The arrest didn't come out of the blue," 34-year-old Padma says as she tries to remember the event. "There were whispered warnings, but nobody took it seriously. After all, we were only a bunch of friends holding classes for villagers on socialism."
But that was enough for the police in Dharmapuri, one of Tamil Nadu's naxalite-infested districts. Padma and 24 of her friends were arrested under POTA in 2001. Their crime? They took classes in self-defence, but their talks on socialism and labour rights smacked of naxalite behaviour. That was the clincher, though she didn't suspect it then. "We did nothing even remotely illegal," Padma insists.
"That day, the villagers were insistent that we should leave. So finally we did and decided to take the first bus out. We walked through one village after another, but the bus service had been stopped," she shrugs.
"We just didn't realise how serious it was till two police vans stopped us on the way and told us to get in," says Padma, a graduate in civil engineering. It was her uncle who introduced her to the left ideology.
Ask S A R Geelani, vice-president of the Committee for the Release of Political Prisoners, and he'll tell you that you can be arrested for almost anything. After all, he was in jail simply because he knew one of the accused in the December 2001 Parliament attack.
The case of Muhammad Rafiq Shah is even worse. He was arrested for "carrying out" the 2005 blasts in Delhi. The police sketch matches his face. But the then Kashmir University Vice-Chancellor Abdul Wahid Qureshi says flatly that Rafiq was on the campus on the day of the blasts. The then Delhi police chief, KK Paul has given Rafiq a clean chit, but the Special Cell maintains he is guilty. So he languishes in Delhi's Tihar Jail as an undertrial.
Guilty or innocent, people like Padma are among thousands arrested across the country for having a political opinion that challenges the norm. According to the general secretary of the committee, Prof Amit Bhattacharrya, there are 75,000 political prisoners in Kashmir alone.
On the day Padma was arrested, she and her friends were frightened. When a senior member in the group dared to challenge their arrest, the officers beat her, she says.
"We were dragged into the van. I was particularly vulnerable as I'm from Andhra Pradesh. The police kept insisting I had links with the People's War Group. They even leaked reports to the press that a Naxal woman from Andhra had escaped and might be now caught in an encounter." Padma was 28 then. "I knew anything could happen to me."
At the police station, they demanded to see their lawyer. "The police were asking us to confess that we are Maoists." All 25 were produced before a judge two days later, but legal representation came only 15 days after their arrest. They were to be held in judicial remand in Vellore.
At the prison, everyone was wary of them. "Maybe they were warned that we were terrorists," says Padma. They had to fight every inch for just treatment. "We heard the first girl who went into the room weeping and when we looked in, we saw her stripped naked for a search. They're not supposed to do that, only frisk prisoners. So we insisted on fair treatment. It worked, but maybe only because we were terrorists," she smiles.
Still, though conditions in the prison were poor, the women were not tortured, the fate of many other political prisoners. Rafiq, in Tihar jail, says he was forced to drink his urine. Padma and her friends were released on bail after two and a half years, but the ordeal wasn't over. They had to stay in Chennai for a year, to register their presence at the police stations. The police weren't idle either. "Police would persuade house owners not to lodge terrorists. There would even be notices stuck outside our doors."
The women had no home for about 15 days. "We were moving from one lawyer's house to another. Finally, we decided to camp in front of the judge's house in protest. Then he passed an order in our favour."
Their troubles are not over, though. "We decided to form the Revolutionary Women's Liberation Organisation (RWLO), to empower women. But when we tried to hold meetings to raise awareness about their rights, no would give us a venue," she says.
On March 8, they had invited the revolutionary poet and folk singer Gaddar (Gummidi Vittal Rao) to preside over a meeting. "But the venue was closed to us at the last minute. A few days earlier, the owner called us to say that we needed police permission to have Gaddar at the venue. We immediately approached the court who said it wasn't necessary. But the owners were not convinced and so we were virtually forced to call the meeting off."
Padma and her friends invite Naxalite leaders and have something in common with the Maoists. "But we don't belong to either. We also abjure violence."
So what are they? "Individual revolutionaries," says Padma. "Isn't that possible?" Apparently not, given the record so far. But it is for these ambiguities that the state needs to provide space.
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