Maoist sympathisers in India targeted

Alya Mishra
27 June 2010

Professors who oppose government repression are threatened

Sunil Mandiwal, an assistant professor of Hindi at Delhi’s Dayal Singh College, was arrested by the police for questioning and asked if he was a Maoist sympathiser. Mandiwal was released after an interrogation lasting more than three hours but his arrest has shaken the Indian academic community.

“[The police] took some Maoist literature that I had at home with them and kept asking me if I had any Maoist links. It was after hours of denial that they finally let me go,” said Mandiwal, a professor at the university for the past five years.

Professor Saroj Giri, also from Delhi University, said the police had made it clear they could arrest anyone any time.

“Surveillance and monitoring of our activities has increased. Government wants to control our lives,” Giri said.

The increased surveillance follows a government circular issued in May warning Maoist sympathisers. Giri said the circular had curtailed the free speech of the academic community, writers and social activists indirectly.

The circular said the government had become aware Maoist leaders had directly contacted certain intellectuals and non-governmental organisations “to propagate their ideology and persuade them to take steps as would provide support” to the Maoists.

It warned: “Any person who commits the offence of supporting such a terrorist organisation with, inter alia, intention to further the activities of such terrorist organisations would be liable to be punished with imprisonment for a term not exceeding 10 years or with fine or with both.”

It called for the public to be extremely vigilant and not unwittingly become a victim of such propaganda”.

The circular was meant for a section of the academic community that has raised its voice against the government’s policy against Naxalites – a Maoist communist group in India, also known as the Communist Party of India (Maoist) or CPI (M) fighting to overthrow the government.

The 40-year-old Maoist insurgency first emerged as a peasant uprising in Naxalbari in West Bengal in the 1960s and was more commonly known as the Naxalite movement. It has spread to 125 districts across 12 states in India, mostly in poorest eastern parts of the country, tribal-dominated regions, jungle areas and mining towns.

In some cases the movement grew up organically in different areas, embracing a common left-wing ideology. But in recent years the scattered groups have become more coordinated, armed, and emboldened as a jungle guerilla force but also willing to take on government paramilitary forces in open battle.

The Maoists say they are fighting on behalf of the poorest and most oppressed, including the Dalits or ‘untouchables’ and tribals whose land has been expropriated by big corporations such as international companies.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the Maoist movement, which is being debated openly in the country, academics have taken the government’s warning as an encroachment on their right to free speech.

“The warning is indirectly targeting those organisations and individuals who are raising their voice against government’s war on terror,” said Delhi University Professor G N Saibaba, a vocal opponent of state policy against Naxalites.

Saibaba, whose name features as a Maoist sympathiser in a charge sheet filed against top Maoist leader Kobad Gandhi, rejected the claims.

“I am an academician. I am an independent observer and not aligned to any group. Maoists don’t commit violence. They retaliate against government action. If one says the truth and is identified as a sympathiser, then so be it,” he said.

While the warning has put many supporters of free speech on the back foot, it has angered others. A group of teachers supporting the Maoist campaign have run blogs and seminars in support of the Maoist cause and have exposed the government to international scrutiny and criticism.

“The Naxalites are fighting a war for empowerment of the Dalits and tribal people who have been forgotten by the government. Even today, Dalits face wide-ranging economic, social disadvantages, and humiliation,” said Professor Amit Bhattacharya of Jadavpur University in Kolkata.

Bhattacharya referred to a government report, Development challenges in extremist affected areas, submitted by an expert group in 2008.

“The report clearly says that the causes of the tribal movements include absence of any forest policy, political marginalisation, land alienation, forced evictions from land and displacement. Instead of resolving these issues the government is using force to suppress the uprising,” said Bhattacharya.

Over the last year, the Indian capital has become a hotbed of activism. Sections of academia at Delhi University and Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University have become more involved in the ‘war against the people’. Seminars have been organised, leaflets distributed and posters pasted across the campuses.

Groups have also grown up on university campuses to oppose the Maoist groups, causing concern the universities are becoming heavily politicised. A statement by Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad – the student wing of the Bharatiya Janata Party – appealed to students and teachers to “isolate the supporters of Naxalites on the campus”.

The student group has also joined with its arch rival, the National Students’ Union of India, to float a new group against Maoist sympathisers on campus.

Called Students Against Naxalism, the group is meant for students who feel strongly against the violence unleashed by Maoists and want to voice their concern over anti-national campaigns on campus. That has increased pressure on many teachers named as Maoist sympathisers who also admit to being watched.

“We know they are keeping an eye on us. The Delhi Police has named many of us as Maoist sympathisers. They are keeping a track of our public meetings, our speeches and the people we meet but we are not doing anything illegal,” said a PhD scholar from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, considered a hotbed for Marxist and Maoist political ideology.

“This is not the first time that a threat is coming from the government. Whenever the state tries to trample the democratic right we will protest with meetings and processions,” the scholar said.

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