The Maharashtra police on August 28 conducted a series of coordinated raids across multiple locations in India which has now drawn strong criticisms from civil society and opposition parties as well. Houses of several people including that of prominent activists, lawyers and writers were raided by the Pune police in Mumbai, Delhi, Ranchi, Goa and Hyderabad. While the police, in a bid to justify these arrests have termed them as “Urban Naxals”, many others have condemned the move and has termed it as a “virtual declaration of Emergency.”
The National Human Rights Commission has issued a notice to the Maharashtra chief secretary and director general of police for the arrest of the activists. Taking suo moto cognisance of the matter, NHRC said that media reports have pointed out that the arrests were not made after following proper protocols “which may amount to violation of their human rights”. Historian Romila Thapar along with four others filed a petition in the Supreme Court against the arbitrary arrests of the activists. Supreme Court had placed the fiver arrested under house arrest till September 6.
“Dissent is the safety valve of democracy if you don’t allow safety valve pressure cooker will burst,” said Justice DY Chandrachud.
#BhimaKoregaon: Dissent is the safety valve of democracy, if you dont allow safety valve pressure cooker will burst, Justice DY Chandrachud.
— Bar & Bench (@barandbench) August 29, 2018
Activists arrested under UAPA
By the end of the day, five prominent activists – Sudha Bharadwaj, Vernon Gonsalves, Varavara Rao, Gautam Navlakha and Arun Ferreira had been arrested by the police on a myriad of charges. Reportedly, the searches and detentions were carried out under the anti-terror Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) and Sections 153A, 505(1)(b), 117, 120(b) and 34 of the Indian Penal Code. Raids had also been conducted in the houses of activist Stan Swamy in Ranchi, activists Kranti Teluka in Hyderabad, Dalit scholar Anand Teltumbde in Goa.
The UAPA, introduced in 1967 to “safeguard India’s integrity and sovereignty” authorizes arrest and raids without warrants if a person is suspected to “support terrorist acts or unlawful activities.” The UAPA empowers authorities to seize materials during such raids and those arrested cannot apply for bail. Hence, during yesterday’s raids, the police seized CDs, laptops, mobile phones and pen drives from the houses of those arrested. Reportedly, those arrested were being brought to Pune on transit remand to be produced in the court on August 29.
The people who have been arrested
Those who have been arrested and tagged as “Urban Naxals” by security officials are human right activists, writers and thinkers in their own right. Sudha Bharadwaj, human rights lawyer and activist and the national secretary of at the People’s Union for Civil Liberties, who has worked closely with human rights issues of the marginalised communities in Chattisgarh, have been arrested.
Arun Ferreira, a Mumbai-based lawyer and an alumnus of St Xavier’s College, Mumbai, who was arrested in 2007 over charges of being a Naxal operative, was arrested again. He was acquitted of all charges. Like Ferreira, Vernon Gonsalves too was arrested over Naxal charges. He was a former professor at a prominent Mumbai college.
Gautam Navlakha, is a journalist and has been associated with the People’s Union for Democratic Right and was also an editor of Economic and Political Weekly. Varvara Rao is a renowned poet, a critic, journalist and a public speaker from Telangana.
The Bhima Koregaon case
The raids and arrests have reportedly been carried out in connection with the probe into Elgar Parishad, a public meeting held on December 31, a day before the Bhima Koregaon violence which left one killed and several injured in Maharashtra. The police are reportedly investigating the possible involvement of Maoist elements in the organisation of the Elgar Parishad, where provocative remarks were made which might have led to the violence that followed.
The meeting was held on the eve of the bicentennial of the British-Peshwa battle at Bhima Koregaon on January 1, 1818 in which the British troops prevailed over the Peshwas. The Dalits were a part of the former.
Five other “Urban Naxals” were arrested in June
Five other “Urban Naxals” under UAPA were arrested in Maharashtra and Delhi on June 6 in connection with the Bhima Koregaon case which included Rona Wilson, an activist, Dalit activist Sudhir Dhawale, civil right activists Shoma Sen and Mahesh Raut, and lawyer Surendra Gadling. According to police officials, who have been quoted by Live Mint, 200 to 250 email exchanges between those arrested on June 6 and on August 28 respectively, have been found. The official said, “These emails talk about preparations for the Elgar Parishad, logistical support, and the kind of speeches to be made.”
Reportedly, the recent police actions against the five prominent human rights activists is a result of letters that were recovered by the police during the June 6 investigations. As reported by NDTV, police officials found two letters exchanged by Maoist leaders indicating plans to assassinate Prime Minister Narendra Modi, BJP President Amit Shah and Home Minister Rajnath Singh led to the arrests.
The police also found another letter addressed to one “Comrade Prakash” from the residence of a Delhi-based activist, Rona Wilson, on June 6. Reportedly, the letter talked about raising several crores of rupees to buy American M-4 rifles and some ammunition to end the NDA dispensation.
Police action drew criticism
The series of arrests have been criticized by many, including the opposition as well as thinkers, activists and historians. In a series of tweets, the Communist Party Of India (Marxist) has not only condemned the move but also has demanded the withdrawal of the cases. It has also said that ever since the Bhima Koregaon violence against Dalits, the Maharashtra Police “along with central agencies” has been targeting Dalit rights activists and lawyers “who have been taking up their cases.”
These constitute a brazen attack on democratic rights and civil liberties. The PolitBuro demands the withdrawal of the cases against these activists and their immediate release.
— CPI (M) (@cpimspeak) August 28, 2018
Lawyer and activist Prashant Bhushan also criticized the move and tweeted:
4 cases under the UAPA had been slapped against Arun Ferreira when he was arrested in 2007 & branded an Urban Maoist. He was acquitted in all cases, but had to spend 5 yrs in Jail. Today again he has been arrested with 4 others & branded an Urban Maoist!https://t.co/VWdL9AFgOL
— Prashant Bhushan (@pbhushan1) August 28, 2018
Congress MP, Shashi Tharoor, upheld the freedom of expression and speech and tweeted:
I have no sympathy whatsoever for Maoism but freedom of thought, belief & expression are fundamental rights in any democracy. To arrest activists who have neither committed nor facilitated violence is to betray our democracy. This is not the India that Gandhiji fought to free.
— Shashi Tharoor (@ShashiTharoor) August 29, 2018
While Congress President Rahul Gandhi took to Twitter and said, “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”. Historian Ramachandra Guha, too, lashed out against the Modi government and tweeted:
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 Sudha Bharadwaj in court; that is assuming the Modi Sarkar hadn't yet detained and arrested him too
— Ramachandra Guha (@Ram_Guha) August 28, 2018
Others have commented on the issue that terms like “urban Naxals” are being invented “to stifle any criticism of the government,” reported Business Standard. Author and activist Arundhati Roy said that the arrests were a dangerous sign of the government’s fear of losing its mandate. “…lawyers, poets, writers, Dalit rights activists and intellectuals are being arrested on ludicrous charges while those who makeup lynch mobs and threaten and murder people in broad daylight roam free, tells us very clearly where India is headed,” she said. She further added “What is happening is absolutely perilous. In the run-up to elections, this is an attempted coup against the Indian Constitution and all the freedoms that we cherish.”
The Logical Indian take
Just like the arbitrary concept of ‘Love Jihad’, ‘Urban Naxal’ is a dystopian term that has been introduced and conceptualised by right-wing ideologist Vivek Agnihotri who wrote in an essay in the Swarajya magazine in May 2017, that urban intellectuals, influencers or activists are the invisible enemies of India. The situation of our country has become so volatile that activists and freethinkers, who were previously lauded as the truth bearers and champions of democracy are being arrested and harassed.
The irony of the situation is that when so many voices were asking for the arrest of mob lynchers, the government was silent. When the lynchers were set free, they were welcomed with open arms and ‘garlands’ by BJP leader. Yes, the government was silent then. When Nirav Modi and Mehul Choksi left India after committing a fraud of more than Rs 13,000 crore, the government was silent. When an eight-year-old was brutally raped and murdered for her religion and then when BJP ministers spoke out in support of the accused, the government was silent.
Is it not a coincidence that the five individuals targeted have been fighting for the rights of workers, Adivasis, farmers, women, Dalits and all those at the receiving end of government policies? There has been no concrete evidence, nor any proper accusations against these people. “Sources” have claimed certain things in media reports but no official evidence or proof or accusation has been provided. Where is our country headed?
Agnihotri on August 28 had tweeted, “I want some bright young people to make a list of all those who are defending #UrbanNaxals Let’s see where it leads. If you want to volunteer with commitment, pl DM me.”
I want some bright young people to make a list of all those who are defending #UrbanNaxals Let’s see where it leads. If you want to volunteer with commitment, pl DM me. @squintneon would you like to take the lead?
— Vivek Agnihotri (@vivekagnihotri) August 28, 2018
Twitter users made his wish come true. Since morning, almost 50,000 people have tweeted with the hashtag #MeTooUrbanNaxal to stand in solidarity with the activists.