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Andhra govt, Centre 'collude' to repeat Bhima Koregaon type case against rights activists

Counterview Desk 

In a comprehensive statement, running into about 3,500 words, India's premier human rights organisation, People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), even as condemning the recent "unprecedented attack" on rights activists by the Andhra Pradesh government, with the Centre's National Investigation Agency (NIA) and stood in "solidarity", has said that the main aim of the "witch hunt" is to silence dissent.
Signed by Ravi Kiran Jain and Dr V Suresh, respectively President and General Secretary of PUCL, the statement, drawing a parallel with the Bhima Koregaon case, said, this time too the NIA cover was used to level the allegation that the activists were all supporters and “front organisations” of Maoists. This became the reason for imposing seditious charges under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) "to criminalize dissent in a political environment where institutional checks and balances have significantly eroded", it added.

Text:

In an unprecedented manner, on March 31 and April 1, 2021, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) raided the homes of at least 33 human rights and civil liberties activists, members of women’s groups, Dalit organisations, labour unions and social and cultural movements in 31 locations spread across 8 districts of AP and 4 districts of Telangana.
As had happened in the Bhima Koregaon case (which witnessed the witch hunt, hounding and arrest of 16 of the country’s most prominent lawyers and human rights defenders), in the NIA raids of 2021, too, the cover was the allegation that the activists were all supporters and “front organisations” of Maoists.
The PUCL condemns these raids and unambiguously stands in solidarity with the activists who are being criminalised for their human rights work that aims to restore the dignity of the downtrodden. It is also our belief that however hard the State tries, they cannot silence the voices of these activists or instil fear in order to deter others from doing similar work.

`Persecution by prosecution’: The NIA’s tool kit

The FIR triggering the raid, had all the tell-tale marks of what has now become part of the NIA’s “tool-kit” to prosecute rights defenders across the country: a fabricated and rigged complaint based on an alleged confession given to a police officer, alleging conspiracy to further Maoist (terror) activities, spreading Maoist ideology amongst youth, unemployed and young women, planning police attacks and questioning the Government for its policies.
Yet another noticeable part of the NIA’s “tool-kit” which exposes the political nature of the FIR is in the fact that no actual “terror or terrorist” incident had taken place. People were implicated essentially for “conspiring” to support and help the activities of Maoist organisations.
Armed with such a complaint, the NIA, with the assistance of the state police, launched a massive raid on rights defenders, with all the optics accompanying such high profile events: blockading the streets where the residences were located thereby ensuring that crowds of people gathered and tipping the media in advance so that there was wide spread visual media coverage. Part of the strategy was also to generate fear and sense of intimidation amongst citizens.
The PUCL feels it is important to trace out, the modus operandi used by the state agencies – both state police and the centrally controlled NIA – so that citizens can understand the sinister plan hatched by police agencies to `persecute by prosecution’.
Part of the aim is also to drive fear and terror in the minds of constitutionally minded citizens and the media in such a way that the sheer fear of being implicated in the dreaded UAPA law would deter any or all of them from even remotely questioning the brazen violation of law by the police agencies.

The origins of the NIA prosecution

The raids were consequent to the NIA registering a FIR on 7th March, 2021 based on the criminal case registered by Munchingaput Police Station, Vishakhapatnam district, as FIR in Cr. No. 47/2020 dated 23rd November, 2020. The offences included sections 120B, 121,121A, 143,144,124A r/w 149 IPC, sec 10,13 and 18 of the UAP Act, sec 8(1) and (2) of the AP Public Safety Act and sec 25 Arms Act.
A second FIR, Cr. No. 606/2020, dated 24th of November 2020 was also lodged by the AP police in the Piduguralla PS in Guntur district under similar sections of the IPC, UAPA, APPS and the Arms Act in Guntur District. It is important to talk about this FIR as the AP police has also made arrests in this and it is quite likely that the NIA will take over the investigation of this FIR too.
The Munchingaput FIR lists 64 accused, with 19 additional names included in the course of the investigation, making it a total of 83 accused. The Piduguralla FIR lists 27 people as accused. Twenty of the 27 accused in the Piduguralla FIR are also mentioned in the Munchingaput FIR.
In the last 3 months, over 10 activists have been arrested in AP and Telangana, 6 of whom are named in the Munchingaput FIR: (i) Pangi Naganna, (ii) Anduluri Annapurna, (iii) Jangarla Koteswar Rao, (iv). Manukonda Srinivasa Rao, (v) Rela Rajeswari and (vi) Boppudi Anjamma.
It is important to point out that while 10 activists got arrested, 23 people who approached the Andhra Pradesh High Court were granted interim stay from arrest. This includes stay orders in the Munchingaput and Piduguralla cases. However, there is no clarity on how many of the accused in the Munchingaput case got interim bail. All the interim stay orders from the AP High Court predate the NIA raid.
It is more than clear that the Andhra Pradesh Government had begun a witch hunt of activists, with the NIA taking over the baton. All those who are questioning the State apparatus, the state government and the police for its extra judicial ways, including those who have persevered in the struggle for justice in the 2007 gang rape case of women in Vakapalli village by the police are being targeted. For 14 years the policemen evaded facing trial by placing legal roadblocks.
With the help of the activists, the tribal women victims won victories at all levels, including from the Supreme Court which directed the trial court to speedily conclude the trial against the policemen alleged to be involved in the rape incident. The trial had reached a crucial phase and the nervous policemen were said to have pressured the administration to prosecute the rights activists, lawyers and others involved in the case.
Knowing the present malicious role of the central investigative agencies, there was also little surprise therefore when the National Investigation Agency’s Hyderabad division took over the investigation of the Munchingaput P.S.’s case and re-registered the case as RC-0 1/2021/NIA/HYD, on 07-03-2021 for offences u/s 120B, 121, 121A, 147, 144 and 124A r/w 149 IPC, sec. 10, 13 and 18 of UAPA, ss. *(1) and (2) of AP Public Safety Act and sec. 25 of the Arms Act.

NIA raids – material objects seized

As was expected the NIA seized 40 mobile phones, 44 SIM cards, 70 storage devices, 184 CDs/DVDs, 19 pen drives, tabs and audio recorders, pass words of emails and social media accounts. What is also perturbing is that those who were under arrest and in jail also had their homes raided by the NIA and state police. In many instances the raids lasted for over 5 hours.
The raid was just the beginning of the NIA investigation, which has also consisted of interrogation for 10 hours or more, on an average, for each of the 31 persons named as accused in the FIRs (registered first by the state police and subsequently taken over by NIA).

NIA as tool of the Central government against dissenters

A close study of all NIA cases undertaken in the last few years reveals that the Government of India is intent to take control of all UAPA cases, especially from those States which are not ruled by the BJP.
Under the NIA Act, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) needs no permission of the state government to take over criminal cases which involve offences also listed in the NIA Act. Since the offences in the Munchingaput FIR had sections of the UAPA, which is listed in the schedule of the NIA law, the agency took over cases without informing the Andhra Pradesh state government.
This was similar to what happened in the Bhima Koregaon cases too, which were initially being investigated by the Pune wing of the Maharashtra state police, in the then BJP ruled government. However, following general election to the Maharashtra state Assembly in November, 2019 there was a falling-out of the Shiv Sena from the BJP. This led to the formation of a new coalition ministry called the Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) which took charge of the state government, headed by Uddhav Thackeray as the new Chief Minister.
The acrimonious sparring between the erstwhile allies, the Shiv Sena and the BJP, led to the announcement of the new government to review many of the politically motivated cases registered earlier. This prompted the Union Home Ministry headed by Amit Shah of the BJP, to announce in a totally unexpected manner on 25th January, 2020, that the NIA was taking over the Bhima Koregaon cases without consulting the state government. Immediately thereafter, the trial till then being held in Pune courts was transferred to the special NIA court in Mumbai.
It is our view that law and order is a State subject. The arbitrary and unilateral manner by which the Union Home ministry is using central agencies like the NIA to take over the cases handled by the state police, is a frontal attack on federalism and the federal structure of the Indian Constitution and needs to be opposed and condemned.
There are many consequences of the NIA taking over of so-called terror cases. As in Bhima Koregaon, the NIA does not have to disclose in the charge sheet, the names of witnesses it does not want to reveal. This is a travesty of fair trial procedures which are fundamental principles of criminal law both in Indian law as also in international law like the ICCPR that India has ratified. They also violate the principles of natural justice as the statements of protected witnesses are not disclosed to the accused in many cases.
Attempt is to paralyze work of individual activists who have been challenging the Andhra and Telengana governments
Most importantly, the NIA through its method of preparing charge sheets, is criminalising all legitimate constitutional activities and trying to tarnish all democratic organisations working for justice by trying to argue that they are frontal organisations of the Maoists and therefore indulging in anti national activities.
While drawing attention to the anti-human rights actions of the Central Government, we should also add that the actions of state governments ruled by non-BJP parties are not very different. The political leadership, in non BJP ruled state is also increasingly becoming hostile towards critics and dissenters of their policies. Such non-BJP governments too would rather favour jail for activists than face being questioned and challenged for their policies.
The culture of criminalizing questioning of state policies and programmes, silencing dissenters through fabricated prosecutions and the attendant spread of a climate of fear is becoming all pervasive, whatever be the political dispensation in any state. And draconian provision including sedition offences (u/s 124A IPC), waging war against the state (u/s 121A IPC), UAPA, state laws like Public Safety Acts and NSA are being invoked with abandon.
In the dismal human rights scenario in the country marked by police excess and abuse of law by the state, the role of agencies like the NIA stands out for the key role played by them in in engendering a climate of impunity and brazen violation of fundamental rights and constitutional protections.

Rights defenders, UAPA and the State: An unlawful and unconstitutional political tool of the Government in power

The UAPA is one of the most stringent, unlawful and unconstitutional security laws in the country. This is not the first time a security law has become a political tool at the hands of the State, empowering the police authorities to be brazen and unlawful. However, in the period when TADA and POTA were misused there were statutory watch-dog bodies and other democratic institutions, who worked together to expose the widespread abuse of these so-called anti-terror legislations.
(Note: TADA – Terrorist and Disruptive Activities [Prevention] Act, 1987, was the first of the anti-terror laws, TADA was allowed to lapse in 1995 when an overwhelming number of MPs in Parliament opposed renewing the law. POTA – Prevention of Terrorism Act, 2002. TADA was followed by POTA which came to be passed after the 2001 attack on Parliament. It however was repealed by the newly elected Congress led UPA government in 2004 on account of widespread abuse of the law and arrests f hundreds of political workers, activists and others.)
In fact the NHRC itself played a key role in 1995 by writing to Members of Parliament, asking them to oppose extending the TADA Act which eventually was dropped and not renewed in 1995. It also played a key role in documenting and exposing the abuse by POTA and worked for its repeal.
But now, despite well documented reports highlighting the brazen misuse, abuse and motivated prosecution of activists and others, the NHRC has been reluctant to intervene or take cognisance of the widespread abuse of the UAPA to persecute activists. The courts too are increasingly found to be executive minded and are seen to be reluctant to intervene by granting reliefs like bail, which can reduce the harshness and severity of UAPA prosecutions.
The widespread reality is that anyone charged under UAPA will have to be ready to spend anywhere from 3 to 8 years in jail for trial to conclude. The harshness of such a scenario is exposed when we consider that while UAPA accused face incarceration in jail for period of 5 to 8 years pending trial, the conviction rate is as low as being less than 5% in UAPA cases.
A crucial issue of public justice and police accountability for abuse of law arises when we consider the question of how society can recompense innocent people falsely implicated and imprisoned for long years before being acquitted.
There is nothing in law as it exists today, to hold liable, the entire chain of command of police officers responsible for vengeful and motivated prosecution. This being the situation, the issue of compensation or reparation to innocent persons who lose valuable years of their lives rotting in jail is not part of discussion at all .
To summarise, the use of UAPA to criminalize dissent in a political environment where institutional checks and balances have significantly eroded, is a matter of grave concern.

The deathly perils of a FIR based on confession to police officer: Flimsy nature of allegation in Munchingput case

We would like to highlight this point even more in the case of FIR 47/2020, Munchingaput Police Station, which was registered by the AP police on November 23, 2020. The FIR is based on an alleged confession statement made by the first accused, Pangi Naganna, to the police.
In the confession he states that he was passing information to the Maoists about the police movements in the area, provoking the tribals and the other villagers by instigating and obstructing combing operations and holding rallies against the Government; he also states that he did publicity work for the Maoists, organised purchases for them, including of medicines, batteries, wires, red cloth, sim cards, mobile phones and other essentials, indulging in conspiracies to eliminate government employees and political leaders, taking members of frontal organizations deep into the forest areas for meetings with the top Maoist leaders and helping them plan expansion of the Maoist party amongst the youth, the unemployed and young women; according to the confession he helped with social media and planned legal strategies with ongoing and new cases.
According to the FIR, Pangi Naganna was picked up by the police on November 23, 2020 at 2.30 pm while conducting vehicle checks. He was reportedly interrogated and voluntarily gave a confession to the police officer which was recorded between 3 pm to 7 pm. The FIR was lodged by 7.30 pm. These facts are disclosed by the police in the remand application to the JFCM court on November 24, 2020.
What stands out is that despite being apprehended by the police at the check post when he tried to flee, as soon as he was apprehended, Pandi Naganna, without hesitation or having any fear, suddenly agrees to voluntarily give a confession about incidents spanning a 3 year period. This confession was also immediately recorded by the police officer.
What is amazing, and raises suspicion, is that in four hours following his arrest, Naganna is able to recall incidents dating back 3 years, with the names of more than 64 people, including several tribal persons, with details like who all were taken by him, who they met in terms of Maoist leadership, who were the others present in that meetings and the tasks allotted to the city based members and associates and other detailed information.
Pangi Naganna, in his single confession allegedly reports about 15 incidents mostly of the previous year, but with some going back to two or three years of the unlawful activities in which the 64 persons who are named in the FIR were embroiled in.
Even a casual reading of the FIR raises a very simple question: how could Pangi Naganna share such explicit and detailed information spanning several years, all in a three hour sitting in the police station? The FIR itself notes that Pangi Naganna on seeing the police party attempted to flee and was apprehended after a chase. While so, there is no explanation of how he overcame his fear of the police which made him flee at the check post and what made him accept to give a confession to the police officer.
What is unbelievable, and therefore makes the confession suspicious, is the detailed information provided by Pangi Naganna. How he could recall all the names, dates, incidents and conversations mentioned in the FIR raises suspicion about the genuineness of the alleged confession which appears very doubtful.
At this juncture, what should be noted is that under the UAPA law confessions to police officers are not made admissible as evidence and are hit by the provisions of sec. 25 to 30 of the Indian Evidence Act. What is most objectionable is that while the law itself does not permit confession to police officers to be admissible as evidence, the confessions at the initial stage are being used to prosecute scores of people thereby throwing them in prison for many years. This is the greatest travesty of law.

The Munchingaput FIR: Conspiracy to rope in organisations and individuals

The FIR not only appears suspicious but also seems to have been created with the sole and express objective of implicating all the prominent and key rights activists of AP and Telangana. It is to be noted that the FIR, based on an alleged confession identifies 39 Maoists and Tribal leaders and 25 representatives from 12 organisations of the civil society of AP, a heavy price that the activists are being made to pay for their open democratic assertion of dissent as against the police and the Government. The organisations implicated in the FIR are as follows:
  1. Civil Liberties Committee, Andhra Pradesh (CLC-AP)
  2. Kula Nirmulana Porata Samiti
  3. Patriotic Democratic Movement
  4. Revolutionary Writers Association (ViRaSam)
  5. Amar Bandhula Mitrula Sangam (ABMS) Friends and Relatives of martyrs.
  6. Committee for the Release of Political Prisoners (CRPP)
  7. Indian Association People's Lawyers (IAPL)
  8. Human Rights Forum (HRF)
  9. Chaitanya Mahila Sangam
  10. Praja Kala Mandali
  11. Pragatisheela Karmikula Sangam
  12. Jan Natya Mandali
The attempt is to essentially paralyze the work of the individual activists and all these organisations who have been challenging the AP and Telengana governments on issues related to atrocities by the police, unfair and unjust investigation in cases lodged by the marginalised, including some of the organisations taking on governance issues relating to implementation of Government schemes.
Interestingly the first accused Pangi Naganna who seems to be not only the witness for all the so called "anti national" activities of these activists, but supposedly was also instrumental in taking all those mentioned in the FIR to various forests on the Andhra - Odisha to meet with Maoists, is not known to any of the 33 whose houses were raided.
Yet, all the organisations and persons named in the FIR now stand the danger of being apprehended at any time and implicated in cases carrying UAPA charges. The danger is that they stand to lose many years of their lives fighting the case and even if they are acquitted by the trial court eventually, they would already have wasted valuable years of their lives.
PUCL would like to point out that the trauma and travails of false prosecution will affect not just those who are arrested but also their families, friends and colleagues, as also the communities they belong. They will all get pulled in into the web of terror investigation. They also suffer the ignominy of being related to those arrested and get tainted by the charge of being anti-social and anti-national themselves.

In conclusion

The PUCL demands:
  • That both the FIRs, Cr. No. 47/2020 of Munchingaput PS now converted into NIA FIR RC-1/2021/NIA/Hyd dated 07.03.2021 and Cr. No. 606/2020 of Piduguralla Town PS be immediately closed and further proceedings against all the accused be dropped.
  • That criminal prosecution should be immediately launched against the police officials of the two police stations, Munchingaput and Piduguralla who filed what were patently fabricated cases against human rights and civil liberties activists and leaders of local tribals, women’s and other grass roots movements.
  • The NIA be restrained from its all pervasive power to trample upon federalism.
  • Let the Constitutional rights of activists working democratically be upheld.
  • Repeal the UAPA and NIA Act. 
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Click here for the names of those against whom cases have been filed

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