'Tyrannical Act,' Say Activists as NIA Raids Rights Defenders, Students in Uttar Pradesh

Among others, NIA officials raided the house of rights activist Seema Azad in Prayagraj and the office of the Bhagat Singh Students Morcha (BSM), an independent student forum in the Banaras Hindu University in Varanasi.

New Delhi:  The National Investigation Agency on September 5 conducted simultaneous searches at the residences and offices of several activists, including the national secretary of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties Seema Azad, and students in various cities of eastern Uttar Pradesh, purportedly to look for their alleged connection with the banned Naxalite organisation, the Communist Party of India (Maoist).

NIA officials raided the house of human rights activist Seema Azad and her husband Vishwa Vijai, an advocate, in Prayagraj and the office of the Bhagat Singh Students Morcha (BSM), an independent student forum in the Banaras Hindu University in Varanasi. The NIA also conducted raids at the residences of advocate Soni Azad, also associated with the PUCL, and her husband social activist Ritesh Vidhyarthi, advocate Kripa Shankar, land rights activist Rajesh Chauhan and political activist Manish Azad.

The NIA conducted the raids in eight locations in Prayagraj, Deoria, Varanasi, Chandauli and Azamgarh districts in connection with an FIR lodged in June against alleged Naxals. While the agency is yet to issue a public statement on the outcome of the raids, the PUCL and the BSM said the NIA officials seized mobile phones, SIM cards, laptops, books, pamphlets, magazines and other publications from them.

PUCL national president Kavita Srivastava accused the NIA of carrying out a “witch hunt” and a “tyrannical act” and demanded the immediate withdrawal of the FIR and a halt to the investigation.

Senior lawyer K.K. Roy, who is associated with the PUCL, told The Wire that the NIA has issued summons to the activists and students questioned in the raid to appear before its Lucknow office.

BSM leaders raided, magazines seized

Akanksha Azad, the president of the BSM, was summoned by the NIA to appear in Lucknow on September  12 for further inquiry. “After searching our office, they said they suspect us of being in touch with Maoists,” said Akanksha, an MPhil scholar, who is originally from Jharkhand.

The BSM alleged the NIA sleuths had detained Akanksha and her colleague Siddhi, an MA Sociology student, during its raid of their office from 5.30 am to 2 pm on Tuesday. The NIA team confiscated a mobile phone, two SIM cards, two laptops, and many magazines such as Mashal, Dastak, Alternate and ‘Go to Village’ campaign reports of the BSM.

“All these magazines are in public domain and work to make the people aware of the wrongdoings and society and work towards making a better and democratic society. It is no surprise that the government is afraid of these magazines,” the BSM said.

Seema Azad is the author and editor of Dastak, described as a monthly non-commercial magazine. Akanksha told journalists in Varanasi that the raids were part of the “Modi government’s policy of instilling fear in those who speak against it, so that they don’t speak anymore.”

“They don’t want anyone to speak against them or their oppression,” she said.

‘Targeted for earlier activism’

Those raided by the NIA say they could have been targeted for their public activism in the aftermath of the recent protests they participated in. The BSM has been active in raising issues related to sexual harassment on campus and reservation for the Other Backward Classes in hostels. On August 27, the BSM was part of a protest ‘Pratirodh Sabha’ (resistance meet) staged by Banaras Hindu University students and concerned citizens outside the gate of the central varsity to raise voice against arrest of social and political activists in the name of terrorism and Naxalism, and the arrest of political activists in Bihar’s Kaimur.

The BSM has shed light on recent and alleged attempts at suppression of the Bihar-based Kaimur Mukti Morcha’s leadership, which has been at the forefront of the Adivasi struggle in the Kaimur plateau against the “blatant land-grabbing” of their lands for the sake of creating a tiger reserve in the area. The BSM was active in the protest.

The NIA searched Seema Azad’s house for 12 hours and seized 43 items, said Roy.

Seema Azad and Vishwa Vijai

Seema Azad, who is the present president of the PUCL’s UP unit, and her husband Vishwa Vijai had been arrested in February 2010 on charges of being members of the banned CPI (Maoist). They had been accused of being in possession of Maoist literature and charged with sedition. After more than two years in jail, in June 2012, they were convicted by a lower court and awarded life term.

In August 2012, however, a division bench of the Allahabad high court granted the couple bail. Since coming out of prison, she has led many PUCL fact-finding teams against the violations of human rights in Uttar Pradesh. She is also the editorial committee of the PUCL National Bulletin.

The PUCL in a statement said it “believes that this operation of the NIA is a serious attempt to stifle the voices of an active human rights and democracy defender.” “This is a clear attempt to intimidate Indian citizens who want to raise democratic demands and seeking accountability from public officials and the political executive.”

Kripa Shankar, Manish Azad, Anita Srivastava

Kripa Shankar, an advocate who was also questioned by the NIA, was a co-accused in the 2010 case, said lawyer Roy.

The NIA also interrogated Manish Azad, Seema Azad’s brother, for several hours. In July 2019, the UP Anti-Terrorist Squad had arrested Manish aka Manish Srivastava and his wife Anita Srivastava from their residence in Bhopal over alleged links to Naxal ideology. They were later granted bail.

Manish and his wife both work as professional translators and are natives of Machhlishahr in Jaunpur district in East UP.

Dismissing the ATS theory as concocted, Seema Azad had in 2019 said that Manish and Anita were political and social activists with a record of translation and academic work. Anita had penned several poems and stories under the pen name Shireen. She translated ‘Let me Speak’, the testimony of Bolivian labour leader Domitila Barrios, into Hindi, and has a PhD in oral history. Manish completed his MA in Hindi from Gorakhpur University after graduating from Allahabad University.

In 2019, when the ATS had apprehended them, the agency had accused them of living in Bhopal under false identities and using false documents, and booked them for forgery. The ATS had then also picked up six other activists in three locations in Deoria and Kanpur but released them after questioning and seizing their laptops, pen drives, mobile phone for the purpose of data extraction. Kripa Shankar, who also runs an anti-fascist front and his wife Vrinda, a teacher in a private school, were among those interrogated then.

Soni Azad and others

While advocate Soni Azad is a member of the PUCL, her husband Ritesh Vidyarthi is former BHU student and a member of the Mehnatkash Mukti Morcha.

The residence of Rajesh Chauhan, a land rights activist, who is among those leading a people’s protest against land acquisition for an airport in Khiriya Bagh in Azamgarh, was also searched in Deoria by the NIA.

The NIA’s raids in Eastern UP come three weeks after the UP ATS arrested five persons, including a woman, from Ballia on charges of allegedly spreading Maoist ideology in border districts of UP through proxy outfits with the aim of plotting an armed rebellion against the nation.

The five were identified as Tara Devi, Lallu Ram, Satya Prakash Verma, Ram Murat Rajbhar and Vinod Sahni, all of Ballia in East UP.

NIA’s reaction

In a statement, the NIA said it had “cracked down” against attempts by leaders, cadres etc. of the CPI (Maoist) to revive the banned terrorist organisation with raids across UP.

These raids were conducted at the premises of “accused and suspects” at eight locations in UP, it said.

Several digital devices, including mobile phones, laptops, pen drives, compact discs and memory cards were seized during the raids, along with SIM cards, Naxal literature, books, pamphlets, pocket diaries, money receipt books and other incriminating documents, it said.

The probe agency added that its investigations indicate that several frontal organisations and students wings have been tasked to motivate and recruit cadres and propagate the ideology of CPI (Maoist) with the intent of waging a war against the Government of India. “They were conspiring to commit acts of terror and violence in furtherance of this agenda,” it said.

It further said that investigations also revealed that Pramod Mishra was leading the cadres and sympathisers/over ground workers (OGWS) of CPI (Maoist) in the efforts to revive the terror organisation. The raids conducted on Tuesday in the case were at the premises of such cadres and OGWs, etc., it added.

Earlier, last month, Bihar Police had arrested Rohit Vidyarthi, the brother of Ritesh Vidyarthi, whose wife is named in the FIR relating to the case.

“Rohit’s interrogation had further led the State Police to the arrest of Pramod Mishra, CC Member and In-Charge of the NRB (Northern Regional Bureau) of CPI (Maoist). Following these arrests, the state police had seized arms, ammunition and a gun factory, where a lathe had been installed for making parts of weapons and assembling countrymade weapons in Bihar and UP,” the NIA said.

The FIR filed by the NIA in connection with the case earlier had named accused Manish Azad, Ritesh Vidyarthi, along with their associates Vishwavijay, Seema Azad and Manish’s wife, Kripa Shankar, Soni Azad, Akanksha Azad and Rajesh Azad as some of the key accused working to further the CPI (Maoist)’s revival attempts, it said.