Radical social movements, for instance, are seen initially as disputers of public order and later as a threat to state security.’
~ K G Kannabiran
After almost 14 hours since the ordeal began on the morning of August 28, the Punjab and Haryana High Court passed an order directing the competent court to ensure compliance with the law prior to granting transit remand. “Till then, the detenue, Sudha Bharadwaj shall be kept at the same place[her home]… under the supervision of Police Station Surajkund,” the high court said. However, before the HC order could “reach” the police, they whisked Bharadwaj away by showing Chief Judicial Magistrate’s (CJM) order stating — “transit remand granted” — from the company of her lawyers and friends who tried their best to inform the police about the HC order,but in vain.
For two and a half hours, Bharadwaj’s lawyers and friends did not know her whereabouts. It was only at around 10:30 in the night that she was produced outside the CJM’s house in Faridabad. Later, it was ascertained by Bharadwaj that Maharashtra Police was driving her towards Palam airport. At around 1 am that night, the Faridabad CJM said: “The matter is subjudiced before the Hon’ble High Court and it will be prudent to wait for the orders of the Hon’ble High court…the transit remand issued in the earlier hours at 7:40 pm is recalled till 30/8/2018 with direction to the SHO Surajkund to keep the detenue Sudha Bharadwaj at her home in Badarpur.”
On the same day, in an urgent habeas corpus petition was filed in the Delhi High Court against the arrest of writer and activist Gautam Navlakha. The High Court stayed the transfer till the next day when the matter came to be heard by a bench of Justices S Muralidhar and Vinod Goel. Justice Muralidhar chided the police officers on the procedural flaws.
How the clampdown began
Varavara Rao, Vernon Gonsalves, Arun Ferreira, Sudha Bharadwaj and Gautam Navlakha (from left to right)
During the early hours of August 28, simultaneous raids were conducted in the houses of prominent civil rights activists, lawyers and journalists— including Advocate Sudha Bharadwaj (national secretary, People’s Union for Civil Liberties) in Faridabad; Father Stan Swamy (Jesuit priest and rights activist) in Ranchi, Jharkhand; senior writer and poet Varavara Rao, his two daughters Anala and Pavana, The Hindu journalist KV Kumaranath, Professor Satyanarayana (of English and Foreign Languages University), Namaste Telangana journalist Kranthi Tekula — all in Hyderabad; Anand Teltumbde (general secretary, Committee for Protection of Democratic Rights) in Goa; Gautam Navlakha (founder member, People’s Union for Democratic Rights) in Delhi; Advocate Arun Ferreira, writer Vernon Gonsalves and Advocate Susan Abraham in Mumbai. It was conducted by the Pune Police in collaboration with the local police. “There were around nine to ten policemen. They were in plain clothes. One was a woman in uniform. She looked like the local police”, recounts Sudha Bharadwaj’s daughter, Anu. All 11 of them were called “Urban Naxals” by the Pune/Maharashtra Police in various courts of the country.
Five of them —Sudha Bharadwaj, Varavara Rao, Gautam Navlakha, Vernon Gaonsalves and Arun Ferreira— were arrested after the raids. “They searched our houses till 3:30 pm. Until the end they kept reassuring that they are just searching and will not be arresting. They kept asking us to have faith. It was only when they handed the panchnamma at around 4 pm, they asked Arun Ferreira to change his clothes”, recounts a member of his family.
All five were booked under an almost eight-month- old FIR (FIR no. 4/2018) filed in Vishrambagh Police Station, Pune on January 8, 2018.The charges purportedly mentioned in the FIR are Sections 153(A), 505 (1)(b), 117 and 34 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), which in March 2018 was made into a “conspiracy case” and sections of the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) were attached to it. On January 2, 2018, before the FIR on which the above activists are arrested, another FIR (FIR no. 2/2018) was filed against Samabhji Bhide, leader of Shiv Pratishthan Hindustan, and Milind Ekbote of Hindu Ekta Aghadi. These FIRs were filed in the wake of the incitement to violence leaving one dead on January 1, 2018 in Bhima-Koregaon, a town close to Pune, in Maharashtra, and the widespread protests across Maharashtra that followed it.
Mahesh Raut, Rona Wilson, Surendra Gadling, Shoma Sen and Sudhir Dhawale (left to right)
These are not the first round of arrests. On June 6, 2018, five others were arrested under the same FIR (4/2018) — which included Sudhir Dhawale,the editor of the progressive Marathi magazine Vidrohi and one of the organiser of the Bhima-Koregaon Shaurya Din Prerna Abhiyan; Shoma Sen, the then head of the Department of English, Nagpur University; Advocate Surendra Gadling, general secretary, Indian Association of People’s Lawyers; Mahesh Raut, anti-displacement activist from Bharat Jan Andolan and a former fellow at the Prime Minister’s Rural Development (PMRD); and Rona Wilson, public relations secretary, Committee for the Release of Political Prisoners. The planned raids and subsequent arrest of June 6 were similar to the ones in August 28.
The first round of reaction against the FIR filed against organisers occurred in the month of April. In the wee hours of morning of April 17, 2018, Pune Police conducted simultaneous searches at the homes of activists — namely Sudhir Dhawale (Dalit activist, Republican Panthers), Harshali Potdar (women’s rights activist, Republican Panthers), Ramesh Gaychor, Jyoti Jagtap, Sagar Gorkhe, Rupali Jadhav and Dhawala Dhengle (all Kabir Kala Manch activists). Two searches carried out of the FIR were – Advocate Surendra Gadling and Rona Wilson.
The politics of Bhima-Koregaon
Obelisk in Bhima Koregoan
Every year, thousands of people gather on January 1 in Bhima-Koregaon to commemorate a 200-year-old obelisk. The obelisk was made to commemorate the victory of the Mahar regiment of the British army against the brutal Brahmin Peshwas’ rule in 1818. Ever since Dr BR Ambedkar visited the obelisk in 1927, it became a site of self-assertion for the Dalits across the country.
The criticism of this commemoration says that the Bhima-Koregaon obelisk is a victory of the British who were using the Dalits as cannon-fodder against the Peshwas, as argued by Anand Teltumbde, who incidentally happens to be one of the many whose house was raided on August 28. Teltumbde writes, “Many Dalit organisations recently formed a joint front to observe the 200th anniversary of this battle as a campaign to launch an attack on the new Peshwai, the rising Brahmanic rule of the Hindutva forces. Their long marches culminated into an Elgar Parishad (conference) at the Shaniwarwada at Pune on December 31. While the resolve to fight the Hindutva forces is certainly laudable, the myth used for the purpose may be grossly counterproductive insofar as it reinforces identitarian tendencies whereas the necessity is to transcend them.” Ironically, he is being persecuted for being an organizer of the rally.
However, symbols attain meaning over period of time and become a signifier of assertion and aspiration. Celebrating January 1 as “Vijay/Shaurya Diwas”, as Bezwada Wilson of Safai Karamchari Andolan says, “is our right. It is our victory. We will celebrate Bhima Koregaon”.
Bezwada Wilson of safai karamchari andolan
We will celebrate #BhimaKoregaon. It is our victory. Whole india should celeberate it.
— The Leaflet (@TheLeaflet_in) August 30, 2018
Elgaar Parishad |Bhima Koregaon Shaurya Din Prerna Abhiyan
To celebrate 200 years of the defeat of Peshwas, many Dalit organisations, under the leadership of former judge of Supreme Court P B Sawant and Justice Kolse Patil, came together to form Bhima Koregaon Shaurya Din Prerna Abhiyan on the eve of December 31, 2017. They organised an “Elgaar Parishad’ in Shaniwarada, once the seat of Peshwai power, to protest against Nava Peshwai — the neo-Brahminism and Hindutva fascism emerging today. The key speakers included the leader of Bharipa Bahujan Mahasangh and grandson of Dr B R Ambedkar, Prakash Ambedkar; Radhika Vemula, mother of the deceased Dalit scholar Rohit Vemula; JNU student Umar Khalid, as well as Jignesh Mewani, independent MLA from Gujarat. On January 1, those commemorating the events were allegedly attacked by right-wing forces carrying saffron flags. The mob was allegedly incited by Sambhaji Bhide and Milind Ekbote against whom the first FIR was filed. Protests against the attack were felt across the state leading to a Maharashtra bandh call on January 3 by Prakash Ambedkar. It was supported by sections of the Maratha and Muslim community in Maharashtra. The bandh was successful. After the bandh, thousands of youth from Dalit slums were picked up by the police.
Elgaar Parishad | Photo Credit: Sakal Times
As thousands were arrested, later to be freed on bail, for asserting their aspirations, the two right-wing leaders till day were hardly touched by the police. Ekbote was arrested only to be released on bail, whereas Bhide still has not been taken into custody. Their allegiance to the Sangh Parivar is no secret. Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his 2014 election campaign went to Sangli to seek his “Guruji” Bhide’s “blessings”.
Before Bhima-Koregaon, the long oppression
The widespread arrest of young Dalit boys and the reluctance in arresting the right-wing leaders reveal the Brahminical and fascist tendencies of the BJP-ruled dispensation in power now in the Centre. The moment Dalits begin to assert their identity, demand their rights, the Brahminical State leaves no stone unturned to suppress it.
Rohith Vemula Protest, Parliament Street | Photo Credit: Indian Express
The crackdown by the State after the Bhima-Koregoan incident cannot be seen in isolation. The mass protest against the institutional murder of Rohith Vemula in January 2016 had caused a massive nationwide outrage against the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. This was followed by protests in Una in Gujarat, where Dalit youths were flogged in the name of cow protection and in Saharanpur in Uttar Pradesh, where Dalits were beaten up by Thakurs for celebrating Ambedkar jayanti and erecting his statue. Protests across the country erupted in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision diluting Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989. Chandrashekar Azad ‘Ravan’, the leader of Bhim Army, who led the protests in Saharanpur, has been booked under the draconian National Security Act and continues to languish in jail for over a year.
Chandrashekar Azad ‘Ravan’ | Photo Credit: Twitter
In all these cases, thousands of people marched on the streets, shaking the very foundations of the Brahminical Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and challenging its openly fascist ideology of creating a “Hindu Rashtra”. As writer and prominent public intellectual Arundhati Roy says, the recent arrests and the crackdown on activists are visible signs of increasing insecurities among the BJP-led governments in the Centre as well as in Maharashtra over the upcoming elections in 2018 and 2019, and it’s an attempt to “divert and rule”, to quote Roy herself. When the public prosecutor in Pune Sessions Court produced Arun Ferreira, Varavara Rao and Vernon Gonsalves before the judge, he said they were “urban naxals”, part of an “anti-fascist front”, thereby indirectly, and hilariously, admitting to the State being a fascist one.
Una Protest | Photo Credit: NDTV
Not many would dispute that the Adivasis and the Dalits remain the most marginalised sections or our society. Despite affirmative action guaranteed by the Constitution, both these community remain the most neglected citizens of this country. Instead of addressing the neglect, the State is quick to term them as “Maoists”, thereby discrediting any solidarity or assertion campaigns to address the state-sponsored wrongs they have been subjected to for decades. Civil rights lawyer K G Kannabiran says:“The subversion of law begins with the reduction of politics to a crime. After such subversion, the law becomes a pretext for violence. The liquidation of political dissent brings up the troubling erasure of the human rights of political dissenters.”“Maoism” is not seen as politics, requiring a political engagement; rather a law and order problem. The moment “law and order” is evoked, the suspension of human rights and brazen disregard for rule of law is institutionally justified. It is only retrospectively that the damage by the state is scrutinised, if at all.
Role of the judiciary
The starkest assault on Indian democracy was the Emergency. The test to protect democracy was applied to all the institutions including the judiciary. In Advocate Kannabiran’s words: “Increasingly, dissent was put down ruthlessly without the minimum procedure to be followed for the forfeiture of someone’s liberty. It was during the period that Supreme Court was restructured and the Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA) came up for judicial review. The court that had taken adversarial position on the attack on the right to property (Golak Nath v. State of Punjab) did not display the same eagerness when it came to personal liberty. The intellectual rigour displayed by the court in dealing with the property rights was missing when dealing with the right to liberty. The incarceration of a large number of people under preventive detention law was validated.”
Photo Credit: Indian Express
Today, when the provisions of MISA has been substituted by even more draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, the question arises, will the judiciary pass the litmus test? Justice Muralidhar chided the Maharashtra Police for the complete disregard of procedure while arresting Gautam Navlakha when hearing the urgent habeas corpus petition on his case. Supreme Court on August 29 heard an urgent plea filed by the historian Romila Thapar and four others challenging the August 28 arrest of the five eminent human right activists. The bench of the Chief Justice of India, Dipak Misra along with Justices A M Khanwilkar and D Y Chandrachud, heard the plea. During the proceedings, a visibly upset Justice Chandrachud observed:“Dissent is the safety valve of democracy. If you don’t allow dissent, the pressure valve of democracy will burst.” The court in its interim order extended the house arrest of Gautam Navalakha, Sudha Bharadwaj, Varavara Rao, Arun Ferreira and Vernon Gonsalves until further notice.
Needless to say, in both the cases, the courts observed prudence. Chances of the charges standing the test of judicial scrutiny are low. Eventually, the cases may lead to acquittals. However, in these cases, the judicial trial is itself a kind of punishment, lasting for years. Unlike during the emergency, can the judiciary this time be the final sentinel of democracy?
Securitisation of national politics and culling of dissent
Today, the Indian government has created narratives in the fictitious binaries of the “national” and the “anti-national”. The lynch-mob, the killers of rationalists and journalists, those who threaten to burn the Constitution, those inciting communal hatred — are all nationalists, while those bear the brunt of the unequal society and oppose it are the anti- nationals. A media trial — by pliable media houses too uncritical of the government, or directly owned by members of the ruling party— is in full swing to sway public opinion.
To deligitimize protests the state often formulates a vague conspiracy charge incapable of precise definition. That this is nothing but a coordinated witch-hunt is evident with the Maharashtra Police now filing a petition, successfully, before the special judge to extend the magistrate custody remand for 90 more days under UAPA for those arrested on June 6 before filing the charge sheet. The provision evoked for the extension of the magistrate custody is Section 43D of UAPA. The case diary and the eventual charge sheet are/will be the versions that the State wants to perpetuate. To begin with, unlike Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC) under Section 167 which provides for maximum ninety days for an offence “where the investigation relates to an offence punishable with death, imprisonment for life or imprisonment for a term of not less than ten year” and “60 days for any other offence” for the police to file charge-sheet, Section 43 D of UAPA empowers the magistrate to extend the number of days. It effectively becomes a warrant to increase the imprisonment without trial. The special court, needless to say, granted the extension as desired by Maharashtra Police.
At stake, the sanctity of the Constitution
Creating a narrative of the “dreaded Maoists” has been an old ploy to suppress the democratic rights of the marginalised, first of the Adivasis and now the Dalits. The State had justified the brutal acts carried out by the paramilitary organisation Salwa Judum during Operation Green Hunt in Chhattisgarh, wherein thousands of Adivasis, the most marginalized section of the country, were branded as terrorists and hounded — their houses burnt, women raped and men killed. Salwa Judum, an organisation practising an extreme form of violence that was eventually banned, is, however, replicated everyday and normalised through narratives of Maoist insurgency being a “law and order” issue and the “biggest threat to the internal security”.
Senior Advocate Indira Jaising has said: “The rule of law does not collapse just one fine day dramatically like a pack of cards, but is eroded slowly for lack of respect, until one day, there is no rule of law, just the rule of the mob.” What we see today is not a sudden collapse of democracy, but an erosion that has long been in the works, deeming the most marginalised peoples as unworthy of being full-fledged citizens of this country. Just in the last six months , several cases of “encounter” have been reported, sometimes claiming the life of children. All in the name of national security.
It’s time that as citizens we come together to question the violations and corrosion of the foundations of democracy. A friend on Facebook had recently posted: “Let’s us not forget that the burden of democracy is on the Indian state,that declared its sovereignty on the people.” She quoted a conversation between Advocate K G Kannabiran and a judge presiding over the trial of a “Naxal”, as recounted by Kannabiran. When the judge asked him as to why the Naxalites should be given constitutional protection when they do not believe in the Constitution, Kannabiran replied: “It is a test for the Constitution, not for the Naxalites. The Constitution was not selective and did not say that it would not apply to non-believers. It was meant to be universal. We have to decide whether the Indian judiciary can protect the democratic value system proposed by the Constitution — whatever may be the beliefs of the accused.”