Treating Maoists as political prisoners

Treating Maoists as political prisoners

Groups that wage war against India certainly do not deserve a special status.

Recently a court in Kolkata declared that nine Maoists arrested by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) in connection with the CPI (Maoist) arms manufacturing case, be treated as ‘political prisoners’.

This newfound status would enable Maoists to access privileges like separate cells, home-cooked food, books of their choice and they will be given more freedom to meet their relatives and well wishers. Given the unpalatable fact that these Maoists were involved in manufacturing rocket launchers that would be used against the Indian state, this ruling deserves a measure of scrutiny.

One question that urgently merits a reply is –who is a political prisoner? Let us begin with the Act that enabled the Kolkata court to arrive at this decision. The court granted this status to the Maoists under the West Bengal Correctional Services Act, 1992. According to the Act, political prisoners are those who are arrested or convicted on a charge of having committed or attempting to commit aiding or abetting the commissions of any political offence. It is applicable even if the person is charged under the Indian Penal Code. The Act further says that anyone who commits or allegedly commits an offence during a political or democratic movement with an exclusive political objective, free from personal greed or motive, will be entitled to political prisoner status.

Treated equally

Can all movements pursuing political objectives be treated equally? This Act seems to indicate an equivalence between political movements, regardless of the methods employed by these groups in the pursuit of their stated objectives. This equivalence is disturbing and flies in the face of reason and international practices.

The term that is often used to describe political prisoners is ‘Prisoner of conscience’ (POC). This term was first defined by an English lawyer Peter Benenson in his 1961 article ‘The forgotten prisoners’. Benenson defines POC as -‘Any person who is physically restrained (by imprisonment or otherwise) from expressing (in any form of words or symbols) any opinion which he honestly holds and which does not advocate or condone personal violence. We also exclude those people who have conspired with a foreign government to overthrow their own.’ The interesting aspect of this definition is the emphatic rejection of violence as a political tool.

Human Rights groups like Amnesty International use the concept of POC in ensuring that people around the world are not victimised for their political beliefs. They have launched many successful campaigns to defend prisoners of conscience in many countries, including India.

However even Amnesty International uses the term ‘political prisoner’ very broadly. According to them, the term includes any prisoner whose case has a significant political element: whether the motivation of the prisoner's acts, the acts in themselves, or the motivation of the authorities. Amnesty International has never implied that all such prisoners have a special status or should be released. It uses the term only to define a category of prisoners for whom Amnesty International demands a fair and prompt trial. These are perfectly reasonable demands. A free and fair trail is a basic requirement for any democracy worth its salt.

The Maoist movement in India has very clear political objectives. The key ideologue of the Indian Maoists, Charu Majumdar had clearly stated in his writings (referred to by the Maoists as the ‘Historical Eight Documents’), that they are committed to the violent overthrow of the Indian state through an armed peasant led revolution.

The Maoist movement has steadily gained momentum in states such as Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Orissa and parts of Maharashtra. They are responsible for the deaths of scores of civilians and security personnel. Should the Maoists be treated as political prisoners simply because they operate under the rubric of a political ideology? The problem with this conjecture is that all terrorist movements are political, be it Hezbollah, Al Qaeda, IRA, LTTE or the Lashkar –e-Taibak. All these groups have a well defined political ideology which serves as a wellspring for the attainment of their goals.

If the Maoists are to be accorded a special status, what is to prevent prisoners belonging to other terrorist groups from demanding a similar status? Do individuals charged under Section 121 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) (which deals with waging or attempting to wage war against the government of India) deserve to be treated preferentially? That is what this court ruling seems to indicate. Prisoners deserve a fair trial and they should not be subjected to inhumane treatment. This tenet should apply to every prisoner uniformly, regardless of the crime they are charged with. However, groups that wage war against India certainly do not deserve a ‘special’ status. Our nation deserves better.