By Prarthana Mitra
“My thirty years of academic life has been destroyed in five minutes,” Dr. K. Satyanarayana, Dalit activist and head of the Department of Cultural Studies in Hyderabad’s EFLU said, after his home had been raided by the Pune police this Tuesday.
“They asked me,” the professor said, “Why are you reading Mao”, “why are you reading Marx”, “why are you having the songs of Gaddar” and “why are you keeping the photos of Ambedkar and Phule instead of gods and goddesses?”
WSS Statement On The Arrests of Sudha Bharadwaj, Vernon Gonsalves, Arun Ferreira, Gautam Navlakha and Varavara Rao https://t.co/LDzO2ZjMBD
— Indian Writers Forum (@IWF_Writers) August 31, 2018
This was one of the five simultaneous raids and arrests carried out by Maharastra authorities to investigate and detain several human rights activists with alleged connections to the Bhima-Koregaon violence. Arresting five human rights activists across Delhi, Faridabad, Mumbai, Ranchi, Goa and Hyderabad, the Pune police claimed that Sudha Bharadwaj, Arun Ferreira, Gautam Navlakha, Vernon Gonsalves, and Varavara Rao were Maoist sympathisers, and incited the violence that followed in the wake of Elgar Parishad on January 1.
Shortly after this incident, amid widespread uproar from intelligentsia, activists and academics, filmmaker Vivek Agnihotri called on netizens of Twitters to make a list of “urban Naxals”.
What does it mean though?
Going by right-wing ideologues and political discourse today, it is not hard to surmise that an “urban Naxal” is one who voices dissent, asks uncomfortable questions and more importantly, stands up for the country’s marginalised grassroots communities. So urban India decided to give Agnihotri his list, and now Twitter is brimming with eminent personalities, activists and even students coming out as #MeTooUrbanNaxal.
I think. I debate. I read. I question. I dissent. I criticise. I emphatise. I protest. I probe. I exist. #MeTooUrbanNaxal
— amrita madhukalya (@visually_kei) August 29, 2018
A pattern is emerging-the myth of the 'urban naxalite' is being whipped up. Any dissenter, or someone who works for marginalised communities, will now be called an 'urban naxal'. It will not be limited to maligning them. Arrests will follow. 1/2
— Sidharth Bhatia (@bombaywallah) August 28, 2018
In other joy, the public prosecutor repeatedly used the phrase 'urban naxal' in the Pune court yesterday. (While admitting that it is not defined under law.)
— Sreenivasan Jain (@SreenivasanJain) August 30, 2018
Must read: Arundhati Roy on Human Rights activists arrests: "In the India of today, to belong to a minority is a crime. To be murdered is a crime. To be lynched is a crime. To be poor is a crime. To defend the poor is to plot to overthrow the government."https://t.co/b0LQWPLLb4
— Prashant Bhushan (@pbhushan1) August 30, 2018
Most notably, Arundhati Roy penned her thoughts for The Wire on the issue, saying,
It has been important for governments, both the Congress-led UPA and the BJP, to disguise their attacks on Adivasis, and now, in the case of the BJP, their attack on Dalits, as an attack on “Maoists” or “Naxals”…By arresting activists and calling them “Maoists’, the government manages to undermine and insult Dalit aspiration by giving it another name – while at the same time appearing to be sensitive to “Dalit issues.”
Arun Ferreira's first arrest was under a Congress government. Kabir Kala Manch were branded Naxals and thrown into jail under a Congress government. Your party passed the laws and set the precedents that have paved the way for such gross misuse of state power. https://t.co/suVONIzvq2
— Comrade Jesus (@StonerJesus) August 28, 2018
A brief history of tagging activists as Maoists
Another set of activists were arrested in June, under the pretext of hatching an assassination plot targeting Prime Minister Narendra Modi, which the police based on the discovery of a letter detailing the plot. Yet, they leaked this piece of evidence to the media even before the trial, while Rona Wilson, Sudhir Dhawle, Shoma Sen, Mihir Raut and Surendra Gadling languish in prison.
Furthermore, in July, Arnab Goswami of Republic TV claimed Sudha Bharadwaj (currently under house arrest) had also written a letter to a Maoist – one “Comrade Prakash” – stating that a “Kashmir-like situation” has to be created, a claim she expressly denied and dismissed.
Dr. Anand Teltumbde, who was detained on Tuesday, issued a statement upon his release, saying,
While I still do not know on what basis the police barged into my house in my absence, going by their press conferences and propaganda their subservient TV channels carried out, I guess the entire episode is based on letters police produced supposedly recovered from the people who were arrested earlier. The authenticity of these letters is far from established. Many people have already expressed serious doubt about their veracity. Their fakeness is not any difficult for a person of an average intellect to see. But the police is persisting with them in a Gobblesque manner of their political patrons and targeting summarily all intellectuals and activists in the country so as to decimate dissent. They are misusing the draconian law like UAPA to terrorize people into silence.
Criticising the draconian and problematic Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), JNU Professor Emeritus Romila Thapar moved to the Supreme Court on Wednesday, along with five other prominent members of civil society, challenging the arrest and demanding the immediate release of the wrongfully accused activists. Their petition stated the arrests and raids by Maharashtra police were an “exercise to silence dissent, stop people from helping the downtrodden and marginalised people across the nation and to instil fear in minds of people”.
Roy spoke of the danger our human rights activists have faced since the dawn of time. When Binayak Sen was jailed for speaking up against the Salwa Judum rampage in Bastar, lawyer and trade unionist Sudha Bharadwaj took his place. “Professor Saibaba, who campaigned relentlessly against the paramilitary operations in Bastar stood up for Binayak Sen. When they arrested Saibaba, Rona Wilson, stood up for him. Surendra Gadling was Saibaba’s lawyer. When they arrested Rona Wilson and Surendra Gadling, Sudha Bharadwaj, Gautam Navlakha and the others stood up for them… and so it goes,” concluded Roy.
Pune police have defended their actions, accusing the activists of an anti-fascist plot to overthrow the government, as the joke writes itself. Teltumbde expresses grave concern, “This action, with blatant misuse of the might of the state is not against some individuals; it is against the defenders of democratic rights of people in the country. It portends the horrific future for the democracy in the country.”
Prarthana Mitra is a staff writer at Qrius.