Friday, May 16, 2008

Fight For Rights, Face State Fury

First, Binayak Sen. Now, filmmaker-activist Ajay TG is arrested under draconian laws for opposing the Salva Judum

New Delhi

IT’S APRIL 2004. Human rights activist and general secretary of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) Chhattisgarh unit Dr Binayak Sen, sociology professor Nandini Sundar, freelance journalist and filmmaker Ajay Thachhappully Gangadharan (TG) and a local man are in Bastar, Chhattisgarh’s tribal district. They are observing how the Lok Sabha elections are being conducted, the impact of the Maoist ban and the overall situation. There is a visible military presence; helicopters are doing the rounds and personnel of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) are patrolling. As the group of four stop to film an empty polling booth, young Maoists surround them. The group is asked to wait till the headman gives them the go-ahead to film. The headman doesn’t turn up; the Maoists ask them to leave the camera behind. In a 2006 article in the newspaper, DNA, Sundar writes: “A month or so later, the filmmaker got his camera back with an offer of money in case it was spoilt and a letter of apology from a Maoist spokesperson.”

Four years later. On May 6, 2008, Ajay TG’s wife Shobha puts a set of clothes, soap, toothpaste, comb and a packet of biscuits into her bag with her 20-month-old son Aman by her side. At about 10.30am, the 32-year-old speeds off with her brother-in-law on his bike to meet her husband lodged in Kendriya Jail six km away from her house in Durg, on the outskirts of Raipur. In the three years since it came into force, Ajay is the 43rd person to be arrested under the draconian Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act (CSPSA), 2005.

The Chhattisgarh Police picked up the 42- year-old state convener of the Campaign Against Child Labour (CACL) on May 5 on charges of “being part of an urban network of Naxals”. Chhattisgarh DGP Vishwa Ranjan says the police recovered a letter written by Ajay addressed to the spokesperson of the Maoists saying — either return the camera I gave you or pay me in place of that. “The incriminating element is ‘I gave you’,” he asserts. For a split second, the top cop admits there is nothing that directly implicates Ajay, but promptly adds, “Under the law, one cannot have any contact or commerce with members of a banned organisation.”

The letter, written by Ajay, was recovered from the house of Malti Rao, the wife of Gudsa Husendi, the Maoists’ spokesperson, after the police claimed they “busted the Naxalite racket” on January 21 this year. He was under the police scanner since then. Shobha recalls on January 22 three policemen came to their Ayyappa Nagar house at eight in the morning. They searched the house and took away Ajay’s computer and other belongings. The police also showed him the letter recovered from Malti Rao. Ajay admitted he had written the letter but told them the circumstances that had forced it. The police, however, are convinced Ajay’s arrest is not linked to the 2004 incident. While emphasising this is a “totally different case”, they have overlooked a vital detail. The letter is undated. So while the police may want to believe Ajay wrote the letter much after the 2004 incident, they cannot negate the possibility that it was written in reference to the incident, a year before the CSPSA came into force.

But none of this counts as a slip-up in the police’s book. Running contrary to the fundamental rights, the CSPSA authorises the police to arrest anyone with political leanings or associations that question State policies. Ajay, a state executive member, is the second member of the PUCL to be arrested in the last year. The first — famously — was Dr Binayak Sen, who was arrested on May 14, 2007.

LIKE SEN, Ajay TG has a long and credible career behind him — none of which has anything to do with violence or sedition. Over the last 15 years, Ajay has not only been a director, cameraman, editor and graphic artist, but also a prominent human rights activist. He came to Bhilai from Kerala as a child of four in 1969. Forsaking his formal education after Class X, he worked in the industrial belt around Bhilai till 1993. It was then that he met Jonathan Parry, a social anthropologist and professor at the London School of Economics. Ajay assisted Parry in his research on industrialisation in Bhilai, which led to a subsequent job as research assistant for Balmurli Natrajan, assistant professor, Anthropology in the William Paterson University of New Jersey. Natrajan, who has known Ajay since 1996, says: “Ajay has the ability to see humanity in the most difficult of life situations, to retain hope for a better future for all and to work tirelessly and unselfishly in this regard.”

In 1999, Ajay directed his first film, Hathaurewala, a portrait of an 80-year-old ironsmith who works in the shadow of the Bhilai Steel Plant. Till 2006, he worked on 15 films some of which were even screened at international film festivals. In September 2005, Ajay established Drksakshi, an NGO, to educate young girls from the slums in Bhilai. Today the organisation, being run with the support of friends and wellwishers, is a haven for girls who have either dropped out of school or have never been to one. Friends say Ajay and his volunteers have changed the face of this community and brought back health to these children. He also started Drksakshi Janani, an effort to teach photography and videography to older students. Recently, two girls trained by Ajay, made a two-minute film on gender inequality titled Aisa Kyon.

Human rights activists say Ajay’s arrest illustrates police vindictiveness against the PUCL — which has been critical of the government’s controversial Salva Judum programme — and the human rights movement in general. PUCL national general secretary Kavita Srivastava says the arrest is an ongoing attempt by the police to whip up public opinion after its loss of face in the Binayak Sen case. She recalls that on April 30, 2008, the first day of Sen’s trial in Raipur, the police found a Swiss knife in Ajay’s bag. “He was unaware that he was carrying it and had innocently brought it into the court room.” The incident was blown out of proportion. A section of the media carried reports and photographs of Ajay and the Swiss knife stating that the PUCL member had come to court with a ‘modern, deadly and dangerous weapon’. Ajay had come to Raipur to file an application in court to get his computer back. It was filed on May 2 and the hearing had been reserved for May 9. But he was picked up before that. In hindsight, Shobha realises that the reports criminalising her husband were actually a run-up to his arrest.

Activists state that the State’s spite runs deeper than the obvious anomalies in Sen’s trial. This arrest is meant to terrorise people into silence because the government is afraid of being exposed on the Salva Judum, the anti-Naxalite militia guilty of gross human rights violations. Sources say the Judum has killed at least 1,000 people and burnt 3,000 to 4,000 houses over the last three years. The irony is that the CSPSA, purportedly meant for public security, has scared the very people it is trying to protect.

On May 14, the first anniversary of Binayak Sen’s detention, Ajay completed his ninth day in jail. As protests were organised across the world to release the two held under illegal detention, 32-year-old Shobha strove to crack the ludicrousness of life. “In 2004, we suffered at the hands of Maoists and now we are suffering at the hands of the State. Where do we belong?” •


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