Tushar Ramesh Damgude, a 38-year-old businessman from Pune, had no intention of being in the national limelight when he filed a police complaint on January 8, 2018. The history graduate with a small construction business is a self-confessed nationalist, who is “against anyone who is anti-national.” He alleged that the violence that marred a Dalit commemoration to mark the bicentenary of a British-Peshwa war at Bhima Koregaon on January 1 was instigated by left activists with suspected Maoist links. They had spoken at a public meeting called Elgar Parishad, under the aegis of the Anti Fascist Front the previous day.

Vishrambag police station registered a FIR, and a nation-wide raid was conducted on the homes of seven activists in April. Those targeted were Elgaar Parishad organizer Harshali Potdar, Rona Jacob Wilson, Sudhir  Dhawale,  Surendra Gadling, Sagar Gorkhe, Deepak Dhengle, Ramesh Gaichor and his wife Jyoti Jagtap, all artists of “cultural group” Kabir Kala Manch. Subsequently, onJune 6; Dhawale, Gadling, forest rights activist Mahesh Raut, Nagpur university assistant professor Shoma Sen and Rona Wilson – were arrested from Mumbai, Nagpur and Delhi. Branding them as “urban Maoist operatives,” cops claimed to have found evidence that they were plotting to assassinate the Prime Minister in a ‘Rajiv Gandhi type incident.’

Ramgai
Ramesh Gaichor, Sagar Gorkhe and their wives Jyoti Jagtap and Rupali Jadhav outside Oval Maidan, Mumbai in 2013

On August 28 this ever-expanding dragnet saw the police raiding 10 more activists and arresting five of them – Arun Ferreira, Vernon Gonsalves, Gautam Navlakha, Varavara Rao and Sudha Bharadwaj. The Supreme Court stayed the arrests and ordered them placed under house arrest until September 6. It is heartening that the apex court observed that dissent is the “safety valve of democracy,” hearing a plea by academics Romila Thapar, Prabhat Patnaik, Devaki Jain, Satish Deshpande and Maja Daruwala. On behalf of Indian Cultural Forum, a host of celebrated writers and artists including Nayantara Sahgal, Arundhati Roy, Githa Hariharan, Ashok Vajpeyi, Naseeruddin Shah, Nandita Das and Ganesh Devy expressed solidarity with the arrested persons.

ICF

For the past few months, Damgude’s Facebook page has been chock full of posts attacking Dhawale, Va Va Rao and others for allegedly glorifying Maoism, spreading violent ideas and purchasing weapons. Like in his complaint, he cites revolutionary songs, pamphlets and speeches as proof of a conspiracy to attack the nation. It also has a picture of him with Sambhaji Bhide, a Hindutva leader accused of inciting violence against the Dalits at Bhima Koregaon. Fellow Hindutva leader Milind Ekbote is also a co-accused, but neither has been arrested yet despite a Supreme Court order. Based on his complaint the police have made extravagant allegations against the activists, describing them as “active members” of the banned Communist Party of India {Maoist} hatching a “top-level conspiracy” to overthrow the “sovereignty and integrity of the country” by establishing a nationwide “anti-fascist front”.

Va Va Rao, the popular Telugu poet and self-declared communist took an active part in the Telangana movement before the formation of the state. The anti-Dalit bias of this entire operation is evident from this question a police officer asked K Pavana, daughter of the poet, when they were searching her residence at the English and Foreign Languages University in Hyderabad. “Your husband is a Dalit, so he does not follow any tradition. But you are a Brahmin, so why are you not wearing any jewellery or sindoor?”

Mumbai-based activist and cartoonist Ferreira, who spent five years in the Nagpur central jail was acquitted of all charges in 2011. Colours of the Cage, his searing account of the sub-human treatment that he was subjected to is a stark revelation of the collapse of our democratic institutions in protecting individual liberties. Reviewing it for the Business Line, the martyred Gauri Lankesh made this prescient observation: “Human rights are all too frequently thwarted in our country as the State becomes Big Brother.” It seems we are already there.

Gonsalves arrested on the charges of helping banned Naxalite oufits in 2007 was convicted under Arms Act in 2013. However, he was released as he had already served the sentenced period. Bharadwaj has worked as a civil rights activist in Chhattisgarh for close to three decades, giving up her US citizenship to work for the people’s cause in India. Arrested from Delhi, Navlakha has worked as a secretary of the People’s Union for Democratic Rights. He has also been a convener of the International People’s Tribunal on Human Rights and Justice in Kashmir. Of late, his work has focused on areas of Maoist influence in Chhattisgarh. Others whose premises were searched include 83-year old Father Stan Swamy, Susan Abraham, Kranthi Tekula and Anand Teltumbde.

COC

“The latest arrests of human rights activists show the government’s widening assault on free speech to create an atmosphere of fear across India,” Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. They have long worked to defend the rights of some of our poorest and most marginalised communities, including dalits and Adivasis. As poets, journalists, and advocates, they have been vocal in their criticism of government policies and therefore, have often been targets for the authorities, according to the statement.

“The police in India have repeatedly used counterterrorism laws against government critics and social activists, and often, they have targeted the same people by filing multiple cases against them,” said Aakar Patel, executive director of Amnesty International India. “The authorities continue to ignore Supreme Court directives to not conflate sympathy for concerns expressed by the Maoists, with criminal complicity in violence,” he added. In his column in Business Standard, Patel has a word of caution for the media also. He notes how the state has managed to de-sensitise us in the media to idea of free speech by convenient demonising of its practioners through using “terms such as ‘terrorist’, ‘separatist’, ‘Maoist’ etc. quite casually and these days even ‘secularist’ has joined this category as a term of despise.”

John Jonas Tidu
John Jonas Tidu

In the run-up to the 2019 general elections, an increasingly jittery BJP facing the possibility of a loose coalition of opposition parties seems to be raising the bogey of an armed insurrection against the state. It also wants to stoke anti-minority sentiments playing up the national security aspect, as evinced by the inhuman act of excluding 40 lakh Assamese from the draft list of citizens, which will lead to their eventual deportment. In this grand scheme of things, a plot against a PM, who according to political observers is becoming unpopular, would have the dubious potential of playing up jingoism masquerading as patriotism.

Arbitrary police action against people protesting state heavy-handedness is becoming frightfully common, especially if they belong to vulnerable sections like Dalits, minorities and Adivasis. The list is embarrassingly endless. In Jharkhand, for instance, the leaders of the Pathalgadi movement – John Jonas Tidu and Balram Samad – pressing for constitutional rights for Adivasis were booked by the police in a rape case in July. However, details have now emerged, leading many to conclude that the case was lodged to harass the leaders of the movement.

In Chhattisgarh, as many as 14 journalists were arrested in 2017. In UP,  Chandrashekhar Azad alias ‘Ravan’, the head of the Dalit rights organisation Bhim Army has been detained without any legal charges since June last year. In TN, A Murugan, an advocate who fought cases for people accused of being Maoists, was detained under the draconian Unlawful Activities {Prevention} Act in January 2017 even though the police was unable to provide any evidence against him. In 2016, the Kashmiri human rights activist Khurram Parvez was detained in prison for 76 days in a move that that the J & K High Court would call illegal.

Raavan

A recent incident has been reported from Motihari, Bihar, which hasn’t got much media attention. On August 17, Sanjay Kumar, a Dalit assistant professor from Mahatma Gandhi Central University was assaulted by a group of 20-25 people, allegedly for two Facebook posts critical of former P M Vajpayee. “Those were my views, which I expressed rather respectfully. I also wrote that he had left for his heavenly abode and said RIP. I have the right to my opinion,” he says.

Sanjay

Rajan Srivastava, a member of BJP’s IT cell in Motihari, had warned that “you have so far seen only the love of Champaran residents, now get ready to see their muscle power.” Kumar says that on the morning of the attack, he got three death threats. Soon after, the mob battered him. “I can’t see properly with my left eye. My neck, back and thighs hurt all the time. They did not even spare my private parts,” says Kumar, who been hospitalised since August 20. He hails from a village in Saharsa, and has a six-month-old son, wife and mother. His brother is a marginal peasant.

FacismPerhaps what is happening in our country is best understood in the light of the insightful words of a survivor from the age of dictators. In her latest book FASCISM A Warning, 81-year old Madeleine Albright, the first woman US secretary of state asserts that fascist tendencies can be overcome. But for that to happen, she says that history’s lessons have to be learnt and never should democracy be taken for granted. “The temptation,” she notes, “is powerful to close our eyes and wait for the worst to pass, but history tells us that for freedom to survive, it must be defended, and that if lies are to stop, they must be exposed.” {p.252, Harper, New York}. This clarion call is equally for all of us in this country too, who cherish to uphold the rule of law and keep the flames of democratic freedoms burning undimmed.

{Expanded version of the edit page article published in Mathrubhumi daily of September 6, 2018}

https://english.mathrubhumi.com/features/social-issues/when-the-state-turns-big-brother–1.3117761