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Home Court News Updates Special Report Arrests of Activists: Crackdown on Dissent

Arrests of Activists: Crackdown on Dissent

Arrests of Activists: Crackdown on Dissent
P Varavara Rao upon his return to his Hyderabad residence where he is under house arrest/Photo: UNI

Above: P Varavara Rao upon his return to his Hyderabad residence where he is under house arrest/Photo: UNI

The recent nationwide arrests of activists have brought back memories of the Emergency and are a move by the government to silence criticism and shore up its chances before the 2019 elections

~By Puneet Nicholas Yadav

The Supreme Court’s unequivocal stand on the importance of dissent in a democracy was evident when it ordered the house arrest of five lawyers, academicians and civil rights activists against a request for their police custody. This is a stern indictment of a State eager to silence those who dare to speak the truth.

This order by the Supreme Court bench of Chief Justice Dipak Misra and Justices AM Khanwilkar and DY Chandrachud on August 29 pertains to the clampdown on these champions of civil liberties even as there were unsubstantiated accusations of them conspiring against the government.

The arrests of these five took place on August 28 at dawn in various cities by the Pune Police and forced Justice Chandrachud to succinctly say that “dissent is the safety valve of democracy; if dissent is not allowed, then the pressure cooker may burst”. Coordinated pan-India raids were conducted at the residences of eight lawyers, academicians and civil rights activists. The stated trigger was leads uncovered during a probe into the violence between Dalits and upper class Marathas that broke out at Bhima Koregaon near Pune on January 1. The probe reportedly pointed towards an alleged role by these activists in a “big conspiracy” against the State.

Opposition leaders join citizens at Parliament Street on August 30 to protest the arrests/Photo: Anil Shakya
Opposition leaders join citizens at Parliament Street on August 30 to protest the arrests/Photo: Anil Shakya

The raids began at about 5.45 am. Those raided included revolutionary poet Varavara Rao in Hyderabad, civil rights activist and author Anand Teltumbde in Goa, People’s Union for Civil Liberties national general secretary and lawyer Sudha Bharadwaj in Faridabad, human rights activists Arun Ferreira, Vernon Gonsalves and wife Susan Abraham in Mumbai, social commentator Gautam Navlakha in Delhi and tribal rights activist Father Stan Swamy in Ranchi (see interview).

“This is a fight to the finish”

About 6 am on August 28, 83-year-old social activist and Jesuit priest FATHER STAN SWAMY woke up to a loud knock on his window. As he came out of his room, he saw some 25 armed policemen frantically searching his residence. The police team from Pune, assisted by another from the local thana of Ranchi’s Namkum locality, told Swamy that his name was part of an FIR filed in Pune with regard to his alleged role in inciting the communal violence that broke out following an Elgar Parishad programme at Bhima Koregaon on January 1. While Swamy was not taken into custody, the police seized a slew of material from his residence-cum-school, including his laptop and mobile phone. Swamy spoke exclusively to India Legal’s PUNEET NICHOLAS YADAV through an associate about the raids and the “concerted effort to silence dissenting voices that make the BJP government uncomfortable”. Excerpts:

Why did the police conduct raids at your residence?

The stated purpose of the raids was that I am part of a conspiracy against the government and was involved in the Elgar Parishad meeting in Bhima Koregaon. I do not know the exact details of the FIR that the Pune police mentioned because the documents shown to me by the raiding party were in Marathi. The police team asked me to sign the panchnama and the seizure list—also in Marathi—which I initially refused because I do not understand the language. We asked the cops to provide us a translation in Hindi or English. Later, on the advice of our lawyer friends, I asked the police to explain the content of the FIR and the panchnama to us in Hindi, which they did. I signed the documents on the condition that the translated versions will be provided to me at the earliest. The entire raid and our conversation with the police was videographed by my associates. Though the police promised to give us the translated documents, I am yet to receive them. They seized my laptop, tab, mobile phone, diaries, books, a press release on the Pathalgadi movement that was lying on my study table, some audio cassettes and CDs.

Many have said that the clampdown is reminiscent of the Emergency.

I saw the oppression during the Emergency. What is happening today is worse. During the Emergency, those perceived to be against Mrs (Indira) Gandhi were arrested and put in jails. Civil liberties were curtailed, in some cases crushed. Today, there is an unofficial Emergency. The BJP, whether at the centre or in the states that it rules, has become paranoid because it feels that its popularity with the electorate is waning. Anybody who questions the government and its failures is silenced. What is different from the Emergency is that the dissenters are not simply being put behind bars. Lynch mobs, with the evident patronage of political masters, have been given a free pass to eliminate those who the government sees as its enemy. I work among the tribals of Jharkhand. I have been raising issues of their oppression, starvation deaths and corruption in social reform schemes like MGNREGA that were meant to benefit the marginalised. I, and others like me, have thus become a thorn in the side of the BJP regime.

Though the police haven’t officially said so in the FIR, there have been claims of “evidence” that you and other activists were part of a plot to assassinate Prime Minister Narendra Modi. All of you have been dubbed as “Urban Naxals” who are trying to hatch a “big conspiracy” against the State. How do you respond to such charges?

These are ludicrous allegations. All that we are doing is fighting for the rights of the backward and the marginalised; and we are doing so peacefully. Is it a conspiracy against the State to work for and with the oppressed classes? The Jharkhand government had earlier slapped a case of sedition against me. Now there is this laughable accusation of a plot to assassinate the PM. The script is familiar. If the government can’t silence dissenters, it goes all out to

tarnish their reputation, discredit them and brand them traitors and enemies of the State. At 83 years of age, I can’t care less about such fake and motivated charges.

My comrades and I have resolved to continue working for the people whose voice the government wants to muzzle. If the price for fighting for our underprivileged fellow citizens, our rights and the survival of our democracy is to be defamed by our elected representatives, or worse, be silenced, so be it. This is a fight to the finish and at stake is humanity, democracy and above all, the values that this country stood for and must stand for. No price is too high to pay, not even our lives.

Subsequently Rao, Bharadwaj, Ferreira, Gonsalves and Navlakha were taken into custody by the raiding party. The charges invoked against them were under Sections 153A, 505(1)(b), 117, 120B and 34 of the Indian Penal Code and Sections 13, 16, 17, 18, 18B, 20, 38, 39 and 4 of the Un­lawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA).

(From far left) Gautam Navlakha, Sudha Bharadwaj, Arun Ferreira and Vernon Gonsalves have also returned to their respective homes post the court order
(From far left) Gautam Navlakha, Sudha Bharadwaj, Arun Ferreira and Vernon Gonsalves have also returned to their respective homes post the court order

The police secured transit remand for them from respective local courts and initiated the process of taking them to Pune for further investigation. Though the police managed to take Rao, Ferreira and Gonsalves to Pune, lawyers for Bharadwaj and Navlakha managed to get stay orders against their transit remands by the Punjab and Haryana High Court and the Delhi High Court, respectively. Curiously, all documentation produced by the Pune cops before and after the police action was in Marathi, a language that most of the activists were not conversant with. The police told the activists that they would give them Hindi or English translations of the search warrants, the panchnama and the seizure lists, but did not.

A day later, eminent personalities—Romila Thapar, Devaki Jain, Prabhat Pattnaik, Maja Daruwala and Satish Deshpande—petitioned the Supreme Court seeking immediate release of the activists who were raided and arrested “in complete violation of their fundamental rights”. A battery of legal luminaries, including senior advocates Abhishek Manu Singhvi, Indira Jaising, Huzefa Ahmadi, Dushyant Dave, Rajeev Dhavan, CU Singh, Raju Ramachandran and Sanjay R Hegde, argued on behalf of the petitioners.

The Urban Naxal

Photo by Anil Shakya

Immediately after the Supreme Court proceedings on the arrests of five “activists”, failed filmmaker Vivek Agnihotri (Chocolate, Buddha in a Traffic Jam, Hate Story), inevitably took his familiar right-wing stand by asking people to make a list of those who were defending “Urban Naxals”. Why he wanted the list compiled was left unsaid but it would be no surprise he was asking that the police add them to the definition he created, Urban Naxals. He has even written a book using the same title earlier this year. Since then, Republic TV and Times Now, both of which dutifully toe the Modi government line, have used the phrase numerous times in their so-called debates. Republic TV’s Arnab Goswami, in one of his toxic programmes, even linked “Urban Naxals” to Kashmir separatists.

NDA ministers have picked up on the phrase. Agnihotri’s book was launched by Textiles Minister Smriti Irani, who, in her remarks, sounded a dire warning about threats to the government and country by “Urban Naxals”. Finance Minister Arun Jaitley was also quick to adopt the formulation when he tweeted in June about the “Half Maoist”, a mysterious category of people who were a “serious threat to Indian democracy” as the “over-ground face of the underground”. From Anti-national to Urban Naxal to Half Maoist may be a play on words, but its interpretation by ministers and its hardline supporters adds a sinister exclamation mark of terror.

Agnihotri claims that “Urban Naxals” are the “invisible enemies of India”, and endorsement of his views by NDA ministers and some television channels has given the term some credibility. It has also, sadly, given it enough ambiguity to allow it to be used to discredit and even jail those who raise their voices in dissent or support marginalised sections of society. So, the Dalit protesters at Bhima Koregaon, and those who fought for Dalit rights, are now Urban Naxals. What is common about this motley group is that they are intellectuals—lawyers, journalists, poets, professors—and live in cities, as opposed to jungles, though nowadays with lynchings and mob violence almost a daily occurrence, it’s tough to tell the difference. The bottomline is that being an “intellectual” equates with “influencer” and equals “terrorist”. The Agnihotris and Arnabs of this world have another name for them—”Breaking India Forces”.

That particular phrase was coined by another hardline Hindutva proponent, Rajiv Malhotra, a US-based entrepreneur who expresses, and often, an extreme right-wing view. His view, echoed by many in the government like Minister of State for Home Kiren Rijiju, is that India’s biggest threat is internal and is led by left-wing intellectuals, or pseudo intellectuals, as they are described. Now, they have a more hair-raising branding—Half Maoists.

—Dilip Bobb

The Supreme Court ordered that the five rights activists would be placed under house arrest till the next hearing, posted for September 6, and issued notices to the centre and the Maharashtra government seeking their replies to the petition.

The centre and the Maharashtra government now have to show hard evidence of the Pune police’s “conspiracy theory”. Spin doctors of the regime, including willfully pliant media houses, have already begun their familiar exercise of discrediting the activists, painting them as “Urban Naxals” and “Half Maoists” (see box). The unsubstantiated reports, flashed across many television news channels following the arrests, claimed that the activists were arrested for their alleged role in a “plot to assassinate Prime Minister Narendra Modi”. The reports were part of the ludicrous, albeit worrisome, exercise of branding public intellectuals as terrorists.

The assassination plot doesn’t figure anywhere in the FIR registered against the accused. The Pune police first saw this phantom plot when it made arrests of other intellectuals in June this year during its probe into the Bhima Koregaon violence. However, despite its claims of having recovered a letter detailing the said plot, the police’s counsel strangely didn’t submit this ostensibly crucial document as evidence in court.Blatant Misuse

The intellectuals arrested in June were Professor Shoma Sen from Nagpur University, human rights lawyer Surendra Gadling, journalist Sudhir Dhawale, activists Rona Wilson and Mahesh Raut. These five were charged by cops with the same offences that the activists arrested on August 28 were accused of. Each of these arrested activists has impeccable academic and social credentials and many have been felicitated internationally for their work among the oppressed sections of Indian society.

Incidentally, none of these arrested activists is named in the FIRs that were registered by the Pune police following the Bhima Koregaon violence. It is pertinent to note that the Pune police or the governments at the centre and in Maharashtra have not explained why no purposeful action has been taken against those named in these FIRs by eyewitnesses to the violence, and against those who gave communal speeches that preceded it—Hindutva leaders Milind Ekbote and Shambhaji Rao Bhide, both with ties to the BJP and its parent organisation, the RSS.

Counsel appearing for the prosecution in the local court in Pune and the Supreme Court have made serious allegations against the arrested but none of these charges are mentioned in the remand report prepared by the cops. The report, instead, claims that all the activists are members of the banned CPI (Maoist) and lists reasons why they should be in police custody. The plot to assassinate the PM, or that the activists were facilitating funding, ammunition supply and legal aid to Naxals, or even their involvement in planning the Elgar Parishad event in Bhima Koregaon find no mention in this list.

And in a new development, Pune police commissioner K Venkatesham has now said that the material found during investigation had led the police to probe the larger networks and operations of the banned CPI(Maoist) and the recent arrests were a fallout of this.

Rao, Gonsalves and Ferreira had been produced in a Pune city court, while the Supreme Court was hearing the petition demanding stay of their arrest. The prosecution’s claims are important to recall. Part of the barrage of verbal accusations made against the activists was that they were part of a “conspiracy to set up an Anti-Fascist Front to overthrow the government”. This claim, too, was made without any substantial evidence. If there is a fascist government in Maharashtra or the country, should there not be a concerted effort to vote it out?

Even the ludicrous claim of a plot to assassinate Modi needs to be checked. This claim had first surfaced when Ishrat Jahan was killed in a police encounter in June 2004. Modi was then the chief minister of Gujarat. During the Gujarat assembly poll campaign in January, Modi too made a garbled reference to such a plot when he accused his predecessor, Dr Manmohan Singh, former Vice President Hamid Ansari and others of “conspiring with Pakistan” to get rid of him. Finance Minister Arun Jaitley later offered a half-apology for this accusation. And it is being raised now weeks after an opinion poll predicted a rout for the BJP in poll-bound Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan and a steady decline in Modi’s popularity.

A top court bench of Chief Justice Dipak Misra (left), and Justices AM Khanwilkar and DY Chandrachud (far left) upheld the importance of dissent in politics and society/Photo: Anil Shakya
A top court bench of Chief Justice Dipak Misra (left), and Justices AM Khanwilkar and DY Chandrachud (far left) upheld the importance of dissent in politics and society/Photo: Anil Shakya

While the State is unleashing terror on advocates of civil liberties, it is allowing a free run to Hindutva-propagating lynch mobs, social media trolls and extremist fringe outfits, a majority of whom swear allegiance to the RSS/ BJP or Modi.

Predictably, there has been a political backlash over this State-sponsored despotism against NGOs and public intellectuals. Congress President Rahul Gandhi, CPI­(M) General Secretary Sitaram Yechury, Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and other opposition leaders have united in their criticism of the arrests.

Celebrated Man Booker Prize winning author Arundhati Roy pithily summed up the situation: “That the raids are taking place on the homes of lawyers, poets, writers, Dalit rights activists and intellectuals instead of on those who make up lynch mobs and murder people in broad daylight tells us very clearly where India is headed. Murderers will be honoured and celebrated. Anybody who speaks up for justice or against Hindu majoritarianism is being made into a criminal.”

Senior advocate Indira Jaising asserted that the country had “gone past that stage (of Emergency)”, adding “one day there will be no one to defend the rule of law; one day there will be no rule of law to defend”.

Eminent jurists, too, have expressed serious concern over the prevailing witch-hunt to taint and silence those who raise uncomfortable questions against the BJP and its governments. Former Chief Justice of India RM Lodha has dubbed the arrests “an attempt to suppress the dissenting voice and an act to undermine the fundamentals of Constitutional democracy”. Former Supreme Court judge Justice PB Sawant who was among the organisers of the Elgar Parishad event told India Legal: “The police are alleging that the arrested activists are involved with the Naxalites and were part of the team that organised the Elgar Parishad conference. This is a lie. I was one of the organisers, along with Justice Kolse Patil (retired). I have never met these activists to discuss or plan Elgar Parishad events. It is evident that anyone fighting for the cause of the Dalits and tribals, as well as these oppressed communities at large, is being sought to be painted as anti-national. The police are doing this at the behest of the political masters.”

That Modi and the BJP despise public intellectuals and NGOs working with these oppressed communities and religious minorities is a well-known fact. With a slew of assembly elections scheduled for later this year, leading up to the big battle for the Lok Sabha in 2019, the plot to discredit these individuals as traitors is in full spate. As Teltumbde, one of the activists whose residence in Goa was raided in his absence, says: “I have been critical of the policies of the government and I have done so with scholastic discipline. I have also written books in which I have criticised the Maoists for their reliance on violence as a means to achieving their goals. Yet, today, I find myself being dubbed an Urban Naxal.”

So while the Supreme Court termed dissent as the “safety valve of democracy”, the Modi government views opinion not in consonance with its policies and politics as seditious. Perhaps it would bode well for the prime minister to read the Law Commission paper on sedition that came out days after the national outcry against the activists’ arrests. The panel’s paper on the sedition law expressly states: “In a democracy, singing from the same book is not a benchmark of patriotism. People should be at liberty to show their affection towards their country in their own way… Expressions used in such thoughts might be harsh and unpleasant to some but that does not render the actions to be branded seditious… Right to criticise one’s history and the right to ‘offend’ are rights protected under free speech.”