Newsletter Dec 2006

On October 15, 2006 a contingent of 70 armed policemen surrounded the Daanish Book Stall at the Chandrapur Book Fair in Maharashtra for over three hours and made a list of some 200 books which they found ‘objectionable’ and ‘anti-national’. They finally seized 41 books and registered a case against Sunita Kumari, the owner of Delhi-based Daanish Books, under Section 18 of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967, amended in 2004.

According to this section, “Anyone who indulges in terrorist activity or conspires to any such planning or attempts to do so or propagates, helps, advises or encourages such an activity can be arrested for a term of five years which can be extended to life term imprisonment and can be fined too.”

Sunita was questioned for over 14 hours by the Chandrapur police. Along with her, Vijay Vairagade and his 17-year-old son were also questioned. Sunita was allowed to go after her three day long ordeal only after protests were registered at the local and national level by independent publishers, activists and colleagues. Her release was also granted on condition that she would present herself as and when the police summoned her.

At many of our activist meetings, seminars and conferences Sunita and her Bookstall are such a familiar sight. In fact all these places will look incomplete if Sunita is not there selling books from a durrie or a table and making a range of material available. Getting to know that Sunita has been framed in such a case was a rude shock for all of us.

A few things in this case are noteworthy. The confiscated books deal with issues of gender, of marginalised sections of society and struggles for democratic and civil rights and have been authored by Clara Zetkin, Bhagat Singh, Che Guevara, Baburam Bhattarai, Li Onesto, Anand Swarup Verma and Vaskar Nandy. None of the books seized by the police is banned or declared offensive by any state agency. These books are publicly available everywhere.

It is also important to note that the police repeatedly tried to establish that Sunita is from Jahanabad, belongs to a Maoist organisation and her first husband had died in an encounter with the police. When Sunita retorted by saying that they must correct their information as she is from Bhagalpur and her ex-husband is very much alive, the Superintendent of Police threatened her by saying that he will prove that she is from Jahanabad.

On return, Sunita has filed a case at the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), protesting this violation of democratic rights, but the NHRC is yet to respond.

The entire episode clearly smacks of arbitrariness and highhandedness on the part of the police. The incident unfolds two important issues which are the concern of any citizen believing in secular and democratic ideals. One is of the right of freedom of expression and propagation of ideas and two, the excessive and unrestrained powers of police to pick up and harass citizens merely on the basis of ‘suspicion’ with a view to maintain “law and order” or in the interest of “national security”.

In the last few years, concerns have been expressed by the pattern of picking up, detaining, harassing and arresting activists for anti-national activities. Artists and writers have been picked up routinely in many states for their so- called ‘objectionable’ writings and performances. Of late one also finds a linkage that is being established between the violent outbursts of Dalits, who are being criminalised both by the social and political system, and their linkages with the Naxal and Maoist activities, thereby making a case of using various such laws against them and suppressing their voices against the oppression being suffered by them. These less privileged are easy targets for the police, given their limited access to lawyers, lack of money for bail and unfamiliarity with their rights.

At the same time, the tacit support of the ruling governments both at the central and state levels to the increasing vandalism and vigilantism of the right wing groups also spells a danger to free exchange of ideas, and freedom to read, write, publish, disseminate and perform. It is surely of great concern that the voices of those who dare to raise questions are being stifled and civil liberties eroded. While we condemn such attacks on freedom of expression, such attacks need to be taken with utmost seriousness and fought with a sense of urgency.