Saturday, August 23, 2008

Warriors against the State



The story of two men charged with the grave crime of treachery…

Both are bemused at the charge of support of violent terror because both have life-long fought violence…

Two men were charged in recent months with one of the gravest crimes on the statute books of the nation, of treachery, waging war against the Indian State, sedition and abetting terrorism. This is their story.

It is alleged by the Congress government in Andhra Pradesh that Lateef Mohammed Khan is what the local police like to describe as a “jehadi” terrorist. Ajay T.G. is accused by the BJP government of Chhatisgarh of abetting Maoist Naxalite insurgency. There is much that these two men share in common. They both come from relatively modest backgrounds. Unsung and relatively unknown, in quiet ways they have effectively strived fearlessly and with passion to find ways to work for what they believe to be justice, using the law of the land and constructive social resistance.

A Block Development Officer, Lateef’s father employed a Hindu Pandit to educate his children in his postings in backwater settlements where there was no school. Ajay’s father was a bidi worker in their village in Kerala. Poverty drove him to seek his fortunes in Sri Lanka, and later the steel town Bhilai in Chhatisgarh. Ajay and his mother and siblings followed their father to Bhilai, where the family first set up a tea stall, and then a small poultry farm.

Lateef was selected by the government as a school teacher, and has ever since then earned his living teaching high school children science. Ajay had a more chequered career. His father’s poultry farm fell into bankruptcy and had to close. A purely chance encounter in 1991 with an anthropologist from the London School of Economics, Jonathan Parri, landed him a job as a guide and research assistant for his investigation into the impact of industrialisation on caste and kinship. It is an association and vocation that has endured the passage of years to the present day.

Fighting for rights

His teachers’ union inducted Lateef into left liberal politics. He joined the AP Civil Liberties Committee with legendary human rights activists like Kannabiran and Balagopal, and took part in several of their fact-finding enquiries, mainly into fake encounter killings of alleged Naxalites. In the wake of the 2002 Gujarat carnage, the Gujarat police alleged terror links between men detained under POTA in Gujarat and covert terrorists in Hyderabad. The police in both States joined hands to detain Muslim youth from Andhra Pradesh. Lateef felt that many civil liberties organisations were hesitant to take up strongly the cause of these Muslim youth, because of allegations of their links with Pakistan’s ISI. He therefore established a fraternal civil liberties organisation, calling it the Civil Liberties Monitoring Committee, focussed specifically on the injustices faced by Muslims. It fought not just State repression, but gender injustice within the Muslim community, against ageing Arab Sheikhs who bought young girls as brides, domestic violence and harassment for dowry; and against usury by private moneylenders.

Meanwhile, Ajay T.G. in Chhatisgarh also joined the People’s Union for Civil Liberties, investigating, again, staged encounter killings of alleged Naxalites. The newspaper Deshbandhu established a course in film-making for local youth with less formal education, called Janadarshan. It was a dream come true for Ajay, who graduated from its three-year programme, borrowed money from friends for a camera, and began making films. It helped him find his voice. One of these films was on fake police encounters.

Lateef antagonised the police more and more as he fearlessly took them on in many ways. He petitioned for a CBI enquiry into the role of the Hyderabad police in the infamous encounter killings of Sohrabuddin and his wife Kauser, for which the Gujarat police was already indicted. He urged the High Court that murder charges be filed against police officials who had fired indiscriminately and unprovoked after the Mecca Masjid bomb explosions in 2007. When around 25 Muslim youth were illegally abducted and tortured by the police, he helped build a national coalition which used the courts and media to end further abductions. Most of the youth were released on bail as a direct result of these endeavours, and some have even been acquitted. With Teesta Setlavad and me, he also filed a suit for compensation by the police for the torture of the young men.

Life-changing incident

In the meanwhile, Ajay’s life was to change for ever when he accompanied with his video camera social scientist Nandini Sundar, for a fact-finding investigation during the 2004 elections. They drove into the forest interiors of South Bastar, where the Naxalite insurgency rages most fiercely. They found their jeep suddenly surrounded by men with bows and arrows, who snatched Ajay’s camera and held them hostage for several hours. They finally let them go, but kept the camera.

Ajay was devastated. The camera was his most precious belonging. With it alone, he could speak to the world, and hold up a mirror to its injustices. He doubted he would ever be able to afford another camera. Some months later, he had a visitor at his home, a young man with a letter from what described itself as the Central Committee of the Maoists. The letter stated that the party regretted that the camera had been buried under the soil and was damaged. He could have it back, or take money to buy another camera, but he should write to them for this officially. He wrote a letter accordingly, as guided by his young visitor, to the senior Naxalite leadership, pleading for the return of his camera or its costs.

This was in 2004. He never heard from them again, and did not get back his camera. He slowly reconciled himself to his loss. But in 2008, months after the arrest of his comrade from the PUCL, Binayak Sen, his house was raided, and his computer confiscated. He was bewildered, and was told eventually by the police that his letter to the Maoist Central Committee had been confiscated from a Naxalite woman insurgent. This was taken as conclusive evidence of his engagement with the Naxalites.

Ajay was arrested a few months later, and lodged in the Durg Central Jail for three months. In a barrack built for 40 inmates, 103 men were incarcerated. He could meet his wife — whom he had met in the Janadarshan film course — and son — whom he called Aman or Peace — only briefly through a screen, under the watchful eye of a guard. A national campaign convened by documentary filmmaker Amar Kanwar helped secure his release 93 days later on bail, because the police had not been able to present the charge-sheet against him in the statutory 90 days. Lateef is still awaiting arrest at the time of writing.

Not alone

These two mild-mannered men are not alone in having been accused of terror and treason. The Chhatisgarh police have imprisoned a motley crowd including cloth traders, for selling olive green cloth to Naxalites for their uniforms, tailors for stitching these uniforms, and electricians for allegedly aiding bomb making. The police in Gujarat and Andhra show a marked preference in terror arrests for working class youth, students and peace-makers.

The spirit of both arrested men is remarkably unbroken. Both are particularly bemused at the charge of support of violent terror that the State has thrust on both of them, because both have life-long fought violence and sought resistance against injustice only with democratic instruments of the law. But then it is maybe precisely this that makes them appear so dangerous to State authorities.

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