Around 6 am on August 28, 2018 police teams in six states — Maharashtra, Delhi, Haryana, Jharkhand, Goa, and Telangana – launched coordinated raids on the private residences of ten activists and lawyers, arresting at least five of them. The target group includes human rights activists, lawyers, and writers, of whom one is a poet, one a former college professor, and another, a priest.
The nationwide raids were spearheaded by the Pune police who have accused the activists of fomenting inter-caste violence in Maharashtra’s Bhima Koregaon earlier in January through seemingly incendiary speeches made at a public meeting close by, one day before the clashes.The public prosecutor, on the other hand, charged them of being “Urban Naxalites” and part of an “anti-Fascist front” who are apparently trying to overthrow the government.
On August 29, the Supreme Court ordered the police to move all the arrested individuals into house arrest till the next hearing, while also observing that “dissent is the safety valve of democracy.” The apex court has also asked the Maharashtra police to explain the searches and arrests.
Understanding the clampdown
In India, clampdowns on human rights activists and dissenting voices are hardly uncommon. The state has routinely used its law-and-order machinery and legislative instruments to restrain and intimidate persistent voices of criticism, activism, and radicalism. In fact, one of the arrested activists, Vernon Gonsalves (also a former college professor), was also arrested in 2007 for alleged links to Maoist groups.
Those working closely with marginalised communities like indigenous tribal groups and Dalits have found themselves particularly targeted — either indicted for “sympathising” with armed resistance groups like the Naxals or directly facilitating militant activities.
But, even by that measure, the nature of the August 28 raids was startling. The highly coordinated and brazen manner in which the police entered the private residences of activists and lawyers across the country is jarringly ill-fit in a democracy. There are disturbing accounts that describe how the police forced the accused to surrender the log-in credentials of their personal digital accounts and laptops.
Even more concerning is the glaring absence of any concrete, well-founded basis for the countrywide “crackdown”, which looked no less like a meticulously-planned counterterrorism operation.
“The entire process was conducted as though I was a dreaded terrorist or a criminal,” wrote senior professor at Goa Institute of Management, Anand Teltumbde, whose Goa house was searched in his absence.
Clearly, this wasn’t low-level police action. Given the multi-state nature of the raids and the requisite inter-force coordination, it is fair to conclude that the clampdown flowed from the highest echelons of the ruling regime. It is also unlikely that the BJP-led Maharashtra government initiated the large-scale police action unilaterally without any approval of (or even direct orders from) the central government. This is further evinced by the post-facto support that the Union Home Ministry has lent to the whole “operation” by the Pune Police.
As the raids unfolded, some media channels reported that the arrests and searches were in relation to an apparent plot to assassinate the prime minister.
This “Rajiv Gandhi-style plot” theory emerged in June after the Pune Police, in a joint raid with the Delhi Police, arrested five Dalit activists for allegedly fuelling violence in Bhima Koregaon, and later recovered an obscure letter of communication between two Maoist underground operatives from one of the seized laptops. The authenticity of the document was later questioned widely by security experts, opposition figures, and activists.
Contrary to claims in the mainstream media, however, the panchnamas (witness records) and search warrants from the August 28 raids only mention the Bhima Koregaon violence, and not any “assassination plot”. More disconcertingly, there seems to be a mismatch between the police’s warrants and prosecution’s charges in court — the latter carries no mention of the Bhima Koregaon violence or the Elgar Parishad meeting a day before, but only focuses on the accused being linked to Maoist organisations and an all-India “anti-fascist” front.
The fact that the establishment media decided to jump the gun and attribute a crime to the accused without a shred of verified evidence is reflective of the broader witch-hunt against political opponents and dissenters that is underway. Further, why is there a mismatch between the search/arrest warrants and the prosecution’s charges? Are the accused being deliberately framed for serious terror-related charges despite lack of corresponding evidence?
It remains unclear as to how exactly the accused incited violence in Bhima Koregaon, what speeches qualify as “incendiary”, what “terror tactics” were employed, and whether there was clear intent to trigger unrest. In fact, Gonsalves wasn’t even present at the Elgar Parishad meeting that eventually became the main subject of police investigations. It also remains unclear whether the organisers of the meeting had any direct links to Maoist groups or any other terrorist entity for that matter, despite what the prosecution has vehemently argued.
What more, the Pune Police had already flagged local Hindutva leader and former BJP corporator, Milind Ekbote, as the prime suspect behind the violence and even arrested him in March (he was given bail one month later). Another local Hindutva leader, former Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) worker, and founder of an organisation called Shiv Pratisthan, Sambhaji Bhide, too, was identified as a prime suspect alongside Ekbote.
Both Ekbote and Bhide were widely accused by the organisers of the annual Dalit commemorative march, most prominently Dr BR Ambedkar’s grandson Prakash Ambedkar, of inciting the violent clashes in Bhima Koregaon. However, one Tushar Damgude filed an FIR against some Dalit activists after the violence, which led to the June arrests in Mumbai, Nagpur, and Delhi. Not surprisingly, Damgude turned out to be a devout disciple of Bhide.
Damgude’s FIR, however, didn’t name the ten individuals targeted by the Pune Police on August 28. What then triggered a fresh line of investigation into other pro-Dalit activists, especially given that members from the Hindutva camp were already identified as the key rabble rousers? Where is the prerequisite administrative-legal legitimacy behind such large-scale police action?
To answer these, one has to look to the legislative instrument used to initiate action on August 28, the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, or UAPA.
Legal premise of UAPA
The UAPA, introduced in 1967, imposes “reasonable restrictions” on fundamental freedoms enshrined in the Constitution with the intent of preserving India’s integrity and sovereignty. However, like similar legislations in many other countries, the UAPA eventually turned out to be a draconian legal instrument for the state to use at whim to shut down dissenting voices in the name of countering terrorism and organised crime.
Legal experts have argued at length how the UAPA employs slippery concepts — like “disclaiming” or “questioning” the territorial integrity of India, and fomenting “disaffection” against the country — to indict individuals. It further contains definitionally vague and deliberately undefined concepts like “membership” (of an “unlawful organisation”).
The police have routinely used these broad provisions to arrest those of whom they deem as “sympathisers” of militant groups. From possession of ‘Maoist literature’ to extended association, a broad swathe of pretexts have been employed to imprison individuals under the UAPA. Such loosely-grounded provisions allowing punitive action for thought-crimes has revealed the deeply problematic nature of the entire legislation.
This draconian state practice has continued despite a 2011 Supreme Court ruling that narrowed some of the UAPA’s provisions — for example the exact parameters of “membership”. Article 43d(5) of the Act, which prevents courts from granting bail to the accused if the police report (or the state’s version of events) presents prima facie evidence of wrongdoing, has made it easier for the government to keep suspects in jail for long periods of time before the accused get a fair opportunity to defend themselves.
The recent arrests and searches, thus, fall within a legally legitimised paradigm. This makes defending the accused in the court harder than usual. What is more, the fact that the police seized the laptops and personal digital profiles of the accused could be indication of a ploy by the authorities to plant incriminating evidence on the accused to justify the arrests and prosecution under the UAPA.
Following the raids, Prakash Ambedkar, alongside CPI(M) leader Prakash Karat, claimed that the whole affair was a tactic by the BJP-led regime to distract attention from the Sanatan Sanstha — a Hindutva outfit that has not only been linked to the targeted killings of left-wing intellectuals and rationalists, but also to a recently-discovered plot to plant explosives at last year’s Sunburn music festival in Pune.
According to Ambedkar, the dramatic raids were meant to shift public attention away from the Sanstha after the Congress-led Karnataka government kept nudging the BJP-led government in Maharashtra to investigate the Hindutva group’s activities, including an alleged plan to place bombs in several areas of Mumbai.
According to Karat, the raids are meant to intimidate the Dalit community, which has begun to reassert itself after the Una and Bhima Koregaon violence, and in turn, placate the agitating Maratha community in Maharashtra to set the ground for next year’s national election.
2018 is a crucial year for the ruling BJP. The “Hindu terror” narrative, which has slowly been rearing its head back up over the past few months could be gravely damaging for the party’s electoral calculus and the core Hindutva plank that it routinely exploits for poll returns. In the face of clear evidence of terrorism by the Sanstha and similar entities, this narrative could become less palatable, especially amongst fence-sitters who are otherwise expected to press the button for the lotus in 2019.
Thus, a theatrical nationwide raid, anchored on a solid threat perception of “countering urban Naxalism” does much to boost the government’s credibility as an effective security guarantor for the citizens. At the very least, it serves to appease the BJP loyalists who like the sight and sound of “strong-willed action” against “terrorists” and Communists.
Yeh Din Bhi Guzar Jayenge
It is worth noting that the August 28 raids didn’t come as a random occurrence. They were simply the peak manifestation of a broader political and social narrative pushed into the mainstream by the ruling regime and its affiliates over the past four years.
This campaign of hatred, isolation, and trolling aims at maligning and subverting all dissenters and activists critical of the government (and the BJP) by either false-flagging them as “security threats to India” or labelling them as extended affiliates of militant movements without any solid evidence.
So when an individual like Vivek Agnihotri, a film-maker and right-wing ideologue, tweets a call to crowd-source a hit-list of “urban Naxals”, he is simply furthering this toxic narrative, and, in turn, the newfound state practice to ideologically homogenise the Indian polity and society through systematic institutional action.
But, as Delhi-based human rights activist and founder of the People’s Union for Democratic Rights (PUDR), Gautam Navlakha, who was also arrested, wrote after the raids: “Yeh Din Bhi Jayenge Guzar, Guzar Gaye Hazaar Din, Tu Zinda Hai (This day will pass too, Like the thousand days that have passed, You are alive)” — India’s democracy is far more resilient than what it may look like in the face of harsh state repression.
In its frenzy to consolidate power, the Modi government should not forget the history of the modern social contract, which is testament to the dire consequences of gagging voices of dissent and advocacy. If it wants to send police teams after lawyers, activists, poets, and priests without any clear evidence, it had best prepare for a collective backlash in a country whose political soul and spirit lie in the diversity of persuasions and a century-old tradition to resist all forms of institutional oppression.