Two recent Court verdicts have underlined how anti-terror laws invoked against ‘Maoists’ are being used in ways that go against Constitutional freedoms and rights.
The Calcutta HC on August 8, granted political prisoner status to 8 people accused of being Maoists, including the PCAPA leader Chhatradhar Mahato who had led the Lalgarh tribals’ struggle against police atrocities.
Political prisoner status was granted under the West Bengal Correctional Services Act, 1992, which defines political prisoners as those who are arrested or convicted on a charge of having committed or attempting to commit aiding or abetting the commissions of any political offence. This law states that anyone who commits or is accused of committing an offence during a political or democratic movement with an exclusive political objective, free from personal greed or motive, is entitled to political prisoner status.
Soon after the Calcutta HC verdict, nine people arrested by the National Intelligence Agency on charges of manufacturing arms for the CPI(Maoist), filed a petition in the Kolkata Sessions Court, seeking political prisoner status. Overruling the objections of the NIA, the court cited the earlier Calcutta HC judgement and granted political prisoner status to the nine. The Home Ministry of the Central Government and the West Bengal State Government are reportedly preparing to challenge this verdict, in order to prevent prisoners across the country from securing the same rights.
The Calcutta HC verdict is a welcome one. The very fact that even the Government calls Maoists ‘Left-wing extremists,’ means that it unwillingly recognises the ideological and political motivations of their actions. In Indian jails, not only Maoists but all those imprisoned in the course of political movements are denied the rights of political prisoners. In jails in Bihar and Jharkhand, CPI(ML) comrades have often led prolonged struggles for political prisoner status.
The Mumbai HC has delivered another significant verdict. Justice Abhay Thipsay, granting bail to two young women, Sushma Ramtekke and Jyoti Chorge, accused of being Maoists and booked under UAPA, rejected the argument of the Special Public Prosecutor that “mere association with” Maoists, “and sharing their ideology would make a person a member of their organization.” The judgement states that “It is very clear from the observations made by the Supreme Court that if Section 20 [of the UAPA Act – ed.] were to be interpreted in that manner, it would at once be considered as violative of the provisions of Section 19 of the Constitution of India, and would be struck down as ultra vires . In fact, their Lordships of the Supreme Court of India have interpreted the concept of membership as an active membership to save the relevant provision from being declared as unconstitutional....
“...basically the allegations against the applicant is that they are sympathizers of the Maoist philosophy, and that they are intending to, or likely to, play an active role in the organization in future....
“That the possession of certain literature having a particular social or political philosophy would amount to an offence, though such literature is not expressly or specifically banned under any provision of law, is a shocking proposition in a democratic country like ours. A feeble attempt to put forth such a proposition was made by the Learned SPP in the oral arguments....Such a proposition runs counter to the freedoms and rights guaranteed by Article 19 of the Constitution...
“A number of persons are influenced, and get attracted towards the Maoist Philosophy because of the oppression of the weaker section which they might have experienced in the social set up. The applicants also, like a number of such persons, might have been influenced and impressed by the Maoist philosophy. It has been recognized even by the committees appointed by the government to study the problem of naxalites that it is the social, political, economic and cultural discrimination faced by the poor, that is throwing a large number of discontented people towards the Maoists. It is impossible to hold that all such persons are to be treated as members of a terrorist organization, or that they are liable to be punished for having some faith in such philosophy, or for having sympathy for those who propagate such philosophy. It is in this context, that the concept of active membership and passive membership has been judicially evolved.”
This verdict is a rare, refreshing one, in times when hundreds of people are being jailed and denied bail on charges of belonging to banned Maoist and Islamic outfits, without any proof of their involvement in terrorist attacks.