In the Shadow of a Police State…
Saffron Witch-hunt of CPI(ML) in Jharkhand
The CPI(ML) General Secretary Comrade Dipankar Bhattacharya is the latest target of the BJP Government's witch-hunt of CPI(ML) leaders in Jharkhand. Comrade Dipankar along with four others face the prospect of conviction under a range of charges including that of attempted murder. Their crime? They led a March to the Assembly of the newly formed Jharkhand State on March 1, 2001 to protest against a spate of incidents of police brutality, including the infamous and unprovoked firing on Muslim youth at Doranda and on tribals at Tapkara protesting displacement by the Koel Karo Dam. Charges have been framed before a fast-track court in Ranchi, charging CPI(ML) leaders and activists – Comrade Dipankar Bhattacharya (General Secretary, CPIML), Om Prakash, Harsh Narayan Singh and Sita Ram Singh as well as Motu Oraon, a labouring tribal youth who was a bystander, under Section 147, 114, 148, 149, 353, 323, 324, 307, 188, 431 of the IPC and Section 17 of the CLA (Criminal Law Amendment Act). The CLA is incidentally a draconian act (which came into force between TADA and POTA), which, despite being repealed, nevertheless continues to be frequently invoked in Jharkhand.
For the General Secretary of a recognised political party, leading a political protest to voice certain issues before a representative Assembly, to be charged with ‘abetting attempted murder', is probably unprecedented in the annals of Indian politics. The only comparable precedent can be found in the arrests of political leaders during Emergency. How does one explain this outrageous event?
Protest Against Police Raj Meets Crackdown and Persecution
The BJP Government in Jharkhand in 2001 showed its true colours soon after its precarious rise to power – with its police unleashing terror not only against minorities but also against the very tribals in the name of which the new State had been formed. The police firing at Doranda, Kurpania and Tapkara sparked off anger not only in Jharkhand, but all over the country. It was to express this spirit of protest, and to appeal to the people's representatives in the Jharkhand Assembly to uphold the aspirations and demands of the Jharkhandi people, that thousands of people under the banner of CPI(ML) marched to the Assembly on March 1. This mass act of public political protest, instead of meeting with a political response, was greeted with repression, political victimisation and witch-hunt. The Assembly March was brutally lathicharged; newspapers carried photographs of dozens of CPI(ML) activists lying bloody and battered, and of the police dragging CPI(ML) General Secretary Dipankar Bhattacharya and late Comrade Mahendra Singh (then CPIML's lone MLA in the Jharkhand Assembly) by their clothes and hair. Comrade Dipankar was detained in judicial custody in jail for a week, and false charges were slapped against the arrested activists.
Now, charges have been framed and the Jharkhand Government is pursuing these false cases assiduously. Note that the Jharkhand Government has dropped the cases against several activists of the Jharkhand movement, and even against leaders of the Ram Janmabhoomi agitation; in contrast, it is outrageous that it is choosing to retain and pursue false criminal cases against leaders of the CPI(ML).
The CPI(ML) March to the Assembly was to protest against police brutality. In response to this democratic challenge seeking to check their high-handedness, the Jharkhand police brutalised the protestors and slapped false cases on the leaders. All witnesses in the case are police witnesses, and entire case has clearly been fabricated by a vindictive police. Political slogans raised by the marchers – ‘Punish the police officials guilty for Tapkara firing', ‘Gherao the Assembly, Punish the Killers' and ‘Scrap the Koel Karo Project' were addressed to the Government, demanding action against the police firing and resisting displacement of tribals in the tribals' own State. The seizure material cited by the police shows banners and placards with these political slogans. At the same time, the police have claimed that Comrade Dipankar and other activists were ‘inciting' protestors for a murderous attack on police and Assembly. The Jharkhand Police seems to imply that such political slogans amount to ‘incitement' to murder?! The Jharkhand Government of the BJP backed the police terror to the hilt in 2001. Subsequently, we saw how the notorious SP Dipak Varma masterminded several political murders – of advocate Prashant Sahay and Comrade Mahendra Singh. The the saffron Government in Jharkhand and its corrupt, trigger-happy and murderous police force has launched an all-out assault against people's movements and their leaders. By allowing the police to persecute leaders of democratic movements in this audacious manner, the BJP Government in Jharkhand wants to block out all spaces of democratic dissent against police atrocities and State terror and turn Jharkhand into a police state.
In the interests of political freedom and democracy, it is imperative that the Jharkhand State Government withdraw all cases relating to the Assembly March of 2001 against the activists and leaders of the CPI(ML). Democratic forces all over Jharkhand and India must make sure that the saffron persecution meets a fitting challenge.
Why is the CPI(ML) on the BJP Hit List?
The CPI(ML)'s Gherao of the Jharkhand Assembly was a high point of a sustained and spirited resistance to the repression that had marked the birth of the Jharkhand State . The crackdown on the Gherao was an early attempt to crush the CPI(ML)'s growing challenge.
The State of Jharkhand had been formed in November 2000, and a shaky new BJP Government with a wafer-thin majority, headed by Babulal Marandi, had been installed. Right from the start the Marandi Government behaved like a Government under siege, living in fear of its own people, rather than like a popular elected Government celebrating the culmination of long people's struggle for a new State. The new Government took oath behind closed doors in a high-security auditorium, far from the public gaze, citing the threat of a Naxalite attack. The then Home Minister Advani had advised the Marandi Government that its primary task must be to break the backbone of Naxalism. On the ground, naturally, this translated to a war on the rural and tribal poor, minorities as well as on popular leaders of the ML movement.
On November 30, 30,000 people marched in the CPI(ML)'s Nav Nirman Rally in Ranchi , setting a radical agenda for the new Jharkhand. At that Rally, Comrade Dipankar gave a call for a satte-wide bandh on December 6 (the day of the demolition of the Babri Masjid), to protest against the appointment of Prabhat Kumar (the man who was Chief Secretary in UP during the Babri Demolition) as Governor. The bandh call, supported by most of the opposition forces in Jharkhand, evoked a tremendous response, with youth on the streets defying RSS goons to support the bandh.
The first 100 days of BJP rule were marked by a series of police firings, revealing the new Government's hatred and fear of the State's considerable Christian and Muslim population as well as it tribal people. The CPI(ML) was at the forefront of protest at every incident.
On 28 December 2000, barely a month after the first Jharkhand Government took oath, four Muslim youth, who were part of a crowd protesting against the killing of a 5 year-old girl run over by a BMP vehicle, were gunned down in Doranda on the day of Id – right in the middle of Ranchi town. Following this daylight murder by the police, thousands came out on the streets in protest. The police promptly communalised the situation, allowing the RSS to hold provocative processions while imposing curfew in Muslim localities. The CRPF-RAF went on a rampage, arresting and harassing Muslim youth all night. It was the CPI(ML) which again called for a bandh against this communal witch hunt by the police (as well as against the Tapkara firing) – and most opposition forces responded. The Marandi Government peddled the stale rumour of a lungi-clad ‘ISI agent' instigating trouble at Doranda.
Kurpania Rape and Police Cover-Up and Crackdown
A nun who taught in a girls' school in the Kurpania area of Bokaro, was brutally gang raped. Repeated attacks on churches and missionaries in Jharkhand by the Sangh Parivar had marked Christians as easy game. The rape, coming on the heels of such attacks, sparked off several protests. Tribal students protesting in the capital of Ranchi were lathicharged by the police. The police also conspired to deny the rape by doctoring the medical report, even though the main accused had confessed to the rape.
Murder of Dhobi Termed ‘Encounter' with Extremist
A poor dhobi, Jayram Rajak, was killed in broad daylight by police in Bokaro Steel City on 22 January 2001, on the flimsy excuse that he had been drunk and creating a nuisance in the neighbourhood. The police tried to get rid of the body without a postmortem, but was foiled by workers led by CPI(ML), who put up a determined protest. Initially, the police spread the story that an extremist had been killed, but the district administration was eventually forced to suspend the three police officers guilty of the crime and file criminal cases against them.
Tribals Resisting Displacement Gunned Down at Tapkara
Tapkara in the Torpe Block of Ranchi district had been a major centre of the 20-year-old struggle of tribals against the Koel Karo dam which threatened to displace thousands of tribal homes and entire villages. The Marandi Government had announced that they would revive the work on the Koel Karo project, which had been stalled due to the tribals' movement. This sparked off a fresh wave of protest, and tribals at Topkara erected barricades on the Tapkara-Torpa Road to block the movement of project officials, demanding scrapping of the Koel Karo hydro-electric project. The CRPF-RAF, in an attempt to break the barricades, manhandled tribal activists. In protest, tribals gheraoed the Tapkara O.P. on January 2, 2001. The police firing that followed was like a blueprint for the Kalinganagar firing in another new year 5 years later. Eight tribals were killed and several injured, and the CPI(ML)
Here, too, police resorted to an unprovoked firing, killing 8 tribals and injuring many. The CPI(ML) called for a bandh in protest, supported by other opposition parties.
Other incidents leading upto the Assembly Gherao included the massacre of 7 dalits in Semri-banjari village in Garhwa district in a fake encounter by the police, and massive booth capturing by the CRPF-RAF and Sangh Parivar in the Ramgarh by-election contested by Babulal Marandi. This blatant attack on democracy was met by a spirited blockade of two national highways by CPI, CPI(ML) and the JMM, as well as a Jharkhand bandh on 21 February.
The Crackdown on the Assembly Gherao
The Jharkhand Assembly was in its very first budget session, and the CPI(ML) called the Assembly Gherao to confront the Government with the demand for action against those responsible for various acts of police firing, immediate scrapping of the Koel Karo project and steps to safeguard tribals from land alienation. On March 1, 3000 people led by Comrade Dipankar marched from Hatia Station towards the Assembly. At the barricade at Birsa Chowk, police launched an unprovoked and ferocious assault on the marchers, with tear gas shells, rubber bullets and lathis. Several activists were left badly injured. 40 activists were arrested including Comrade Dipankar and detained without their whereabouts being made public. Before the event at Birsa Chowk, 100 activists managed to reach the entrance of the Assembly and shout slogans. They too were severely lathicharged and arrested. Meanwhile, inside the House, Comrade Mahendra Singh led other Opposition MLAs to shout slogans in the well of the House in support of the Gherao outside. When these MLAs rushed to Birsa Chowk, even they were lathicharged, with Comrade Mahendra being specially targeted.
The CPI(ML) Assembly Gherao became the focal point for a massive Opposition upsurge – it made sure that police repression was the central agenda throughout the Assembly Session. As long as Comrade Dipankar amd others remained in jail, protestors thronged to a dharna at Albert Ekka Chowk. Activists, civil libertarians and journalists including Medha Patkar, Prabhash Joshi and former Chief Justice of Bombay HC, S M Daud, participated in the dharna and visited the activists in jail. Eventually, with the Marandi Government under huge pressure, bail orders were issued for Comrade Dipankar and other comrades. The massive democratic movement sparked off by the crackdown and the arrests culminated in a ‘Save Democracy, Save Jharkhand' March in Ranchi on March 14, in which 10,000 people participated despite Section 144 being clamped in the city and tremendous police obstruction and intimidation.
The BJP Government in Jharkhand targeted and assassinated Comrade Mahendra Singh – the most consistent democratic voice inside the Jharkhand Assembly. Their latest attempt to frame the topmost leadership of the CPI(ML) is yet another display of their commitment to a repressive police force and fear of the growing movement of the poor and tribal people of the State.