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Panic Response

Panic Response

If the motive of the police of Maharashtra, Delhi, Haryana and Telangana, controlled by the BJP or its allies, was to totally silence the silent majority, it succeeded. The nation-wide protest on the arrest of five senior human rights activists came from the usual suspects, their colleagues in India’s vibrant but not very large civil society, and from leaders of Opposition political parties.   The rest, among them religious heads, senior celebrities in arts and sports, are silent. The middle-class watches with grim fascination, wondering who will be next, knowing it could well be them, but too scared to come out on to the streets. The Supreme Court gives a week’s breathing space, but it may not be enough.

By way of a declaration, I must admit I know several, but not all, of the persons arrested by the police in this August crackdown. Some are friends, and some I correspond with on email, occasionally, as part of the loosely knit band of human rights defenders across the country. Among them are lawyers, doctors, teachers, journalists, Marxist atheists, religious people, and men and women so non-descript many had not heard of them outside their own circles till the police struck.

A captive media gloated it had brought to its knees the fragile coalition of the conscience and voice of democracy which opposes Mr Narendra Modi’s dictatorial governance, and his Sangh Parivar’s hysteric and murderous acts. They have not, of course, but the action has stunned the nation, shocked most people into silence.

It is a moot question if this will, in the immediate future, provide just that spark which is needed to knit together the fissiparous and ideologically contradictory parties and bring their egoistical and usually short-sighted leaders into acting in concert to challenge Prime Minister Modi. If they do it, it could force the hand of Mr Modi, who has failed to deliver on the social, economic and development promises of his campaign and now banks entirely on the polarising ability of the Sangh Parivar for his re-election for a second term. Would he dare wait till the last moment to declare elections and risk losing to a united Opposition, whether with Mr Rahul Gandhi as its figurehead, or will he hasten the poll to perhaps this winter, hoping it catches his challengers still disunited, their flanks open to his counter attacks, and the buying power of his friends in the corporate sector?

That answer is still not blowing in the wind.

The story of the crackdown is to some reminiscent of a night back in June 1975 when Indira Gandhi arrested senior leaders of the Opposition and some of her own party men while declaring an Emergency that suspended the constitution and human rights.   

Mr Modi has not dared go so far. The Opposition is not touched. The Constitution is still as it was when he took over. The Supreme Court has waxed and waned. It in effect exonerated his party chief Amit Shah who had risked being roped in as an accused in a murder, but for the fortuitous and suspicious death of the trial judge, Mr Loya. The Loya Case, as it has come to be known, precipitated a revolt in the Apex court, but chief justice Deepak Misra stood his ground.

Younger judges have later sent signals that are reassuring. Among them is the ruling on the arrests of the five civil society activists arrested this week. Gautam Navalakha, Sudha Bharadwaj, Varavara Rao, Arun Ferreira and Vernon Gonsalves were taken into custody by the police of four states which insinuated these five were part of a plot to assassinate the prime minister. The media said the plot was disclosed in computer data seized in raids on people earlier arrested on charges of egging Dalits to violence in Maharashtra’s Bhima Koregaon in January this year during a celebration of a 200-year-old Dalit victory over an upper army.

Acting on an application by the eminent historian Romila Thapar of JNU and others, the court said the arrests were to quell dissent, which would create a pressure cooker situation. It left the rest to the imagination, but ordered the police to just keep the five in house custody. It also issued notices to the Union government, the Maharashtra police and the special cell that arrested them, setting the next hearing for September 6.

The story is best told through a man who was raided but not arrested. This is 81-year-old Stan Swamy, a Jesuit of the Jharkhand. Stan now suffers from Parkinson’s, but has worked for several decades with the tribals and others who have become victims in the mad development rush that has impoverished both the land and the people in central India. Stan says the police barged in waving a paper written in Marathi, a language he does not know, and started searching his house, offices, books and computers. He has nothing to do with the Koregaon incident.

But he is a thorn in the sides of the state governments and the mining tycoons. He has exposed government claims on the anti-Naxalite operations in a report that nearly 98 percent of the 3,000-odd tribal youth who the government had thrown in Jharkhand's jails without trial had never been part of the Maoist movement. Swamy’s NGO, Bagaicha has worked to get the Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Areas (PESA) Act implemented. This in turn triggered the Pathalgadi movement in which the tribals have asserted their right to self-governance of their areasin the districts of Khanty, Simdega, Seraikela and Gumla. Father Swamy had sedition charges slapped against him in July. Stan also stands in the way of Chief Minister Raghubar Das and the BJP’s efforts to check the church’s specially the Jesuits who have been instrumental in the massive educational effort in the tribal region over much of a century. Swamy moved to the Chaibasa in the 1970s, and in 1996 helped the Jharkhandi Organisation Against Radiation (JOAR) campaign against the Uranium Corporation of India Limited's (UCIL) Jadugoda.

Journalists reporting on the region record the impact of his investigation of the plight of tribal youth arrested on charges of Maoist activities. His book Jail Mein Band Qaidiyon ka Sach, the truth of the men in jail, exposed the inequity in the justice delivery system for the poor trapped in draconian laws.

This makes him an anti-national in the eyes of the government. His old age, his health condition and perhaps a reluctance to touch a respected priest – two others have a Christian background but were arrested – may have saved Stan from arrest, at least this once.

Romila Thapar in a public interest litigation questioned the arrests, seeking an independent investigation into the case. Thapar, Prabhat Patnaik, Satish Deshpande, highly respected names in academia together with Devaki Jain and activist lawyer Maja Daruwala, the daughter of the late 1971 war hero Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw, the petition is being filed to sub serve larger public interests and to prevent stifling of honest dissent to protect democratic values and the democracy.

“This petition seeks to bring on record the gross abuse of police power in the country which is intended to stifle if not kill independent voices and a differing ideology from the party in power. The impugned action of the Pune Police is the biggest attack on freedom and liberty of citizens by resorting to high handed powers without credible material and evidence. The entire exercise is to silence dissent, stop people from helping the downtrodden and marginalised people across the Nation and to instil fear in minds of people. The timing of this action leaves much to be desired and appears to be motivated to deflect people’s attention from real issues.”

Prashant Bhushan, their lawyer, said they were moving the Supreme Court not to stop investigation into allegations but to ensure independent and credible investigation by such persons as may be deemed fit under supervision of the court. “Anything short of this will damage the fabric of nation irreparably.”

Bhushan said the fabricated charges under various provisions of the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) and the Indian Penal Code, in which their houses and offices were raided on the 28th of August 2018 were “indiscriminate, unwarranted, part of a malicious campaign to threaten human rights defenders, independent journalists, writers and thinkers in this country, from critiquing the government and its policies and an attempt to muzzle dissent.”

Bhushan noted that activists who have been arrested are pro-democracy workers who have been leading peaceful people’s rights based movements especially among the poor and marginalised communities, Dalits and Adivasis, for several years, in different parts of the country. The use of the UAPA meant for exceptional and violent activity, against such persons, when there has been absolutely no evidence of any acts of violence by these activists is deeply disconcerting and calls for an urgent intervention by this Hon’ble Court.

I quote from the Petition’s description of the five arrested activists. It sums up their work, and their persona as Wikipedia and the police do not.

Gautam Navalakha (Human Rights activist and journalist New Delhi): He was the President of the People’s Union for Democratic Rights and has been has been associated with the Economic and Political Weekly. He is a known commentator on current affairs. The state relied upon him to negotiate the safe return of persons abducted by left wing extremists in Chhattisgarh.

Sudha Bharadwaj (Advocate, Bilaspur High Court, currently residing in Faridabad): Prominent cause lawyer of Bilaspur High Court who has represented workers, poor and marginal farmers and others in Chhattisgarh. She is the national general secretary of PUCL and since 2017 been teaching at the National Law University, Delhi. As a member of the Indian Association of People’s lawyers, Bharadwaj was vocal against the arrest of lawyers like Surendra Gadling in recent times. Bharadwaj has been a member of committees and provided legal aid and is a recognised human rights defender.

Varavara Rao (Age 79, based in Hyderabad, political worker, commentator and renowned poet): He was a professor of English and Telegu literature.

Arun Ferreira (Mumbai): Practising as a lawyer since 2015 and a Human Rights activist

Vernon Gonsalves (Mumbai): Gold medalists from Bombay University in Commerce, accounts officer at Siemens, then lecturer of accounts in Maharashtra College, writer and columnist. His translation of Annaba Sathe’s Gold from the Grave from Marathi to English is published in David Davidar’s “A Clutch of Indian masterpieces”.

Apart from Fr. Stan Swamy, other activists raided were Prof Anand Teltumbde, intellectual and writer based in Goa and Susan Abraham, civil liberties lawyer and part of the Committee for Protection of Democratic Rights, Mumbai.

The Pune police registered an FIR about the Bhima Koregaon violence that broke out after the Elgar Parishad conclave of Dalits and Dalit activists to mark the 200th anniversary of the Koregaon. Justice P.B. Sawant, former Judge of the Supreme Court of India, and Justice Kolse Patel, former Judge of the Bombay High Court, were the organisers of the Elgar Parisad.

The police initially filed FIRs on 4th January 2018, against Hindutva leaders Milind Ekbote and Shambhaji Rao Bhide, based on eye witness accounts that they and fringe groups had incited the violence against the Dalit congregation.

“The State government and police have not taken purposeful and decisive action against right wing leaders Bhide and Ekbote, who were behind the Koregaon-Bhima violence and instigated the attacks. The Police instead swooped on  Prof Shoma Sen from Nagpur University, Surendra Gadling, well known human rights lawyer who has been defending Prof G. N. Saibaba, Sudhir Dhawale, editor of a magazine, Rona Wilson, member of the Committee for the Protection of Political Prisoners and Mahesh Raut, anti-displacement activist, were arrested, under sections of the Indian Penal Code and the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act allegedly for inciting violence and communal enmity,” the writ by Romila Thapar said.

After they were arrested, some media organisations claimed that a letter was found on activist Rona Wilson’s computer addressed to a “Comrade Prakash” and signed by “R”, which apparently talked of “senior comrades” proposing concrete steps to end the Modi-era and a “Rajiv Gandhi-type” incident being planned to assassinate the Prime Minster.

“There has been a systematic strategy deployed by the police investigating the Bhima Koregaon violence to put out highly provocative but completely unsubstantiated, unverified and unproven allegations through select media channels to prejudice the public opinion against those arrested. Justice Kolse Patil, retired Judge of the Bombay High Court, and Justice P.B. Sawant, retired Judge of the Supreme Court, who were organisers of the Elgar Parishad, condemned this letter which was never produced as evidence in Court, as fake. They claimed that the government saw a threat in the Elgar Parishad as it mobilised people to raise their voice against the establishment and resist communal forces,” Bhushan added.

An odious spin off the entire episode is the creation of the term “Urban Naxal”, fathered by part time film maker Vivek Agnihotri in a book, and backed by the Republic TV channel.

Senior Mumbai-based journalist Jyoti Punwani writing in the Media site The Hoot, said, “Republic proudly linked the raids on the homes of human rights activists and lawyers across the country, and the arrests of five of them, to the channel’s “hard work”, its “exposes” of two letters in June and July. The first letter it alleged, had talked about a plot to assassinate the PM and the second, had contained a request for foreign funds. Anchor owner Arnab Goswami called the five “urban Naxals”, compared them to Osama bin Laden, spoke of a link between “Maoists, Kashmir, the arms lobby”, all this with the headline  #India Vs Maoists. “India is relieved,” he declared, that these people had been arrested. 

“Fake activists and fake intellectuals”, the “human rights club”, had “ganged up” to support these Urban Naxals, said Goswami. These Urban Naxals carried “jholas and travelled club class” and they supported Maoists who were no different from terrorists such as the Jaish e Mohammed, the Islamic state, HUJI.  “We are taking them on, you should too,” Goswami told his viewers. 

That, some fear, has made vigilantes out of many of his viewers. The hate campaign is at its peak.

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