People’s Film Collective’s monthly screening in October with a conversation and film screening organised around the questions of democracy, civil liberty, freedom of speech and the right to dissent, issues that are critically important for our times. As members of the collective, we were particularly invested in exploring the history of state repression in India and tracing its continuities/divergences with the present moment of crisis.
We decided to screen Deepa Dhanraj’s 2007 documentary “The Advocate”, based on the life of K.G. Kannabiran. The film concentrates especially on Kannabiran’s courageous work as a lawyer and activist during the national Emergency (1975-77) which often put his own life, security and well-being at risk. Kannabiran, during these years, worked tirelessly as an advocate for the activists of the people’s movements in Andhra Pradesh. He was a voice for those who were arbitrarily arrested as a result of the state’s repressive measures which were aimed at crushing all dissenting voices. Dhanraj’s film documents Kannabiran’s resilience and tribulations but also raises critical questions about the citizens’ role in protecting and fighting for the civil liberties guaranteed for us by the constitution.
The programme, titled “War on Democracy and the state of Civil Liberties in India”, took place at the Jogesh Mime Academy on Sunday the 7th of October at 5 pm. The event begun with a discussion on the attack on democracy that India is witnessing at the present moment. Dwaipayan Banerjee introduced the speaker Sujato Bhadra (a long-time activist with the APDR) on behalf of the collective. Banerjee ruminated on whether the continued attack on members of people’s movements and human rights activists across the nation, indefinite house arrests, incarceration, a total clamp down on dissent, framed cases and cooked-up charges, as well as widespread mob lynchings and hate crimes actually indicated an undeclared state of Emergency far worse than the one we look back on in history.
Bhadra begun his speech by talking about the events at Bhima-Koregaon and the arrests that followed, pointing out that only two of the people implicated in the FIRs lodged – Soma Sen and Sudhir Dhawale were physically present on the spot when the Bhima-Koregaon protests took place. However, ten people had been placed under house arrest and this has clearly nothing to do with the events cited officially, but is in reality an attack on dissent against the current government. He then went on to assert that a lot of fact-finding work by human rights groups and activists for democratic rights are invested in exposing the truth of fake encounters and forced disappearances. The urban activists often work as voices for the most vulnerable and dispossessed of people; this work involved speaking truth to power. Bhadra also highlighted the role of the media in spreading false propaganda on behalf of the state. For example, as regards the plot to assassinate the Prime Minister, there had been no FIR, hence no case and no investigation. Yet, the media had kept broadcasting the news about this plot as if it was established fact. The actual violent perpetrators of the event at Bhima-Koregaon have, on the other hand, gone without punishment or any fear of consequence while cooked-up cases against those who were absent at the scene have been relentlessly foregrounded by the media. The fundamental principle of the law that one was innocent until proven guilty was in these cases being blatantly violated. The arrest, incarceration and silencing of these human rights activists would finally mean that there were no sentinels left between the oppressive state and its brutalised citizens. There would be no one left to represent or mediate. This reminded one of Vasanta Kannabiran’s question to her husband from the film that was to follow this discussion: “You have represented so many of the arrested. When they come to arrest you tomorrow, who should I call?” Apparently Kannabiran had not been able to think of a single name immediately.
In the present context, those arrested unjustly were unable to access even the existing provisions of the law (which could certainly be improved) because of the continuous spread of fear, untruth and paranoia by the state and its arms in the media. Bhadra went on to underline the fact that many of these arrests were meant to function as warnings to others by making example of these activists, so that no one else may dare to protest after them. Most of these activists were also vulnerable because of the lack of any kind of political backing from any party whatsoever. Bhadra then went on then to speak about the history of the UAPA (Unlawful Activities Prevention Act) and the way in which it was developed by combining features of the erstwhile TADA and POTA, with amendments in 2004, 2008 and 2015. The skeleton of the framework for all of these laws was the infamous Rowlatt Act imposed by the colonial British government on Indian citizens in the year in the year 1919. He spoke about some incredible and unprecedented features of the current UAPA, for example, the ‘peeping clause’ – where citizens may be enjoined to keep an eye on their neighbours’ activities and jailed for several years if the police suspect that they submitted a false report on these neighbours/friends. The UAPA overturns the principle of ‘innocent until proven guilty’ and if arrested, the onus is on the one accused to prove that he is not a terrorist. The punishment is ten years imprisonment at the minimum and death penalty at the maximum, and in most cases bail is refused. Even without a declaration of the Emergency in India at the present moment all of these become possible: the public lynching of innocent Dalit youth at Una, an ordinary voter tied to the jeep and paraded as a human shield in Kashmir, and the dispossession of lakhs of people in Assam as a result of the NRC. Many of these dispossessed people are now being referred to as ‘termites’ in public discourse, reminding us of how in times of fascism throughout history, the most vulnerable populations have been described as rats, cockroaches and pests. Stripping these masses of their humanity makes it easier to treat them in inhuman ways: to torture, incarcerate and kill them. Other glaring features of fascism that we see in the present times are the glorification of war and the heroism of the military, the breaking down of all democratic structures and the greater public acceptance of values that are intolerant of differences, and other communities.
Bhadra ended his speech by quoting from a letter written by Rabindranath Tagore in year 1922 to Kalidas Nag, where he reiterated that the love of human beings is far greater than the love of nation.
Report by Trina Neelina Banerjee
Photographs by Aniruddha Dey.