By Fr. Cedric Prakash SJ
August 28, 2018, will easily go down as one of the most infamous days in India’s history. In a pre-dawn swoop, the Pune police raided the homes of several human rights activists across the country.
They included Vernon Gonsalves in Mumbai, Arun Ferreira in Thane; Gautam Navlakha in Delhi; Sudha Bharadwaj in Faridabad; Jesuit Fr. Stan Swamy in Ranchi; Varavara Rao and his family members, Kranti Tekula and Naseem in Hyderabad; Anand Teltumbde in Goa. By late evening, five of them — Gonsalves, Ferreira, Navlakha, Rao and Bharadwaj — were later arrested or kept under detention.
During the raids, the police seized whatever they could lay their hands upon, including laptops, mobile phones, passwords,pendrives, CDs, documents, books. It is common knowledge that the police are also know to plant ‘evidence’.
Ever since the raids and arrests, the Pune police and others ‘responsible’ have gone overboard in levelling a whole lot of ‘reasons’ to justify their actions; these include that the activists were fomenting violence, were associated with banned Maoist groups, were plotting to kill the Prime Minister, were ‘urban Naxals’, were intolerant to the present political present system, criticizing the government and so on.
They also claim that the activists were linked to a bigger conspiracy and planning to recruit members from 35 universities and colleges and launch attacks.
Were the might of the State not involved, then all the flimsy charges would have found a place in some third-rate joke book! The activists have been charged under the controversial and draconian ‘Unlawful Activities Prevention Act’, which authorizes raids and arrest without warrant if a person, is suspected to support terrorist acts or unlawful activities.
All the five arrested are eminent human rights activists who have for several years have worked within the Constitution of India and taken up cudgels on behalf of the poor, marginalized and excluded of the country. They are all intellectuals by their own right, who have contributed significantly to the country.
They have fought battles in courts; helped organise people (particularly the adivasis and the dalits) to fight for their legitimate rights; consistently exposed the nexus between the politicians and their powerfully rich friends and above all been working for a society which is more just, equitable and humane.
In doing so, they have also raised the hackles of the BJP, RSS and their ilk, who obviously have not taken things lightly.
These raids and arrests apparently have their ‘roots’ in a mass rally of Dalits, who assemble every year on January 1 in Bhima Koregaon, a small village about 30 km northeast of Pune.
The massive rally, which brings together lakhs of Dalits from all over the country, commemorates the historic victory of lower-caste Mahar soldiers in the British army over the Brahmin Peshwa-led Maratha Empire in 1818. This year marked the 200th anniversary of the Bhima Koregaon battle.
In the run-up to the rally, a coalition of 260 non-profit organisations held on December 31, 2017, an event called ‘Elgar Parishad’ at Pune’s Shaniwar Wada. This was the seat of the Peshwai, the Brahmin rulers of the Maratha Empire who rigidly enforced caste discrimination. The Elgar Parishad featured several well-known personalities like politicians Prakash Ambedkar and Jignesh Mewani and Dalit rights activist Radhika Vemula.
The Marathas and some of the upper castes resented the Dalit gathering and apparently Hindutva leaders like Milind Ekbote, head of the Hindu Ekta Manch, and Sambhaji Bhide, chief of the Shiv Pratishthan Hindustan made provocative, anti-Dalit speeches a few days before the event.
Large-scale violence broke out in some parts of Maharashtra on January1 and 2. On January 3, police filed cases against Ekbote and Bhide, for allegedly instigating the violence on Dalits. However, while Ekbote was released on bail soon after being arrested in March; Bhide has not yet been arrested, despite a Supreme Court order demanding his arrest. Bhide, a hardcore hindutva follower, is close to several of the RSS leaders, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Strangely the tables soon turned – very obviously with pressure from the ‘higher-ups’: the victims became the perpetrators. Last June, five other activists, mainly organisers of the Elgar Parishad were arrested for apparently ‘inciting the violence’ and on August 28 these latest arrests.
There is universal outrage and condemnation at this dastardly deed by the police. Civil society from across the board (intellectuals, academics, activists, politicians) have written statements, signed petitions, held press conferences and protest rallies in different parts of the country and these will continue in the days to come. They ask for the immediate and unconditional release of all those arrested and to book those responsible for the raids and arrests.
Of course, the RSS, BJP and their cronies have expectedly maintained a silence on the issue; besides a good section of the paid and corporate-controlled media are going to great lengths to prove that those arrested are ‘Maoists’ or were in possession of radical literature; as though any of these constitute a crime in a democracy.
Fortunately, there are still some courageous journalists who have written some excellent articles in the mainstream print media and online portals. Social media, which the Government is desperately trying to control, has also been buzzing with messages against the raids and arrests.
A group of intellectuals and activists state, “we, the undersigned, are shocked by the serial raids across the country on the homes of activists and public intellectuals who are critical of the government and the ruling party at the Centre. The arrests of prominent activists and intellectuals Sudha Bharadwaj, Vernon Gonsalves, Gautam Navlakha, Varavara Rao, Arun Ferreira and others, are nothing but an attempt by the government to strike terror among those who are fighting for justice for the marginalised. This is also an attempt by the BJP to invent a false enemy and engage in scaremongering in order to polarise the 2019 elections in its favour. Already, the government and the media houses close to the BJP have been trying to spin a false narrative of a Maoist conspiracy since June, 2018. Terms like “urban naxals” are invented in order to stifle any criticism of the government. We have learnt that the Delhi Police, after having arrested Sudha Bharadwaj, waited for Republic TV to arrive before taking her to the court. This simply shows that the arrests are incomplete without the accompanying sensationalist media propaganda to demonise activists, human rights defenders and intellectuals”.
Celebrated writer and activist Arundhati Roy said, “The simultaneous state-wide arrests are a dangerous sign of a government that fears it is losing its mandate and is falling into panic. That lawyers, poets, writers, Dalit rights activists and intellectuals are being arrested on ludicrous charges while those who make up lynch mobs and threaten and murder people in broad daylight roam free, tells us very clearly where India is headed. Murderers are being honoured and protected. Anybody who speaks up for justice or against Hindu majoritarianism is being made into a criminal. What is happening is perilous. In the run up to elections, this is an attempted coup against the Indian Constitution and all the freedoms that we cherish;” adding “it is as close to a declaration of an Emergency as we will ever get.”
Anand Teltumbde, one of those targeted, in an elaborate signed statement has referred to what is happening as ‘undeclared emergency’.
Noted historian Ramachandra Guha also lashed out at the government over the countrywide raids and arrest of activists, calling it a “brutal, authoritarian, oppressive, arbitrary. Illegal act by the Maharashtra police”.
Guha categorically stated, “corporate cronies of the ruling government were bent on grabbing tribal land, forest and mineral resources. This is absolutely chilling. This is being done to not only intimidate and silence those detained but also those who could potentially come to their legal rescue. The courts must intervene to stop this persecution and harassment of independent voices. Sudha Bharadwaj is as far from violence and illegality as Amit Shah is close to those things. As a biographer of Gandhi, I have no doubt that if the Mahatma was alive today, he would don his lawyer’s robes and defend Bharadwaj in court; that is assuming the Modi Sarkar hadn’t yet detained and arrested him too.”
Going further he said, (those arrested) “are people who represent the country’s disenfranchised and the dispossessed. What is happening in the adivasi heartland of India… it is murder, rape, physical, natural, social… and these were the lawyers representing the tribals… and their arrest leaves those dispossessed unrepresented in court.”.
On August 29, a five-judge Bench of the Supreme Court issued notice to the Maharashtra Government, in a petition challenging the arrests of the activists. Romila Thapar, Devaki Jain, Prabhat Patnaik, Satish Deshpande have filed the petition and Maja Daruwala were the petitioners.
The Court also ordered that the activists had to be placed only under house arrest at their own homes until the next date of hearing on September 6. The Bench headed by the Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra said, “Dissent is the safety valve of democracy. If you don’t allow the safety valve pressure cooker will burst.”
There is no doubt that India today is in a period, which is worse than that of the emergency. A fascist regime, which is made up of murderers and is in nexus with the corrupt, crony capitalists and other vested interests gets away with impunity, even as they systematically erode all that is sacred in the Constitution.
They have no qualms of conscience in trampling on the human rights of millions of citizens of the country; those who lynch others are felicitated by ministers of the ruling party; those who demonise and denigrate minorities through their hate-speeches are jettisoned into positions of power!
The law and order mechanisms seem perfectly comfortable with these crimes. On the other hand, as we witness with painful regularity, those who take a stand for the poor, the excluded and the exploited are penalized and have fabricated cases foisted on them.
Nayantara Sahgal, well-known intellectual and a fierce critic of her cousin Indira Gandhi and the then emergency rule, said in a recent interview, “Well, we have an undeclared Emergency, there is no doubt about that. We have seen a huge, massive attack on the freedom of expression. We have seen innocent, helpless Indians killed because they did not fit into the RSS’s view of India. We have seen known and unknown Indians murdered. Writers like Gauri Lankesh have been killed. And there has been no justice for the families of the wage earners who have lost their lives in this fashion. In fact, they are now being called the accused. So we have a horrendous situation, a nightmare which is worse than the Emergency. During the Emergency we knew what the situation was. The Opposition was in jail, there was no freedom of speech, etc. Now we are living in a battered, bleeding democracy. And though no Emergency has been declared, people are being killed, people are being jailed; people are being hauled up for sedition and for being anti-national. It is a nightmarish situation, which has no equal. This government is pretending to be democratic but we see what is happening all around. Moreover, nothing has come out of the government’s mouth to condemn all these goings on. So I rate it as a situation which has no equal in India”.
Targeting an ‘outside’ enemy or ‘another country’ is a clever, though manipulative ploy used by authoritarians when their own leadership is in disarray or when they fail in governance. Some super-powers go and bombard other countries. India has fared miserably on all fronts under the present regime; so what better way can there be, but in ‘discovering’ that this a small bunch of human rights activists who are ‘anti-nationals’ and hold them responsible for all the ills of the country? Certainly a poor strategy – which any thinking citizen is able to see through!
One cannot but help, in these times, recollecting the words of the anti-Nazi poet, Bertolt Brecht, who in 1939 wrote,
“In the dark times
will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing
about the dark times.”
Pretending that these are not ‘dark times’ and that the situation is not serious, will only mean an encouragement to the fascist, fundamentalist and fanatic forces. Silence is complicity and consent! The people of India need to awake now resist strongly and act unitedly, to ensure that all Indians enjoy the rights and freedoms enshrined in the Constitution. Satyamev Jayate!
(Fr. Cedric Prakash SJ is a human rights activist. Contact: email@example.com)