The brutal world of India’s political prisoners

Eric Randolph

May 22, 2011
Utpal Mahato said he was arrested and tortured by police in connection with a terrorist attack last year on a railway line between central India and Kolkata.

KOLKATA // The new government in West Bengal has promised to review all cases against political prisoners, but a long history of police brutality has made it difficult to distinguish between legitimate protesters and active insurgents.

After three days of watching his teenage son being tortured, Utpal Mahato could take no more. In desperation, he told his son to tell the police what they wanted to hear – that he had been involved in one of the most lethal terrorist attacks in India’s history.

The village of Rasua in the Junglemahal tribal region of West Bengal is a village of suspects in the eyes of the police.

It was only a short distance from here, on 28 May last year, that a group of people dismantled part of the railway line carrying trains between central India and Kolkata. Shortly after, the Jwaneswari Express came off the tracks and before the authorities could react, a goods train came slamming into its side from the other direction, killing 148 passengers.

Under pressure for quick results, the police turned to the surrounding villages and began rounding up suspects. The residents allege systematic intimidation and torture by the police.

“They took me to the police lock-up and beat me severely,” said Mr Mahato. “When they found out I had a son, they went and picked him up as well.

“They tied our hands and feet together and suspended us in the air. They beat the soles of our feet with a stick.”

Mr Mahato, a contract labourer, was able to prove through his employer that he had been across the state border in Odisha at the time of the incident, but his 17-year-old son, Hiralal, was not so fortunate.

“He was being beaten so badly,” said Mr Mahato, a look of controlled pain on his face. “In the end, I could take no more. I told him to say he was there. It was the only way they would leave him alone.”

About 40 people have been charged with involvement in the case. Four families in Rasua have sons awaiting trial. All of them deny involvement and say their real crime was being part of a movement known as the People’s Committee Against Police Atrocities (PCPA).

The PCPA was formed in November 2008 after a similarly brutal crackdown, this time in reaction to the attempted assassination of then chief minister Bhuddadeb Bhattarcharya by Maoist insurgents, who have been active in the area for the past 15 years.

Allegations that the police had resorted to beatings and sexual harassment in their search for Maoists caused an unprecedented surge of public anger across Junglemahal. Tens of thousands of villagers joined rallies under the PCPA banner, forcing the police to completely evacuate the area for eight months. The PCPA established subcommittees in more than 1,300 villages, in what became a landmark struggle for the rights of India’s tribes.

But because the Maoists were closely involved in the movement, it was written off by the police and state government as a front organisation for the insurgents. When the police began fighting their way back into Junglemahal in June 2009, they rounded up hundreds of PCPA members, accusing them of being Maoists and waging war against the state.

Several leaders were killed and many more thrown in jail under a draconian piece ofanti-terrorism legislation called the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act,which makes it illegal simply to be a member of a banned organisation, regardless of whether any specific crime has been committed.

“The police would come into our homes and randomly arrest people and beat them up,” said Mayna Mahato, whose husband, Bholanath, is also charged with involvement in the Jwaneswari attack.

“If someone is arrested they should be presented in court within 24 hours but they kept Bholanath for a week. He was beaten very severely in police custody. They would not tell us where he was being kept. We went from station to station looking for him, but they would not tell us anything.”

Other women gather round and begin recounting their own tales of harassment, saying the police stole televisions, radios and cash from their homes, and destroyed ration cards and insurance papers when they did not get any information.

“They wanted to know about my brother,” said Saraswati Mahato. “They snatched my four-year-old girl from my arms and said they would throw her down the well if I didn’t talk.”

In a candid interview, given on condition of anonymity, a very senior member of West Bengal police admitted that he was powerless to stop this kind of activity in remote areas. “We take action against the officers when there are complaints and human rights violations,” he said. “But it is difficult to completely eradicate the thing. Police were under a lot of pressure to deliver results in the Jwaneswari case. It is such a vast area, it is hard to see what’s happening at the micro level.”

He further admitted that police often threw innocent people in jail during the crackdown on the PCPA. “I don’t deny there are a lot of bystanders and mere sympathisers who have been put in jail,” he said.

The issue has returned to the top of the political agenda thanks to the new chief minister, Mamata Banerjee, whose landslide victory in last week’s state election brought an end to 34 years of Communist rule in West Bengal.

Ms Banerjee won considerable support in Junglemahal by promising in her manifesto that “necessary steps will be taken to free all the political prisoners who are languishing in jails without trials.” There are also persistent rumours that she did a deal with the Maoists to secure their support in the area.

Civil rights groups say that amounts to at least 700 people, with possibly hundreds more who have been lost in the system.

But the activists face a fundamental problem because technically there are no political prisoners in West Bengal.

Reluctant to admit that any arrests are politically motivated, the police has filed specific criminal charges against almost every individual, which critics say are often fabricated.

“I filed a petition to be treated as a political prisoner but never got that dignity,” said Monoj Mahato, former spokesman of the PCPA who was last year charged with a series of murders and is currently out on bail. “They brought these cases because I stood up for the people and talked about the problems they face in their daily lives. That is the only reason.

“We are willing to speak to Mamata about our problems. Before she came to power she said she would fight for the rights of the people of Junglemahal.

“If she doesn’t, then the real face of this new government will be exposed as the different side of the same coin.”

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