In 2017, the artiste couple Shital Sathe and Sachin Mali publicly announced their decision to split from the cultural outfit, Kabir Kala Manch (KKM) after 15 years of association.
The artistes had claimed that they no longer wanted to be associated with an organisation that had “left-leaning politics”. Subsequently, the two started their own cultural group – Navayana Mahajalsa – aligning themselves with the visions of Ambedkar, Phule, and Shahu Maharaj.
Five years later, despite their work and critical take on the Left movement, the Maharashtra state has classified Navayana Mahajalsa to be an “active Naxal frontal organisation”.
Meanwhile, B.D. Sharma, a retired IAS officer, and one of the key architects of the Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act or PESA had worked among the Adivasis of Bastar until his death in 2015. Bharat Jan Andolan, an organisation founded by Sharma, has often been lauded for bringing the Fifth Schedule back on the national agenda and highlighting it as a vital instrument for the very survival of tribal people.
Despite the work that Sharma and his organisation have done over several decades in the central India region, the Gadchiroli police have now termed the Bharat Jan Andolan an “active Naxal frontal organisation”.
These are just two examples among the 15 cultural and rights organisations that the Gadchiroli police have classified as “active frontal organisations of Naxals,” operating in various parts of Maharashtra. The report, collated by Sandip B. Patil, Deputy Inspector General of Police (DIGP), Gadchiroli range, was presented at the All India Conference of Director Generals/Inspector Generals of Police conference held in New Delhi on January 20. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union home minister Amit Shah were present at the conference of police officers from across India.
Patil’s report claims that in Maharashtra, as many as 49 frontal organisations have been active. Of them, 15 organisations have been “clandestinely yet active in many districts and regions”.
The 15 organisations, including Bharat Jan Aandolan and Navyana Mahajalsa, are:
- Samata Kala Manch,
- Vidrohi Sanskrutik Chalval,
- Republican Panthers Jatiantachi Chalwal,
- Indian Association of Peoples Lawyers (IAPL),
- Deshbhakti Yuva Manch,
- Committee for Protection of Democratic Rights (CPDR),
- Chhatra Bharati Vidyarthi Sanghatana,
- Stri Chetna Manch,
- Jatiy Atyachar Virodhi Kruti Samiti,
- Dandkaranya Adivasi Kisan Majdour Sangh (DAKMS),
- Dandkaranya Krantikari Adivasi Mahila Sangh (DKAMS),
- Women against Sexual Violence and State Repression, and
- Committee for Relief of Political Prisoners.
Patil, in his paper claims, “These organizations carry on there activities under the garb of cultural, social, educational or entertainment programs without violating prevalent laws, thus it becomes difficult to take legal action against them (sic).”
He further claims that these “frontal organisations” have also been using “social media platforms to communicate amongst themselves and to propagate their philosophy using fake identities making it difficult to track them.”
Each of these organisations has a long presence in the state and has contributed substantially to the human rights discourse. Chhatra Bharati Vidyarthi Sanghatana, for instance, is a 40-year- old students’ organisation that has been at the forefront of fighting for students’ rights. The organisation, which has no political affiliation, claims to follow the socialist ideology. Besides the cases of demonstration, the organisation and its members don’t have any criminal charges against them. The members tell The Wire that while the police’s input is “baseless”, they are “not surprised” that the state has decided to target the organisation.
Sagar Bhalerao, one of the senior members of the organisation, says Chhatra Bharati has been taking stands that don’t sit well with the state. The problem, Bhalerao says, first started in 2015, when the organisation planned an essay competition in the state. “The competition focused on a range of topics – from Nathuram Godse to Modi. While the police didn’t directly target us, through newspapers, they began calling us ‘anti-national’ and ‘Naxal sympathisers’,” Bhalerao recalls.
The organisation continued with its work and in 2020, it was one of the main outfits to organise protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and National Register of Citizens (NRC) in the city. “Two major protests in Byculla were convened by the organisation,” Bhalerao shares.
Like Chhatra Bharati, activists and artists of Samata Kala Manch, who had also actively participated in anti-NRC and anti-CAA protests in the city, appear in the list of “active frontal organisations”. Suvarna Salve, one of the Samata Kala Manch singers, faced police action for her active participation in a range of protest against the institutional murder of Rohith Vemula in 2016 and later, against the NRC and CAA.
In 2020, The Wire reported on the repeated police harassment that Salve had been subjected to. In one instance, the Mumbai police had issued a notice seeking surety of a whopping Rs 50 lakh from the 26-year-old student and cultural activist for participating in an impromptu protest in January, organised in Mumbai in the wake of the attack on students and faculty members inside the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) campus.
Interestingly, three years later, the police have now decided to withdraw some of those cases against Salve and other activists, claiming that those were only “peaceful protests” organised in the city. Yet Salve’s organisation Samata Kala Manch has been listed as a “frontal organisation” in the document.
There is no rationale provided for these mentions. If they were a front organisation, have law enforcers taken any steps to stop them from engaging in public activities? No. Has a gazette notification ever been issued by the Union government to declare them as a front for a banned organisation? No.
The Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act or UAPA provides for the declaration of an association as unlawful and for the listing of organisations in the first schedule of the Act as “terrorist organisations”. To date, the government has listed 39 organisations in the first schedule of the Act as “terrorist organisations”. Another 10 organisations have been declared as “unlawful associations”. The Union government receives recommendations or information from state or Central agencies on the basis of which it declared associations as unlawful and lists organisations as terrorist outfits from time to time. Action is then to be taken as per the provisions of UAPA.
Interestingly there are no provisions under the UAPA that define what a “front organisation” is, or what makes an organisation a “front” of a banned unlawful or terrorist group. But the law mandates that the state machinery provide evidence before special tribunals headed by a high court judge to continue with the ban. Most state governments dodge the legal process and merely stop at calling an organisation a front.
In the paper presented at the conference, which is now a part of the Intelligence Bureau’s repository, the officer mentions six FIRs that were filed in Pune, Mumbai and different districts of the Vidarbha region. Three of these FIRs are from 2010, and three others were registered in 2011, 2016 and 2018. The most recent one is the Elgar Parishad case, already mired in deep controversy. Several questions have already been raised over the case’s credibility.
It is not so much about the organisations’ activities but their association that the state seems to be targeting. For example, Samata Kala Mach’s parent organisation, Republican Panthers Jati Antachi Chalval, was floated by writer and anti-caste activist Sudhir Dhawale in 2007. Dhawale is one of the 16 human rights defenders to have been arrested and imprisoned in the ongoing Elgar Parishad case.
Similarly, the organisation Women against Sexual Violence and State Repression (WSS) was possibly added to the list because of its association with Shoma Sen, a retired professor from Nagpur. Sen was also arrested along with Dhawale in the Elgar Parishad case in 2018. WSS has been instrumental in exposing the atrocities of the central forces, particularly the sexual crimes against Adivasi women of Bastar. While they have done substantial work in Chhattisgarh, the organisation does not have significant presence in Maharashtra.