Much has been spoken of the ‘civil society’ in the wake of the raids by the Pune Police in connection with the violence at Bhima Koregaon and an alleged plot to assassinate Prime Minister Modi. We are told these are noble individuals committed towards the welfare of the downtrodden. We have often heard of the ‘civil society’ condemning this, that or the other. Whether it is state action against terrorists, Maoists, Naxals or general condemnation for law and order is enforced. This ‘civil society’ often portrays itself as individual units. The illusion is created that several individual units are coming together to ‘condemn’ the same ‘atrocity’ and if so many intellectuals and civil society members are saying the same thing at the same time, there must be merit to their claims. However, is that really what the truth is? Are these organisations independent do-gooders? What connects them? IS there something that connects them all?
In this series of articles, we would attempt to demystify the aura surrounding the so-called ‘civil society’ and investigate whether they can withstand the scrutiny we would subject them to.
Coordination of Democratic Rights Organisations (CDRO)
The first article in the series focuses on a particular umbrella organization, the Coordination of Democratic Rights Organisations (CDRO) which was formed in August 2007. An important point to ponder upon is the fact that People’s Union for Democratic Rights (PUDR), Civil Liberties Committee, Committee for Protection of Democratic Rights (CPDR) Andhra Pradesh (APCLC) and Association for protection of Democratic Rights, West Bengal (APDR) work under CDRO. The People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) is a fraternal organization of PUDR, thus linked to CDRO as well. The CDRO has around 20 organizations working together.
As per PUDR’s website, “The CDRO arose in the context of the violent state repression of people’s movements in India as well as the arrest of democratic rights activists.” One of their objectives is “the repeal of brutal laws such as the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), the Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act (MCOCA), the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), the Chhattisgarh State Public Security Act (CSPSA) and other draconian laws operating in India”.
We shall now examine how organizations that represent the so-called civil society have been affected by the raids.
People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) and People’s Union for Democratic Rights (PUDR)
One organisation that has been at the heart of the raids on the alleged urban Naxals conducted by the Pune Police is the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL).
PUCL said in a statement on the raids:
“Such systematic and pre-meditated crackdown on human rights activists is unprecedented and unheard of in a democracy.”
But it’s not surprising that they would make such a statement considering the activists they are associated with either directly or through fraternal organizations were raided themselves.
One of those raided in connection with the violence at Bhima Koregaon, Sudha Bharadwaj, is the General Secretary of the Chhattisgarh unit of People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL). Arnab Goswami’s Republic TV had reported that they had accessed a letter from Sudha Bharadwaj to one Comrade Prakash which allegedly showed a link between ‘Urban Naxals’ and Kashmiri separatists.
Gautam Navlakha, who had links with an ISI funded Kashmiri separatist, was associated with People’s Union for Democratic Rights (PUDR) for a long time as an activist, a fraternal organization of the PUCL.
The narrative that PUCL propagates is quite often antithetical to a layman’s idea of civil society. Although the link is broken, on its website, it can be seen that the organization condemned the hanging of the notorious terrorist Afzal Guru.
As per the report of Delhi PUCL for 2016-17, they assisted PFI “in the matter relating to violation of their right to protest and their freedom of speech violated by the Delhi police on 5th Nov. 2017 in Delhi”. PUDR, its fraternal organization, condemned the ban on PFI in Jharkhand despite the increasing list of criminal activities that members of the radical Islamist outfit have been involved in. There is also significant evidence to suggest that they have been brainwashing Hindu women to convert to Islam.
PUDR also denied that there was any encounter of Naxals at Gadrichholi and strongly criticized the “mass killings”. PUDR also asserted that the death sentence awarded to Nirbhaya’s rapists was “not a cause for celebration”.
Convicted for sedition and helping Naxalites to set up a network to fight the state of India, Binayak Sen was a Vice President of the PUCL even after his conviction by Raipur Sessions Court. The West Bengal unit of PUCL also published a book exonerating Sen of all his crimes and branded him a “victim of state atrocity”.
Consistent with their stance that “One’s man terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter”, the organization also argued against the hanging of the notorious terrorist, Ajmal Kasab, who was one of the Pakistanis behind the 26/11 Mumbai attacks.
Committee for Protection of Democratic Rights (CPDR)
Another organization that finds itself at peril following the raids by the Pune Police is Committee for Protection of Democratic Rights (CPDR). Shoma Sen, one of those arrested in June, is an executive member of CPDR, another fraternal organization of the PUCL. Sen’s husband, Tusharkant Bhattacharya, an alleged Naxal ideologue was arrested by Anti-Terrorist Squad (ATS) of Gujarat police on charges of sedition and waging war against the state.
Anand Teltumbde, another of those raided by Pune Police, is the General Secretary of CPDR. The CPDR had condemned the hanging of Yakub Memon as well. The organization also condemned the conviction of DU Professor G.N. Saibaba for Maoist links and stated that the Judge who had awarded the judgment had “mutilated the existing law” while saying “The judgement also panders to the vagaries of the current dispensation at the centre.” Arun Ferreira, another name that will be familiar to people as one of those raided by Pune Police, was associated with the Mumbai chapter of CPDR. Readers should take care to note that PUDR lists only the Mumbai chapter of CPDR as a coordinating organization of CDRO.
Andhra Pradesh Civil Liberties Committee (APCLC)
Yet another organization associated with the Coordination of Democratic Rights Organisations (CDRO), Andhra Pradesh Civil Liberties Committee (APCLC) has a history of its members being arrested as well. Two of its activists were arrested in December 2004 by the Warangal Police after they were allegedly found moving with armed Maoists. In 2009, an APCLC activist was arrested on charges of assisting Maoists in the murder of ZP vice-chairman Samida Ravishankar in 2007. In 2012, Andhra Police arrested 2 APCLC activists along with 18 members of Chetna Natya Manch (CNM), a Maoist cultural outfit. The Police claimed that members of the CNM had arrived at Hyderabad from Khammam on the invitation of the APCLC members to create awareness among people against encounter of civilians by anti-Maoist forces.
In 2003, Andhra Pradesh Police had arrested three APCLC activists in connection with an attack on Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu including the outfit’s Chittoor district president Hari Prasad, a move that was condemned by an organization it is associated with, Association for Protection of Democratic Rights (APDR).
In 2014, the Police in Hyderabad stopped Pratyamnaya Rajakeeya Vedika (Forum for Political Alternative) from holding a meeting, asserting that it’s a frontal organisation of a banned Maoist Party. Varavara Rao, one of the leaders of the forum, was among the 50 leaders and activists who were arrested by the Police. As per the High Commissioner of Police, the High Court had denied permission to the forum to hold the meeting. Chilaka Chandrashekar, the General Secretary of APCLC, and other members of the organization were also detained as per the statement released by the members of various organizations working under CDRO. As per reports, according to Intelligence agencies, Varavara Rao, which the APCLC appears to have links with, attended the funeral of a Maoist killed in Gadrichholi last year and also attended a meeting to commemorate the first death anniversary of slain Maoist commander Kapuka Prabhakar.
Committee for Release of Political Prisoners (CRPP)
Another organization that is intricately linked with the investigation by Pune Police into the violence at Bhima Koregaon and the alleged assassination plot to murder Prime Minister Modi is the Committee for Release of Political Prisoners (CRPP).
Vernon Gonsalves, another activist raided by the Pune Police, is an executive member of the CRPP. Rona Wilson, one of those arrested in June, is the public relations secretary of the CRPP. The President of CRPP is SAR Geelani, a man who was booked for sedition in 2016 and is a vocal proponent of an independent Kashmir.
Amusingly enough, the Congress party which has come out in vigorous support of those raided by the Pune Police had branded the CRPP a Maoist front organization itself in 2011. An Advocate, Balla Ravindranath, a secretary of CRPP was arrested at Telangana and charged by the Chhattisgarh Police under Sections 8(1), 8(2), 8(3) and 8(5) of the draconian Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act, 2005 (CSPSA) after he was handed over to them.
CDRO AND CRPP
Thus, it is clear that most of those raided or arrested by Pune Police in connection with the violence at Bhima Koregaon and the alleged assassination plot of Prime Minister Modi have links with the CDRO. It is also pertinent to mention that the CRPP is not directly associated with the CDRO but there appears to be a certain connection between the two. Arun Ferreira, who was associated with the CPDR, was also associated with the CRPP. Moreover, Vernon Gonsalves also appeared as one of the speakers at a CDRO event. And Sujato Bhadra, the Vice President of CRPP, was one of the speakers at an event organized by PUDR, where Arun Ferreira was a speaker as well.
From the above-stated facts, it is clear that the organizations that the activists raided by the Pune Police are associated with have a dubious relationship at best with law enforcement authorities. And their members have been raided and arrested a significant number of times during the UPA regime as well, therefore, it is perplexing that the Congress President Rahul Gandhi suddenly sees the raids as an attack on civil society. Moreover, regardless of the political dispensation in power, the organizations have been viewed with much suspicion by the Indian government.
In the next article in the series, we will explore the background of the organization behind the report that has led to the demonization of the Amarnath Yatra by the media.