Monday, February 2, 2015

Books reviewed - Max Bearak: Justice On Trial Two stark accounts of the deficiencies in our law-and-order system

Arun Ferreira: Colours of the Cage: A Prison Memoir

Dilip D’Souza: The Curious Case of Binayak Sen

TEN THOUSAND ADDITIONAL SOLDIERS are now being sent to the forests of central and eastern India to counter Maoist insurgents, but most signs point towards protraction and stalemate. In the past decade of fighting, we have gotten used to the routines of this war. Newspaper dispatches from the conflict zone read like a lullaby of arrests and deaths—a few here, a few there, with names rarely mentioned. But every so often, like an alarm going off during a dream, the routine is interrupted, and headlines blare that the Maoist “infestation” still lurks, its destructiveness had only lain dormant. Passenger trains are bombed and derailed, a government convoy ambushed, influential politicians summarily shot—and we recall that somewhere out there, in places from which we are far removed, India is at war with itself.

Two such alarms went off in the span of one week in mid May 2007, when Binayak Sen and Arun Ferreira were both arrested, albeit in separate cases and in separate states. Ferreira was accused of taking part in the planning of various terrorist attacks, while Sen was accused of acting as a courier between a jailed Maoist operative and a businessman sympathetic to the Maoist cause. Their arrests were alarming and memorable to many because both men belonged to the urban middle class. Ferreira, then a social activist and now a student of law, hails from a Catholic family in Bandra, a peaceful and prosperous Mumbai suburb. Sen, from Kolkata, graduated from Christian Medical College in Vellore, one of India’s best training grounds for the profession, and founded a public health non-profit.

If we look beyond the post-arrest press releases and the mainstream media’s rehashing of them, Sen and Ferreira seem ideal citizens, with deep faith in the constitution’s creed and a commitment to helping those less fortunate than themselves. This latter conviction in particular took both men to remote areas of central India. Their work brought them into constant contact with a population disaffected by the Indian state’s simultaneous absence and presence. Rural Chhattisgarh, where Sen established his non-profit, and the Vidarbha region in east Maharashtra, where Ferreira was active, have long lacked public infrastructure, but buzz with police who operate with state-sanctioned impunity.

In June 2012, for instance, in a village in southern Chhattisgarh called Sarkeguda, officers of the Central Reserve Police Force murdered 17 people, including minors, who had gathered to plan the annual harvest festival. The CRPF then claimed that at least seven of them were Maoist soldiers, a charge that survivors of that night vehemently deny. According to the social activist Himanshu Kumar, whose own ashram was razed by Chhattisgarh’s state government after he made attempts to publicise such abuses, similar raids have occurred in over a hundred villages across the state in the past decade. Resistance seems an inevitable response in such cases, and the Maoists have gained adherents in both Chhattisgarh and Vidarbha by capitalising on the state’s heavy-handedness, if only to retaliate with their own brutal terror.

Ferreira and Sen learned to criticise the state out there, where it is most insecure. They learned to be sceptical of a judicial system that seldom punishes security forces, and detains innocents for years on end without charge. And despite the risk that they themselves might be mistaken as Maoists, they dug in to their work. When we spoke in a sunny room in Bandra recently, Ferreira did acknowledge that he had worked with groups that were anti-capitalist, anti-globalisation, and in favour of what he called “leftist revolution.” But he said the groups were neither violent nor part of the banned Maoist party; anyway, he said he had only helped them file RTI applications, and had tried to unionise workers. All the same, Ferreira said that violent uprising is understandable as a response to even greater violence from the state. “I see what the Maoists are doing and I don’t think of it as necessarily wrong,” he said. “To judge any movement on violence versus non-violence is just being too mechanical, or being box-minded, and expecting reality to fit into the boxes you made. But reality is far more complex than that.”

After his arrest in 2007, Ferreira became known in the press as the “Bandra Naxalite,” and at one point appeared on front pages with a hood over his head, squatting next to triumphant policemen who claimed he was the chief of propaganda and communications for the now banned Communist Party of India (Maoist). Many journalists were quick to drop the word “alleged” from before the word “Naxalite,” replacing it with perennial favourites such as “dreaded” or “hardcore.” It appeared that being a social activist in an area where Maoists were active was enough to have Ferreira reflexively presumed guilty. The courts too, acting on the police’s strong assertion of Ferreira’s guilt (built primarily upon the fact that they caught him with a flash drive in his pocket), repeatedly denied him bail. He spent four years and eight months in Nagpur Central Jail, battling an ever-expanding set of charges, including for attacks he would have had to have planned while under solitary confinement.

This September, Ferreira released Colours of the Cage: A Prison Memoir, a straightforward account of his (and his fellow inmates’) imprisonment and legal battles, which were anything but straightforward. In the book, Ferreira describes police brutality and torture, and a harrowing litany of violations of prisoners’ dignity and rights, in clear contravention of various Indian laws. Vengeance, however, is not his objective, and he uses pseudonyms to hide the identities of the officials and police officers he suffered under. Instead, he shifts his aim towards “the brutality of the system in which they work.” Ferreira’s writing is imbued with the earnest anger of someone who was stolen from his family (including a son who was two years old at the time of the arrest) and his work, and feels that telling his story is the only way he can unearth the truth and move on with his life.

Ferreira told me that an additional goal in recounting his experience was to make a political statement about the dysfunctionality of the Indian prison and judicial systems. But his memoir doesn’t read like a manifesto. Its chronological retelling plays before the reader’s eyes like a grim drama, going from one ordeal to the next. Through Ferreira’s eyes, Nagpur Central appears as India’s own Guantanamo Bay or Abu Ghraib. Tortured screams are muffled, faces viciously bashed in, nights are spent sleeping packed like sardines on stone floors. During the day, surrounded by intense heat and filth, inmates catch and cook squirrels and bandicoots to supplement the meagre, half-cooked slop they’re served.
Ferreira, like Sen, was charged under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, or the UAPA. The act was amended after the terrorist attacks on Mumbai in 2008 as an extension of similar provisions known by their own acronyms, TADA and POTA. The UAPA grants the police and armed forces special immunities from oversight and prosecution in order to root out any action that “causes or is intended to cause disaffection against India.” Unlike TADA and POTA, the UAPA has no “sunset clause,” meaning the immunities it grants have no expiration date.

Sen and Ferreira’s cases are cautionary examples of how the state can use the UAPA to ensnare those against whom the evidence is tenuous at best. The UAPA appears to criminalise sympathy for any banned organisation, by making even the “intent to further the activity” of such a group an offence. Anyone verbalising support, thus implying association and membership, can receive a ten-year sentence... read more: