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By The government's recent warning that members of civil society who were in contact with the Maoists could be slapped with the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act has given rise to a fierce debate, reports Avijit Chatterjee
  • Published 2.06.10

While the government tries to grapple with acts of terror by Maoists, a debate rages on the best way to tackle the grisly attacks on civilians and security men. In fact, of late the government has been under considerable fire from civil society members who have been questioning its policy of dealing with the Maoists. But does that justify the Centre’s decision to prosecute intellectuals and non governmental organisations (NGOs) upholding the Maoists’ cause under the Unlawful Activities Prevention (UAP) Act?

The Union home ministry recently issued a statement saying that some Maoist leaders have been directly contacting NGOs and intellectuals to propagate their ideology. The note warned members of civil society that the UAP Act, 1967, which calls for imprisonment of up to 10 years, could be used to punish individuals in contact with the Maoists. The law was amended and adopted by the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government in December, 2008, following the terror attacks in Mumbai.

The home ministry’s warning to intellectuals has generated widespread debate. While those who support the government’s stand feel that such a step could rein in the civil society outfits that have been espousing the rebels’ cause, perhaps emboldening them to wreak greater havoc, others feel that it would stifle the voice of the people.

A senior state police official, requesting anonymity, said that there was growing evidence of the involvement of intellectuals with Maoists and that the government directive would help them to act against these people.

Home minister P. Chidambaram had earlier called upon members of civil society at large, demanding “condemnation of those who have, erroneously, extended intellectual and material support to the CPI (Maoist)”.

Many intellectuals and NGOs feel the government’s strategy of dealing with the Naxalites is too heavily focused on the security offensive and not enough on development and socio-economic measures to address the problems in the tribal areas.

Expectedly, the government’s recent ultimatum has drawn flak from civil liberties outfits, writers, academics, lawyers and journalists. Even the Supreme Court recently censured the Chhattisgarh government for raising the bogey of Maoists to run down human rights activists.

Earlier this year, a division bench of Justices B. Sudershan Reddy and S.S. Nijjar, while snubbing the Chhattisgarh government for describing human rights activists as Maoist sympathisers, asked, “What do you mean by sympathisers? Sympathy is fighting for their cause (the Maoists). Nobody is advocating their cause. They are not saying their action should be condoned.... You mean to say they (human rights activists) should not be concerned with human rights and fundamental rights?”

“It is this distinction which is important,” points out Justice P.B. Sawant, a former Supreme Court judge. “Espousal of a cause cannot be considered a crime. The government is using the UAP Act as a weapon to terrorise intellectuals and human rights activists who have been most vocal against its repressive policies,” he says.

The UAP Act, which is routinely invoked against terrorists and hardened criminals, is a fairly stringent law. Section 39 of the act empowers the government to imprison anyone collaborating with terrorist groups for up to 10 years and impose a fine. It also allows arrest without warrant on mere suspicion, indefinite detention in custody and denial of bail if a prima facie case exists.

Former director general of Punjab police K.P.S. Gill, who is credited with stamping out insurgency in Punjab, feels that slapping intellectuals with the UAP Act is not a good idea. “There should always be room for debate,” he says. “You cannot stifle the voice of the people through legislation or by other means. Everyone has the right to criticise the government.”

Supreme Court lawyer Prashant Bhushan is more scathing. “If the government tries to stifle dissent, we are heading towards fascism. You cannot take recourse to a law to clamp down on the right to freedom of speech and expression,” he says.

Others too feel that the government has erred in threatening civil society with punishment under the UAP Act if they are found to have “contacts” with the Maoists. Says Sujato Bhadra, secretary of the Calcutta-based Association for Protection of Democratic Rights, “There should be space for protest in a democratic society. Earlier, the act was used to arrest human rights defender Dr Binayak Sen and independent filmmaker and journalist Ajay T.G., among others. Voicing the concern of the Maoists who have been fighting for the cause of displaced tribal people doesn’t amount to lending ideological support to them.”

Of course, the debate is centred on whether one considers certain members of civil society to be actually sympathetic to the Maoists, despite the latter’s horrendous acts against the state and its people, or whether one considers them to be merely exercising their right to criticise the government handling of a serious problem. So while many are bitterly opposed to the idea of the government invoking the UAP Act in this context, others feel that it is well within its rights to do so.

“I don’t think the government is left with any other option. Intellectuals wield a lot of influence over society. If they continue to spread a canard against the government, it can have a bad effect. The need of the hour is to stand united behind the government in its fight against the Naxalites,” says West Bengal Congress working president Pradip Bhattacharya.

Others caution that the act should be used with discretion. Says West Bengal BJP president Rahul Sinha, “Though we support the use of the act against the Naxalites and their supporters, discretion in its use is required.”

Agrees Justice Sawant. “I think it is unfair to tar everybody with the same brush. The government should act against individuals against whom it has conclusive proof,” he says.

Ultimately, the government has to figure out whether the supposed benefit of slapping champions of Maoists with the UAP Act will outweigh the bad press it will get as a result. For every silenced “Maoist sympathiser” will undoubtedly breed a thousand more who will decry the government’s effort to muzzle free speech and the right to dissent.