According to Delhi-based journalist Rahul Pandita, his 2011 book ‘Hello, Bastar’ is a reference point for India’s anti-Maoist forces. But in Kerala, the police have branded this journalistic account of the socio-economic conditions that nurtured the violent Left-wing insurgency in Chhattisgarh – including in the titular Bastar region – as “suspicious material” aimed at propagating Maoist ideology in order to justify their arrest of two students under the seemingly draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act.
Alan Suhaib and Thaha Faizal, both 20 and activists of the ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist), were arrested in Kozhikode on Friday. Apart from the book, other material seized from their homes and cited as Maoist literature include a collection of essays on Marxism, imperialism and extremism compiled by O Abdurahman, editor of the Malayalam daily Madhyamam, and a copy of the CPI(M) constitution.
Speaking in the Assembly on Monday, CPI(M) leader and Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan said Alan and Thaha were arrested also for distributing pamphlets criticising the encounter killing of four suspected Maoists in the Manjakkatti forests of Palakkad’s Attappady area last month.
The arrests, on what is being called questionable grounds, have sparked outrage among the political class and in civil society. Several CPI(M) leaders and cadre have also joined the protests. Vijayan – who heads the home department, to which the police answer – finds himself increasingly isolated.
But he reportedly has support from an unlikely source: the BJP and Sangh Parivar. The Opposition Congress has accused the chief minister of pushing Union Home Minister Amit Shah’s “agenda” of cracking down on “urban Maoists”. This has resulted in a strange polarisation of Kerala society with the Communist chief minister, his police force and the Sangh on one side and the rest on the other.
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Law student Alan and journalism student Thaha, who are currently in judicial custody, were arrested under 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 the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act.
This Act gives the police custody of an arrested person for up to 180 days without filing a chargesheet, thereby making bail difficult. Because of this aspect, the law has often been criticised as draconian.
In Kerala, there have also been allegations of misuse of the law by the state government to silence popular dissent. The debate has resurfaced now.
What the courts say
In the Assembly, the Opposition said the arrests were in violation of judicial pronouncements that clearly explain the circumstances under which a person can be regarded as a member of an unlawful organisation.
In July, a division bench of the Kerala High Court had stated that simply following the ideology of a banned organisation does not constitute a crime. Upholding a single-judge bench’s decision, it had ordered the state government to pay an activist Rs 1 lakh in compensation for illegally detaining him on suspicion of having links to Maoist groups. It had also said such a case can be registered and arrests made only when there is clear proof of organised attempts to thwart the system.
In response, the state government has filed an appeal in the Supreme Court seeking powers to detain people merely on suspicion of involvement in Maoist activity.
The High Court’s pronouncement echoes several Supreme Court orders, activists and lawyers pointed out.
“Mere membership in any banned organisation would not be grounds for arrest under UAPA,” said Kerala High Court lawyer Harish Vasudevan. “Association with a banned organisation won’t make a person a criminal unless he/she resorts to violence or incites people to violence or creates public disorder by violence or incitement to violence.”
Referring to Friday’s arrests, Vasudevan said, “Here, it seems the state government lost control over the police.” He explained, “Possessing books or literature containing the ideology of a banned organisation is also not a crime. Here the books they seized have no connection with Maoism.”
Activist S Faizy added, “The chief minister is justifying the arrests even as his party colleagues and ministers condemn them. Vijayan is forgetting that in the UAPA case against human rights activist Binayak Sen, the Supreme Court had observed that mere possession of Maoist literature does not make one a criminal.”
Protesting the arrest of her nephew Alan, activist, theatre personality and CPI(M) supporter Sajitha Madathil said, “Slapping draconian laws such as UAPA on youngsters merely on the basis of the books they read and pamphlets they keep is travesty of justice. It is thought-policing and quite frightening. Are we moving into a police state?”
Those demanding the release of Alan and Thaha are not just protesting the law under which they have been arrested. Many claim the police operation that resulted in the death of four suspected Maoists on October 28 and 29 – supposedly the catalyst for the arrests – was a fake encounter.
Several human rights activists and leaders of the Communist Party of India – the Left Democratic Front government’s second-largest constituent after the CPI(M) – said they had visited the spot in the Manjakkatti forests soon after the operation by the police’s anti-Maoist unit Thunderbolt and found no signs of an encounter. They alleged the Maoists were planning to surrender to the government and were shot from behind. Rema, Aravind and Karthik were eating lunch in a makeshift hut when the police shot them, they claimed. The following day, Manivasagam, the ailing secretary of the CPI(Maoist)’s Tamil Nadu unit, was gunned down, they added.
“They were gunned down when they camped in the spot as part of a surrender plan negotiated with the police,” said activist Murugan, adding that the spot lay barely 500 metres from his village. “We have information the group was negotiating surrender for a while.”
An activist, who spoke to HuffPost India on the condition of anonymity, went a step further to accuse the police of fabricating evidence, saying, “The area where the incident happened was cordoned off for over 40 hours. Nobody was permitted to go there and the police had enough time to plant evidence, including putting up a makeshift tent.” They added, “The arrest of the two youths is just a ploy to divert attention from the outcry for a judicial probe into the fake encounters.”
Kanam Rajendran, the CPI’s state secretary, also denounced the encounter theory. “No policemen were injured though the Home Ministry swears the Maoists used AK-47s [rifles],” he said. “Were the Maoists firing at trees?”
Murugan said he and his fellow villagers had not heard anything about the Maoists attacking the police team and provoking a retaliation.
Unlike the pattern of Maoists ambushing anti-insurgency personnel in Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand, Maoists in Kerala are not known to take militant action against state forces. Instead, they engage in political campaigns on issues such as tribal rights and environmental protection.
Adding to the anti-government chorus, political rivals spoke of the advent of fake encounters in Kerala under Vijayan’s watch, allegedly with the encouragement of the Centre and Amit Shah.
Referring to Shah’s use of the term “urban Maoists” (those who support Maoists in the name of ideology), Leader of the Opposition Ramesh Chennithala said, “It seems the state government and chief minister are implementing Amit Shah’s agenda.” The Congress leader added, “In Attappady, the police killed alleged Maoists in a false encounter. The two students might have protested the killings. Even children from families supporting the ruling party are unsafe in Kerala.”
Chennithala’s party colleague VK Sreekandan, who represents Palakkad in the Lok Sabha, accused Kerala Police chief Loknath Behera of encouraging staged killings. “It was after his return to Kerala as police chief [in 2016] that fake encounters started taking place,” he said. “He will retire in two years and obviously, he is looking for accommodation at the Centre dealing with extremism. He has good equations with the Central government and has made the chief minister his captive.”
Behera previously served in the National Investigation Agency and the Central Bureau of Investigation.
Meanwhile, a senior police official in Kozhikode borrowed Shah’s terminology to explain the arrests. Speaking on condition of anonymity, the officer said, “We have information the youngsters are part of an urban Maoist [network] that maintains ideological, political and financial liaising with those hiding in the forests. Urban Naxalites are a new phenomenon and they hail even from families of repute and from the ranks of mainstream political parties. The youths are part of a larger agenda.”
In a state not known to have a record of encounters, last week’s Maoist operation and subsequent arrests have sparked talk of staged encounters. Manivasagam is reportedly the seventh Maoist to be killed by the state police since Vijayan came to power in May 2016.
However, this is not the first time the Kerala Police have been accused of killing in cold blood. They faced similar allegations in March when Maoist leader CP Jaleel was gunned down near a resort in Wayanad. The police claimed he had tried to attack them with a gun. But CCTV footage showed Jaleel was not armed.
There were murmurs in November 2016 too when two suspected Maoist leaders were killed in Nilambur and only a pistol was recovered from the spot. Kuppu Devaraj, central committee member of the CPI (Maoist), was shot nine times while Ajitha had 19 bullet wounds, the post-mortem report said.
According to Kerala Police officials, who did not want to be identified, less than 100 Maoists remain in the state and most of them have expressed their willingness to surrender. “What prevents their surrender is Vijayan’s refusal to engage with Maoists,” said a senior official. “As a result, no surrender options are available to them as of now.”