Of The ‘Khooni Cartoonist’ And Other ‘Suspects’: The Cost Of Standing Up For Human Rights

Posted on November 18, 2014 in Society, Staff Picks

By Atharva Pandit:

Summers in Nagpur tend to be brutal. It’s a city known for its oranges- those, and the summer. And one such summer afternoon, as Arun Ferreira- a social activist since his college days, variously called the “Bandra Naxalite”, and “one of the most important Maoist leaders to have been arrested in recent times,”- waited for his meeting with some other activists at the Nagpur station, some two dozen men grabbed him. They bundled him into a car and took him to the Nagpur Police Gymkhana, where they started doing what they usually do to other suspected Naxals- blindfolding them and torturing them using various innovative methods. In Ferreira’s case, his belt was used to tie his hands, then he was kicked and hit, and his body stretched- which is to say, his arms were tied to a window grill high above the ground and all the while, two policemen stood on his outstretched thighs so as to pin him down on the ground. This, writes Ferreira in his frank and no-holds-bar account of his arrest and subsequent torture at the hands of the Anti-Terror Squad, Colors of the Cage, was to ensure that no external injuries be evident on the body of the tortured. And this was only the beginning for the new addition into the list of all those suspected Maoist leaders supposedly trying to spread propaganda in cities, which, in most cases, later turn out to be innocents.


Ferreira is a St. Xavier’s college alumni, and was known around the college circles as the “khooni cartoonist,” because of the way he promoted the annual blood donation drives- by creating a caricature of the blood donors on the spot and offering it to them as a keepsake. As a firebrand student activist leaning left, Ferreira organized a lot of drives and campaigns, including visits to villages and the places of the unprivileged. The 1993 Mumbai riots evidently shook him up, and he soon joined the Vidyarthi Pragati Sanghatan, a “student organization that aimed to build a democratic, egalitarian society.” Helping several campaigns across the state aimed at development of the poor and the unprivileged, Ferreira was a witness to structural poverty and the cruelty of the state towards them very early in his career. Soon, he turned into a full-time activist. He felt that only helping the poor won’t really prove to be progressive, for the situation they found themselves in never changed- to help the poor question the methods of the state and its wielding of power and organizing and protesting against the denial of justice was what was going to have an effect in the long run. And Ferreira began doing just that.

But things started changing after the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center. Terrorism had a new face, and countries across the world jolted up to the reality- that terror as they perceived it was never going to be the same, and, moreover, it was never going to ignore their state either. One day in the future, 9/11 could repeat in any country, any city around the world- and that country and city might even turn out to be theirs. To them, this was unimaginable, and they started working to curb whatever they perceived to be terror, pressuring the activities of armed forces in Kashmir and North-East. While it may be said without any biased attitude that such kind of forceful penetration into the terrorist hot lands did prove to be of use, since it almost surely evicted the face of separatism from the North-Eastern front and, to a certain extent, proved to be a blow for the separatist activity in Kashmir, it had its own offshoots.

And one such offshoot was the fact that the Indian state and consequently the Indian army began to commit atrocities against those who had nothing to do with the terrorist forces. Under the umbrella of AFSPA, everything, for the army, became legit and justifiable. The security forces no more were the armed gunmen people should be feeling hopeful or secured about- they were no different from the other breed of gunmen going village to village singing songs and shouting salutes. To the villagers who found themselves sandwiched in between, the colour red and the colour green mixed to form a colour of terror and despair. For them it didn’t matter from whose hands they received the beating- in the end, they were the ones who suffered.

In circumstances such as these, when the army had swooped down upon the separatist forces and the Naxal terror, both the Naxals as well as the state trained their sights upon the rapidly developing urban cities of India- cities where hardly anybody seemed to be caring about what goes on in, say Dantewada or Bastar. The aim of the Maoists was to do just the opposite- to make people care about their struggle and make them understand that this was not just another terrorist group fighting on the basis of some religious motive or a separate state. They were trying, by and large, to gain what we in cities receive everyday- food, clothing and a shelter. The state, on the other hand, rightly believed that propaganda spreading to the cities might influence a call for arms, and then that would be an all-out civil war, not the revolution of Maoist belief. To prevent this from happening, the state began cracking upon suspected Naxals, or even Naxal-sympathizers.

And this is where Arun Ferreira and literally countless others like him come into the picture. Social activism was misconceived to be Naxal propaganda even when activists were actually doing nothing of the sort- neither were they producing pamphlets exalting the Maoist ideology nor were they pasting posters of the Party on the walls of the cities. All the activists were fighting for- through the legit mediums of writing in magazines and newspapers and making films among others- was the right of every living citizen of India to have the basic needs of human life provided to them. Their argument was logical and they believed in it, but ended up paying a heavy price.

The state perceived every act of pro-Naxal sentiment, like an article in a magazine, a correspondence or films or documentaries to be all-out exaltation of the Maoist ideology. That is surely not so, because sympathizing with something and acting for it are two different matters altogether. The police and anti-terror squads spread out all over cities, tracking down social and human rights activists and arresting them on mere suspicions, not understanding that the activists are people vying for peace at any cost, and they more often than not discourage the use of violence by the Naxalites but empathize with their cause and struggle.

In times when the literature and books from those imprisoned and then acquitted are being published and their voices heard, it is important for us to ask certain questions and seek answers for them. Ferreira was released in February, after years of mental and physical torture, which he describes poignantly in his prison memoir. A recent biography of Kanu Sanyal’s- one of the first ideologists of the Naxal movement along with Charu Majumdar- seeks to understand him as a man removed from the violence and grappling with his ideas. The revolutionary radical Naxal poet Lal Singh Dil’s memoir, The Poet of Revolution, translated- wonderfully, I should add, by Nirupama Dutt- last year, speaks of his torture at the hands of the local police and even more so, he writes, because of his lower caste status. The memoir, coupled with other such books and biographies, including the journalist Rahul Pandita’s wonderful Hello Bastar and his extensive reportage from the Naxal zones, has, to a larger extent, revealed to the general public another face of the Red Terror.

And the fight must go on to seek justice for those who are innocent- and there are many to be included along with Ferreira. The case of Soni Sori, who was a teacher teaching tribal students in the dangerous area of Dantewada, highlights the fact that those who try to balance the insurgency and counter-insurgency are always the first ones to be targeted as Maoist sympathizers. So is the case with Sheetal Sathe and her Kabir Kala Manch, a band of singers, poets and musicians formed in Pune after the Gujarat riots, seeking to profess protest poetry against class inequality within the Indian society and the Dalit struggle. The members of the Manch felt threatened in 2011 when the ATS began cracking down upon musicians and poets whom they felt were exalting the Maoist ideology. Although Sathe and her husband went underground, they surrendered to the police two years later, in 2013, all the while maintaining their innocence. The case lags on.

Binayak Sen, Prashant Rahi, Ferreira and Hem Mishra are only a few names in the recent arrests and torture of cultural activists, who are, at their best, trying to make a difference. Indeed, it cannot be denied that some actually turn out to be related to the radical Maoist movement, and their acts should be prosecuted, but torturing them while in prison still remains unconstitutional. The intolerance of the state towards those who dare to raise the concerns of underprivileged is shocking, not to mention sad and tragic. It should be understood that social and cultural activism is not a form of revolt but that of peaceful dissent, and repressing these voices is nothing but a shame to democracy. Writing about the movement and caring about those affected by both the insurgency and the counter-insurgency is in no way exalting any ideology- except, maybe, the ideology of human rights and a peaceful living.

Manmohan Singh, in 2010, called the Naxal movement “biggest threat to India’s internal security,” and an act of “internal terror.” The violence that the Naxals have produced throughout the decades it has been active should, indeed, be severely condemned, there’s no two-way about it. But accusing those who try to understand their problems and provide a solution to them of being ideologists or “couriers” is ridiculous, and dangerous, for this useless clampdown on innocents serves no purpose except to increase the dissent. The question these arrests and the question, consequently, the recently released books by those arrested raise is a vital one: whose internal terror is it anyway?