The Indian Express
Chhattisgarh called the arrest of Prafulla Jha and seven others its ‘biggest success in cracking the urban Maoist network’. Earlier this year, Jha became the first journalist convicted of sedition in the state. As he fights back, the holes in the police’s story are showing. Ashutosh Bhardwaj reports
For more than five years now, Prafulla Jha has been in Raipur jail. Fifteen months to go for the end of his term, the man whose arrest, along with seven others, had been termed by the Chhattisgarh Police as its “biggest success in cracking the urban network of Maoists”, has challenged his conviction in the high court.
The court didn’t rule him a Maoist, nor did it find that he was a member of any banned outfit. His interrogation report called him “a Gandhian who would never resort to or support violence”. Still, in July 2013, Jha became the first Chhattisgarh journalist to be convicted on charges of sedition and of attempt to wage a war against the nation.
The recent arrest of alleged Maoist couriers Hem Mishra, a student of Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, and Prashant Rahi, an Uttarakhand activist, from Gadchiroli, and the raid on the house of Delhi University professor G N Saibaba in the Capital have brought the urban network of Maoists back in focus. But while the security forces may assert that the instances confirm rebel operations in cities, Jha’s case underlines that the charges rest on little more than presumptions.
In the Raipur office of Dainik Bhaskar in the mid-1990s, Prafulla Jha, a self-proclaimed “Gandhian journalist”, were sometimes seen translating papers his colleagues thought was ‘Maoist literature’. Among the friends with whom he discussed political economy was a young lawyer, Vijay Reddy alias K R Reddy, later known as Gudsa Usendi or the spokesperson of the Dandakaranya Special Zonal Committee of the CPI (Maoist). Belonging to Karimnagar in Andhra Pradesh, Reddy lived with his family in Bhilai, a mofussil town of then undivided Madhya Pradesh.
In December 2007, Reddy disappeared. The arrests happened the following month.
On January 21, 2008, according to the police, Jha’s transporter son Prateik and Reddy’s wife Shanti Priya alias Malti dropped seven bags of weapons and Maoist literature, including a short story collection, Premchand ki Sarvshreshtha Kahaniyan (by the legendary Hindi author), on a road in Raipur “for some unknown Maoists”. The next day, Malti and her friend Meena Chaudhary were arrested, and at their instance, Jha was held.
A bag containing weapons and other material was recovered from Jha’s home. Prateik and his friend Siddharth Sharma, both travel agents, were arrested days later on the charge of transporting weapons and other material for Maoists. On the basis of Malti’s account, Bilaspur-based cloth merchants Naresh and Ramesh Khubnani and Raipur-based tailor Dayaram Sahu were also arrested.
Four years later, in April 2012, Malti and Chaudhary were among those whose release was sought by the Maoists for releasing abducted Sukma Collector Alex Paul Menon.
This July, a Raipur court held all the eight guilty of supporting Maoists, with the local media reporting the case as “hardcore Naxals convicted”. What didn’t get highlighted was that the court did not term any of them a Maoist, even rejecting the prosecution’s contention that they were members of a banned outfit.
Except the cloth merchants and the tailor, the five others were held guilty of sedition and conspiracy to wage war against the country. While Malti was earlier convicted for distributing Maoist-related CDs to MLAs, Siddharth and Prateik were accused of working for Reddy. Reddy often visited Jha’s home and reportedly engaged Prateik, even bought him vehicles. However, police officers also noted that the duo had no Maoist leanings but took on the job for easy money.
While in his interrogation report Prateik admitted to having transported weapons and even top Maoists — including CPI (Maoist) Central Committee member Kadri Satyanarain Reddy — he denied all the charges in court. Interestingly, Jha admits that Prateik should have known whom he was working for considering the nature of the material he supplied. “I would think so, not then, but now.”
The Khubnani brothers and tailor Dayaram Sahu were punished under Section 8(3) of the Chhattisgarh Public Security Act for “assisting in the management of an unlawful organisation”. While the brothers were convicted for supplying cloth to Reddy for Maoist uniforms, Sahu stitched them. The trio claimed they did not know their customers’ identity.
In case of Sahu the court deduced that since he “failed to attach his tailor mark on the stitched uniforms, he knew these were for Maoists”. The Khubnanis said they only sold cloth to one Sunil Chaudhary, who claimed to be from ‘Industries Detective and Security Services’, Raipur. The court noted that the brothers did not apply their mind to “why would a Raipur company place an order in Bilaspur”. Bilaspur, incidentally, is just 120 km from Raipur and is considered a bigger market than the state capital. Even the Chhattisgarh High Court is in Bilaspur.
The entire case similarly rests not on actual evidence of seditious activities, but some recoveries the court accepted as evidence indicating an intention to commit sedition. Consider the account of chief prosecution witnesses Shrikant Dongre and Akhilesh Pandey, who were reportedly present when “incriminating material” was recovered from Chaudhary, and when she admitted to her links with the CPI (Maoist) and noted that Jha and others were part of the urban network.
Dongre was apparently taking his bike with Pandey to a petrol pump when a police team told them, “We are going to conduct a raid. Will you accompany us?”
The case rests on recoveries made hours apart from Chaudhary and Jha’s home, and their police statements, which they denied in court. Dongre and Pandey were witnesses to both. Exclude their testimony and the evidence against the five main convicts falls apart. The defence termed Dongre a “stock witness”, a witness manufactured by police.
Police defence is that in such instances, it is difficult to find actual evidence of attempting to wage war; it is deduced only on the basis of recoveries.
However, that still works only in the case of Malti and Chaudhary — their release was sought by the Maoists, after all — or Siddhartha and Prateik, who admitted to having transported material and people for Reddy.
Jha’s case is strikingly different. His friends and police confirm he was not a Maoist. While a bag containing weapons was allegedly recovered from his home, police officers attribute it to his son, and say he did only translation work for Maoists, that too under financial compulsion. However, they add, his arrest was necessary to “teach others a lesson”.
“If you arrest a son who is involved in such activities with his father’s friend, then the father also comes into the ambit,” says an officer.
Jha laughs at his former colleagues’ perception about his translation work. “It was not Maoist literature. I translated several articles from a special edition of the Economic and Political Weekly on Nepal Maoists.”
Jha has a large family of four daughters and three sons. Three daughters are still unmarried. One is in Class XII, and the others work to help meet family expenses. One of his daughters, Priya, had to give up her PhD.
The family doesn’t deny links to activists, many of whom now stand tarnished in Chhattisgarh’s Naxal war. Says Priya: “Binayak (Sen) uncle aur Niyogi (prominent activist Shankar Guha Niyogi) uncle ki goud mein kheli hoon. Protests were routine for us.”
They believe their father was framed as he was very vocal in TV debates on civil liberties. “Several journalists came to us. After his arrest, we requested them to take up our case. But none of them wrote on him,” Priya says.
Jha believes his supporters feared police action. Under attack over the Salwa Judum, the Chhattisgarh Police was making major arrests at the time, including of Binayak Sen. “What I did was not unique. Several journalists were also engaged in similar debates,” Jha says.
While Sen and Soni Sori, also arrested from Chhattisgarh in Naxal cases, were termed ‘Prisoners of Conscience’ by Amnesty International and campaigns launched for their release, no one come forward for Jha, Sahu or the Khubnani brothers.
A postgradute in anthropology, Jha is acknowledged to have done major research during his academic career. His colleagues remember him as a sharp intellectual, vocal and argumentative.
Except a few years when he worked as an editorial writer for newspapers such as Bhaskar and Hitvada, he worked mostly as a freelance journalist.
However, Jha was also a committed activist and got involved with the Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan and the People’s Union for Civil Liberties a long time ago. His activism coincided with the emergence of Naxals in southern Madhya Pradesh. Cadres of the People’s War Group entered Bastar in the 1980s, gradually expanded their base among tribals and marched northwards.
Reddy was among the topmost PWG men entrusted with the task of spearheading the urban Naxal movement in Chhattisgarh. He arrived in late 1980s, studied law at Raipur University, befriended several journalists and began living in Bhilai with wife Malti, a son and a daughter. Reddy’s interviews and articles featured in Chhattisgarh papers and news channels.
The term ‘urban network of Maoists’ was yet to gain currency, and rebels allowed journalists easy access to their Bastar camps.
After Reddy’s disappearance and Malti’s arrest, their children shifted to Hyderabad and claim not to have met their father since his disappearance or to have known of their parents’ “links”.
While the association with Reddy could hurt his case, Jha does not deny their friendship. “I met Reddy in October 1988. He was a brilliant law student and circulated Maoist literature,” he says.
Jha also claims that while Reddy “managed” visits of several journalists to “Bastar camps”, he never went. Jha’s investigation report corroborates that while Reddy often insisted, Jha never visited Maoist zones.
Jha believes he was still arrested as police wanted a face to instill fear among the media. “I was a freelancer. They could easily lay hands on me.”
What is true is that Raipur and Bhilai have hosted several senior Maoists for years, who went underground only recently. In February 2012, an alleged member of the Central Technical Committee of the CPI (Maoist), Deepak Parganiha, was arrested from Kolkata, along with the committee’s chief, Sadanala Ramkrishna.
Subsequently, police raided Parganiha’s Bhilai home and arrested his wife Rekha. Parganiha, incidentally, worked at SAIL’s flagship Bhilai Steel Plant and was an award-winning technician.
Similarly, Reddy lived in urban Chhattisgarh for 20 years, was friends with many influential persons before ultimately disappearing. Police don’t even have a photograph of his except a passport size one in lawyer’s uniform.
ADG (Intel) Mukesh Gupta admitted that tracking such cases requires an elaborate machinery. “Police have become more active now. But any presumption that the urban network is in a poor state should be taken with a pinch of salt. Maoist survival in the jungle is dependent on the urban network. It supplies arms, medicines and all the necessary things to feed the jungle movement,” Gupta says.
Ex-DGP Vishwaranjan also says the clandestine Naxal movement cannot be managed without strong overground support. “You crack down on it, it would emerge again. Do you think Politburo or Central Committee members live only in forests?,” he says.
Maoist ideologue Varavara Rao, however, calls the charges an erroneous “construction” to harass citizens.
“There is a forest movement, and there is an urban movement. Not just tribals and Maoists in forests, but people in cities also oppose the present development model. They have legitimate criticism, but police term this whole thing urban network.”
As Jha went in appeal against his conviction recently, policemen tried to dissuade him in private. They told him he has already served most of his term and that the case may take longer than that to decide.
But Jha refused to step back. He had to clear himself of the stigma, he said.
Hem Mishra: A JNU student from Uttarakhand arrested from Gadchiroli, Maharashtra, in August 2013. Accused of carrying “coded” information from “top academic circles” in New Delhi to Maoists in Chhattisgarh.
Prashant Rahi: Also from Uttarakhand, he was held the same month as Mishra from Gadchiroli. Accused of organising an arms training camp.
Sadanala Ramkrishna: Was said to head the Central Technical Commission of the CPI (Maoist) at the time of his arrest from Kolkata in 2012. Accused of using urban bases to prepare ammunition.
Abhishek Mukherjee: Alleged Kolkata committee secretary of CPI (Maoist), held from the city in September 2012. Mukherjee was said to have been the prime coordinator between different urban units of the outfit.
Kobad Ghandy: Arrested from Delhi in 2009. Police say he coordinated the movement at the international level, besides strengthening it in urban areas of India.
Satish Kumar: Held from Palamu, Jharkhand, and now out on bail. Was sent to Uttarakhand to prepare urban base. Now in politics.
Binayak Sen: Arrested in 2007 and convicted of sedition in 2010, the doctor is now out on bail by orders of the Supreme Court. The Chhattisgarh Police once termed him the face of urban Maoists.