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13 May 2015

PUDR strongly condemns the decision of the Midnapore District Court to award life-sentences to Chhatradhar Mahato, Sukhsanti Baske, Shambhu Soren,Sagun Murmu, Raja Sarkhel and Prasun Chatterjee. All six were arrested between September and October 2009 from Lalgarh and Kolkata on charges of being Maoists and for backing a Maoist front organization, People’s Committee against Police Atrocities (PCPA) and charged under sections of the UAPA, Arms Act, Explosives Substances Act and IPC. While the details of the judgment are awaited, PUDR would like to draw attention to some of the preliminary issues arising out of reports on the conviction order:

  1. Like the arrests, the convictions are politically motivated. The arrests were driven by the then CPI(M) government’s efforts at controlling the immensely successful people’s movement in Lalgarh under Chhatradhar Mahato, the convener of PCPA. Sukhshanti Baske, the alleged cashier of PCPA was arrested a few days after Mahato and fund receipts were recovered from him. It needs to be remembered that the PCPA was never officially banned. So, how could fund collection be a crime? In order to make this a crime, the PCPA had to be named as a Maoist front organization after which the indigenous people and their movement became a terrorist one. The conviction of Baske is a damning proof of the same. 
  2. Raja Sarkhel and Prasun Chatterjee have been awarded life sentence despite the fact that no ammunition or firearms were recovered from them. If printed materials and two mobile phones, the initial list of seizures, are sufficient cause for attracting life-imprisonment, then it stands to reason that a very large number of activists across the political spectrum should be likewise convicted. However, the two were never given bail and now the District Court has confirmed the political decision by awarding life imprisonment to them. 
  3. The conviction of Chhatradhar Mahato is part of the continuing war on the Maoists which began in earnest in 2009 under the UPA  led Central Government through its notorious Operation Greenhunt. This war cuts across party lines as there is a political understanding that the Maoists must be finished either militarily or through large-scale imprisonments. The convictions awarded to Chhatradhar Mahatois very much a part of this process as his brother,Sasadhar Mahato,was a well-known Maoist leader who was killed in a police encounter in 2011.Ironically, Mahato who had been granted bail in 37 cases out of 38 was slapped with a new case in February 2015. The decision of the State Government was clear: it was not going to allow release of Mahato under any circumstances. The punishment awarded by the District Court is obviously in tandem with this decision.  
  4. Public memory is short and many may have forgotten that the seventh person who was also arrested in the present case (no. 161/2009 Lalgarh PS) was RanjitMurmu who died in judicial custody in September 2011. His ailments primarily acquired in jail, malaria and kidney failure, were never treated properly and even after his death in NRS Hospital Kolkata, his family was never informed. Thanks to the intervention of APDR (Association for the Protection of Democratic Rights) his family was finally able to perform the last rites, four days after his death. Ranjit Murmu, Shambhu Soren and Sagun Murmu were members of PCPA and were arrested hours ahead of Mahato on 26th September, 2009. They were allegedly involved in an unsuccessful explosion against a raiding party in which no one was injured. While Ranjit died, the other two tribal activists are paying for their poverty as they never had the resources to fight for bail or acquire well-known legal help. 
  5. The convictions raise a question: could these punishments be awarded if the provisions of banning PCPA as a front organization of the CPI (Maoist) not been available via UAPA? Under UAPA, membership of a banned organization is a crime, possession of banned literature is a crime, collection of funds is a crime, participation in meetings, leafletting, taking out processions etc. are crimes. Arguably, if remains of an explosion were found, as was allegedly the case in Dalilpur Village area on 26th September 2009, then, the investigation would have had to proceed according to the provisions of normal law. However, once UAPA is invoked, relevant sections of the IPC or Arms Act or Explosives Act can be easily included as the accused are regarded as terrorists. The present convictions in the first UAPA case of Bengal confirm this political intention.

PUDR protests this unfair conviction and urges an immediate repeal of UAPA.

Sharmila Purkayastha and Megha Behl

(Secretaries, PUDR)