Rebecca M. John is the lawyer defending Kobad Gandhi, allegedly the top leader of CPI (Maoist) who was arrested on the 22nd of September. Shortly after the arrest a storm of violent incidents took place which occupied much media attention and were said to be indicative of the ‘Naxalite Crisis’ in our country. In the midst of all the discussion and debate surrounding these highly charged issues DU Beat brings you a conversation with the fascinating person who’s been given the responsibility of defending the man of the hour.

DUB: What made you decide to take up such a controversial case?

Rebecca: I am a criminal Defense lawyer, it is my job to take up  cases that come to me and defend  people, to the best of my ability. It is  the constitutional right of every citizen to be defended in a Court of Law. I pass no moral judgment on anyone; to me this case is no different from the countless others I have taken up before, so there is no additional pressure.  I was asked  by  Civil Liberties groups to appear for Kobard Ghandy . I took it up as I would have done any other case.  My judgment has never been coloured by public opinion and indeed that should never be an issue for any lawyer who upholds the Constitution and believes in the Rule of Law.

DUB: How do you reconcile yourself to the various ideologies your clients represent? Is it a problem if it clashes with your own?

Rebecca: You don’t have to be friends with your client, just defend their right to a fair trial. Their ideology has nothing to do with the case as long as you uphold their rights. I perform my obligations and I work within the framework of the law and I  sleep with a clear conscience at night. I have taken up many difficult cases and I  deal with them professionally. If the prosecution can prove its case then the person will be punished,  and if they can’t then he is set free and no one should be able to contest his innocence. We are not   some banana republic, in our Constitution we have trials which proceed   with the  presumption that an accused is innocent until proven guilty. Which is why Ajmal Kasab is undergoing   a   trial and has  not been shot dead or lashed at a public stadium before a blood thirsty mob , as some people were suggesting. If he is found guilty he will be dealt with appropriately as mandated by the Law.

An independent Judiciary and a Criminal Justice System which upholds the Rule of Law, is the fundamental basis for a free and fair society, so thank god for Defense lawyers.

DUB: Considering the fact that you work within the law and subscribe to its administration how do you defend someone whose basic ideology consists of overthrowing this administrative system?

Rebecca: There is no evidence to suggest that Kobad Gandhi  is trying to overthrow the government or its administrative system.  How can you say he doesn’t want to work within the system? Why is the middle class so threatened by someone like him? Why is public discourse on the subject influenced by  propaganda and complete ignorance on the subject?   In any case my client has never made any statement supporting violence of any form.

DUB: The Government has decided to launch a military offensive against the Naxals and deploy armed forces in the Naxal hotbeds. What are the legal intricacies involved in employing troops in civilian ground? What are your views on the matter? How can violence on the part of the State be justified?

Rebecca: This is an administrative decision and you need to ask officials from the Home Ministry about the logistics involved in troop deployment.

Personally I  have reservations about Operation Green Hunt since it means that  the Government is hunting down its own people. Who are we declaring war on? What are we declaring war on? Can Naxalism really be wiped out by brute force?  Should the Indian State declare war on its most despairing citizens?  As Himanshu Kumar, a Human Rights Activist in far away Dantewada says, why are all these poor people attracted to an ideology that will end in death?

These  are the most deprived sections of our society and all that they are asking for are   basic  rights, food, water , clothes, health care and  schools and their legitimate right over their land and how do we respond to this criminal neglect of over 60 years ? We ‘hunt’ them down.  I am not justifying  Maoist violence, I abhor all violence, but I do believe the State should consider looking at the cause of the problem before jumping to find hasty solutions. We could all do well to read the Fifth Schedule of the Indian Constitution, that sacred document that protects the rights of tribals over their forests and land!

Atleast now we talking about Adivasis, Dalits and tribals and their state of disempowerment  and destitution , issues we never spoke of even five years ago.

On the other hand the violence perpetrated by the State is really no different from the violence they are supposedly fighting. Take the ridiculous Salva Judum scheme in Chhattisgarh for example, where ordinary citizens are armed and encouraged to engage in violence  in order to fight the Naxals. In these cases the solutions become as much, if not more problematic than the problems they are supposed to resolve.

DUB: There are a lot of students actively demonstrating against the violent means the government plans to utilize over this issue. Any message for students who take these issues to heart?

Rebecca: I  support peaceful protests of any kind. I  have always felt that  people in our country don’t protest enough.  As a whole our society  is reluctant to  protest so if  students are taking up issues and getting interested in events of national importance I am happy because in India there is a complete absence of debate on critical issues and that is inexcusable.

If there is anything we have learnt from our freedom movement, it is that peaceful protests are an effective tool of dissent and are indeed the best way of achieving long term goals!

-As told to Pragya Mukherjee

Who are the Naxalites?

The Naxalites, also sometimes called the Naxals, is a loose term used to define groups waging a violent struggle on behalf of landless labourers and tribal people against landlords and others. The Naxalites say they are fighting oppression and exploitation to create a classless society. Their opponents say the Naxalites are terrorists oppressing people in the name of a class war.

How many Naxalite groups are there?

Many groups operate under different names. The Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) is the political outfit that propagates the Naxalite ideology. There are front organisations and special outfits for specific groups such as the Indian People’s Front.

The two main groups involved in violent activities, besides many factions and smaller outfits, are the People’s War, the group many believe is responsible for the attempt on Naidu, and the Maoist Communist Centre.

Where do they operate?

The most prominent area of operation is a broad swathe across the very heartland of India, often considered the least developed area of this country. The Naxalites operate mostly in the rural and Adivasi areas, often out of the continuous jungles in these regions. Their operations are most prominent in (from North to South) Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh [ Images ], eastern Maharashtra, the Telengana (northwestern) region of Andhra Pradesh, and western Orissa. It will be seen that these areas are all inland, from the coastline.

The People’s War is active mainly in Andhra Pradesh, western Orissa and eastern Maharashtra while the Maoist Communist Centre is active in Bihar, Jharkhand and northern Chhattisgarh.

Who do they represent?

The Naxalites claim to represent the most oppressed people in India, those who are often left untouched by India’s development and bypassed by the electoral process. Invariably, they are the Adivasis, Dalits, and the poorest of the poor, who work as landless labourers for a pittance, often below India’s mandated minimum wages.

naxalites2The criticism against the Naxalites is that despite their ideology, they have over the years become just another terrorist outfit, extorting money from middle-level landowners (since rich landowners invariably buy protection), and worse, even extorting and dominating the lives of the Adivasis and villagers who they claim to represent in the name of providing justice.

Who do the Naxalites target?

Ideologically, the Naxalites claim they are against India as she exists currently. They believe that Indians are still to acquire freedom from hunger and deprivation and that the rich classes — landlords, industrialists, traders, etc — control the means of production. Their final aim is the overthrow of the present system, hence the targeting of politicians, police officers and men, forest contractors, etc.

At a more local level, the Naxalites have invariably targeted landlords in the villages, often claiming protection money from them. Naxalites have also been known to claim ‘tax’ from the Adivasis and landless farmers in areas where their writ runs more than that of the government.

naxalbariWhen did this movement start? How did it get its name?

The earliest manifestation of the movement was the Telengana Struggle in July 1948 (100 years after the Paris Communes were first set up, coining the word Communist). This struggle was based on the ideology of China’s Mao Zedong, with the aim of creating an Indian revolution. Not surprisingly, the ideology remains strong in this region of Andhra Pradesh.

But the Naxalite movement took shape after some members of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) split to form the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist), after the former agreed to participate in elections and form a coalition government in West Bengal. Charu Mazumdar led the split.

On May 25, 1967, in Naxalbari village in Darjeeling district, northern West Bengal, local goons attacked a tribal who had been given land by the courts under the tenancy laws. In retaliation, the tribals attacked landlords and claimed the land. From this ‘Naxalbari Uprising’ came the word Naxalite.

Was it ever popular?

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Naxalite movement was popular. There were reports of brilliant students, including from the famed IITs, dropping out of college to join the struggle for the rights of the tribals and landless labourers. But as has been the case with many movements set up with high principles, over the years the Naxalite movement is seen as having lost its vision and having compromised its principles. Nevertheless, the fact that it has an endless supply of men and women joining its ranks shows that many still believe in its cause.

Do the Naxalites face much opposition?

Yes they do, almost from the entire Indian political spectrum. Noticeably, when the Naxalite movement first started in the late sixties in West Bengal, it was the CPI-M that cracked down hardest on the Maoist rebels, with ample support from the Congress at the Centre. At village levels, the Naxalites’ terror tactics have spawned local armies to provide protection to the landlords and others. The most infamous of these is the Ranvir Sena in Bihar and Jharkhand, formed by Bhumihar caste landlords, which kill tribals, Dalits and landless labourers either in retaliation or to enforce their domination.