Members of the Manithaneya Makkal Katchi and the Tamil Nadu Muslim Munnetra Kazhagam staging a demonstration in Coimbatore demanding the release of prisoners who had served more than 10 years in various prisons in the State, on February 7, 2016. Photo: M. Periasamy

By ILANGOVAN RAJASEKARAN

Even as many Muslims languish in prisons since 1991, the State government has been overenthusiastic in locking up civil rights activists by using the UAPA, IPC and other Acts against them.

Muslims account for 17 per cent of all convicts in Tamil Nadu’s prisons but their percentage of the overall State population is only 5.86 per cent . Almost one in two undertrials in Tamil Nadu is either a Muslim or a Christian. According to data from the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) report for 2015, Muslims make up 15.8 per cent of convicts and 20.9 per cent of undertrials in Indian jails.

The issue of Muslim prisoners languishing in various prisons across the State for more than 15 years figured in the Tamil Nadu Assembly in June 2016 itself. C.V. Shanmugam, Minister of Law, Courts and Prisons, rejected the charge that the State was discriminating against Muslim prisoners. He was responding to K.A.M. Muhammed Abubacker, an Indian Union Muslim League member representing, the Kadayanallur constituency, who sought the release of Muslim convicts on humanitarian grounds.

Peter Durairaj Periyanayagam, an activist who has been fighting for the release of long-serving Muslim prisoners and undertrials in Tamil Nadu, told Frontline that of the 49 prisoners who were arrested and convicted between 1991 and 1998, when the Coimbatore bomb blast occurred, only 15 had been released between 2016 and 2021, either after serving their sentences or through taking legal recourse. The rest are still in prison.

Of the 49 prisoners, 17 were convicted in the 1998 blast case and the rest were serving sentences for common crimes under various sections of the IPC, such as murder. Many of these prisoners who were not connected to the bomb blast have been in prison for more than 20 years now. He said: “Almost all the Muslim prisoners and a few undertrials have been in prison for more than 14 years now. Some of them have been in prison for 20 years.”

According to Peter Durairaj, the State government released about 1,400 prisoners in 2008. In 2019-2020, it released many convicted prisoners, including three AIADMK members who set a college bus on fire in which three female students of the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University were burnt to death, and those convicted in the Melavalavu Dalits’ murder case, under Article 161 of the Constitution. “However, this benefit was denied to the Muslim prisoners specifically,” Peter Durairaj pointed out.

The jail manual mandates that an Advisory Board be formed to consider release of prisoners on bail and those who have spent more than 14 years in jail. In the case of Muslim prisoners, the board has not been formed. All legally mandated privileges were denied to them, said Peter Durairaj. He added: “After the prisoner serves his complete term of punishment, he/she should be allowed to enjoy the remedies available in the law and nobody should be discriminated on the basis of religion, caste, or ethnic identity.”

Other prisoners
The All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) government in Tamil Nadu registered 270 cases in 2019 alone against many civil rights activists under the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act or UAPA. The other laws that the government is widely using, primarily to stifle the voices of dissent, include Section 124 A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and the Goondas’ Act.

On February 7 the Salem Police arrested A. Balan, K.C. Siddhanandan, K. Seenivasan, Selvaraj, Vivek, Lakshmi, and Salivaganam, all of them activists belonging to various social and democratic outfits, for “attending the funeral of Manivasagam, who was claimed to be a Maoist activist killed in a police encounter in Kerala on November 28, 2019”. Accused of engaging in unlawful activities, they were lodged in the Central Prisons in Coimbatore and Salem.

Mee. Tha. Pandian, president of the Tamil Desa Makkal Munnani (TDMM), who submitted a petition to the Tamil Nadu Director General of Police recently, condemning the arrests, claimed that the Salem Police had fabricated the charges against the arrested activists and tried to project them in local media as having links with banned Maoists.

A. Balan, the TDMM’s general secretary. and K. Seenivasan, its executive committee member, besides Selvaraj, were arrested under Sections 188, 120 (B), 121, 121 (A), 124 (A) of the IPC and Sections 10, 13, 15, 18 of the UAPA under Crime No. 14/2020 for attending the funeral of Manivasagam on November 14.

The Kerala police had refused to hand over the body, which was kept at the Thrissur Government Hospital. But Manivasagam’s relatives approached the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court and obtained a direction to receive the body and perform last rites in their native village in Salem district.

Manivasagam’s sister Lakshmi, her husband Salivaganam and their son Sudhakar performed the last rites, which were attended by Manivasagam’s wife Kala, who was serving a sentence at the Tiruchi Central Prison. The police claimed that those who had assembled at the site of the funeral raised slogans against the government.

Two months after the incident, the Theevattipatti Police in Salem district registered a case against the activists on the basis of a complaint from the Village Administrative Officer of K.N. Pudur, Kadayampatti Block. It detained them at the police station for more than 11 hours.

Later, the Salem Police also picked up another activist Siddhanandan from his house at Vellalapatti in Dharmapuri district and lodged him at the Salem Central Prison.

Meanwhile, the Madras High Court on April 18, 2020, enlarged Lakshmi, Salivaganam and Sudhakar, who were arrested earlier, on bail. In his petition to the DGP, Mee.Tha. Pandian claimed that the arrested activists did not participate in any covert activities and had openly participated in democratic protests and agitations.

The TDMM, Pandian added, had been organising various political events against “the fascist alliance of the BJP and AIADMK” in Tamil Nadu, and the activists who had coordinated such events were arrested. “The arrests are politically motivated,” he said. The police, however, maintained that the arrested were suspected “Maoists” and remained underground prior to their arrest.

This story first appeared on frontline.thehindu.com