In the morning on 28 August, the Pune Police conducted raids at the houses of several activists, lawyers, and writers across the country, in Mumbai, Delhi, Ranchi, Hyderabad and Goa. Those whose houses were raided include the trade unionist and lawyer Sudha Bharadwaj, the writer and activist Gautam Navlakha, the activist and lawyer Vernon Gonsalvez, the human-rights activist Arun Ferreira, the advocate Susan Abraham, the Marxist intellectual and writer Varavara Rao, the writer Anand Teltumbde, the journalist Kranthi Tekula, and the Jesuit priest and activist Stan Swamy, several of whom were also arrested through the course of the day. Some of the arrests have been made under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, and the police action is reportedly related to the arrests made in June this year, in connection to the violence in Bhima Koregaon in January.
Arun Ferreira, a human-rights activist based in Thane, reportedly said that he had been “arrested in the same case as Dhawale and Gadling”—Sudhir Dhawale and Surendra Gadling were among the five arrested in June. Ferreira was earlier arrested in 2007, on allegations of being a “Naxalite” and subsequently spent over four years in jail before being acquitted in 2012. In his recent book Republic of Caste, the activist and writer Anand Teltumbde—whose residence in Goa was among those listed for raids by the Pune Police—discusses how the Indian government’s approach to Maoist rebels is marked by a fear of the “grass-roots level dissent” that it represents. Teltumbde looks at Ferreira’s arrest as an example of the state’s attempt to curtail such dissent. He writes, “The state has exerted all its might to discredit and eliminate individuals it deems a threat to its apparatus.”
In the film A Huey P. Newton Story (2001) on the life of Huey Newton who along with Bobby Seale founded the left-wing Black Panther Party for Self Defense in October 1966, Newton, played by Roger Guenveur Smith, makes a perceptive observation:
If you read the FBI files you will see that even Mr J. Edgar Hoover himself had to say that it was not the guns that were the greatest threat to the internal security of the United States of America … it was the Free Children’s Breakfast Program.
The Free Breakfast for School Children Program, a seemingly ordinary community welfare scheme, was launched by the Black Panther Party in January 1969 to feed a handful of kids at St Augustine’s Church in Oakland, California. It became so popular that by the end of the year, the programme had spread to 19 cities where more than ten thousand children were fed free breakfast (bread, bacon, eggs, grits) every day before going to school. While the programme operated in predominantly black neighbourhoods, children of other communities, including those of partly middle-class localities in Seattle, were also fed. It raised public consciousness about hunger and poverty in America, and also brought people closer to the social mission envisioned by the founders of the Black Panther Party. The programme’s success spoke volumes about the needs of the black community, and the national reach and capacity of the party. It exposed government inaction towards the problems of the poor, by highlighting the inadequacies of the federal government’s lunch programmes in public schools across the country. Despite, or rather on account of, its success, federal authorities attempted to clamp down on the breakfast programme. In a giveaway of the security establishment’s mindset, the director of the FBI, J Edgar Hoover, noted it as an “infiltration”—an intrusion into the domain of the state even if the state was disregarding its obligation towards the welfare of a certain class of citizens.
This is precisely how the Indian government thinks about the naxalites. It is worried about the prospects laid bare by such an expression of grass-roots level dissent. It is not afraid of the guns of the naxalites; it is afraid of the counterpoint they represent. Naxalite ideology—whatever that may be—holds no terror for the state, but the simple fact of dissent does: be it an uncompromising recognition of or disagreement with the state’s anti-people policies. Taking up the cudgels for the poor, speaking against the violation of democratic rights or questioning the constitutionality of government actions do not go down well with the Indian state. In a masterfully designed false equation, it labels as naxalites or Maoists—synonymous with enemies of the state— those who pose the “greatest threat to national security.” The status of naxalites as enemies of the state ends up being doubly affirmed and shifts beyond the realm of disputation. To choke such dissent, the state has exerted all its might to discredit and eliminate individuals it deems a threat to its apparatus.
Arun Ferreira, a member of the Deshbhakti Yuva Manch (Forum for Patriotic Youth), perceived as a “Maoist front” by the state, spent nearly five years in jail undergoing all the torture that comes with the Maoist label. He was eventually acquitted by the court in all 11 cases slapped against him—new charges having been filed after the collapse of every previous case. Ferreira’s case was no exception and the Maharashtra police was acting true to type.
Ferreira was arrested by the Anti-Terrorist Squad in Nagpur on 8 May 2007 along with Ashok Satyam Reddy alias Murli at Deekshabhoomi in Nagpur, armed with such deadly weapons as a pen drive and leftist literature. To justify their action, the police concocted a story that they were plotting to blow up the Ambedkar Memorial there on Dussehra, when Ambedkarites congregate in large numbers to commemorate their liberation from Hinduism. The police were resorting to the most hideous lies to induce hatred among the Ambedkarite youth who had joined the Maoists in significant numbers in the Vidarbha region.
As Ferreira revealed at his press conference in Mumbai on 11 January 2012, the police had used various techniques of causing bodily pain without leaving any visible injuries. He was subjected to narco tests, not once but twice, despite scientific question marks over the value of information derived from such tests. The staff administering the tests in Bangalore were already infamous for producing data tailor-made to suit the police case. The results of his narco-analysis were to prove a trifle inconvenient to his inquisitors. Stupefied with drugs, he revealed inter alia that Maoist activities in Maharashtra were funded by Bal Thackeray, news that made it out and caused a sensation. When the mere mention of a name by an alleged Maoist is sufficient grounds for arresting a person, should not the alleged bankroller of Maoism have been arrested and subjected to investigation, with a little narco-analysis thrown in? Ferreira was charged in nine naxal-related crimes, from murder and sedition to planting bombs, and of course under sundry sections of the UAPA. In over four years of legal battle, the court did not find a shred of evidence against him and he was acquitted in all the cases.
Ferreira’s ordeal illustrates the blatant illegality of the actions of the police. With his arrest, they violated his fundamental right to liberty, expression and more importantly, life (which also covers the deprivation of personal liberty), guaranteed by the Constitution. This was followed by a series of unlawful acts: in threatening his friends with dire consequences if they voiced their support, torturing him in custody, forging his signature on the consent form for the narco test, concocting false charges against him, making a series of false representations before courts, kidnapping him after his release from jail, manhandling his lawyers, and much more. No charge against Ferreira could stick but the police still managed to hold him in jail for well over four years. Ferreira gained media attention because he was from Mumbai, from the middle class dream suburb of Bandra, and educated at the elite St Xavier’s College. Because he could afford it, Ferreira has sued the state—and rightly so—for infringing his fundamental rights to liberty and freedom of movement, and demanded an apology and compensation of Rs 25 lakh. Dalit and adivasi victims of the state’s criminality have no option other than to meekly swallow the injustice of the system.
This is an extract from Republic of Caste: Thinking Equality in the Time of Neoliberal Hindutva, written by Anand Teltumbde and published by Navayana. The extract has been condensed.
Anand Teltumbde is a civil-rights activist, political analyst, and author of many books. He also writes a column “Margin Speak” in Economic & Political Weekly.