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

NEW DELHI, India — When Indian state police swept in to arrest 10 alleged Maoist rebels in a lightning raid last month, the officer at the helm of the operation trumpeted its success as the culmination of a two-year investigation.

He claimed to have recovered seditious literature, CDs, a pen drive and about $20,000 in cash in the busts, and to have dealt a serious setback to the local branch of a Marxist force that can now lay claim to sovereignty over thousands of miles of forest land — a “Red Corridor” that stretches across nine states.

But local human rights activists saw a different picture.

“It's an attempt to silence all dissent,” said Supreme Court lawyer Prashant Bhushan. “People need to be aware of what's going on, and how dangerous it is for a democratic society.”

Along with eight other suspected Maoists, police from the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh arrested two grassroots workers — Seema Srivastava and her husband, Vishwavijay Azad. Both are affiliated with the People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), a respected national human rights organization.

Officials from PUCL's national chapter and other prominent activists swiftly condemned the rights workers' arrests as the latest example of how the forces of government are using threats, harassment and arbitrary arrests to try to silence opposition to Operation Green Hunt — a paramilitary surge to root out Maoist rebels from their jungle hideouts.

“It [the campaign against so-called sympathizers] means that ultimately the government will continue with this Operation Green Hunt, which is rapidly becoming a war against tribals rather than a war against Maoists,” said Bhushan.

The simmering civil war between the Maoist revolutionaries and the state is indeed brutal on both sides. Terrorist attacks on police stations and other government installations are a near daily occurrence. Reports of the Maoist slaughter of villagers who turn informer have grown commonplace, as have tales of abuses by police forces and the government-sponsored militia known as the Salwa Judum.

According to the website of the Ministry of Home Affairs – which did not respond to queries in time to meet GlobalPost's deadline – at least 2,500 civilians have been killed in the conflict since 2004, along with more than 800 security personnel and about 1,000 Maoists.

"We have a long bloody war ahead. It is going to be a long haul and I see violence going to go up,” Home Secretary Gopal Krishna Pillai told a press conference Friday. "The way I see it, in another two to three years, the tide will turn in India's favor and it will probably take another seven to 10 years before we take complete control.”

The government's hardest struggle may be for the hearts and minds of the people who witness corruption and the direst sort of poverty in every facet of their lives.

“Even if my guys go to the Maoist-affected areas to collect information, they come back convinced that the Maoists have a point,” a member of one of the state intelligence agencies told a veteran journalist in confidence.

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.

“I left for my family's sake,” Painkra told GlobalPost. “Otherwise I would have stayed and kept writing. My family blamed me. I thought of suicide. I actually thought of killing myself.”

For PUCL's Srivastava and Azad, the struggle is just beginning. Uttar Pradesh police claim that they found the activists with Maoist literature, documents related to the command decisions of the guerrillas and documents related to the attacks carried out by the Maoists in the states of Andhra Pradesh, Jharkhand, Orissa, West Bengal, Chhattisgarh and Bihar.

But PUCL has challenged the police to produce this literature and claimed that it may be research materials for the Hindi-language magazine Dastak, which Srivastava edits. Like the speeches and writings of the raft of others arrested for loose connections with the Maoist cause, Dastak was relentless in its criticism of the state – targeting especially the “corrupt practices of police and contractors,” according to PUCL.

Whether that's free speech or sedition remains to be seen.