Of being imprisoned in a democracy

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Ruby Hembrom

Ruby Hembrom is the founder and director of adivaani, an archiving and publishing outfit of and by Adivasis.

Email: rubyhembrom@adivaani.org

Leonard Peltier, Native American activist, completes 40 years as prisoner in America, convicted for shooting two FBI agents in 1975, a crime he claims not to have committed. “I’ve given the same answer for 40 years. I didn’t do it and I won’t say that I did. I won’t betray my people like that; I won’t betray my culture,” he maintained in an article this year.

There is ample indication of falsified and manufactured evidence against him and lack of due process in his trial. He has served his term several times over. Peltier’s refusal to confess to the shooting has led him not to be paroled and denied executive clemency by outgoing Presidents. Every time he has petitioned for clemency, past and present FBI  officers in large numbers protest and oppose his release.

Why is Peltier still a threat to the FBI community? And why has Peltier been denied a fair trial and parole? Because an indigenous man cannot match the power and clout of the state, its machinery and its agents of law.

Back on home territory the same patterns unfold not just for Adivasi activists but also everyday Adivasis — men, women and children. We’re framed, falsely accused and imprisoned. With little literacy, not speaking a national or regional language, not knowing our rights and being largely poor, we cannot defend ourselves and languish in prison — sometimes as undertrials and sometimes convicted.

In a 2016 report by Bagaicha Research Team, Jharkhand, ‘Deprived rights over natural resources, impoverished Adivasis get prison: A study of under-trials in Jharkhand’ national statistics point to the skewed numbers affecting a certain kind of citizen: “Prison Statistics India 2013 shows the percentage of total number of prisoners who belong to historically marginalised social groups, such as Dalits, Adivasis and Muslims, go much higher than the proportion of their share in the total population…. Dalits (SCs) constitute about 16.2 per cent of India’s total population; however, they constitute 22.5 per cent of convicts and 21.3 per cent of under-trials. Adivasis constitute 8.6 per cent of the population; however, there are 11.7 per cent Adivasi convicts and 11.3 per cent under-trials…”

Out of the 102 out-of-jail respondents the Bagaicha Research Team interviewed when they were refused an audience with inmates, 69 per cent turned out to be Adivasis, 22 per cent OBCs, 7 per cent Dalits and 2 per cent others. Each of these 102 was charged with being a ‘Maoist’ or ‘Naxalite’.

There is no randomness or mere coincidence in the arrests: this is a deliberate and systematic state action to profile the most helpless of our society and put them away. You could be doing everyday things like working in your field, cooking or resting at home, celebrating a festival or demanding your rights like opposing land grabs, attending an anti-displacement protest rally or meeting and you could be picked up and put in jail. These 102 were doing just that when they were arrested.

Under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act 2004 one can be detained for being helpers of Maoists or possessing Naxalite literature. That’s how simple it is to be implicated and that much more difficult to prove one’s innocence. Guilty by association, how does one defend oneself? The age group of these under-trials is between 18 to 40: young, able-bodied, plucked their prime to spend their most productive years in deplorable prison conditions, bearing physical and psychological torture without knowing what their crime is, their families left with one less helping hand and sometimes fewer to contribute to the household income.

Why citizens who don’t fall in ‘historically marginalised social groups’ are rarely booked or incriminated as ‘Naxalites’ is a question worth asking. Clearly this group is no threat to the state. Clearly they don’t need to protest land and resource acquisition or displacement or denial of access to public amenities and facilities like healthcare or education. They don’t face fake encounters where they are left for dead, nor heavy militarisation of the lands they inhabit. When people have to justify their existence and it boils down to how you contribute to the country’s economic growth: Adivasis move from being non-thinking, unintelligent to useless and unproductive and that’s reason enough to be heartlessly dispensed of.

When our grassroots activists and victims share cases of systemic harassment, brutality and unwarranted arrests by the police and armed forces, its authenticity is questioned. The proof and validation comes from living those experiences — it’s on the scars on Soni Sori’s face, in the letters she wrote from prison, it’s in the brutality on Madkam Hidme’s body that a brand new, crisp ‘Maoist’ uniform cannot hide, it’s in the image of Gauri bent over her son, watched over by two police officials as her jail detention under Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act in Kerala crosses 40 days; it’s in the murmurs of exhausted voices in jail cells across the country.

Being wrongly imprisoned is a criminalisation of a people by the state’s repressive apparatus. What really is our crime? It’s straightforward: we have something the state and corporates want. Acquiring it becomes easy, as we are expendable. The centrality of Adivasi being is belonging to the land — our lifeways emerge from the deep roots we grow into our homelands. Erasing us from those lands is erasing our identity. That’s why we always stand our ground and like Peltier refuse to betray our people and culture.


The article was earlier published in ‘The New Indian Express – June 23, 2016’. 

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Ruby Hembrom

Ruby Hembrom is the founder and director of adivaani, an archiving and publishing outfit of and by Adivasis. Email: rubyhembrom@adivaani.org

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