‘I feel safe only when I have friends around me,’ 23-year-old Abhijnan Sarkar told me when I met him in Calcutta earlier this month.
Abhijnan is a PhD student at the Department of Metallurgical and Material Engineering in Jadavpur University. To his friends, he is a promising scholar, editor of a university magazine and a good sport to argue with on political and social issues over cups of coffee and cigarettes.
To the government, however, he’s a ‘Maoist sympathiser’.
So what did he do to be marked ‘Red’, I asked him when we met over coffee at the swanky Southcity Mall in south Calcutta. “I visited Nandigram and Singur as part of a students’ group during the anti-Left agitations. Maybe that gave the government ideas. Or possibly because I visited Lalgarh,” he said. “I am critical of certain policies. But a Maoist? No.” Then came the counter-question: “Is it a crime to have my own views on issues? Do I have to choose a side in a democracy?”
On February 12, Abhijnan and a friend boarded a Delhi-bound train to appear for a scholarship interview at the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) office. At around 9.30 pm, the train stopped in Asansol. Seven men in civvies entered their coach and dragged both of them out, charging them with ‘robbery’. Their hands were tied, eyes blindfolded and they were pushed inside a waiting vehicle. As the car sped out of the station’s precincts, intense interrogation — “intimidation” in Abhijnan’s words — started.
The men in civvies told the two that they were from the Bihar Police and wanted information on the Maoists. The next few hours were dreadful: questions were asked about their friends, their political leanings and their past. Their email ids and passwords were taken and they were threatened that their families would be picked up if they did not cooperate. “They kept telling me that I would end up as an encounter victim and our bodies disposed of in a jungle,” said Abhijnan.
After a few hours, they were taken to a safe house and given bread and tea. Abhijnan was shown some photographs of students from Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) and asked about them. The policemen also advised them to shun “despicable anti-State politics” and return to “mainstream life”.
Twenty-two hours after being abducted, threatened and held captive with their eyes blindfolded and hands tied, two sheets of paper were shoved into their hands. Abhijnan and his friend were then suddenly pushed out of the vehicle. When they took off their blindfolds, they found themselves outside the Calcutta airport. The sheets of paper turned out to be two air tickets to Delhi that had been purchased in Calcutta.
Abhijnan is back in university among friends. But he dreads being picked up again. He has complained to the National Human Rights Commission but is yet to get a reply. But he is not the only one living in the shadow of fear.
On October 6, 2009, two people were arrested in Calcutta for being “Maoist sympathisers” — Sadanand Sinha, 57, a printing press owner, and Swapan Dasgupta, editor of the Bengali edition of People’s March, a ‘Maoist mouthpiece’. Dasgupta died in Kolkata Police custody, and Sinha considers himself lucky to be alive.
On October 6, Sinha’s press (which printed People’s March) was ransacked and sealed by Kolkata Police’s Special Branch. Later that night he was arrested for “anti-State” activities. Although the magazine had been banned for some time, the Press Registrar Appellate Board had revoked the ban on August 7, 2009. “I have been printing it from 2004 and for any magazine I print, my lookout is a valid RNI (Registrar Newsprint for India) number. I print many other Left magazines,” Sinha told me.
He was produced at the Sealdah lower court on October 7, but didn’t get any legal access. He was sent to police custody. Unable to get any proper hearing in the lower court, he moved the Kolkata High Court on December 24 and was given bail. On January 12, 2010, the High Court unsealed the press and relaxed his bail conditions. It’s been almost six months since he was arrested, but the police are yet to file a chargesheet against him.
“I think the government wanted to tell all press owners to be careful,” Sinha said. “But even if I am cleared, I will never forget the humiliation and injustice.”
Two years ago while travelling through Naxal-affected Chhattisgarh, a senior police officer, himself a product of one of Calcutta’s most liberal colleges, told me that the “intelligentsia in colleges and JNU-type universities” have been helping the Maoists. “That oxygen stream must be cut off,” he had said decidedly.
The home minister and the home secretary repeatedly want everyone to call a “spade a spade” — that is, discredit Maoist violence for what it is. This is a fair demand, for the Maoists are, to put it mildly, no saints.
But then, explain that to Abhijnan and Sinha.