Tuesday, August 21, 2012

What the Seema Azad verdict says about us

It has been a while now since Seema Azad and her husband, Vishwa Vijay, were first sentenced to life imprisonment by a UP sessions court and then granted bail by the Allahabad High Court. The case did not get as much attention in the national media as the Binayak Sen case (2007-11), but the PUCL and other democratic organizations fought consistently through the years of their incarceration for their freedom and vindication. They are social activists in UP who have written extensively on illegal mining in the state and have worked several years to highlight instances of state oppression and injustice. At the time of her arrest, Seema was the organizing secretary of the state unit of the PUCL. They were arrested in February 2010 and charged with being members and supporters of the banned CPI (Maoist). On June 8, 2012, after they had spent two years in jail without reprieve, the Allahabad sessions court found them guilty and sentenced them to life imprisonment. The verdict was based primarily on the so-called "pro-Maoist" literature recovered from their residence and a purported confession made in police custody (which is inadmissible by law). While a lot of the literature cited as incriminatory in court was essentially political in nature (it's an ironic comment on Indian "democracy" that anything remotely to do with social justice is selectively interpreted as inflammatory or "seditious", re sec. 124-A of the IPC), the judge also reportedly admitted the confession as valid and based his judgment on it. The high court, in granting her bail earlier this month, obviously took note of these anomalies; however, the appeal against the sessions court verdict, given the pace of judicial review, will now only come before the high court much later (some estimate that it may even take 30 years).

What does the verdict say about us? That we are essentially an undemocratic and repressive police state with a judicial system that often contradicts itself and undermines its own stated principles?

The Supreme Court has set several precedents (e.g. Kedar Nath Singh v. State of Bihar, 1962) that delimit the law of sedition (eliminating any factors that do not survive the test of free speech guaranteed by the constitution) and has established, through various judgments, the fact that mere membership of a banned organization does not by itself constitute a crime. There is virtually no plausible explanation for the fact that so many people are sentenced to jail on non-existent, untenable or fabricated evidence despite a clear and unambiguous history of judicial review that impugns such judgments and unequivocally rejects the doctrine of "guilt by association" (especially if such association is patently fabricated and specious).

However, this isn't primarily about the judicial process. The police persecute social activists and the state actively sanctions their persecution, with government after government supporting the existence and continuance of draconian "anti-terror" laws. This is primarily about the suppression of dissent and the punishment of those who speak out against oppression. While almost all liberal democratic countries have done away with the crime of "sedition", Indian citizens continue to languish in jail on the basis of such obsolete and insidious colonial-era laws as the one on sedition. The Indian state thrives on the brutal suppression of dissent and of those who question or obstruct its path of expropriation, exclusion and even annihilation. There are thousands of people trapped in jails across the country on false cases and false allegations, simply because they chose to question the logic of exploitation and fight against their oppression. Moreover, the persecution of activists and human rights workers slips in and out of mainstream national discourse, and due to decreased and inconsistent media scrutiny, many instances remain unreported, hidden and ignored. We have grown accustomed to state violence and see nothing special about lives wasted in jail. What this verdict says about us is that we live under active state repression and our democracy is constantly besieged by internal, implosive forces. 

Friday, August 17, 2012

Mass exodus

Thousands of migrant workers and students from the north-east are fleeing the southern cities now, particularly Mumbai, Bangalore, Hyderabad and Chennai. For the past few days, there have been stampedes at railway stations crammed with multitudes of people desperately waiting for a number of specially scheduled trains to take them back to Guwahati. Every such train that arrives at Bangalore railway station precipitates a virtual stampede, with thousands of panic-stricken passengers, with or without tickets, pushing into overcrowded compartments. Railway platforms have become veritable makeshift camps, with stranded passengers anxiously waiting to board the next train, uncertain about the possibility of making it in time. To ameliorate the situation, the railway authorities have arranged for additional services but these are nowhere near commensurate with the sudden and tremendous upsurge in demand. Yesterday, there were 7,500 ticketed passengers boarding four Guwahati-bound trains in Bangalore, including three special trains apart from the regular Banglore-Guwahati Express. Workers, students, professionals from the north-east are reluctant to go back to their lives in Mumbai, Bangalore and Chennai (and towns like Madurai, Coimbatore and others). The perceptible threat of ethnic conflict in the air makes any pretense of normalcy impossible.

What is particularly insidious about this "threat" is that it's been instigated by "rumours" and the circulation of doctored videos. A report in the papers yesterday quoted from a Pakistani blogger's study of the videos doing the rounds in Indian cities, which found that the videos, purportedly of the Bodo-Muslim conflict in Assam, contained a number of shots from previous incidents of violence from other places. These videos were not of the Assam riots but were circulated as "evidence" of the atrocities committed in Assam. While hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced from their homes in Assam and continue to languish in makeshift IDP camps, these calculated attempts to incite further violence in other parts of the country are opportunistic and extremely dangerous. North-eastern migrant workers in Chennai speak of "rumours" and implicit threats to leave the city by August 20. In Mumbai, 58 policemen and 5 civilians were injured when a crowd clashed with the police at a protest meeting organized by the Raza Academy in Azad Maidan. Two people died in the police firing that followed.

The home minister of Karnataka arrived at the railway station in Bangalore on Wednesday evening and made an appeal to the passengers to return to their homes in the city. He assured them that security would be maintained at all costs. His appeal was drowned out by the angry responses of the passengers. The police held meetings on Thursday with north-eastern and Muslim representatives. The fact of the matter is that no ethnic conflict in the past has been mitigated by police vigilance. The people, fearing for their safety in a polarized and violent political climate, have no alternative but to rush back "home" and hope for some semblance of normalcy and security.