'Big Brother is watching'

Apr 19, 2012, 07:23 IST | Lindsay Pereira

He was acquitted of all major charges made against him by the Maharashtra Police. Arun Ferreira's fight against the system, however, has only just begun

He was arrested in Nagpur on May 8, 2007 and branded a Naksalvadi by the Maharashtra police. A generic term used to describe any member of a militant Communist group; it's how they first presented Arun Ferreira to the press. The word 'Naxal' had, by that time, begun to guarantee headlines. Ferreira and three other men were picked up from Deekshabhoomi — the monument where Babasaheb Ambedkar and lakhs of others converted to Buddhism in 1956 — and charged under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, the Indian Arms Act and 353 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC): assault or criminal force to deter a public servant from discharge of his duty. According to the police, Ferreira was state chief of the CPI (Maoist) communication and propaganda wing. They said he operated under a number of aliases and was working on carrying out a conspiracy.

Free at last: Arun Ferreira is the cynosure of all lenses at a packed press conference in the city, post his release. The conference was held at the Press Club

According to Ferreira, however, all he had been doing is working with slum dwellers in Mumbai and a youth group called the Naujawan Bharat Sabha. Another thing he had done is organise protests against the massacre of a Dalit family in Khairlanji in 2006. It was enough to convince the state he was a threat.

A little over two years after these allegations were made, and following further allegations by Ferreira of human rights violations in jail, he was acquitted of all charges. The court also referred to some of the evidence put forth by police as contradictory and granted him bail. As Ferreira stepped out of Nagpur Central Jail to meet his parents, he was pulled into a van by the Gadchiroli police and slapped with a fresh set of charges. This act played out in full view of a disbelieving public comprising his family and friends.

As a much-publicised war against Naxalites raged in jungles and newspapers across the country, Ferreira became just another name mentioned casually at parties in Bandra or meetings between alumni of St Xavier's College, his alma mater. His fight against the system, for that is what it always has been, was relegated to a few paragraphs in city dailies. Few stopped to ask, 'What happened?'

On January 4 this year, following an incarceration of four years and eight months, he finally walked free, raising disturbing questions about how our law enforcement agencies operate in his wake. If police believed he was conspiring against the state, why did the courts disagree? I got in touch with Arun Ferreira because, as someone who had seen the underside of our justice system up close, he was in a better position to provide a few answers than most others. This is what he had to say:

The Interview
Q: There were eight cases under Sections 10, 13, 18, 20 of the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) and one under the Arms Act lodged against you. What, according to the court, is the current status on these? Have you been completely exonerated?
Ans: I was initially arrested in May 2007 in a case in Nagpur under Sections 10, 13, 18, 20 of the UAPA and Arms Act. I was then implicated in another six cases at Gondia district under various sections of the UAPA and the Indian Penal Code (IPC). These were regarding offences of blasting police vehicles, murder, attempt to murder, arson, assault, etc. allegedly committed by Naxals. In 2008, when some youths belonging to an NGO called Deshbhakti Yuva Manch in Chandrapur were arrested under UAPA, I was implicated and made party to their case. So, I was arraigned in eight cases, under UAPA, in total. Additionally, while in prison, we political prisoners at Nagpur Central Prison went on an indefinite hunger strike in April 2008. It lasted 27 days. None of our legitimate demands were met and, instead, an additional criminal case of attempt to suicide was registered against us. All these nine cases were tried while I was in prison. I was acquitted in ALL of them. The court was compelled to do so because the prosecution failed to produce any evidence against me. I was released from prison on September 27, 2011, acquitted of all charges levelled against me by the Nagpur, Gondia and Chandrapur police. On my release, I was immediately abducted by civil dressed police personnel and re-arrested in two cases at Gadchiroli. These cases deal with armed encounters between Naxals and the police in February and April 2007. I was acquitted in one of these cases in December 2011. As for the other case, I have been released on bail pending trial. This case is currently being heard at the Sessions Court at Gadchiroli and I am required to attend court dates approximately once every fortnight. The trial has yet to commence, but court dates require my attendance.

Ranting and raving: Arundhati Roy at a press meet in the city, nearly two years ago. She had cleaved into the media calling it ‘corporate media’ on the occasion

Q:Your lawyer refers to your re-arrest, in September, as abduction. How would you define it?
Ans:  According to the law, Article 22 of the Constitution, and under various sections of the Criminal Procedure Code and as per guidelines set by the Supreme Court in the DK Basu case [relating to custodial death and torture], police are to inform the arrested person of the grounds of arrest, inform his family or lawyers of his place of detention and make the arrest in uniform along with badges displaying name and designation. On September 27, all these strictures were blatantly violated. In fact, there were no circumstances that called for such action. Further, there exists a lawful procedure where I could have been arrested in the two offences they wanted me for by obtaining a warrant from the Court. Hence, we called it an act of 'abduction and secret confinement,' especially as it was done in full view of my lawyers and family members. They willfully did not inform my lawyers or family. In my years of prison, we have seen that this is a practice the police has been resorting to so as to artificially inflate statistics of arrests. This has been illustrated in Point 10 of a petition filed by me: "Being confident that, in the name of the fight against Naxalism, they can rest assured that their higher-ups will provide them immunity against punitive action for their violations of fundamental rights, they are becoming increasingly more blatant in re-arresting after release on acquittal or bail and are even resorting to openly illegal acts such as abduction from prison premises, secret confinement and the like. They then attempt to portray before higher-ups and in the media and elsewhere that these arrests are major successes of the investigating and prosecuting police authority."Remember, all police personnel in Naxal-affected areas get a minimum 15 per cent increase in pay scale and also abundant unregulated funding for anti-Naxal operations. Hence, they have their own interests in artificially increasing arrests of so-called Naxals.

Q: So, this method of re-arresting someone is a fairly common ploy?
Ans: It is a common practice. In fact, the ex-district judge, the highest judicial authority in Gadchiroli district, has even referred to it as "a modus operandi" of the police in re-arresting Naxal accused immediately after release. The judge called it a violation of fundamental rights of the accused. In my study on these re-arrests, as part of my post graduate diploma course in Human Rights, I have illustrated cases of such accused. One tribal woman was re-arrested three times in this manner. Her total period of incarceration as an under trial was eight years!

Q: The Indian Association of People's Lawyers (IAPL) demanded an apology and compensation of 25 lakh, before the Nagpur bench of the Bombay High Court, for infringement of your fundamental rights. What happened to that writ petition?
Ans: This requires some clarification. I, as the petitioner, have demanded the apology and compensation. Some of my lawyers representing me belong to the IAPL. The IAPL is not the petitioner in my case.

Q: You have spoken in the past of the democratic space shrinking from 2004 onwards. What exactly did you meant by that?
Ans: I have spoken of the democratic space shrinking post 9/11, especially with the passage of the Prevention of Terrorist Activities Act (POTA). POTA included a list of organizations and parties as proscribed. When POTA was repealed and UAPA passed in 2004, all such chapters were merely reproduced in the new law. The list of proscribed organizations, for example, was exactly the same as in POTA. The problem with banning organizations is it basically bans a particular ideology. A 'thought' becomes an offence under this new law. Hence, any organization or person subscribing to the radical left or Islam is construed as a Naxal or Jehadi. In my case, I was arrested on the grounds that literature such as magazines, interviews of Arundhati Roy, etc were seized from me. These special anti-terror laws such as UAPA or the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) give unbridled power to the police to arrest, abduct, kill or force "disappearance" on any dissent they see as a threat. Ever since our Prime Minister and Home Minister declared the Maoist movement as the "single biggest internal security threat", the police machinery is keen to see 'red' in all peoples' movements. The banning of ideologies only drives them underground and is never an acceptable long-term solution. The rationale behind this attack on the Maoist movement is related to the compulsion of big corporations to exploit the mineral rich deposits of central India. I won't go further on this topic as it is worthy of another interview.

Q: Could you tell me about alleged human rights violations you noticed during your term in prison?
Ans: Life in prison brought me in touch with the realities of our criminal justice system. Things I had earlier read, I now experienced. Archaic prison rules and practices, followed since British times to discipline 'uncivilized natives' rather than reform civilians, abound. Every procedure from the admission of new inmates to routines of eating and sleeping are done with an aim to degrade the inmate. The strip searches, overcrowded barracks, attitude of officials, medical facilities, etc. all violate human dignity. On the other hand, the judicial process too is skewed against the poor. Hundreds are denied bail for frivolous reasons. Money decides the nature and duration of the judicial process and also its outcome. Prison was filled mainly with the poor and marginalized.

Q: How do you spend your time these days? What keeps you occupied?
Ans: It has been almost four months since my release. Life was chaotic at first. The monotonous routine of waking up, opening of the barracks, rations served and the day coming to an end with the closing of barracks was suddenly substituted with unexpected phone calls, television shows and visitors. It made me realize how totally unsuccessful prisons are in preparing a person for society. Incarceration of four years and eight months temporarily incapacitated me. I wonder how those who are released after 20-25 years cope with life.I pass much of my time getting back into life - enjoying time with family and friends, reading, watching movies and having discussions with other political and social activists. The biggest fear is of further action by the State. The fear that Big Brother is watching every step I take, waiting for every opportunity to throw me back into prison for another five years or more, searching for other avenues to silence my voice. From the experience of other political prisoners who have been released, I take this fear as a real threat. On the other hand, I have received tremendous support from many over the past four months. Sharing my experiences with them has been an eye-opener. For activists involved in the struggle for true democracy, my release has been their victory. Nevertheless, like me, there are many others who remain incarcerated, tangled in numerous criminal proceedings. During the past few months, I have been helping in legal efforts for their release.

Q: Do you think your case was represented adequately or unfairly by the media? Did you get a chance to put across your point of view?
Ans: My experience with the media regarding my arrest and incarceration has been conflicting. After my initial arrest, the media mainly carried unconfirmed stories mouthed by the police. It added to the fear and apprehension family, my friends and I went through. Some sections of the press even prodded the police department to take more aggressive postures. At the same time, voices in support of me were merely quelled by this din.On the other hand, after my re-arrest in September 2011, it was the voice of support that was loudest in the media. Images of my abduction were well carried by the media and hit the consciousness of the common man hard. Sympathetic sections campaigned for my cause. Some fellow activists even used social media to generate support. All this was definitely instrumental in bringing about my release. As in all instances of human rights violations, publicity helps contain further atrocities. In my case too, the media played a supportive role.

- Lindsay Pereira is Editor, MiD DAY Online (twitter.com/lindsaypereira)

In his first public appearance after getting bail, Arun Ferreira spoke about the plight of political prisoners in India, at an event held by the Committee For Release of Political Prisoners in Mumbai at the Press Club in the city. During the press conference, Ferreira was asked if he was in favour of violence, to which he replied, "There are movements which were meant to be non-violent. Due to circumstances, violence creeps in. In such a scenario, it is not right for one to back out from the movement. At least, I wouldn't
do that."

Red Alert!
A retired Army officer moves the Supreme Court to restrain the Orissa government from releasing jailed Naxals in exchange for an abducted MLA. SC agrees to hear the PIL on Orissa’s hostage crisis today. - Agencies 

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