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Be Mindful Of The Safety Valve!

Be Mindful Of The Safety Valve!

It is a bazaar song. Many are wondering whether the Indira of the emergency era has taken a second avatar (reincarnation) bringing India under the footstool of an undeclared emergency. The way matters are shaping up under the present political dispensation and the nationwide reaction/agitation against the recent multicity police raids and arrests of human rights activists tend to make many concerned citizens wonder where these things will lead to.

The arrests of well-known rights activists and intellectuals in many parts of India on August 28 have sent shock waves into the minds of sensible citizens. Seventy-eight year old Varavara Rao, noted poet from Hyderabad,  civil rights lawyer like Sudha Bharadwaj ( trade unionist and civil rights activist against land acquisition) from Faridabad,  Mumbai-based social activist Vernon Gonzalves, and Gautam Navalkha, civil liberties activist  among others have fallen victim to the draconian UAPA law.   They have been implicated in an alleged conspiracy to assassinate India’s Prime Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi. The ‘plot’ is in the background of the violence erupted at Bhima Koregaon and in other parts of Maharashtra between Dalits and upper caste Maratha people last January. It has been reported that surprisingly the kingpins of the violence and named in the FIR have not been arrested but the defence lawyers of the accused victims from the Dalit community are facing the fury of the state.

Even 82 year old catholic Jesuit priest Stan Swami in Jharkhand was treated with a morning 6 am raid on August 28 at his residence in Jharkhand’s capital Ranchi by a combined contingent of Maharashtra-Jharkhand police.   Stan, as he is commonly known, asserts that he does not have even a remote connection either to the Bhima Koregaon incident or to the assassination plot. His only ‘fault’ is that he has been highlighting the fundamental and human rights cause of the adivasis in Jharkhand.  Former director of Indian Social Institute, Bangalore, Stan has been active in Jharkhand for two decades ever since he left Bangalore.  As a strong advocate of the Forest Rights Act, Panchayat Extension in Scheduled Area Act (PESA), and related laws, Stan was earlier booked under the draconian sedition law for supporting a movement called ‘Pathalgadi’ among the Adivasis of Jharkhand.

Pathalgadi as a movement advocates erecting stone plaques to highlight the Constitutionally granted Gram Sabha rules and the rights of the village communities. Since the BJP government in Jharkhand has not implemented the Panchayat Raj Act, it took strong exception to the Pathalgadi movement. The stone plaques also highlighted that, as per Gram Sabha provisions, no outsiders can enter the village area unless with the express permission of the Gram Sabha. That restriction is meant also for the personnel of the administration. The highlighting of this particular clause was meant as a security measure to prevent land sharks and encroachers from walking away with adivasi land for mines and quarries, for business and estate building. Since Jharkhand government is on a development spree and has made many MOUs with Business concerns, it sees that such a Pathalgadi movement or proper functioning of the Gram Sabha is road- blocking its development plans. Hence, it contemplated sinister action by clamping sedition law (Desh droh) on Stan and 19 others in Jharkhand.

So, the August 28 raid at Stan’s residence cum social institute comes just a few weeks after he and 19 others, including activists, journalists, and intellectuals, were booked under sedition law by BJP Raghubar Das government. The police then had cited their Facebook posts as evidence for their role in Pathalgadi movement. Among other sections, they have been booked under 66A of the defunct Information Technology Act 2000 which was repealed by the Supreme Court in 2015.

Father Stan described police raids on his residence and eight other activists as part of a state attempt to intimidate and silence those working for the rights of poor and marginalized people. ‘All the activists targeted in this multi-city operation have been tirelessly involved in fighting for the rights of the poorest marginalized sections of society against serious state violations and unscrupulous corporate,’ said 82-year-old Father Swamy (UCAN).

Briefing the media, the police said that the raids were linked to a public meeting held in Pune city on Dec. 31, 2017, before violent clashes occurred between Dalits and higher-caste Maratha people in the Bhima Koregaon area and several other parts of Maharashtra in early January. Stan sees the attempt as trying to implicate him in an incident in faraway Pune where he was not present at the meeting. The police claim to be ferreting out evidences of ‘a plot to assassinate the Prime Minister’ involving a Maoist conspiracy and linking it with those arrested. ‘Why should I plot to kill the prime minister? Let the prime minister be hale and hearty and this is my prayer,’ said Stan.

The church authorities in Jharkhand feel that the raids and arrests are part of a conspiracy to derail democracy and genuine dissent. It feels the action on Father Stan is a concerted attempt to muzzle the church to silence in the face of crucial issues faced by the adivasi community. Speaking up or lending voice to the voiceless and expressing dissent in a democracy are important in the process of genuine progress of people. In this context, the church sees the apex court’s observation as a timely warning. In a packed court room, the bench, comprising Justices A M Khanwilkar and D Y Chandrachud, observed in connection with the arrest of five human rights activists: ‘Dissent is the safety valve of democracy and if you don’t allow these safety valves, they will burst.’

Shocked by the serial raids across the country on the homes of activists and public intellectuals, Jharkhand’s civil society condemned the nationwide raids and arrests in a public statement. The signatories, comprising people’s organisations, rights groups, concerned citizens, film makers, academics, women’s groups, social workers, journalists and others, called for ‘immediate release of the arrested individuals and dropping of all charges against them, as these arrests and raids are politically motivated and unjustified.’ They see these raids and arrests as ‘part of the government’s growing attempts to stifle dissent and intimidate those who are fighting for justice. This is also an attempt by BJP to invent a false enemy and engage in scaremongering in order to polarise the 2019 elections in its favour.’ (Statement of Jharkhand’s civil society)

Noted historian Ramchandra Guha described the crackdown on rights activists ‘absolutely chilling.’ He called on the Supreme Court ‘to intervene to stop this persecution and harassment of independent voices.’ Shekhar Gupta, editor of the Print, was quoted as describing it as similar to McCarthy’s reign of terror in the US ‘in which he exploited the public’s fear of Communism. Gupta states: ‘You can’t call people you disagree with and lock them up.’

In a joint statement Amnesty International and Oxfam India condemned the arrests and said the crackdown was ‘disturbing and threatening core human rights and values.’ Prashant Bhushan, noted civil rights lawyer representing the activists, described them as activists defending rights causes for the past 25years.

The reverberations of shock and mounting anger at the government’s crackdown are getting louder and sharp all over India with condemnatory statements, social messages and trolls on the increase.  The government, if it believes in genuine democracy, should respect voices of dissent and should be ready to listen before thinking of taking the hammer to crush dissenters as if they are flies. Above all, it would do well to heed the timely warning of the Supreme Court on the right to dissent as a safety valve in a democracy. One only wishes that the Indian nation does not dissent into the quagmire of an internal emergency.

(Published on 03rd September 2018, Volume XXX, Issue 36)