How the caged bird sings: The last five years in dissent and resistance

The case for activists and the symbolic value of protest in India has taken a severe beating ever since the space for debate, dissent demonstration was sacrificed at the altar of vested political interests and rising nationalism.

Environmental activists fast unto death without the Centre having budged an inch, while journalists who air the ugly truths are threatened, trolled online or shot at their doorstep. Academics found in possession of Naxal literature are sentenced to life even if they are 90% disabled, while those questioning the status quo are branded anti-national. In all fairness, only movements led for and by ‘savarna’ classes seem to gather serious steam nowadays.

In removing critical thinking from all political discourse, and convincing the masses that all forms of dissent are anti-state, the ruling government has radically changed the nature and future of activism, especially when the struggle concerns fundamental rights of religious minorities and classes.

This systemic omission of all forms of questioning over the last five years has taken a toll on how the voter’s psyche functions, and what it perceives as truth, priority duty — making dissent and resistance a matter of national importance, for the 900 million registered voters who will participate in the world’s largest electoral exercise over the following month.

A list of targets

Let’s look no further than the last week to support these contentious, and potentially dangerous, claims.

Noted economist and food rights activist Jean Drèze was detained by the Jharkhand police, for a public meeting to end hunger, allegedly without an official permit, thereby violating the Model Code of Conduct.

Notably, Drèze’s arrest comes nearly nine months after Dalit rights activists Rona Wilson, Sudhir Dhawale, Shoma Sen, Mahesh Raut  Surendra Gadling were incarcerated for hatching a “Maoist plot”.

Scourge of the left: a convenient tact to eliminate grassroots activism

In August 2018, another batch of lawyers, activists poets including Sudha Bhardwaj, Gautam Navlakha, Varavara Rao, Vernon Gonsalves and Arun Ferreira, were detained for their alleged complicity in Pune’s Bhima Koregaon violence last year.

Ironically enough, humiliated on home ground, Bhardwaj was by Harvard University as one of 21 “women inspiring change” this year; she along with the others arrested happened to organise Elgar Parishad, an annual meeting for Dalit rights  in Pune, whose proceedings were disrupted by right-wing outfits.

First blamed wrongly for inciting the riot, they were held for allegedly conspiring to assassinate Prime Minister Narendra Modi — allegations that most human rights activists claim are part of a crackdown on intellectuals who attack Modi’s record, especially his government’s treatment of Dalits and minorities.

Like all these academics, well-known professor Anand Teltumbde has also been accused of plotting against the government, simply because he made a “compelling case for how and why the present regime is anti-democratic, anti-Dalit and anti-poor.”

Champion and writer of the Dalits, Teltumbde’s name was added to the list of conspirators after he called Modi a “narcissist par excellence” who could prove to be more dangerous than Hitler and whose politics amounted to “fascism plus something” at a literary festival in 2017.

State vs dissent: then and now

High-profile arrests continue to spark national (sometimes global) outrage, and a conversation around the labelling of activists as Urban Naxals, a convenient tag that has been wielded by both right-wing and centrist parties to quell dissent over the years.

Such relentless and egregious attacks on grassroots activism also expose a lack of judicial restraint that allows persecution of activists, without rhyme or reason. How else does one explain the largesse of artists, cartoonists, writers, lawyers and journalists booked behind bars for exposing the government’s reluctance to engage in constructive dialogue?

That is not to say activism in India enjoyed its heyday under the erstwhile UPA era. Bastar-based activist-turned-AAP politician Soni Sori’s incarceration stands testament to the state’s unchanging attitude to tribal rights and activists.

Meanwhile, Modi is yet to hold a single press conference even as the free press faces attack. Manipur-based journalist Kishorechandra Wangkhem, for example, has been languishing in prison since November 27, 2018, under the National Security Act (NSA) for the prime minister and state chief minister N Biren Singh on social media.

His deteriorating physical condition in prison has prompted the United Nations’ Mandates of the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention and the Special Rapporteur to draft a letter to the Indian government expressing “serious concern.”

Let’s talk about UAPA and NSA

To trace the history of silencing activists, one must look beyond, at the laws that legitimise such witchhunts.

Sociologists, academics journalists unanimously believe that the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), much like the NSA, is a draconian law invented solely to suffocate dissent. Extremely vague and broad, the UAPA proclaims itself as an anti-terrorism law which the government uses at will to label all criticism as seditious, licentious and anti-state.

Speaking of the NSA, the letter by UN’s Working Group concerning Wangkhem said, “We are concerned at the criminalization of the peaceful exercise of freedom of expression through the use of the National Security Act, which is a broad and unspecific state security legislation, may have a chilling effect on public debate in India, including on the work of journalists.”

Trolls, threats, censorship and suppression by brute force have further contributed heavily in curbing the freedom of critical speech.

Even activism in its most nascent and liberal form — on social media — has come under severe crackdown, resulting in more than half the population identifying as “afraid of expressing their political views on the internet,” according to a report released by the Reuters Institute.

Today, even online platforms that have led gay rights activism, right to privacy and information activists, and climate change crusades to flourish, are used to dox or bully dissenters; India’s most popular political YouTuber too hasn’t managed to escape unscathed.

Yet, resistance continues. In recent memory, the successive farmers’ marches across the country, the Soligas’ victory against the expulsion order from ancestral forestland, the “Dalitariat” Patthargarhi movement, the Tuticorin against pollution of groundwater by Vedanta Sterlite, and the women’s march across the country have proven the power of effective agitation.

At this critical juncture, it becomes imperative for voters to the role activists play in constituting important dialogue, and preserve their position in healthy opinion-building. As the country heads towards another crucial election, it is worth recalling what Justice DY Chandrachud had said in response to Romila Thapar’s petition for Bharadwaj’s release: dissent is the safety valve of democracy.

Prarthana Mitra is a Staff Writer at Qrius

Lok Sabha Elections 2019