The convention, “Withdraw the Undeclared Emergency: In Solidarity with Seema Azad and Vishwa Vijay” was held at the Gandhi Peace Foundation in Delhi to commemorate the 37th (dark) anniversary of the nation-wide emergency imposed for 21 long months in 1975.
Organised by associations working in the field of Human and Civil Rights, including People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) and People’s Union for Democratic Rights (PUDR), the aim of this convention was to call for the repeal of the draconian laws, including the Unlawful Activities’ Prevention Act, 1967 (UAPA), and the archaic provisions of the Indian Penal Code. There was also a demand for the unconditional release of all those people languishing in jails under these laws, including Seema and Vishwa Vijay.
The first speaker to present his views was senior journalist Kuldip Nayar who relived the horror of emergency and the impact it had on the press. Recollecting the night of June 25, 1975, he said that the electricity wires of the printing presses were cut and they were not allowed to publish the newspapers by the policemen. For three days after the imposition of emergency, newspapers were not printed and on the fourth day, when they were printed, the editorial spaces were left blank as a sign of protest.
His newspaper, The Indian Express, euphemised their opposition cunningly behind the words of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and the “great” Mahatma Gandhi so that if interrogated, they (the journalists and the editors) could claim innocence and state that they were just printing what these “inspirational” leaders had said decades and centuries earlier and that their own opinions were safely locked away in a box which nodescription could access without the permission of the government of India. Soon enough, fear was born and that fear still persists in the minds of Indian citizens and journalists.
Lamenting on the state of affairs of the media today, he said that threatened by the loss of their livelihood and terrorisation of their families, they have stopped reporting the truth and have turned the media into money minting, TRP driven corporate endeavours. He also said that in those days, the Government needed to put people behind the bars to stop them from writing. But now, the government doesn’t need to do anything, because the people have become silent, ‘bolne wale log reh hi nahin gaye hain.’ He concluded by commenting that it is because of this very attitude that no one has been punished yet for the atrocities committed during the emergency.
A letter from Seema Azad (sent from Naini Central Jail, Allahabad), titled ‘bin sitaron ki duniya’ was also read out during the convention. She had highlighted the bleak world in which the children of imprisoned women live, a place where even the moon, something we take for granted, seems miraculous and phenomenal.
Later, senior advocate in the Allahabad High Court, Ravi Kiran Jain, who fought the Seema Azad case, brought to everyone’s attention how the judgment was flawed and cited the wordings of the various provisions of the UAPA under which Azad and Vijay have been held guilty. Pointing out that the entire prosecution case was dependent only on the testimony of the police officers, he called the judgment ‘absurd’.
Continuing on the momentum built up by Jain, Chitaranjan Singh of the PUCL also came to Seema’s defence, and stated that the only reason for her being implicated in the false case is that she was a human rights activist, actively involved in fighting for the rights of the downtrodden and oppressed sections of the society including Dalit women, and also wrote extensively against Operation Green Hunt, which is the paramilitary’s offensive against the Naxalite Movement. Drawing the gathering’s attention to another interesting aspect, he said that these days, ‘aajkal toh har virodh ko maowad ka naam de diya jata hai. Sarkar Maowadi keh ke jail mein band kar deti hai, jab bahar nikalte hain tab sach mein Maowadi ban jate hain’.
Anand Swaroop Verma, the editor of Teesri Duniya raised an important question, who is democracy for? Are these draconian laws applicable to the Dalits, the downtrodden, the poor, Shashi Tharoor’s ‘cattle-class’ who don’t have money to fight cases?
He talked about two different incidents that took place in 1974; in both of them, the culprits were sentenced to death but the president’s response to the two appeals showed his and thereby, the government’s double standards.
He talked about on one hand, two farmers from Andhra Pradesh who were given death sentence for killing a zamindar during a protest and were not pardoned by the president and on the other hand, a “lady” who killed a doctor in Delhi because of, what else, a lover’s tiff, was pardoned by the president. The reason? She belonged to an upper-class, well-educated family and had thus committed a little mistake whereas the farmers belonged to the ‘criminal class’. These were the terms used by the then president of India, Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, to describe the citizens who made him the First Citizen of the nation, he observed.
Verma also talked about how the NCTC mandate is influenced by the demands of FICCI, illustrating how the government’s anti-terrorism bodies also lie in the pockets of the corporate honchos.
Taking the podium next was Justice Rajinder Sacher who felt that it was the judiciary which was responsible for the success of the emergency and had the judiciary put its foot down, there was no way thousands of people could have been detained in the jails illegally. He also felt that the judiciary had somewhere failed as an institution in protecting the people against oppression by the state. He also said that the constitution gives everyone the liberty to protest against the policies of the government, through peaceful means. Quoting Dr Ram Manohar Lohia, he said, ‘kathni aur karni mein fark nahin hona chahiye.’
He also gave the example of a 14-year-old boy who was accused of being a Naxalite simply because a book on Bhagat Singh was found on him. Commenting on this, Sacher went on to say that if mere possession of literature is an offence, then there would be quite a few lawyers and judges behind bars too!
Kamaljeet of the PUDR, took the discussion forward by discussing Maoism, the provisions of Sedition in the IPC and how they are misused by labelling and punishing any person protesting against any policy of the government as a Maoist.
ND Pancholi, member of Delhi PUCL, summarised the Seema Azad judgment and also pointed out that the only evidence that the police relied on was the recovery of Maoist literature from them. Also, the mobile phone recovered through an illegal police remand is inadmissible as evidence. Sadly, these principles were neglected by the court while pronouncing Seema and Vishwa Vijay guilty.
Pancholi also emphasised on the fact that journalists should not hesitate from reporting the truth. Even if they are persecuted by money-mongering, power-hungry corporate honchos or the “great” government of India, they are protected under the Constitution through its Working Journalist Act 1955.
Neelabh, a Hindi poet based in Delhi, posed five questions that we all must attempt to answer in order to understand and hence, act to oppose what he called an ‘absurd judgement’ that has been passed by the Allahabad District Court in the Seema Azad case:
1. Why was Seema Azad arrested?
2. Why was Seema Azad punished?
3. Are we actually citizens of a democracy?
4. What should be done?
5. What will be our mode of protest?
He said that Seema had been arrested and punished not because she is, apparently, a Naxalite but because she is a human rights activist. He also said that now, corporate run everything and the reason why FICCI is interested in framing the anti-terrorist laws is so that they can acquire land, displace people, anydescription who revolts against them can be branded as a terrorist and thrown behind the bars, and hence, they can function smoothly.
Mahtab Alam, a civil rights activist based in Delhi, spoke about the profiling of the Muslim youth, in Azamgarh, Darbhanga in Bihar and even as close as Batla House or Jamia Nagar in Delhi. Despite the fact that educated, cultured, well-to-do Muslims reside in Jamia Nagar, the police have repeatedly given statements in court that the people of these localities are terrorists, extremists who partake in terrorist activities, which are completely false. He talked about the perpetual fear that plagues the Muslim youth: the fear of being branded a terrorist by the distinctly paranoid and starkly communal government of India. He talked about how deaths of prisoners inside jails are orchestrated by the government (case in point: Qateel Siddiqui) and how Muslim civil rights activists, like him, live in the fear of being imprisoned because of their religion and their gutsy attitude.
According to Chandrakala, a whistleblower kept in custody for over fifteen months in the Uttarakhand jail, government labelled the whistleblowers as ‘traitors’ simply because they dared to expose the government’s ugly face. She compared post-9/11 USA with the present government by stating their underlying principle that those who aren’t with them are by default against them. She could not understand that the Indians who could stand up against the oppressive colonial regime of the British are unable to raise their voice against the wrongs being committed by their own government on their own people.
Binayak Sen, country’s leading voice on human rights, supported Azad. For him, just like the judgement passed in his case, Azad’s judgement was also devoid of logic. He highlighted the lesson that he learnt from his time in jail – thousands of nameless people were still trapped in jail, some for an age, under similar allegations and there was no media or public attention drawn to their dilemma.
Pankaj Singh recited a poem to underline the plight of Seema Azad. The convention sought to demand the repeal of these oppressive and nefarious laws and asked for the release of Seema and Vishwa Vijay.
(The article was first published in the Hardnews)