Bhima-Koregaon to Urban Naxal: In the process Modi and Co has riled civil society
There was a strange sense of deja vu when an impessive cast of social activists gathered at the Press Club of India Thursday. They were there to register their protest against the way the Maharashtra Police has gone after their fellow activists across the country, labelling them nothing short of terrorists.
Among others in the crosshairs of the Pune Police is labour rights activist Sudha Bharadwaj. Some two-and-a-half months ago, when the same police picked up and whisked away Sudhir Dhavale, Surendra Gadling, Shoma Sen, Rona Wilson and Mahesh Raut (June 6), Bharadwaj joined forces with legal activists – she herself is an advocate and is the vice-president of Indian Association of People's Lawyers – to condemn the crackdown.
In that June conference, Bharadwaj, Supreme Court advocate Nithya Ramachandran, Progressive Women's Association's advocate Poonam and others raised serious question marks on the intent of the police force and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – in power in Maharashtra as well as at the Centre – on whose order it was acting. All the same there was a sense of surprise among the speakers at the way the estalishment had gone after those they believed were workign only for common good.
Thursday's gathering showed that surprise has given way to anger. Speaker after speaker blew holes in the 'Urban Naxal' narrative – holes that the Modi government, the BJP and its ideological fountainhead, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, will find hard to plug. They included:
- Harish Dhawan of the People's Union for Democratic Rights
- Aruna Roy of Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan
- Sanjay Parikh and ND Pancholi of Peole's Union for Civil Liberties
- Kalyani Menon-Sen of Women against Sexual Violence and State Repression
- Bezwada Wilson form Safai Karmachari Andolan
- Jignesh Mevani, Dalit leader and member of the Gujarat Legislative Assembly
- Prashant Bhushan, senior legal and politcial activist
- literateur Arundhati Roy
After Dhawan, whose PUDR colleague Gautam Navlakha is on the Pune Police's list, flagged off the session Roy took over, alleging that the drive against Bharadwaj, Navlakha and activists Varavara Rao, Arun Ferreira and Vernon Gonsalves was basically a crackdown on dissent – an effort to drive fear. Drawing links between the polic action and next year's general elections, she said “lies are being spread” using a section of the media.
“What is the evidence (against the accsued) the police have?” asked the seasoned activist who helped the erstwhile Manmohan Singh government with public policy. Highlighting the work done by Bharadwaj, Navlakha and others for the marginalised, she asked “can no one speak for Dalits and the poor?”
Parikh likened the current situation with the Emergency imposed by former PM Indira Gandhi and charged the current regime with similar misuse of power. His PUCL colleague Pancholi agreed. “We should take lessons,” he said and recounted how the people had backed civil liberites over relative prosperity in the '70s.
He also condemned the coinage of terms like 'Urban Naxals' and its use by the establishment – a sentiment shared by Menon-Sen. “Strange animals are being created. On the one hand we have the peacock that doesn't lay eggs but reproduce by consuming tears; on the other hand we have the Urban Naxal,” she said.
“What is their crime? Upholding and propagating the Constitution and constitutional values?” she asked. The gender activist warned the “ones in power” that their efforts would backfire. “We see through their games,” she said.
Wilson, who has long worked for the upliftment of manual scavengers underscored an anti-Dalit line in the government's thinking and working. Calling the crackdowns an “attack on fundamental rights”, he alleged that an atmosphere of fear was being created where one wasn't free to act.
The State was against Dalit assertion, he said. “We have beenn enslaved for 5,000 years. What's wrong with celebrating Bhima-Koregaon?” he asked and pointed out how activist-poet Rao's daughter was questioned by the police on her choice of marrying a Dalit and not marking herself with vermillion. On the other hand, there were no arrests of those who burn copies of the Constitution, he said.
Mevani, who has gained quite a following in the recent years, said there was a combination of three things: an undeclared Emergency, fascism and the 'Gujarat model'. He said those against the “Sangh” were being terrorised and Dalit assertion was being discredited. He cited the examples of atrocities in Una (Gujarat) and Shahranpur (Uttar Pradesh), the imprisonment of Dalit activist Chandrasekhar and prohibitory orders against him in districts of Rajasthan as examples of how the regime was against “andolankaris”.
Mevani, who was present at the Elgar Parishad meeting before the Bhima-Koregaon episode, ridiclued the police claim of a plot to assasinate PM Modi. “This used to happen in Gujarat: every year some or the other jihadi supposedly came to kill him and died in encounters,” he said.
Alleging that the police of Delhi and Maharashtra were acting in collusion, he pointe dout that central minister Ramdas Athavale has already ruled out any Maoist links of those who were at the Bhima-Koregaon Dalit celebration. Mevani announced wider agitations on 5 and 15 September.
“What is happening in the country now? Attacks on Adivasis, Dalits and Minorities; lynch mobs are being unleashed,” said Bhushan, addign that the likes of 'Sambhaji' Bhide and Milind Ekbote were walking free.
Focusing on symantics, he said Urban Naxals was a coinage similar to the 'Tukdetukde Gang' that was used against student activists leading up to a physical attack on Kanhaiya Kumar and a recent attempt to kill Umar Khalid. “Even the police used the term (Urban Naxals) in court. Me, Aruna, Arundhati... we are called Urban naxals,” he said. Bhushan pointed out that those against whom the police were acting were not even present in Bhima-Koregaon.
“Democracy is not killed by military coups. The fascists eliminate human rights gradually, so not many understand what's happening, unlike during the Emergency that happened in one stroke. Everythign is now at stake,” Bhushan said.
Man-Booker winner Roy pointed out that there was already an acceptance by the police that the activists were “anti-fascists” as they said in the Pune court. She said “the government knew there would be a reaction” and drew attention to the recent drop in Modi's popularity ratings according to a recent ABP Lokniti survey.
Touching upon various issues, including the Rafale deal, she said what was going on was a “coup against the Constitution.
Simultaneously, there was a show of solidarity nearby in Parliament Streets organised and attended by a slew of organisations including the New Trade Union Initiative and the National Association for People's Movements.
Bharadwaj, Navlakha, Rao, Gonsalves and Ferreira, meanwhile, are confined to their houses until the Supreme Court takes the matter up again on 6 September. The Pune Police has failed to yet establish any conclusive charges against them or Stan Swami and Anand Teltumbde – whose houses they raided – related to the Bhima-Koregaon. Eventually, the cops even claimed that the activists and their “Maoist” links were under probe from even before the Dalit celebration episode.
The apex court may eventually bring some sanity into the Kafkaesque atmosphere, but Thursday's session and social media outrage has made it clear that the government has now riled the normally composed civil society.