In what is being termed as an “emergency” the raids and detentions of activists accused of being “urban naxals” or having alleged Maoist links, have opened the debate on freedom of speech and the limits of the state. Raids were conducted in Delhi, Faridabad, Goa, Mumbai, Thane, Pune, Ranchi and Hyderabad leading to raids and/or arrests of lawyer Sudha Bharadwaj, activist Varavara Rao, Gautam Navlakha, Arun Pereira and Venon Gonsalves, father Stan Swamy, Kranti, and Anand Teltumbde. Laptops, pen-drives and documents were seized from their homes. The raids and arrests were conducted as part of Pune police’s investigations into Bhima Koregaon violence. The recent arrests have been preceded by arrests and raids of houses and offices of Rona Wilson, Sudhir Dhawale, Syrendra Gadling in April and arrests of Wilson, Dhawale, Gadling, Shoma Sen and Mahesh Raut in June.
Dalits, every year celebrate the 1818 victory of the lower caste Mahar soldiers in the British army over Brahmin led Maratha Empire. Last year on 31st December 2017 on the 200th anniversary of the battle, non-profit organisations had an event called Elgar Parishad that saw several prominent Dalit activists and politicians speaking. The event was followed by violence between Dalit and Maratha groups. Police filed cases on Milind Ekbote, head of the Hindu Ekta Manch, and Sambhaji Bhide, chief of the Shiv Pratishthan Hindustan, but former was released on bail and the latter was not even arrested. FIRs were also filed against speakers at the event for allegedly making ‘provocative’ speeches. The raids carried were part of the same probe.
The massive public outcry has followed these arbitrary raids and arrests. Several politicians, activists, and academics condemning this issued a joint statement. They attacked the BJP for creating a “false enemy” and engaging in scaremongering to polarise the upcoming Lok Sabha elections. They also stated that this was an attempt to divert attention from Sanatan Sanstha that was responsible for serial bomb attacks on Eid and Ganesh Chaturthi and had involvement in the murder of Gauri Lankesh.
Congress President Rahul Gandhi condemned this in a tweet stating, “There is only place for one NGO in India and it’s called the RSS. Shut down all other NGOs. Jail all activists and shoot those that complain. Welcome to the new India. #BhimaKoregaon”.
CPI(ML) leader Kavita Krishnan also termed the arrests fascist and CPI(ML) issued a statement saying, “Under the Modi regime’s undeclared Emergency, rights activists and dissenters are either shot at, killed, or raided, arrested and jailed.” Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader Prakash Karat called the raids “a brazen attack on democratic rights”.
These arrests have been condemned by international organisations. Oxfam CEO Amitabh Behar said, “These arrests cannot become the order of the day. The government should protect people’s rights to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly instead of creating an atmosphere of fear.” Aakar Patel, executive director of Amnesty International said, “Today’s arrests is the second of such crackdowns on rights activists, advocates and journalists who have been critical of the state. All these people have a history of working to protect the rights of some of India’s most poor and marginalised people. Their arrests raise disturbing questions about whether they are being targeted for their activism.”
Writer Arundhati Roy declared, “It is as close to a declaration of an Emergency as will ever get” and added, “The simultaneous state-wide arrests are a dangerous sign of a government that fears it is losing its mandate and is falling into a 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…” Many have also pointed out that the main culprits Bhide and Ekbote are actually roaming scot-free. Ramchandra Guha pointed out, “This is absolutely chilling. This is being done not only to 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…” Lawyer Prashant Bhushan also said, “This is totally fascist. It is an attempt to silence dissent and intimidate activists. These activists are well-known for their work on issues of public interest.”
The term ‘urban naxal’ is itself disingenuous and dangerous. Naxalism was a movement rooted in the context of peasant oppression and subsequent revolt. While this term, coined by an unsuccessful filmmaker Agnihotri, encompasses urban intellectuals and influencers who he terms as “the invisible enemies of India”. The fact that intellectuals are seen as threats points to the intellectual bankruptcy of the state, but on a more serious level, the term encompasses any dissent, difference of opinion, and criticism of the state. The terms ‘tukde tukde gang’ or ‘anti-nationals’ have similarly been used to suppress freedom of expression. The constant ‘othering’ and subsequent criminalising of critique will seriously harm the democracy.
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