One doesn’t have to be a committed Maoist sympathiser to fight gross rights violations perpetrated against marginalised communities. Neither is it illegal to campaign aggressively for an egalitarian society promised in the Constitution and to question state policies that are inimical to that. Unfortunately, we are currently going through a dangerous phase when the government appears to be systematically targeting activists perceived to be against it by labelling them as enemies of the State. What is fast emerging is a curious phenomenon, in which sections of the media are participants, of building a narrative around the “urban naxal” -- an amorphous term coined by filmmaker Vivek Agnihotri which could include, in his own words, “intellectuals, influencers or activists of importance” and those who “pretend to be concerned about social issues.”
It is such a broad sweep definition that it could almost include anyone from academics, journalists, socialists, politicians, student leaders, activists or those deemed not patriotic and nationalist enough by the system. Luckily, the term urban naxal has so far not made it into the legal lexicon but was used by some news channels to describe the arrest of five activists in a multi-city raid by the police on August 28.
Those arrested were P Varavara Rao, rights activist and poet, in Hyderabad; lawyers Vernon Gonsalves and Arun Ferreira in Mumbai and Thane; lawyer and trade union activist Sudha Bharadwaj and journalist and rights activist Gautam Navlakha in Faridabad and Delhi.
A 200-year battle
All have been arrested for their alleged Maoist links. But beyond that there is little else that is known about the case against them. The Pune police claim that the names of the five activists came up in letters seized from a Nagpur lawyer, Surendra Gadling, who was among those arrested earlier for organising the Elgar (a battle cry in Marathi) Morcha in Pune on December 31. The rally was held to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the battle in Pune district’s Koregaon Bhima village between the Maratha king, Peshawa Baji Rao II and a small unit of the East India Company. The latter, though only 834 strong, defeated the mighty Maratha army of 28,000 troops on January1, 1818. Among the 49 in the British force who died in battle were 22 soldiers of the Mahar caste. Dalits celebrate this victory as a triumph of Mahar soldiers against caste oppression under Peshwa rule and also as an inspiration to fight their modern-day oppressors.
A day after the Elgar March -- on January 1, 2018 -- violence broke out at Koregaon Bhima village following a ceremony before the victory pillar erected by the British. Tensions were simmering and in the clash between Dalits and upper caste Marathas one person died and several were injured. Two persons— Manohar Sambhaji Bhide and Milind Ekbote—had cases filed against them under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities Act) 1989.
Bhide, a former physics professor is an RSS pracharak who is associated with the right wing organisation, Shiv Pratisthan Hindustan. Ekbote was a BJP Corporator till 2007 and is linked to the Samasta Hindu Aghadi which organises protests against Valentine’s Day in Pune and adjoining areas. According to initial reports and police investigations, the communal flare up at Koregaon Bhima was a planned one in which Bhide and Ekbote had a major role to play.
However, in a surprising twist to the narrative, on January 7 the Pune police arrested five persons from Nagpur, Delhi and Mumbai for having organised the Elgar Morcha. It was the police case that provocative speeches made at the rally in Pune on December 31 had instigated the violence at Koregaon Bhima the following day. Among those picked up was Surendra Gadling, a Nagpur lawyer. It was from his letters that fresh arrests and raids were conducted on August 28.
Evidence shrouded in mystery
But strangely enough, what is the exact nature of the evidence that the police have against those arrested is not yet known. In fact, the Delhi High Court and the Punjab and Haryana High Court were constrained to stay the transmit remand of the police for lack of any valid reason cited for the arrest. The Delhi High Court, while hearing a habeas corpus petition filed on behalf of Gautam Navalaka, observed that the documents submitted by the Maharashtra police did not specify the reason why the activist was being detained. Similarly, the Punjab and Haryana High Courts stayed the remand notice issued to Sudha Bharadwaj for the next two days.
The only information we currently have in the public domain about the charges is courtesy a clutch of BJP- friendly TV channels which have been pushing the narrative that those arrested were urban naxals who not only instigated the Koregaon Bhima violence but were involved in a plot to assassinate Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP President Amit Shah. The evidence they have for the latter crime is a purported email from one activist to the other. Another letter allegedly written by Sudha Bharadwaj (and denied by her) links the Maoists with Kashmir terrorist groups. Interestingly, the police do not mention either letter in the transmit remand application but merely indicate that those picked up had Maoist links.
Meanwhile, there is much speculation in Delhi about the latest crackdown. Some see it as a prelude to further arrests of activists working among tribals and Dalits ahead of the Chhattisgarh assembly election at the end of the year. Others see it is an extension of the ideological battle between the left and the right in which all those critical of the government can be painted as urban naxals who are anti-development and therefore anti-national. There is one school that believes the arrests are to provide a counter narrative to the terrorism charges against the Hindu organisation, the Sanatan Sanstha, allegedly involved in the murder of Gauri Lankesh and others. And finally, some are of the view that should the assassination attempt against Narendra Modi and Amit Shah be part of the police charge sheet, then it could be exploited to woo voters in 2019.
Till such time that evidence is presented in court there will be much room for speculation. There will also be allegations of evidence being manufactured or dressed up by investigating officials. I recall the Captain B.K. Subbarao case in the late 1980s when the ex-naval officer and a nuclear submarine expert was detained by the Intelligence Bureau at Mumbai airport before boarding a flight to Chicago with “classified documents compromising national interest” in his suitcase.
Subbarao was later arrested under the Official Secrets Act and accused of spying for the US. When his case came up before the Bombay High Court, the investigating agency finally revealed the clinching evidence against him—his doctoral thesis on nuclear submarines which can be accessed at the IIT Bombay library! The case against Subbarao was subsequently dismissed.
There are enough and more of such instances of persons being framed and cases being dismissed for lack of evidence. The arrest of Kanhaiya Kumar is a case in point. But there are countless others which escape media attention and the accused languish in prison for years on trumped up charges.
Fearing the worst, public intellectuals like Ramchandra Guha have implored the judiciary to take corrective action. “The courts must intervene to stop this persecution and harassment of independent voices. Sudha Bharadwaj is as far from violence and illegality as Amit Shah is close to those things. As a biographer of Gandhi, I have no doubt that if the Mahatma was alive today, he would don his lawyer’s robes and defend Bharadwaj in court; that is assuming the Modi Sarkar hadn’t yet detained and arrested him too,” he said in a stinging statement. Significantly, historian Romila Thapar and four others have approached the Supreme Court to stay the arrests and have sought an independent probe into it.
Meanwhile, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) taking suo moto cognizance has issued notices to the Chief Secretary, Maharashtra, and the Director General of Police asking for a report within four weeks on the arrests. The Commission observed that set norms were not followed which may amount to violation of the human rights of the arrested persons.
One hopes that the Pune Police is not on a witch hunt to serve desperate political interests. If it is, then it could be most unfortunate and will boomerang on them and will not augur well for our democracy.