13 May 2008

Chhattisgarh has lost the plot

One year after jailing the eminent doctor, Binayak Sen, State authorities have arrested another leading civil liberties activist, the journalist and filmmaker, Ajay T.G.

13 May 2008
The Hindu

Chhattisgarh has lost the plot

Siddharth Varadarajan

On May 5, the Chhattisgarh police announced the arrest of Ajay T.G., a Raipur-based journalist and filmmaker, under the State’s draconian Special Public Security Act (PSA). He has been charged with sedition under the Indian Penal Code and with having unlawful contact with a banned organisation, the Communist Party of India (Maoist), under Sections 3, 4 and 8 of the PSA. Like Binayak Sen, who was arrested last year on May 14, Ajay is a leading member of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties. He is also a prominent social worker whose contribution to the education of young girls from poor slum-dwelling families is well known. The circumstances leading to his arrest are so bizarre and reflect so poorly on Chhattisgarh’s approach to dealing with the naxalite problem that they bear recounting in some detail.

During the Lok Sabha elections of 2004, Ajay was part of a fact-finding team that visited a number of interior villages in the Dantewada region of the State to study the reaction of ordinary villagers to the Maoist call for a poll boycott, on the one hand, and heavy CRPF deployment, on the other.

The team went through several deserted villages before arriving at a village around 4 p.m. As Ajay started taking photographs of a deserted polling booth, the team was surrounded by a group of angry, young Maoist villagers. The youth accused the group of being police agents and detained them for several hours. They were eventually allowed to leave late in the evening but Ajay’s camera was confiscated.

For Ajay, the loss of his camera was a real blow. His only source of income was the freelance filming he did as a mediaperson. His family was also terrified at the thought that the Maoists believed him to be a police agent and decided not to file an official complaint with the authorities. But as word spread in Raipur about the threats to which the fact-finding team had been subjected, the Maoist leadership in the State moved to control the fallout and declared that it would compensate him if the camera was not recovered. The fact that this incident occurred and that Ajay and his colleagues were the victims of Maoist high-handedness is public knowledge because the media covered it in June 2006.

A year-and-a-half later, on January 21, 2008, the Chhattisgarh police intercepted an alleged arms drop by two Maoist women. When the house of one of the women was searched, they recovered a letter addressed to the Maoist spokesman by Ajay on the letterhead of the “The Campaign against Child Labour” (an organisation of which he is convenor). The letter, written in 2004, was about the return of the same camera. When the police arrived at his house to question him, Ajay, in the presence of lawyer Sudha Bharadwaj, readily acknowledged authorship of the letter and also explained the unfortunate circumstances in which it had been written. Nevertheless, the police seized his computer.

Since filmmakers these days rely as much on their computers as on their cameras, Ajay moved the local courts for the return of his PC. His case was posted for hearing on May 10. Five days before that, however, the police came and arrested him, invoking the Public Security Act which was not even in force in 2004 when the letter was written. Incredibly, stories are now being planted in the local press about how the police only discovered he was the author of the letter after going through his computer and conducting “handwriting analysis.”

Think about this for a second. Here is a journalist who was actually the victim of a crime committed by the Maoists. For weeks, the family fretted about what the Maoists would do to Ajay since they seemed to believe he was a police agent. And now, the same police steps in to victimise him again, this time with perhaps deadlier consequences since the grant of bail under the PSA — as Dr. Sen has learned — is well-nigh impossible. The irony is that the police are prosecuting Dr. Sen for his alleged connections with the naxalites without pausing to ask why, if he was so well connected, a fact-finding mission of which he was a member was illegally detained by the Maoists in 2004.

The fact of the matter is that both Dr. Sen and Ajay T.G. are being targeted because of their association with PUCL. And PUCL is under attack because it is one of the organisations inside Chhattisgarh — besides the Communist Party of India (CPI), the Vanvasi Chetna Ashram of Gandhian worker Himanshu Kumar, and others — that have been trying to expose the ugly reality of Salwa Judum, the State-run vigilante death squad that has led to the death of hundreds of civilians and the forced displacement of tens of thousands of adivasis. CPI leaders in the State are routinely harassed. Himanshu of the VCA, a long-time associate of the late Nirmala Deshpande, is being threatened with eviction from the land on which his ashram was legally built for documenting Salwa Judum atrocities. Courageous local journalists such as Kamlesh Paikra and Afzal Khan have also been attacked and intimidated for exposing state-sponsored violence. When CPI MP Gurudas Dasgupta tried to travel to Dantewada to support the protest of local adivasis against the expropriation of their land for a big industrial project, he was denied entry by motivated mobs with the police a silent spectator.

Despite the growing ranks of those critical of Salwa Judum, the Bharatiya Janata Party government in Chhattisgarh continues to brand its critics as “naxalites” or as persons influenced by the “psychological war machinery of Maoists” — a claim the Chhattisgarh DGP Vishwa Ranjan made about Ramachandra Guha and Nandini Sundar (who have filed a PIL in the Supreme Court against Salwa Judum) in an interview to the Pioneer on April 3. The Maoists’ psywar machinery is clearly formidable because among those it has now managed to “influence” is an expert committee of the Planning Commission, which includes former IB Director Ajit Doval as member, the Veerappa Moily Committee on Administrative Reforms and the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights, all of which have documented the Salwa Judum’s excesses or called for it to be disbanded.

The Chhattisgarh government should realise that countering an armed insurgency requires tact, and intelligence. The arrest and intimidation of prominent critics such as Dr. Sen and Ajay show the utter non-application of mind on the part of its police force. The Salwa Judum is doomed; its withdrawal can be delayed a little but not prevented. The sooner it is withdrawn along with draconian laws like the PSA, the better.

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