Association for Protection of Democratic Rights (APDR) is one of the oldest human rights organisations in India. APDR’s 28th central conference was scheduled to be held on 23-24 October, at Sheoraphuli, in Hooghly district of West Bengal. A few hours ago, the Hooghly district administration cancelled the conference citing Covid restrictions. Such attacks and harassment by the State is not new to APDR. Formed in 1972, amid the “orgy of slaughter and brutal repression” unleashed by Indian State on political activists, in the background Naxalbari uprising, APDR turns 50 this year, facing such onslaughts from state agencies. APDR was even outlawed under the ostensible reason of being connected with “extremist activities” during Emergency in 1975.
Groundxero, is publishing edited excerpts, chronicling the 50 years epic journey of APDR from Nilanjan Dutta’s forthcoming book, Civil Liberties Movement in India. The Part 3 of the excerpts briefly covers the period from outlawing of APDR during the Internal Emergency in June 1975 to the lively debates in human rights movement following the coming to power of non congress governments in many states including the left front government in West Bengal in 1977, and the issues taken up by APDR during the decade of 80’s and early 90’s.
Emergency and Ban
Internal Emergency was declared in India on the night of 25 June 1975. The whole country including West Bengal was converted into a virtual prison. The people lost even the slender rights that till then existed at least on paper. The APDR became the only civil liberties organisation in the country among a host of others which were outlawed under the ostensible reason of being connected with “extremist activities”. Within a month of the clampdown, Kapil Bhattacharya, Dr Amiya Bose and Bhakti Bhushan Mandal were summoned to the special branch headquarters in Calcutta and interrogated. On 6 September, a large contingent of police raided the Samabayika Press at Sashi Bhusan Dey Street where the Bengali book compiled by the APDR, Bharatiya Ganatantrer (?) Swarup (The Real Face of Indian Democracy) was being printed. They took away all the printed pages and manuscripts of the book as well as the printing types, arrested the press manager Radharaman Banerjee and sealed the print shop. Banerjee had to spend 26 days in police and judicial custody before he got bail. A case was lodged against one of the owners, the aged freedom fighter Biren Banerjee and a member of the APDR executive committee. The book, consisting of 108 pages in its incomplete edition and carrying comprehensive reports and in-depth analysis of violations of democratic rights, was however published clandestinely under the fictitious banner of ‘Samajik Samiksha Samiti’ (Social Survey Association). It was well circulated even amid the strict surveillance and a copy was managed to be taken out of the country. IPANA promptly translated major parts of the book and brought out an English edition titled The Real Face of Indian Democracy which acted as an eye-opener in the West to the happenings in India. Soon, APDR general secretary Sanjay Mitra and several other members, including Dipankar Chakraborty of Berhampore and Tarak Das of Calcutta, were arrested. They were released only after the withdrawal of Emergency in 1977.[i]
Repression and state terror had become a part of life in West Bengal long before it had fallen into the grip of the Emergency. The most significant difference that Emergency made was the total curtailment of not only the freedom of association and mass action, but also the freedom of expression. One no longer had to be an associate or a sympathiser of the revolutionaries in order to become a target of repression. It was sufficient that he or she was not a supporter of the regime. Terms like “intellectual freedom” and “individual liberty” had lost all meanings.
This is the context in which the ban on APDR has to be seen. Everybody knew that the “extremist connection” was a false charge. Then why was it banned? The organisation itself made an analysis later, which was also a self-assessment of its work up to the Emergency:
The reason seems to lie in the fact that through constant effort during the three years long existence prior to “Internal Emergency”, the Association was beginning to be able to draw public attention both home and abroad to the attack on the fundamental human rights of people in general and of political prisoners in particular, e.g., horrible jail condition, torture and killing of prisoners etc., that had been continuing year after year and on several occasions the government was forced to come out with some kind of explanation or other (which in most of the cases meant denial or whitewashing of all true allegations) on issues which it would have liked to pass rather unnoticed e.g., allegation of ill treatment of women political prisoners in Lalbazar police lock-up forced both the central and state Government to issue a statement on it (which were nothing but futile exercises in falsehood). Also organisations and journalists from abroad (like Amnesty International, London; Committee for the Concerned Asian Scholars, Canada; journalists from Guardian, London etc.) contacted the Association and their published reports, protest letters etc. (which contain facts provided by or direct reference to A.P.D.R.) put the Government of India in an embarrassing condition. Contact with those organisations or foreign press were never sought to be made a secret. Government was aware of it and on a particular occasion, men from intelligence branch visited Association’s office in connection with the visit by one such representative from abroad. All these happenings must have been quite irksome to the Government and fearing further initiative of the same kind on the part of Association (particularly in view of the impending publication of the book on atrocities mentioned above) during emergency they resolved to prohibit it. But obviously, the actual reason could not be advanced as a ground. Hence, ban under an “allegation” which was used to justify any undemocratic act, as if it could really justify such acts.
New Phase and Lively Debates
The ban on the APDR was lifted on 25 March 1977. The organisation was revived at a convention in June 1977 at Students Hall in Calcutta. A West Bengal unit of the PUCL was also formed around this time. On 10 December 1977, the APDR organised a parade in Calcutta with colourful tableaux to mark the International Human Rights Day. It was probably the first such rally in West Bengal on this occasion. Subsequently, the APDR endorsed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, keeping reservations on Article 17, which speaks about the right to property. We have seen earlier that this right has always been a matter of contention in the civil liberties movement.
Shaken by the experience of the Emergency, some of the APDR members felt serious doubts as to whether democracy worth its name existed in India at all, which must be “protected”. Arguing that democracy had to be “established” first before it could be protected, they formed an organisation called the Association for the Establishment of Democratic Rights (AEDR) in 1978. Comprising mostly of radical activists, it was short-lived and merged with the parent organisation within a year or so.
On the other hand, initially there were also differences within the APDR over the attitude towards the Left Front government installed through the Assembly elections of 14 June 1977. A section argued that it was a “lesser evil” compared to the previous Congress government. They wanted to adopt a softer attitude towards the Left regime. This viewpoint, however, could not be sustained. Infringement of rights continued under the Left government and became more and more pronounced as years went by. It required considerable time and effort even to make the Left Front fulfil its electoral promise of releasing all political prisoners on coming to power. Rights violations before and during the previous regime went unpunished. Inquiries were scuttled midway and notorious police officers were promoted.[ii]
The activists realised through their experience that as any government has to defend the state, they must also be vigilant against infringement of rights by any government. Because of this conviction, the APDR has been able to play a significant role in spreading civil rights awareness not only in the city of Kolkata, but also in large parts of the suburbs and countryside of West Bengal.
The hesitation to speak up against the post-Emergency non-Congress governments that were installed as a result of an arduous anti-authoritarian struggle was visible among some other civil liberties organisations, too. After the murderous attacks by CPI﴾M﴿ cadres and police in 1979 on refugees who had settled on the island of Marichjhampi in the Sunderbans defying their diktat, protests were relatively feeble from within as well as outside the state. Even a rights crusader like V.M. Tarkunde restrained a fact-finding team from Delhi from visiting Marichjhampi, fearing that it might embarrass the newly installed chief minister Jyoti Basu who was considered a fellow-fighter against autocracy at the national level.[iii]
Despite all debates and dilemmas, the APDR consistently investigated, documented and campaigned against torture, rape and killings in police custody, police firing on people’s agitations and detention without trial. It countered the official “versions” with hard facts. For example, after an incident of rape in a Calcutta’s Phoolbagan area in 1992 when the chief minister claimed that it was “one such case in ten years”, the APDR, along with several women’s organisations, came out with detailed statistics that there had been 42 custodial rapes between 1982 and 1992.[iv]
A good part of the APDR’s activities in the 1980s involved defending the rights of political opponents of the Left Front regime. Most of the latter who faced arbitrary arrest, torture and legal harassment belonged to the radical Left, or the Naxalites. So, as during the Congress regime, the authorities and ruling party leaders accused the APDR of being a Naxalite outfit. The APDR activists, on the other hand, argued that since the Naxalites, being the most anti-establishment political force in West Bengal (as well as in many other parts of India), bore the brunt of the state’s repression, it was but natural that a civil liberties group would have to defend them. A high point in its activities in this phase was sending a memorandum to the world’s most talked about political prisoner, African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela, and taking out a large procession highlighting the issue of political prisoners in West Bengal during his visit to Calcutta after his release, on 18 October 1990.
But the fact that the APDR remained true to its commitment to democratic rights without any political bias was reflected in its public protest immediately after the Tiananmen Square massacre in China in 1989. Before that, it undertook a bi-cycle rally from Calcutta to Delhi from 12 October to 6 November 1983 to spread the message of human rights. Thirty cyclists including three women took part in the rally. Going against the parochial Bengali sentiments being fanned by the ruling Left Front in the state at that time, an APDR team visited Darjeeling in August 1986 after ten people were killed in police firing to quell the agitation for a separate state of Gorkhaland.[v]
Again, for most part of the 1990s, when the radical movement was at a relatively low ebb and hence issues of violation of democratic rights of the Naxalite activists became fewer, the APDR’s attention was focused largely on the torture and extra-judicial killings by police of common people, mostly from the poor and backward communities, in the city and its suburbs. These police brutalities often take place in the name of controlling crime and have popular consent of the middle and upper-middle classes. The APDR investigated such incidents, organised protests and campaigned to make the people conscious of the illegal and uncivil nature of these crimes by the state, even as it risked hurting popular feelings. The officialdom was as scornful as ever, and APDR was nicknamed by top police officers as “Association for Protection of Dacoits’ Rights”.
The government’s disdain for the civil liberties activists was evident in an incident which took place on 16 November 1992 at Sisir Mancha, a prominent auditorium in Calcutta. The state government was holding a public seminar where information and culture minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee was lecturing on human rights. Some members of APDR including its general secretary, Sujato Bhadra, were present at the meeting. As soon as they tried to raise questions regarding the state government’s sincerity in protecting human rights during the past 15 years, police and ruling party workers assaulted and rounded them up. The incident attracted wide condemnation from intellectuals and sparked protests.
The APDR passed through a few lively debates in the 1990s. One was on whether it should support the ban on Bajrang Dal and imposition of President’s Rule under Article 356 of the Constitution in Uttar Pradesh following the demolition of Babri Masjid on 6 December 1992. No consensus could be reached at a special general body meeting at Presidency College, Calcutta, on 24 December. However, it was resolved at its conference on 6-7 March 1993 at Baguihati that neither could be supported from the point of view of democratic rights and only a strong people’s movement, not state coercion, could combat the rise of religious sectarianism. The APDR has since opposed all bans on books, organisations, etc.[vi]
The civil liberties movement as a whole woke up late to the rights of sexual minorities. But when three members, Kajal Mukherjee, Partha Nag and Gautam Sen, brought up the issue through a joint article, the APDR did not shy away from debating the question. It published their article in the front page of its Bengali organ, Adhikar, and threw the issue open for discussion.[vii] Although there was never any clear-cut resolution, the organisation eventually stood solidly behind the nationwide movement to repeal Article 377 of the Indian Penal Code which criminalised the sexual minorities.
There was a debate in 1996 on whether the Association would receive any institutional funding as many non-governmental organisations did and whether it would participate in joint initiatives with funded NGOs. It resulted in the stand that APDR would never take funding from any institutional source and would not normally participate in joint programmes with funded NGOs. A few members, who were not convinced about the stand on the funding issue, later left it and floated another organisation, Banglar Manabadhikar Suraksha Mancha (Masum).
*Edited excerpts from Nilanjan Dutta’s forthcoming book, Civil Liberties Movement in India. The author is a human right activist and an independent journalist.
[i] APDR’s Bengali organ Adhikar (Rights), 8 January 1983 and ‘Fact Sheet’ presented by Kapil Bhattacharya before the Sarma Sarkar Commission set up by the Left Front government in 1977 to inquire into allegations of misuse of power in West Bengal during the Emergency (mimeo.).
[ii] See Dutta, Nilanjan, Rights and the ‘Left’: West Bengal 1977-2011, Kolkata, Setu Prakashani, 2015.
[iii] See the chapter titled ‘An Enigma Called Marichjhampi’ in Dutta, Nilanjan, Rights and the ‘Left’.
[iv] Nari Nirjatan Pratirodh Mancha, APDR, Ahalya, Sachetana and Pragatisheel Mahila Samity, Mathura theke Neharbanu – Hefajate Dharshan Bandho Hok, Calcutta, 10 January 1993.
[v] Association for Protection of Democratic Rights, ‘A Report from Darjeeling’, Calcutta, APDR, 1986.
[vi] Ganatantrik O Nagarik Adhikar, September 1995, p. 13.
[vii] Ganatantrik Adhikar, June 1995, pp. 1-2.