It has been more than 10 months since a police sub-inspector took law student Alan Shuhaib, 20, and journalism graduate Thaha Fazal, 24, into custody from Kottayithazham, on the outskirts of Kozhikode city in North Kerala. They were accused of being active members of the banned outfit Communist Party of India (Maoist).
The outrage generated by the arrest—the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) was slapped on the two young men—had put the Kerala government, led by Pinarayi Vijayan, on the backfoot after even Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI(M)) members and allies criticised it. Both Alan and Thaha also turned out to be CPI(M) members, though they were later expelled. In December 2019, the case was transferred to the National Investigation Agency (NIA) over the state government’s protests.
On Friday afternoon, Alan and Thaha were released from the Viyyur central jail in Thrissur after an NIA court granted them bail with stringent conditions. In the order, the judge said the young men weren’t involved in any act of violence.
“We are extremely happy with the judge’s order. The boys will abide by all the bail conditions,” Sabitha, Alan’s mother, told HuffPost India.
Thaha’s mother Jameela Abdulla said the court order has not just granted bail to the duo but also protected them from the charges of sedition and terror activities.
“This verdict is the answer to my cries for long. We are a poor Muslim family which always supported CPI(M). I, my ailing husband and my elder son are CPI(M) members, just like Thaha. We felt crushed when the party turned against us and our sons in this case blown out of proportion by a set of police officials,’’ said Jameela.
The court has issued stringent conditions for the students’ release, including submission of their passports and reporting regularly to the police station and warned against any association with CPI (Maoist), which was banned in 2009. At a time when activists across the country are being summoned or arrested on flimsy grounds, the NIA court’s strong judgment gives hope. The development may also force the Vijayan government once again to clear its stance over why the two young men were arrested, imprisoned and slapped with UAPA, a law that the CPI(M) has criticised.
From ‘Hello Bastar’ to Gadgil pamphlet
The FIR registered by the Pantheerankavu police station on 2 November 2019 says that Alan and Thaha, along with a third person named Usman, were found by the sub-inspector and his team at a busy market “under suspicious circumstances”. Usman ran away on seeing the police, while the other two were taken into custody.
When the police checked Alan’s bag, they found a notice demanding implementation of the famous Madhav Gadgil Committee Report on Western Ghats, along with several pamphlets condemning the alleged encounter killing of four suspected Maoists inside Manjakketty forests of Attappady region in Palakkad by Kerala police. The bag also had printed materials demanding resolution of the land alienation issue of tribals in Wayanad and hand-written notes on increasing social inequality. A copy of political magazine Maruvakku, a spiral notebook with notes in code language, a pocket diary and a letter pad with notes on the right to dissent were also in the bag.
Thaha’s plastic file had printouts detailing the CPI(Maoist) central committee’s perspective on caste issues in India, apart from a copy of a book by Marxist revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg.
Over the next few hours, the police registered cases against Alan, Thaha and the absconding Usman, terming them members of the banned terrorist organisation and accusing them of distributing Maoist literature in Kottayithazham and nearby areas. They were also charged with Sections 20 (punishment for being member of terrorist gang or organisation), 38 (offence relating to membership of a terrorist organisation) and 39 (offence relating to support given to a terrorist organisation) of UAPA.
That same night, the police conducted raids at the houses of the two men. At Alan’s house, only his mobile phone was seized. When Thaha was taken to his house for raid, police claimed that the accused shouted slogans supporting the extremists’ ideology of Maoism. 18 items were seized from his house, including a personal diary, a CPI(Maoist) publication and a copy of journalist Rahul Pandita’s best-seller Hello Bastar, a book about India’s Maoist movement. In addition, police officials seized two bottles of paint and a set of drawing papers from the house, saying this too was used for creating Maoist literature.
From their laptops, the police found video clips on Kashmir, fake encounter killings of Maoists, the constitution and party programme of CPI (Maoist) and other material. However, the police failed to trace any incriminating material from the Facebook and email accounts of the duo. According to the FIR, Usman, who is still in hiding, was already facing three criminal cases over distribution of Maoist literature.
On December 16, 2019, NIA took over the case, since the accused were facing UAPA charges, and completed its investigation without making any headway.
In the meantime, the CPI(M) expelled Alan and Thaha from the primary membership of the party, apart from initiating a slander campaign against their alleged extremism. Chief Minister Vijayan himself justified the arrests and termed the youths active members of a Maoist outfit hell-bent on undertaking terrorist activities.
The families of the two young men found themselves isolated. Thaha’s family, which was financially strained, especially faced a tough time fighting the legal battle over all these months. Finally they received some relief when judge Anil K. Bhaskar granted them bail on September 9 on stringent conditions. In the 64-page order, the judge criticised the arrest by the Kerala police without any formal complaint as well as the subsequent NIA investigation.
“Membership in an organisation doesn’t prove involvement in terrorist activity. Mere association or support must not be viewed as clear intention to further terrorist activities,” said the judge.
Referring to the seizure of books on sensitive issues, the court said that their reading choices were not aiding or abetting terrorism.
Alan’s father Shuhaib, who was earlier a local leader of CPI(M) in Kozhikode, said the order calls for a rethinking on the party’s part.
Advocate Harish Vasudevan of Kerala High Court who forms part of a lawyers’ collective that extended legal aid to Alan and Thaha said the order necessitates issuing of a clear guideline by the state government to police on the areas in which UAPA must be invoked. “It must be the duty of political leadership to ensure integrity and accountability of investigating officials of the police department. While invoking acts like UAPA, they must apply their minds apart from seeking clear legal advice. In this case, the police had acted with prejudices and without going into a reality check. The Pinarayi Vijayan government simply endorsed the police version without looking into its merits. It must be the duty of the government to see that UAPA is not misused in Kerala in the future. Erring officials must face action,” he said.
“Normally, public prosecutors advise the police on legal matters. Their independence and legal expertise are the two key factors in ensuring better criminal jurisprudence. The public prosecutor of NIA in Kochi is sitting at the office of the agency itself. Such situations water down impartiality and independence of legal advice. All investigating agencies must keep a healthy distance from public prosecutors to ensure quality and merit of cases under investigation,″ he said.
Writer and activist Dr Azad Malayattil alleged that the young men had been troubling CPI(M) leaders in Kozhikode by critiquing the programmes and policies of the party and the state government.
“All parties in Kerala protested the arrests except BJP and CPI(M) leaders. This proves whose agenda was established through it,’’ he alleged.
While the bail order is certainly a relief, the ordeal isn’t over yet for the two families. On Friday, the NIA unsuccessfully sought cancellation of the bail in the same NIA court. But the agency said in its affidavit that it would appeal the order before the High court.
Alan’s mother Sabitha said the family would focus on his studies first. Kannur University has already debarred Alan, but he filed a case in high court seeking an order to continue the study.
“We are looking forward to his readmission and finishing the course,” said Sabitha, as the families returned to Kozhikode.