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Speaking out against wrong actions is both a right and a duty

By Sandhya Srinivasan

The recent arrests of Binayak Sen in Chhattisgarh and Arun Ferreira in Maharashtra are sending out a clear message that anyone who speaks out against the government and the status quo will be targeted. But surely challenging the conditions in which the vast majority of people live is a duty, not a crime, writes Sandhya Srinivasan

On May 9, 2007, Arun Ferreira, Ashok Satya Reddy, Naresh Bansod and Dhanendra Bhurle were arrested by the Nagpur police under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act and the Indian Penal Code. On May 14, Binayak Sen was arrested under the Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act, 2005, and the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 2004. Given the press coverage surrounding these two recent arrests, and the public response to them, some clarity on the issues at stake is required.

Civil liberties organisations and health activists across the country have launched a campaign condemning Binayak Sen’s arrest, calling for his release, and demanding a repeal of the law under which he was arrested. This overwhelming response is partly because of Sen’s reputation as an award-winning medical professional and a committed health activist in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh (see http://www.infochangeindia.org/analysis202.jsp and http://www.infochangeindia.org/HumanItop.jsp?recordno=
4852&section_idv=13
). His activism extended beyond advising community health programmes and helping set up the well-known Shaheed Hospital run by mine workers. It included agitating on the basic social and economic conditions of tribals that are responsible for widespread malnutrition, illness and premature death. As an activist in the tribal state of Chhattisgarh, Sen had been speaking out against the atrocities committed by the Salwa Judum, a government-sponsored anti-Maoist programme that involves forced displacement of tribals into camps. He is also secretary of the Chhattisgarh People’s Union for Civil Liberties, and vice-president of the national body.

A similar campaign, albeit at a smaller level, has been run in support of Arun Ferreira and those arrested with him. In addition to local democratic rights organisations, a group of Ferreira’s college friends has written to the press expressing fears that he would be tortured, perhaps even killed, by the police and asking that he be accorded the due process of law.

As far as one can see, the charges against those arrested are vague: association with banned organisations, and campaigning against the government. The specific charges, as stated in press reports, change every day. For example, the police first said that Ferreira was “planning an agitation” and the press reported this in a way that suggested that agitation is illegal in this country. A later report had the police speculating that Ferreira might have been “entrusted with carrying out any specific agenda like garnering intellectual support in Mumbai”.  

Infiltration of the city’s famous dabbawalla service?

Recent press reports highlight the absurdity of the investigation. Two newspapers carried police statements that Arun Ferreira’s pen drive contained details of the dabbawalla service in Mumbai. The Nagpur commissioner of police described this as a “worrisome” development. One officer is quoted as saying: “Either they are eyeing infiltration into the dabbawallas’ ranks to reach out to people without getting noticed, or they have already infiltrated, or they are studying it with the motive of using it somewhere else.” The report progresses from absurdity to absurdity, with the police clarifying: “We have formed no particular opinion about whether the dabbawallas have any connection whatsoever with the Naxalites.”

There seems to be little concrete information about the specific actions for which Ferreira is being held. Instead, the police have stated that the arrested persons’ refusal to talk has necessitated the use of “advanced scientific interrogation techniques” to elicit information from them.

The press has published the police’s assertions without question, describing Ferreira as a “top Naxalite” and “feared leader”. It has also seen fit to pursue his family members and print personal photographs, as if they somehow gave some critical information. At least one newspaper agonised about why “good Bandra boys” felt the need to work in “extremist” organisations. Surely it is obvious that though better-off sections of Indian society are overwhelmingly concerned with financial success and a good life, many, many people choose to work for issues they believe have some social value.

The press reports also repeated police stories of highly incriminating documents being found with the accused, bolstering their case. However, there have been no specific details. A police officer has been quoted as saying: “Ferreira’s ideological proximity with a few banned underground pro-Naxalite groups has been proved. A few documents seized from him during his arrest are a testimony to this.” But we don’t know what those documents are. In a meeting with the home minister, Ferreira’s wife, a sociology professor, mentioned a list of her sociology books and asked for their return.

In the case of Binayak Sen, his colleagues insisted that his house be searched only in the presence of independent witnesses. The search revealed CDs that have been distributed by civil liberties organisations over the years, letters from people in jail (with the stamp of the jail officer indicating that they had been sent with official permission), newspaper clippings, booklets and documents of various political parties, articles that have been published in journals, and a book on the Salwa Judum (a government-sponsored anti-Maoist programme) published by a ‘Committee of Tribals Affected by the Salwa Judum’. If these are incriminating, thousands of people in Mumbai will have to empty out their libraries. Should students burn all their books for fear that one of them might be banned material? Should we refuse to accept a party publication? Should we go through our computer hard drives to see if there is something that might be seen as offensive to the government?

Threatening those who speak for people’s rights

At a meeting on May 31, organised by civil liberties and health organisations, speaker after speaker pointed out that the arrests of people like Binayak Sen and Arun Ferreira were sending a clear message targeting anyone who speaks out against the government and the status quo. It matters little if Binayak Sen has been awarded a citation (the Paul Harrison award) by the Christian Medical College, Vellore, for “a lifetime of work providing medical care in the service of humanity”. 

It is disturbing that the police have threatened to take action against anyone issuing statements of support for Arun Ferreira and those arrested with him. The police commissioner of Nagpur, S P S Yadav, has stated that he would “deal sternly” with anyone who spoke out in support of the arrested men. The police have even said they will not hesitate to arrest supporters. One policeman is reported to have declared: “It is utter shamelessness to defend persons associated with a banned organisation like the CPI (Maoist).”

The investigations

In a letter to the home minister, people present at the first appearance of Arun Ferreira and those arrested with him pointed out to the magistrate “visible and lacerating wounds” on them. But the magistrate did not record these. At the second appearance, Arun Ferreira stated that he had been subjected to torture including ice being placed on his genitals. Ashok Satya Reddy said that the police had threatened to inject him with poison.

Torture is a routine weapon of police “investigation” in India. A poor person who enters a police station (whether accused or accuser) can expect to be beaten up savagely; the regularly reported deaths in custody are often accidents of excess rather than intentional murder. Today, however, undertrials are routinely subjected to various dubious and coercive procedures on the argument that they are “better than the third degree”.

Proponents of “scientific investigation” have indicated that they are forced to torture suspects to get information, and techniques such as narco analysis and brain mapping will “do away” with torture. Narco analysis is such a fad these days that apparently Bangalore’s Forensic Science Laboratory has a waiting list of 300. Presumably in order to give the public and their superiors the feeling that “something” is being done, Telgi, Rahul Mahajan and Abu Salem are among those subjected to narco analysis and brain mapping to find out exactly what they did. Narco analysis is essentially asking questions to people who have been injected with the drug sodium pentothal or one of its variants. The idea is that, in a drug-induced condition, their defences will break down and they will truthfully answer questions that are otherwise not available to the police. Brain mapping involves correlating brain activity as seen on a scan with the subject’s answers.

One problem is that these are scientifically dubious practices and there is no clear understanding of the quality of information thus gathered. Second, statements collected through their use have no standing in a court of law. Third, the drugs used in these procedures could cause harm, and the procedure also involves coercion that amounts to torture. Finally, both narco analysis and brain mapping require the participation of doctors, and the UN has stated clearly that it is unethical for medical professionals to be involved in a practice that has no medical value to the patient.

What does this have to do with you and me?

At one level, there’s nothing special about the arrests of Binayak Sen and Arun Ferreira, nothing that merits special concern. It is no secret that hundreds of people are arrested in this country every week; that thousands are beaten up in police stations; that people are shot dead in “encounters”. All this is known and even accepted. Over the years we have seen a public “consensus”-building exercise to justify, even approve, torture in custody (“How else will we extract important information from hardened criminals?”) and “encounter killings” (“If we don’t kill them they’ll just pay their way out and commit more crimes.”). “Encounter specialists” like Daya Nayak become media darlings. Middle class Indians feel no sympathy for people like Binayak Sen and Arun Ferreira.

But there is no hope for India unless people come out to challenge the conditions in which the vast majority of people live, and fight the special interests that maintain such conditions. There is no hope for India unless people question the unjust laws that clamp down on those who oppose the status quo.

The essential principle behind all this is that everyone has the right to speak out -- to protest wrong actions, to question laws that they believe are unjust, to question the authorities when they demonstrate unjust behaviour.

The due process of law must be followed. This is surely the minimum right of every person. It’s this right that is in jeopardy today when people can be arrested for challenging what is happening around them.

It’s a sad day when threats are issued against those who ask for the due process of law. It is sadder still when people hesitate to speak out on an arrested person’s right to due process for fear that they will be arrested as sympathisers of banned organisations. 

InfoChange News & Features, June 2007