Across the country, social, political and environmental activists and trade unionists are being charged with serious offences for demanding accountability from the state and big business

In May 2012 three women in Mangalore, stopped the Deputy Commissioner as he walked to his car, to ask why he had not inspected a site where the Mangalore SEZ Ltd. was dumping mud into a river in an alleged violation of coastal regulation norms. They were arrested and jailed. The charges against them: unlawful assembly, rioting, wrongful restraint, assault, etc., etc..

These arrests are just one example of the state’s casual use of fabricated FIRs and chargesheets as tools to harass, intimidate or silence those who work to hold it to account. Such cases seem slight, almost unworthy of comment, when compared with fabricated cases of terror or sedition that are (apart from extra-judicial killing) the most extreme form that state impunity takes.

But, by treating these every day examples of the state’s exercise of impunity as insignificant we ignore systemic subversion and the normalisation of illegality as legality. As the Mangalore case shows, the state does not need the excuse of an armed insurgency or the threat of terrorism to curtail constitutional freedoms or undermine democratic accountability.

Halting SEZ expansion

One of the three women arrested in Mangalore, Vidya Dinker, is a civic rights activist who campaigned against unregulated development in Mangalore city and violations of the coastal regulation zone (CRZ). She also played an important part in the campaign to halt land acquisition for the Mangalore SEZ expansion.

Like others from the anti-SEZ campaign, which ended successfully last year, she has spent the best part of four years, and scarce resources, fighting myriad court cases, stemming from fabricated complaints by government officials and the SEZ developers. Now she and her fellow campaigners have one more.

Several old cases have concluded, with acquittals for all those charged. In each instance, the prosecution’s case has fallen apart in court as the fiction it was based on unravelled.

In some cases, government officials lied under oath to try and make their cases stick. Wilfully lying under oath is perjury. But, it seems not when the state is the accuser.

We are told that once a case is admitted in court, the law must take its course and courts deliver even-handed justice. However, when courts repeatedly admit cases based on false premises, then what is delivered cannot amount to justice. As cases process at a glacial pace through the layers of the judiciary we dare not say so, for we may be held in contempt of court, a misdemeanour also punishable with a jail sentence. So, we stay silent, which is the intention of this process. It suits everyone, except those who advocate democratic accountability.

Social, political and environmental activists and trade unionists being charged with rioting, attempt to murder, etc., when nothing approximating these charges has occurred, is par for the course. It is not so common for journalists to be targeted in this manner.

Vigilante-attacks in Mangalore

Yet, since November 7, Naveen Soorinje, a reporter with the Kasthuri Channel, has been in jail in Mangalore, denied bail. His eyewitness report in July last year of a brutal vigilante attack on a group of young people at a private birthday celebration, led to arrests and charges being filed. The incontrovertible visual evidence that supported Mr. Soorinje’s report, and was broadcast nationally, made the filing of charges possible. Instead of enlisting him as a witness, the police named Mr. Soorinje as one of the accused, along with the attackers.

Vigilante-attacks, usually by Sangh Parivar organisations, on mixed groups of young people and couples are common in Dakshina Kannada. According to a recent People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) report on communal policing in Dakshina Kannada there have been 140-recorded instances of such attacks in the district since 2007. Until the July 2012 attack, no one had ever been charged.

In several earlier instances, the police, legitimised the vigilante attacks, becoming enforcers not of the law, but of the narrow sectarian social code the vigilantes’ espoused. After the attacks the victims were taken to police stations, where the police “warned” them not to socialise across religious lines and made them sign an undertaking to that effect.

Naveen Soorinje reported these cases, first for a local newspaper and more recently, with wider impact, on TV. He also reported on the campaign to stop the expansion of the SEZ, the illegal land grab from the poorest by the SEZ developer, the harassment of resisters, the arbitrary powers of the religious Mutts in the district, and many other things that shone a light on the nexus of the powerful in Dakshin Kannada.

Why then is Naveen Soorinje in jail? Why are good citizens, concerned about violations of government norms, marking time in police stations and courts?

Quite simply it is because of the unstated consensus — between the political class, the bureaucracy, big business and, importantly, very many of us — on the acceptability, even necessity, of employing repression as a means of maintaining the current balance of power. This consensus legitimises police impunity. It supports the use of coercive police powers — legal or illegal — to silence any dissent that challenges existing political, economic and social arrangements. The levels of repression are higher and the forms they take are harsher where the challenge posed is greater.

From Mangalore to Manipur, from Kundakulam to Kashmir, it’s the same story: if one questions its purpose, the state will respond not with reason, but with repression. The longer this goes on, the less we will be able to claim we live in a true democracy. The longer we remain silent, and hence part of the consensus that supports this system, the more we are implicated in these acts of impunity and the subversion of everything this country claims to stand for.

(Anjali Mody is a journalist and commentator.)