Attack on the conscience keepers; Attempt to silence the messenger
There have been a set of simultaneous raids and arrests of eminent social activists and public intellectuals over which the BJP government in Maharashtra and the Centre, and many human rights organizations have been locked in a sharp polarized debate. The arrest of Sudha Bharadwaj, Gautam Navlakha, Vernon Gonsalves, Varavara Rao and Arun Ferreira, in the Bhima Koregaon is a case that has all the elements of an attempt to use an FIR to target a particular kind of dissenting voice, and use undefined terms like “urban naxal” to divert from the main issue itself. This is not just baffling for the ordinary reader – but is a new kind of threat to the democratic practices in India.
The attack on human rights workers is an attempt to silence the messenger. Given the very high credibility of the people concerned, an orchestrated campaign with the media has been used. News has itself become a strange brew of half-truths, rhetorical statements and deliberate mis-communication. In addition, the state and corporate interests exercise huge commercial control over the media, and many of the causes of tribal communities that are espoused by these activists are in direct conflict with the commercial interests of the media ownership. Users of “social media” advocate causes, make twisted statistical representations, and generate propaganda –all under the credibility that “media” enjoys in large part. The citizen is caught in a web of cross cutting information, where truth is elusive, and it is difficult to differentiate between fact and fiction.
Let’s try and examine some of the facts of this FIR. The Elgar Parishad was an event organized by Dalits in celebration of an old tradition- a historic defeat of the Peshwas at the hands of the Mahars in the 1800s. Two ex judges, Justice Patil and Justice Sawant, former Supreme Court judge and former Chair of the Press Council, were part of the organizing team. On January 1, 2018, there was a clash between the Dalits and the upper castes. FIRs were lodged by the Dalits and a cross case later by the others. The accusations now added to the list, were not in the FIR and none of those arrested were present either at the Elgar Parishad, or on the of January 1. The first claim made by the Pune police was, that these were Maoists responsible for planning and fomenting the violence that took place on January 1. The claim that the arrested activists were a threat to the state and national security has been added subsequently.
There is no doubt that rising inequalities in India are the leading marginalized communities – particularly Dalits and Tribals-- to organize to fight for survival and reclaiming citizenship. The citizen’s exercise of sovereignty, ie asking questions about land and natural resources, non-delivery of services, justice and dignity, especially for the most marginalized and discriminated, is branded as anti- national to escape scrutiny. Their advocates suffer the same fate and are hounded to prevent the amplification of the voices against corruption and injustice. The categorization of “anti-national” has now a twin in “urban naxal”. Vague and subjective and incomprehensible; and yet they are used to prosecute and silence people.
The governments, normally riddled with corruption and arbitrary use of power, are afraid of disclosures, accountability and the rule of and by law. When they are confronted by public scrutiny into the exercise of unconstitutional power, they take refuge in accusations of terrorism, sedition etc. to suppress all questioning. The suffering communities and individuals are often the victims of the privileged elite. The RTI has legitimized questioning and the corrupt system is feeling threatened by it, as the attempts to amend and the killing of RTI users amply prove.
Branding of opposition as “Maoists or terrorists”, and “urban naxalites” has enabled governments to build public acceptability, supporting arbitrary decisions made in camera. Rationality falls victim to the fear of government vendetta and silence prevails.
The system protects its charges with dossiers and secret files created to indict activists. The use of the RTI has proven quite clearly that the sovereign citizen is often in ignorance of acts done in her/his name. Therefore any claim of “evidence” is suspect unless it is allowed public scrutiny. There are few tools besides the RTI to test sources of the evidence and the veracity of the testimonies.
This attack on civil rights defenders is in some ways worse than the declaration of the Emergency in 1975, where the motivation was to cling to political power. This is not just about political power, but to change the ideas of justice and equity. Like then, civic space is being narrowed down and an atmosphere of fear is created. But today, people who have dedicated their lives to and speak for constitutional rights are branded as criminals and terrorists and there is a vicious attempt to destroy their credibility. An attack on the rights of civil society by gagging its spokespersons will destroy the idea of India. This idea was crafted carefully by the constituent assembly to give legitimate space for the peaceful and just co-existence of disparate cultures, ideologies and thought, to enable a steady, though difficult journey towards a more just and equitable India.
BY ARUNA ROY