The arrests of five activists in August accusing them of having links to Maoists have evoked protests against the government. The latest round of arrests comes three months after Maharashtra Police arrested five activists linking them to the banned Maoists and the Bhima Koregaon episode. The government has faced criticism that it is muzzling dissent and targeting activists who stand for the rights of oppressed. Activist Harsh Mander spoke to DH's Shemin Joy on the latest developments.
Five more activists have been arrested accusing them of having links with Maoists. Why do you think that these arrests are anti-democratic?
There should be no doubt that these arrests are directed at Left-leaning dissenters who oppose the government programmes and policies. I think this is clear to any impartial observer. This is what the Supreme Court itself said in so many words in its observations that dissent is essential to democracy, and blocking it is akin to a pressure cooker without a safety valve. The intention on part of the government is to criminalise Left dissent against government policies, and through this to discourage any dissent, particularly dissent that derives from left-liberal ideological positions. People who work among Adivasis have been targeted by this round of arrests and raids because these are areas where corporate India is most interested in massive extraction projects. The corporates are the ones who are causing massive unjust displacement of people from their traditional land and livelihood, supported by a business-friendly government; and these are leading human rights activists who are attempting to come in their way of corporate plunder.
Branding activists as Maoists seems to be gaining currency. How do you see this?
The cases of each of them is telling. An 81-year-old Jesuit priest working among tribal people all his adult life, a leading Dalit intellectual, and several human rights lawyers and activists. Take Sudha Bharadwaj for instance. I have known her and her work for years because I was an IAS officer in Chhattisgarh. She is a person who is deeply devoted to Adivasi, tribal and labour rights and who is completely working within the Constitutional framework. She is branded as a Maoist. These are activists and thinkers of high credibility. Many of them have no sympathy or support for Maoist violent methods, but share the idea of a just and egalitarian society. The fact is that you can throw this label now very freely. This kind of activism is being sought to be crushed by branding it as Maoist and criminalising it.
A couple of days I was called a Maoist by BJP spokesperson Sambit Patra. Prime Minister Narendra Modi also made the same charge about me in a couple of his speeches in the run-up to the 2014 elections. I replied on Twitter to Patra that by their definition anyone who stands up for the oppressed is a Maoist, so I wear their charge as a badge of honour.
Branding Muslim a terrorist was the trend for some time. Now, it seems there is a change. Is it so?
There are many sections that the BJP government and the RSS regard as their enemies. Foremost among them are religious minorities – especially Muslims and Christians. Secondly, because of its upper caste orientation, in a more tacit way, there is a hostility towards Dalits, especially from the perspective of reservations and also when they assert and resist old caste hierarchies. Thirdly, there is also hostility to intellectuals as well as political and social activists who uphold the rights of religious minorities, Adivasis and Dalits. From the start, the BJP-RSS perceive these people as their enemies.
It is the independent Left-liberal intellectuals and activists who have been the real opposition to this government and been vocal and resolute opponents. The secular parties have not been as vocal in their opposition to anti-minority violence. They have not been as outspoken as they should have been in their opposition to lynching and the engineered climate of anti-minority hate. Under this government, Muslims are more politically and socially isolated than they have been since Independence. The BJP has been proudly going to election after election by not fielding a single Muslim candidate. Secular parties were also been very often hesitant to openly upholding the equal rights of Muslims and the violence perpetuated against them. Fortunately, there is change recently. Rahul Gandhi did use lynching as a central theme to his Lok Sabha speech during the no-confidence motion and spoke of the surging climate of hate and fear in the country.
The deepening agrarian crisis, jobless growth and crony capitalism are three crises of this government that have been raised rightly by the political opposition. But for long they were largely silent about the fourth issue, which is the rising tide of organised hate. The Opposition was not as outspoken as they ought to have been. The Left intellectuals and activists were those who were raising this question. No wonder that the government considers them to be their principal enemy. These arrests are an attempt to tarnish their reputation by charging them to support violence to overthrow the democratically elected government, imprison them and through this discredit and crush Left-liberal dissent.
Many link these arrests to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. What do you think?
This set of arrests is different from those of the past in one major aspect. Up to now, as I said, it was people of broadly Left-leaning perspectives who were sought to be described as Maoists. What is new about these arrests is that for the first time there is a conscious linking of Dalit assertion with the Maoists. That I think is new. This reflects the growing unease, even panic, within the ruling BJP about rising Dalit anger and assertion. Its political programme is to come to power by isolating Muslims, and making Dalits partners of upper-caste Hindus in a broad anti-Muslim alliance. Now with rising Dalit anger, they see trouble. Therefore they are trying to equate Dalit assertion with Maoism, in the way they did in the past with Left-liberal dissent. But I am convinced that this will badly backfire on the BJP politically. It will instead cement the bonds between Left-liberal, Dalit and Adivasi rights activists, in their shared vision and struggles for a more just, egalitarian and humane society.
So, what next?
I am pleased to see the growing strength in support that this entire set of activists have got. People not just from the Left or far Left, a large number of centrist liberals and even the economic-Right, who believes in liberalisation, have been appalled by this massive crushing of dissent. Therefore I believe that the road ahead is for not allowing this kind of bullying and actually silence dissent by any means. People will stand together to protect the Constitution and they will not allow themselves to be divided by the divisive forces.