Draconian Laws, Including Ghosts of Lapsed Laws Haunt Our Democracy

Citizens Speak Out Against TADA, POTA and AFSPA

6 August 2004 , New Delhi

Organised By Forum For Democratic Initiatives (FDI)

Arundhati Roy speaking at the ConventionIt came as a shock to the citizens of the country that in spite of the tall claims of not having implemented the draconian POTA in Bihar , the government, administration and police in the state have been using the lapsed law TADA, to imprison and victimise political activists and agrarian poor. These violations could be carried out because the government did not withdraw the TADA cases after it lapsed but instead allowed the states to apply their own discretion. This left ample scope for the rich and the powerful to escape while allowing the police and administration to crackdown upon the asserting poor and those organising them.

Since the NDA government introduced POTA through an unprecedented joint session of the parliament, several political parties have expressed their opinion against POTA. Though no action has been taken as yet, the UPA government after assuming power has announced the withdrawal of POTA. However this also been announced prospectively and not with retrospective effect as has been the demand of dozens of civil liberty organisation and human rights groups who have pointed out violations in case after case. The fate of thousands of innocents across the country, who have been booked under POTA, continues to hang in uncertainty, particularly in the light of the fate of the TADA prisoners of Bihar, who found no justice even after the law that they had been booked under had long lapsed, since the cases against them were never withdrawn.

Students Protest Against Witch-Hunt in Universities

The e BJP regime was notorious for the crackdown on freedom of expression, dissent and democratic rights. With the change of regime, however little one might expect of the UPA, people hoped that the more obvious communal offensive on public institutions and spaces, and the witch-hunting of minorities, would end.

But such hopes turned out to be quite misplaced. Recently, an Exhibition titled “Lies of our Times”, exposing the lies told by the Indian State in order to frame DU lecturer SAR Geelani in the Parliament Bombing case, was banned in Delhi University by the DU VC, under pressure from the saffron hooligans of the ABVP and the Delhi Police ‘Special Branch'. Geelani was also due to address a Seminar chaired by renowned historian Sumit Sarkar, but this too was banned.

Geelani was given the death sentence on non-existent evidence, but was acquitted by the High Court, after a sustained campaign launched by the All India Defence Committee for SAR Geelani. Some DU teachers too mobilised support for Geelani, though the CPI(M)-led DUTA initially demanded Geelani's suspension from his College instead of defending their own Union member! Since his acquittal, he has been campaigning for the rights of Kashmiri political prisoners within Indian jails.

On campuses, what was remarkable was the fact that the ABVP could only mobilise a tiny handful of its own core leaders – it could whip up no hate campaign against Geelani. In Zakir Hussain College , the only DU College which did not cancel bookings for the events, 500 students turned up to hear him. In JNU, ABVP mobilised around 40 lumpens who threatened violence and tried to block Geelani from entering the venue of the Public Meeting he was due to address. But nearly 800 students turned out to hear him, giving him a warm welcome, marching in protest against the disruption, ensuring that he spoke, and eventually giving him safe passage cordoned in a massive human chain.

The UPA, which has said it will repeal POTA, has refused to withdraw cases retrospectively. This means that Geelani will continue to have the noose of POTA dangling over his neck. The UPA is trying as hard as its predecessor to get Geelani's acquittal reversed by the Supreme Court.

And the police and Special Branch witch-hunt of Kashmiri Muslims continues. In Jamia Millia Islamia, a teacher of the Polytechnic, Sajjad Lone and his 21 year-old sister Rukhsana Ahmad, a student of Jamia Hamdard, were picked up for ‘questioning' by the police one night, and were released in the morning when nothing could be found against them. Recall how the journalist Iftikhar Geelani was framed a few years back. In the Jamia case, it was students of the Polytechnic who, with their class boycott, forced media to cover the Police harassment of Lone.

If 9 years after TADA has lapsed, activists, children and agrarian poor can be picked up and tried under the law, what is there to assure that a child booked under POTA would not be tried under the law 20 years from now? Why is it that black laws are being served on a platter to the police and administration, for strangling the democratic voices of those engaged in the struggle for social change? Addressing these questions a broad spectrum of political leaders from the Left and prominent citizens from all walks of life including jurists, advocates, human rights activists, academicians, artists, writers, journalists and students joined the convention, called on 6 August 2004, in New Delhi by Forum for Democratic Initiatives (FDI). The convention endorsed by the speakers and participants called for a nationwide movement against the murder of democracy through black laws like TADA and POTA. Speaker after speaker demanded the repeal of POTA and TADA retrospectively and condemned the Bihar Government for not withdrawing the TADA charges against activists and agrarian labourers of Jehanabad, Bihar . The convention also discussed the situation in Manipur and passed a resolution demanding the repeal of AFSPA, which has left the North Eastern states under the terror of Army rule.

The convention was chaired by eminent journalist and human rights activist Kuldeep Nayyar and addressed by a host of political leaders and prominent citizens from Delhi . The meeting was addressed by CPI-ML General Secretary Dipankar Bhattacharya, CPI-M Parliamentarian Dipankar Mukherjee, RSP leader and MP Abani Roy, Forward Bloc leader Devararjan, CPI leader Atul Anjan, Justice Rajinder Sachar, writer and activist Arundhati Roy, Editor of Mainstream Sumit Chakravarty, Supreme Court lawyers Nandita Haksar and Prashant Bhushan, Associate Editor of EPW Gautam Navlakha, JNU Professor Kamal Mitra Chenoy, Delhi University teacher Tripta Wahi and those battling POTA, TADA and AFSPA like DU lecturer SAR Geelani , CPI-ML activist from Jehanabad, Mahanand Prasad and a representative of Manipuri Students Association of Delhi, Seram Rojesh. The Convention was conducted by Radhika Menon, Convenor of FDI.

Initiating the discussion, eminent jurist, Rajinder Sachar said that the UPA government's failure to repeal POTA retrospectively and its attempt to retain some of its clauses through other laws is an instance of its ‘hypocrisy in politics'.

CPI-ML activist and leader from Jehanabad, Mahanand Prasad presented a detailed account of the repression of agricultural labourers by the feudal-kulak-criminal-police nexus which was enjoying the protection of the state government. He said that this nexus led to the conviction for life of 14 activists of CPI-ML and implication of 17 others who are still awaiting trial, in a case where the dalits and agricultural labourers led a wage struggle and resisted the tyranny of a landlord who forced a dalit youth to lick spit. He described the Arwal TADA case of 1988, in which a dispute over the harvest of water-chestnut pond became an excuse for booking leaders of agrarian and democratic struggles under TADA. The main accused in this case is Shah Chand, who along with 13 others have been sentenced to life imprisonment imposing TADA on innocent citizens arrested at random which included two children aged 13 and 14 years, as well as local by a TADA court. Shah Chand, is the founding secretary of Inquilabi Muslim Conference, and a former mukhiya of Bhadasi village, whose work to introduce innovations in canal irrigation and free development work from corruption was hailed by the official quarters as the “Chand Model”. Shah Chand and 13 others are in jail today, after the Supreme Court upheld the TADA court judgement in which possession of easily available Marxist and Kisan Sabha literature was cited as the sole ‘evidence' for their being “terrorists”!

Mahanand narrated the events that led to another case from Jehanabad, where 17 agricultural labourers are facing trial today, under TADA. They had been charged under TADA in 1989, when they complained to a labour inspector and led an agitation against a landlord, who had planted a dead cow outside the house of a dalit labourer, and forced another to “lick spit” in public. He questioned the intent of the “social justice” government of RJD, a key ally of the UPA, which had chosen to open TADA cases against the likes of Shankar Mehtar, a sweeper, Vijay Paswan and other dalit labourers, whose only crime was that of protesting against humiliations and paltry wages imposed by feudal landlords- a matter of shame for independent India. Mahanand notably pointed out that the TADA case, in that very district of Bihar, against the notorious Ramadhar Singh, the chief of ‘Sawarn Liberation Front', a private army of upper caste landlords and the prime accused in the Sawanbigha massacre was withdrawn by the same RJD government.

CPI-ML General Secretary Dipankar Bhattacharya hailed the people of Manipur and the rural poor of Bihar and others, who had paid with their blood, their liberty and their lives to make laws like TADA, POTA, AFSPA a national issue. He said it was sustained protests alone that have made violations a matter of national concern. He recalled the unrelenting struggle of the people of Bihar , including those who are today imprisoned under TADA, that made the police firing on labourers in Arwal a national issue. He said that today it was the protests sparked by Manorama Devi's killing that has forced the horrors of AFSPA onto the consciousness of the nation. He said that the democratic forces in the country, who had made POTA an issue in the elections, were now being taken for granted and stressed the need for mass movements to exert pressure on the govt. He called upon people to participate in the various campaigns to bring justice to the wronged TADA victims and visit Jehanabad to see the situation for themselves first hand.

CPI-M leader Dipankar Mukherjee, Forward Block leader Devarajan, CPI leader Atul Anjan, and RSP parliamentarian Abani Roy expressed solidarity with the struggles against black laws. Abani Roy questioned the definition of terrorism, saying even Bhagat Singh was branded a terrorist by colonialists, and today workers and poor peasants are being booked under “Terror Laws”. He said that capitalist states did not consider the masses to be humans and capitalists of the world have united through globalisation and have resorted to newer forms of repression through agreements like WTO. He stressed the need to fight unitedly against TADA and POTA. Dipankar Mukherjee pointed out with examples how ordinary corporate laws were becoming terror laws for workers.

Speaking at the Convention writer Arundhati Roy said that India was showing the world how laws on terrorism can be used. For the US , terrorism replaced communism as a bogey to justify imperialist aggression. In their view, “terrorism” means those who resist colonial occupation. She said all over the world, poverty, too is conflated with “terrorism”. She drew attention to the machinations of neo-liberal capitalism and its functioning, which imposes one law after another to suppress those who resist it. Taking a dig at the UPA government's announcements that it would not withdraw POTA retrospectively, she claimed that POTA may go but mota (intending the Hindi pun) would be in. She said that to view these laws as mere “human rights violations” is to wish away their political implications. The machine that assaults the poor, the colonised and the minority cannot be reduced to ‘Bush' or ‘BJP', said the writer, calling for a movement against the system itself.

Supreme Court lawyer Nandita Haksar cautioned against the trend in the human rights movement to divorce the struggle against such laws from the politics that surround it. She said it is to be remembered, that the ruling political establishment would not guarantee the democratic space for rising in favour of people's interest, even if TADA and POTA were removed. She reiterated the need to unite in the struggle against black laws.

According to DU teacher Tripta Wahi, state atrocities have been directed against minorities, dalits and agrarian labourers in particular, who do not have the ability to fight cases and circumvent loopholes in the act. She pointed out that AFPSA had been brought in during Congress rule under Nehru to suppress the nationality question in North-East. She wondered why the land reform agenda introduced in 1929 was never implemented while those who were asking for its implementation were being repressed. She spoke of how an Exhibition on the State's lies in the Parliament attack case had been banned in Delhi University and raised the issue of the thousands of youth of Punjab , Jammu and Kashmir and North-East who have gone missing.

Gautam Navlakha, Associate editor EPW, pointed out that leaders of landlord armies which massacre dalit poor are never convicted under “Terror Laws”, whereas even lapsed laws like TADA are invoked to sentence dalit landless labourers to life imprisonment and even death. He said, clearly the issue is not merely of ‘civil liberties' but one of politics - since such laws had the political intention of snuffing out specific movements. He said the judicial procedures need to be probed as well, as there have been three-judge benches which have given verdicts of death sentence against 4 dalit landless labourers, even when one of the judges has said that the quality of evidence cited before the court was appalling.

DU lecturer SAR Geelani spoke of systematic shrinkage of democratic space in India , saying that India could be considered “free” only if it was truly democratic. He said laws like TADA, POTA, AFSPA were a threat to each citizen, not just Kashmiris, Manipuris or the dalit poor of Andhra and Bihar . Alluding to the criminal nexus between the police and judiciary he said that black laws permitted statements to be taken from the victims in a state of duress.

Prof. Kamal Mitra Chenoy of JNU pointed out that the ruling class always brands class struggles as “anti-national”, and uses “national security” as an excuse to crush dissent. When such laws are contested by the civil liberties groups in the Supreme Court they have always been upheld by the latter because of the stated objective of dealing with terrorism. He said that while international agreements like WTO are complied with, there is no conformance to international human rights laws. The AFPSA, which was brought in as a temporary measure continues to be used even 50 years later. It is high time that black laws, which lead to human rights violations, be denounced as anti-national.

Supreme Court lawyer Prashant Bhushan said that most of the cases of TADA were in states like Gujarat , which were not affected by terrorism. The arbitrariness of TADA is evident from the fact that only one percent of the arrested was convicted. Referring to the TADA case where 14 activists of CPI-ML had been given life sentences, he said his study of the case indicated that it was completely unfair. He said that even as talks of repealing POTA were on, there were apprehensions that anti-people provisions of POTA would be included in the Indian Penal Code to eliminate the need for establishment of a separate draconian law like POTA. He pointed out that the police and law and order machinery in the country is able to undermine democracy even without these laws and emphasised the inherent bias in our criminal jurisprudence, whereby white-collar criminals roam free under bail and have their cases withdrawn by buying witnesses and even judges off, while the poor are implicated in false cases and end up fighting losing legal battles for years.

Seram, a representative of the Manipur Students Association, Delhi while addressing the Convention said that the AFSPA which legitimised state repression is more dangerous than colonial laws. The procedural provisions of the act like detention without formal charges on the basis of suspicion and admitting confessions to the hawaldar as evidence is unjust in regard to the accused. He appealed that the law be repealed in toto and not just withdrawn from the Central part of Manipur.

Civil libertian and eminent lawyer ND Pancholi, Social scientist Yogendra Yadav, Historian Uma Chakravarty, Film Makers Sanjay Kak, Pankaj Butalia, and Shri Prakash, writers Pankaj Bisht and Pankaj Singh, journalists Latha Jishnu, Satya Sivaraman, Anil Chamadia also participated in the convention.

The Chair, Kuldeep Nayyar concluded by calling for a movement, not simply against the draconian Laws but against the system which branded the movements of the poor and marginalised as “terrorism”. He appealed to the leaders of the Left parties, who were supporting the government, to exert a greater pressure on the UPA government to withdraw TADA and POTA retrospectively. He also expressed the feeling that if the government does not pay any serious attention to this issue, they should resign from the Coordination Committee of the UPA in protest against the continued use of such draconian laws.

The Convention passed a series of resolutions:

* withdraw all cases of TADA and POTA with retrospective effect, remitting sentences against those convicted under these laws.

* aid and ensure the immediate and unconditional release of the 14 convicted for life in the Arwal case and the 4 dalits sentenced to death in the Bara case.

* harshest punishment for custodial rape and murder by army officials, as in the case of Manorama Devi.

At the Convention, 297 persons from various walks of life endorsed the resolutions.