20 JANUARY 2016
Growing crackdown on activists
The audacious and unprovoked attack last week on a group of activists who held a peaceful rally in Rajasthan can only be explained in terms of the rising resentment on the part of the ruling class towards civil society organisations demanding accountability. Flagged off by social activist Aruna Roy, the Jawabdehi Yatra was aimed to spread awareness about government schemes and raise the issue of accountability in their implementation. A mob, allegedly led by BJP legislator Kanwar Lal Meena, attacked the members of organisations such as the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sanghathan (MKSS) at Aklera in Jhalawar district, in a sign that sections of the ruling party in the State were unhappy with civil society activists entering a region falling under a Lok Sabha constituency represented by Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje in the past and by her son Dushyant Singh now, and demanding answers from the authorities. While the police have registered a case and arrested some of the assailants, it was only after video footage showing the apparent presence of Mr. Meena in the crowd was released that there is a hint that his involvement may be probed. The 100-day yatra, under the banner of the Soochana Evam Rozgar ka Adhikar Abhiyan, itself was as innocuous a programme as there could be. It merely tried to cover blocks across all the State’s districts to listen to people’s grievances and spread awareness through street-corner meetings. The Rajasthan Chief Minister would do well to heed the call for a formal inquiry into the incident, come out openly in condemning such unsavoury events, and prosecute the offenders.
It is difficult to see this incident in isolation. The Centre itself has been a poor role model, looking at the way Greenpeace India has been hounded and its registration sought to be cancelled. It is not difficult to surmise that a message is being sent out that activism should be tempered by a nuanced deference to the state’s overarching interests. Even under the previous UPA regime, activists in Tamil Nadu opposing the Kudankulam nuclear power project faced, and continue to face, hostile treatment by various arms of the state. If bureaucratic aversion to criticism is often an adequate source of harassment and intimidation, political players too weigh in with disparaging remarks against non-governmental organisations and individual activists. Their influence is obvious in incidents as diverse as the prevention of a Greenpeace activist from going abroad and the registration of a large number of cases against activists. In recent years, civil society has played a significant role in shaping policy. Landmark pieces of legislation — the Right to Information Act, for instance — have come about only because the government chose to involve stakeholders across the political and social spectrum and obtain their inputs and advice. Any attempt to prevent the free functioning of such organisations will amount to de-legitimising key participants and stakeholders in the country’s social, economic and political policymaking sphere.
Lessons from a floating armoury
The conviction of 35 crew members of a foreign vessel for illegal possession of arms and ammunition marks the end of a trial that threw little light on what exactly the ship was doing when it was seen anchored off Thoothukudi in Tamil Nadu in October 2013. Those convicted, many of them nationals of Britain, Ukraine and Estonia, besides some Indians, were sentenced by a sessions court recently to five years’ rigorous imprisonment despite a vigorous defence that their vessel, m.v. Seaman Guard Ohio, was engaged in anti-piracy operations at sea and was looking for fuel and provisions while in distress. The Tamil Nadu Police, through the Q Branch-CID, may have obtained a conviction under the provisions of the Arms Act, but its investigation did not really determine whether the ship was engaged in something more suspicious than supplying armed manpower to merchant ships. Its charted course lay somewhere in the direction of the Maldives, but what it was doing on the eastern coast is not clear. The sentencing may be troubling for the countries involved, mainly because they may believe that their nationals were imprisoned in harsh conditions for six months and forced to stay in India while out on bail for two and a half years. Going by the detailed court verdict, neither Britain nor the other countries involved, including the U.S., to which the maritime security company owning the ship, Advanfort, belongs, nor the flag state, Sierra Leone, could really help them prove their innocence.
The court’s order is reasonably sound in legal principles. It records a finding that the ship was in Indian territorial waters; second, there was no official document to prove that the company was authorised to do its business in the U.S. or elsewhere. Its registration as a ‘utility boat’ in Sierra Leone contradicted its claim that it was a security vessel. The court ruled that no licence was produced to show that the armaments on board were legal. It rejected the defence of ‘innocent passage’ and noted that its log books did not disclose any distress. The strongest defence was that Section 45 of the Arms Act exempts arms on board a sea-going craft from prosecution if they are part of its ‘ordinary armaments’. However, the court did not agree that the huge cache of automatic and semi-automatic weapons, magazines and cartridges seized from it were part of its ‘ordinary armaments’. The matter will surely be taken on appeal to the higher courts. The case ought to be an eye-opener to all countries on the problem with private security agencies deploying floating armouries without adequate legal protection. The International Maritime Organisation has guidelines for Privately Contracted Armed Security Personnel, but what happens when these norms clash with municipal law is an issue that the global maritime industry has to ponder over. This case underscores the need for states to resolve issues arising out of a key, but weakly regulated sector.