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Is India's campaign against Maoist rebels going too far?

Analysis: Human rights activists say India is using arbitrary arrests to quash criticism of a brutal war.

The numbers of those arrested or persecuted are hard to come by. A handful of draconian laws such as the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act grant the police sweeping powers to detain suspects on little more than suspicion of affiliation with banned criminal organizations. But human rights activists allege that the police routinely charge whistleblowers, eyewitnesses and aid workers with such a battery of false cases that there is no way to keep track of how many people have been jailed for agreeing with the Maoists' arguments — if not their violent tactics.

“When you are asking me do they have definite charges or do they bring forth definite evidence ... there's nothing like that,” said PUCL General Secretary Pushkar Raj. “They tend to be very vague, and that's why the whole thing does not stand the scrutiny of the court.”

So far, the courts have taken a dim view of the rough handling of the constitution. On Feb. 22, for instance, the Supreme Court got to the heart of the matter when it rebuked the state of Chhattisgarh for substituting accusation for evidence to silence a critic who claimed to have witnessed police in the district of Dantewada execute 10 tribals. “First, you say they are Naxals (Maoists), then you say they are sympathizers, then you say they are sympathizers of sympathizers. Why all these innuendos?” the bench asked state government counsel Ranjit Kumar, according to press reports.

Nevertheless, the witch hunt atmosphere has recently escalated. On Feb. 19 the Delhi police named PUCL itself as a Maoist front, along with other prominent human rights organizations including the People's Union of Democratic Rights (PUDR), and the Association for Protection of Democratic Rights.

“These organizations are certainly not Maoist,” said Bhushan. “They are certainly not involved in any violent activities. They're essentially working on human rights issues. [But the police have] mentioned them as overground wings of the Maoists. This is the first step toward criminalizing them and going after them under the Unlawful Activities Act. This is what the government or the police appears to be trying to do.”

More government-friendly experts claim that the issue is complex because the Maoists leverage the work of NGOs, trade unions and other legal groups to lay the foundations for their guerrilla war, though the government has not been able to prove this in many cases.

“These are people who are actually very often overground workers of the Maoists,” said terrorism expert Ajai Sahni, executive director of the New Delhi-based Institute for Conflict Management. “But just because I know that you are a Maoist doesn't mean that I can prove it. Just because I know that you are in fact assisting the Maoists in mobilizing, and doing the preliminary work of convincing people, advocacy, doesn't mean that you are involved in a criminal offense.”

But, apparently, it does mean you can expect to be rousted and jailed. Since 2006, when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called the Maoists “the single biggest internal security challenge ever faced by our country,” the line between the revolutionaries and so-called “Maoist sympathizers” has grown ever more blurry.

In May 2007, police in one of the worst-affected states arrested Binayak Sen, a doctor and PUCL activist who had worked on rural health issues. Charged under the sweeping Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act, which granted police the right to detain anyone with a “tendency to pose an obstacle to the administration of law," Sen was held without bail for two years despite protests from Amnesty International and a letter writing campaign that drew in 22 Nobel Prize winners. But the problems faced by less prominent campaigners — and even muckraking journalists — are much more insidious, PUCL maintains.

“If democracy has to survive, it has to survive on the basis of a vibrant civil society,” said Raj. “We cannot go to a situation like 1950s America where anybody who criticizes the policies of the administration is characterized as un-American.”

That appears to be exactly what's happening. Take, for example, the story of tribal activist Gananath Patra, from the east Indian state of Orissa. Arrested in January on charges of murder, attempt to murder and rioting, Patra is neither a thug, a Maoist, or any other kind of revolutionary, according to fellow activist Prafulla Samantara (who also claims to be the victim of police harassment).

Patra was targeted for arrest because he began a democratic movement to organize local tribals against a mining project on their ancestral lands, says Samantara. And the project, which relied on a transfer of tribal land to non-tribals, which has been illegal since 1956, was dubious enough that any critic had to be discredited.

“They are taking away the livelihood of the common people in the name of industrialization and multinational corporations,” said Samantara. “Where the mining takes place, the tribals in the forest lose everything.”

Four years ago, journalist Kamlesh Painkra has paid an equally heavy price.

A tribal himself, Painkra had been named a reactionary by the Maoists for criticizing their violent tactics. But when he reported on the abuses perpetrated on the locals by a government-sponsored, anti-Maoist militia called the Salwa Judum – who according to Painkra's story had burned 25 homes of villagers who'd refused to join up. Within days his brother was arrested as a Maoist sympathizer. Painkra's license to sell government-subsidized grain was not renewed. He fled town after friends warned that he had been targeted for assassination in an “encounter," the police euphemism for a (sometimes staged) firefight. Then his house was gutted and destroyed by the Central Reserve Police Force. Finally, he quit.