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Fadnavis prepares to fight the phantom of ‘urban naxals’

Maharashtra, under Eknath Shinde and Devendra Fadnavis, is set to have a new ‘public security’ law where even peaceful expressions of dissent will be targeted.
Last Updated : 27 November 2023, 06:23 IST
Last Updated : 27 November 2023, 06:23 IST

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On August 9, the Mumbai Police prevented 99-year-old Gandhian G G Parikh from commemorating the Quit India Movement at August Kranti Maidan, the site where the movement was launched. Ironically, GG, as he is called, had participated in that launch, and was arrested and jailed a few days later. He has been commemorating the historic event with a peace march every year.

This year the Mumbai Police wouldn’t let him because Maharashtra Chief Minister Eknath Shinde was to inaugurate the renovated Maidan that morning. GG is a freedom fighter, who’s spent his life running a rural development centre named after Yusuf Meherally, the man who coined the slogan ‘Quit India’. In independent India, the police deemed a 99-year-old freedom fighter unfit to be present at the Quit India venue at the same time as the Chief Minister. Incidentally, Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson Tushar Gandhi was also prevented from joining GG.

About three months later, the Mumbai Police went after a handful of protesters decrying Israel’s assault on Gaza. Others detained and charged by the police this year include farmers demanding more compensation for lands acquired for a dam — they managed to get inside Mantralay and jumped on the safety net tied there to prevent suicides; Aam Aadmi Party members protesting the ED’s arrest of Rajya Sabha MP Sanjay Singh; and some Muslim youth who praised Aurangzeb on social media.

Were these the acts Maharashtra’s Deputy Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis was referring to when he spoke recently of the need for a special public security law to combat ‘urban naxalism’? Fadnavis, who holds the home portfolio, painted a grim picture of the alleged activities of this group: 84 “frontal organisations” of the Maoists were “fuelling agitation against the government”, through their “strong underground movement in urban areas”, where they were said to have infiltrated workers’ unions, “communities, organisations and parties.”

But where are these agitations taking place? All that the general public, whose security the home minister is so worried about, comes to know of are peaceful protests and social media posts of the kind cited above, that too, only after the media reports on police action against them.

Maharashtra did see serious threats to public security not too long back when Marathas demanding reservation attacked policemen after the latter lathi-charged them; when they set fire to the homes of two MLAs and a municipal office in Beed; and, when they burnt tyres to block the Mumbai-Bengaluru highwayMore than 60 policemen including an SP were hurt in the first attack; in the second, an MLA was inside his home when it was set on fire by a mob so large that the police guarding his home could do nothing.

Was this an example of ‘urban naxals’ infiltrating ‘communities’ (the Maratha community)? Unlikely, because the miscreants weren’t punished. Instead, Fadnavis punished the police who carried out the lathi-charge and apologised to those hurt in it. While he declared that the arsonists who burnt the homes of MLAs would be charged with Section 307 (attempt to murder), the general tone of the administration has been indulgent towards Maratha agitators, even when they’ve turned violent, be it now or during their previous agitation in 2016-2017, when Fadnavis was Chief Minister.

‘Urban Naxals’ has been a favourite bogey of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government at the Centre, and was used as a label against the Leftist intellectuals arrested for the January 1, 2018 violence at Bhima Koregaon in Maharashtra. Of these 16 ‘urban naxals’, 84-year-old Jesuit priest Stan Swamy died in custody; 84-year-old Telugu poet Varavara Rao almost died in jail and is out on medical bail; 74-year-old writer Gautam Navlakha is under house arrest; and four others are on bail. The remaining nine remain behind bars.

These accused were alleged to be members of ‘frontal organisations’ of the Maoists. But, the Supreme Court order granting bail to Vernon Gonsalves said there was no “reliable evidence to link” the organisation so charged “with CPI (Maoist) as its frontal organisation.” Nor could senior policemen deposing before the judicial commission set up to investigate the Bhima Koregaon violence, explain the label. This author was present when a senior officer offered the lame explanation that the term ‘frontal organisations’ had been used in Parliament.

Given these two factors: the lack of any serious agitation in Maharashtra (apart from that of the Marathas), and police actions against even small peaceful protests, there remains only one inference to be drawn from Fadnavis’ proposal. That is: even these expressions of dissent will be targeted by the new ‘public security’ law. Hardly surprising that Fadnavis hailed Uttar Pradesh as a model in its implementation of such a law.

(Jyoti Punwani is a senior journalist.)

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author's own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.

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Published 27 November 2023, 06:23 IST

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