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A Crackdown on Dissent in India: What’s Behind the Recent Arrests of Rights Activists

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The Pulse

A Crackdown on Dissent in India: What’s Behind the Recent Arrests of Rights Activists

Do the simultaneous raids on civil rights campaigners and lawyers indicate that the Indian government is willing to subvert democracy?

A Crackdown on Dissent in India: What’s Behind the Recent Arrests of Rights Activists
Credit: AP Photo/Manish Swarup

The homes of nine civil rights activists across India were simultaneously raided by the police of the state of Maharashtra on the morning of Tuesday, August 28, 2018. Five of the activists were arrested. Two activists quickly moved to high courts – one each in Delhi and Haryana – which then denied the police the transit remand necessary to transport the activists across the country to the Maharashtrian city of Pune.

The three remaining arraigned activists were hustled off overnight to Maharashtra. On the afternoon of Wednesday,  August 29, however, the Supreme Court of India stayed all transit remands until September 6, and ordered that the arrested activists be returned home cum instancia and placed under house arrest.

The police described the nine raided, among them a human rights lawyer and trade unionist, two civil rights activists, a venerable radical poet-activist and Marxist ideologue, an activist-turned-lawyer, and a journalist and civil liberties activist, as having “Maoist links.”

The Maoists – an umbrella term in India used to describe extreme-left organizations such as the Communist Party of India (Maoist) and a scattering of breakaway, semi-autonomous, and affiliate bodies of similar but not identical ideologies – were banned as terrorists in June 2009 by the previous, Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government. This was three years after the then-Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, had described “Naxalites” – a word used interchangeably with “Maoists'” to describe India’s extreme left – as the “biggest internal security threat.”

This concerted police action has resulted in a massive outcry in India, both in the ordinarily-superheated social media sphere as well as in offline civil society and opposition political circles. The Pune city and Maharashtra state police might have affected the arrests, but complicit with them were the police of five other states of Delhi, Haryana, Goa, Jharkhand, and Andhra Pradesh.

Since then, however, “Maoists” has been used to pejoratively describe activists involved in subaltern liberties and rights claims, from the massive Avatar-style tribal protests against Vedanta Ltd’s bauxite strip-mining in Odisha to fisherfolk protesting the Kudankulam nuclear-power facility in Tamil Nadu. Unfortunately, the government has made the Maoist tag inseparable from the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA).

The serial amendments to the UAPA, 1967 – all brought to play during previous Congress regimes – turned legislation that was intended to bring India closer to the security paradigm set out by the international Financial Action Task Force (an intergovernmental organization keeping watch over money-laundering and terrorism-funding) into an instrument of governmental suppression of legal dissent.

The Pune/Maharashtra police say that they had proof that the nine activists raided were connected via what they referred to distractingly as “e-devices” to Maoist organizations. (One of them had been cleared of 20 earlier charges of being a Maoist in 2014 — after being jailed for five years.) Specifically, they say, the nine are linked to five Dalit activists arrested in June 2018 for “provocative speeches” during a January 2018 low-caste Dalit pride annual event at the village of Bhima Koregaon that had then exploded across Maharashtra. Provoked and possibly engineered by upper-caste Maratha Hindu organisations angered by a massed show of lower-caste empowerment and religio-political autonomy, the Dalit protests had led to one fatality and several injuries, in addition to large scale traffic paralysis and some civic damage.

The Maharashtra state government booked scores of Dalits for the protests, but it chose to first overlook and then flatly deny the amply-evidenced role of the upper-caste Marathas in stoking and fueling the violence, and finally cleared them of any and all involvement after remarkably cursory investigations.

The cause of the popular unrest following the raids is the police – and governmental – conflation of popular subaltern movements for empowerment, land rights, subethnic pride, civil-society interventions, and more, with left-wing extremism. The term of derogation being bandied about in the majority-party Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) circles and by the right-wing troll armies on social media is “urban naxals,” which the nine raided activists are accused of being.

The term “urban Naxalites” has a politico-academic history going back to India’s extreme-left movement, the rural-radical movement which was born in Naxalbari in the state of Bengal in 1967 and in the following decades turned into a topic of remarkable global security interest. The Times of India on September 16, 2016, reported that “data collected by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism contracted with the U.S. state department revealed that Taliban, Islamic State and Boko Haram were the three deadliest terror groups globally … [and] … were followed by CPI (Maoist), a banned outfit”.

But the term “urban naxals” has another provenance altogether: the fulmination in an article in the right-wing website Swarajyamag written by a frustrated filmmaker and right-wing Twitter incendiarist Vivek Agnihotri. Dated May 4, 2017, the piece, titled “Urban Naxalism: Strategy And Modus Operandi,” described urban naxals as “the ‘invisible enemies’ of India…spreading insurgency against the Indian state…[and that the]…common thread amongst all of them is that they are all urban intellectuals, influencers or activists of importance.”

The term and the description caught the fancy of the ruling BJP, its social media supporters, and even the police forces. Agnihotri rewrote his Twitter bio to read: “UrbanNaxals Morally, it’s disgusting. Legally, it’s questionable. Personally, I like it (sic).”

Twitter didn’t like it. On Tuesday night, August 28, Agnihotri sought to initiate a witch-hunt by tweeting: “I want some bright young people to make a list of all those who are defending #UrbanNaxals. Let’s see where it leads.” Twitter liberals and libertarians took him on. By the morning of Wednesday, August 29, the hashtag #MeTooUrbanNaxal was trending in favor of the nine raided civil rights activists. By this evening, it was trending at number one on Twitter.

Nationwide, writers and civil society activists began speaking out. Historian Ramchandra Guha called it “absolutely chilling” and a “brutal, authoritarian, oppressive, arbitrary, illegal act.” He went on to tweet: “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 Sudha Bharadwaj in court; that is assuming the Modi Sarkar hadn’t yet detained and arrested him too.”

The Booker Prize-winning author Arundhati Roy said: “What is happening is absolutely perilous. In the run-up to elections [the general election is due in May 2019], this is an attempted coup against the Indian Constitution and all the freedoms that we cherish.”

Today, upon passing strictures upon the police, the Supreme Court noted: “Dissent is the safety valve of democracy. If dissent is not allowed, the safety valve will burst.”

But for all its democratic credibility, the Supreme Court did not question the logic of such arraignments despite some clear infractions of police procedure (including the police not translating the documents pertaining to the arrests and seizure of evidence from Marathi into either Hindi or English, India’s two official languages). The apex court merely delayed police custody by a week, thus providing the authorities time to iron out the kinks and inadequacies in the documents being served.

At the very root of this quasi-justice is the judiciary’s mandated paralysis against the draconian UAPA (a replacement-on-steroids of two earlier antiterrorist legislations, the Terrorism and Disruptive Activities Act, 1987 and the Prevention of Terrorism Act, 2002). The UAPA had been designed to only regulate the activities of unlawful organizations. However, according to the Union ministry of home affairs, in the 14 years of its existence, it has ended up being used to ban 39 extremist organizations and their affiliates.

As it stands today, the UAPA allows the police virtually unrestrained powers: the accused can be kept in custody – or lockup, as it’s known in Indian police parlance – for 30 days instead of the usual 15 days before having to be presented in court; the police are allowed six months in which to draw up chargesheets instead of the usual three months; obtaining bail is next to impossible (in fact, no record exists of a single bail plea having succeeded in the history of the UAPA).

Perhaps most disturbing to dissenters and sociopolitical activists, under the National Investigation Agency Act, 2008, any investigation by the UAPA can be taken over by the National Investigation Agency (NIA), an agency tasked with TFFC (Terror Funding and Fake Currency).

The NIA is a body under the central government, the common bête noire of not only the nine raided civil rights activists but also of Indian liberals, libertarians, rights activists, the country’s vast civil society vanguard and reserves, and, of course, the political opposition that, even as a rainbow coalition of quarrelsome ideologies, leans broadly and in varying degrees to the left of the Right-wing (and occasionally ultraright) national government.

The NIA is proud of its conviction success rate, which today stands at 94.4 percent.

There is a growing fear that, with nine months to go for an evidently no-holds-barred general election, the dismantling of democracy could begin with this crackdown on civil rights activists.