the Bhima Koregaon rally commemorating the 200th anniversary of the Dalit victory over the Peshwas was engineered by Hindutva groups, the police have never seriously investigated these leaders. Instead, 11 of India’s foremost intellectuals, lawyers, writers, academics, activists are in prison today in this case, facing blatantly false charges of a criminal conspiracy to overthrow the government and assassinate the Prime Minister. Their real crimes, in fact, are that they have been working for years with the most marginalized communities and challenging the government. The activists include:
• Varavara Rao – An 81 year- old renowned poet and writer from Hyderabad
• Sudha Bharadwaj – A trade unionist, a lawyer in Chhattisgarh who opposed many of the giant mining corporations in Chhattisgarh, and a visiting professor at the National Law University in Delhi
• Anand Teltumbde – A Dalit scholar and writer who has published numerous books on the interplay between caste and politics
• Gautam Navlakha – A civil rights activist based in Delhi, a journalist and a political analyst, with extensive writings on Kashmir and the tribal areas in Central India
• Surendra Gadling – A renowned human rights lawyer from Nagpur, and a Dalit rights activist
• Shoma Sen – A women’s rights activist, an academic and the head of the English Department at Nagpur University
• Arun Ferriera – A human rights lawyer in Mumbai, and the author of Colours of the Cage, a memoir from this first stint in jail
• Vernon Gonsalves – A writer and translator from Mumbai, who had worked with trade unions in Chandrapur
• Sudhir Dhawale – A cultural activist, the founder publisher of a Marathi magazine, Vidrohi
• Mahesh Raut – A tribal rights activist in Gadhchiroli, a former Prime Minister’s Rural Development Fellow, who actively campaigned against displacement of marginalized communities
• Rona Wilson – A Ph.D. student at JNU, who actively campaigned for the release of political prisoners
The pattern of deflecting attention from the violence caused by Hindutva leaders, by persecuting human rights activists for it is again clearly in display in the case of the arrests related to Delhi riots in February 2020. The incendiary speeches of leaders like Kapil Mishra and Anurag Thakur with the ruling party at the Center were completely ignored by the Delhi police, but scores of young Anti-CAA protestors, who spent months peacefully protesting against an unjust and a discriminatory law, have been made targets of this investigation and they remain in prison today under the UAPA. These include:
• Meeran Haider– a PhD student at Jamia Milia and a student leader of the RJD
• Ishrat Jahan – A former Congress party Municipal Corporator
• Khalid Saifi – One of the founders of the anti-hate crime group United Against Hate, who was brutally tortured in police custody
• Natasha Narwal and Devangana Kalita –JNU students and members of the Pinjra Tod group that started by organizing against curfew timings for women’s hostels in Delhi University
• Gulfisha Fatima – a 28 year MBA student
• Sharjeel Imam – an IIT graduate who was completing a PhD in JNU
• Shifa-Ur-Rehman – The President of the Jamia Alumni Association
• Asif Iqbal Tanha – A third year BA student at Jamia Milia Islamia University
Besides these, anti-CAA protestors have also been picked up at other places in the country under draconian laws, notably Farhan Zuberi and Amir Mintoee of the Aligarh Muslim University Students Union, and Akhil Gogoi, a peasant leader from Assam.
Arbitrary and widespread use of draconian laws
The Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967, and the provisions of section 124A of the Indian Penal Code (sedition) are some of the draconian legislations that are being used indiscriminately by the government to criminalize any type of dissent, and silence all criticism. We have been alarmed to see that
• a parent and the school principal were arrested and charged with sedition for a school play which raises questions about CAA,
• a young 19 year old college student gets arrested for merely uttering “Pakistan Zindabad” (while also saying Hindustan Zindabad, and advocating friendly relations between nations), and
• a 66-year old woman was arrested for merely retweeting a set of questions about the styrene gas leak at Vizag that killed 12 people and affected over 400.
None of these are in criminal acts by any stretch of imagination – and this high handed approach of the executive in penalizing these individuals only serves to stifle dissent and throttle democracy.
Gagging of Media
The policy of arbitrary arrests of all critics is also happening in the backdrop of one of the severest assaults on the press and media in recent times. Reporters who are filing unfavourable reports against the authorities, or commentators raising uncomfortable questions, are getting slapped with ridiculous charges, and some are even getting arrested. A recent report states that at least 55 journalists faced arrest, FIRs, summons, notices or threats of violence for exercising their freedom of expression during the lockdown period from March 25-May 31. Some of the recent cases of criminalizing mediapersons include –
• Dhaval Patel was arrested in Gujarat under charges of sedition for reporting that a change in the state leadership may be in the offing.
• Zubair Ahmed in Andaman & Nicobar was arrested for questioning why families were being quarantined for merely speaking to a COVID positive patient over the phone
• Supriya Sharma of Scroll.in faces an FIR for reporting that the marginalized communities in the PM’s constituency of Varanasi went hungry during lockdown
• Aakar Patel, a columnist, had an FIR registered against him for suggesting that the marginalized communities in India should learn from the black community of the US, and should also protest against the daily atrocities
• Siddharth Varadarajan, editor of The Wire, faces an FIR for publishing a story raising questions about the UP government’s decision to go ahead with a religious gathering in the middle of a pandemic
• Vinod Dua, a political commentator, faces sedition charges in multiple FIRs for blaming those connected with the BJP for the Delhi riots
• Masrat Zahra, a Kashmiri photo journalist, was booked under the UAPA for publishing “anti-national” posts on the social media
These acts by the various human rights activists, ordinary citizens, media people of challenging the state narrative, criticizing the government, expressing dissent, and raising questions are protected under the Indian Constitution. Far from being criminalized and viewed with suspicion, these activities are essential in any healthy democracy, which is rooted on discussion and debate and a free exchange of ideas.
At this juncture, it is of critical importance that these intemperate attacks on activists, journalists and ordinary people end, and those in custody under these draconian acts be immediately released.
People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL- Chhattisgarh)