Activists: enemies of State?

Who’s Plotting: The arrests of rights activists is a bid to silence inconvenient voices

Protesters from various Left organisations shout slogans as they protest against the detention of human rights activists under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) in New Delhi on August 30. AFP

Some of the 10 rights activists arrested so far were woken up by the dreaded midnight knock on their doors, some were pushed into waiting vehicles while on their morning walks, others got an unpleasant post-noon surprise. The charges against all of them – arrested from across the country in two rounds, on June 6 and August 28 – are grave: of precipitating the Bhima Koregaon violence in January this year; of seeking to help Maoists arm themselves with Russian and Chinese weapons to wage war against the Indian State; of even plotting to assassinate Prime Minister Narendra Modi in a ‘Rajiv Gandhi-type incident’!  

Surendra Gadling, Shoma Sen, Rona Wilson, Mahesh Raut and Sudhir Dhawale were arrested on June 6; P Varavara Rao, Sudha Bharadwaj, Gautam Navlakha, Vernon Gonsalves and Arun Ferreira were arrested on August 28. Except that most people, and the Supreme Court, found the charges against these activists – mostly well-known champions of the rights of Dalits, Adivasis and other marginalised groups -- hard to believe, and are curious to see what evidence the Pune police can produce against them. The police claimed to have seized incriminating documents and mobile phones, laptops, hard-disks, etc., during the raids on these 10 and on three others – Father Stan Swamy, Anand Teltumbde and Susan Abraham.

While those arrested on June 6 are still in custody, the police have so far failed to file a chargesheet against them and have sought an additional 90 days to do so. In the case of those arrested on August 28, the police failed to even secure custody. Barely giving Pune police the benefit of doubt, the Supreme Court ordered that the arrested activists be sent back home and, if necessary, kept under house arrest till September 6, now extended to Sept 12.

All of them were arrested in the backdrop of the December 31, 2017 meeting at the historic Elgar Parishad in the heart of Pune city and the subsequent January 1, 2018 caste riots in Bhima Koregaon. They have been accused of having links with CPI(Maoists), and arrested on the charge that the Elgar Parishad meeting led to the Bhima Koregaon caste riots the next day, which marked the bicentenary of the Anglo-Maratha war in which the Mahar caste soldiers of the East India Company defeated the Brahmin Peshwas.

For Gonsalves and Ferreira, this is all nothing new. They have been raided and arrested before for alleged links with Maoists. Gonsalves’ son Sagar Abraham-Gonsalves was witness to the pre-dawn swoop on their home in Andheri, Mumbai, and the police’s evidence collection.

“...Any book that had Mao, Naxal or Marx in its name was examined and many of them were taken away as evidence. These are books you could very easily have found in a library or online. My personal copy of the ‘Bolshevik Revolution Volume 1’ by EH Carr was also packed away as evidence,” Sagar said in a Facebook post.

The police team were at their residence for nearly seven hours. “The helplessness deepened when I saw the casual conversations my parents were having with the police constables. About what they had studied and where they lived. At one point my mother (lawyer-activist Susan Abraham) even made tea for the entire police team …Tea was had, and conversations were shared but that feeling of helplessness kept clawing at me from the inside. There was nothing my parents or me (sic) could do against the might of the all-powerful State and its machinery. So, we coped with it through small talk and smiles,” he said.

“The government is rattled by the success of Elgar Parishad. More than 250 organisations took part in it...,” said Sudhir Dhawale said, the only one of the 10 arrested who was on the dias at Elgar Parishad. These arrests, he charged, were made to protect those behind the murders of rationalist Narendra Dabholkar, Communist leader Govind Pansare, Kannada writer Prof. MM Kalburgi and journalist-activist Gauri Lankesh.

Former Lok Sabha MP and Bharipa Bahujan Mahasangh founder Prakash Ambedkar, the grandson of Babasaheb Ambedkar, too, says the arrests are a ploy to divert the attention from the culprits behind the Bhima Koregaon violence, naming Milind Ekbote, the founder of Pune-based Samastha Hindu Aghadi, and Sangli-based Sambaji Bhide ‘Guruji’, the founder of Shree Shiv Pratishtan Hindustan. The Pune police could arrest only Ekbote, after the Supreme Court rejected his anticipatory bail plea, while Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis, who also holds the Home portfolio, gave a clean chit to Sambaji Bhide. Even Ekbote has since been released on bail.

“There is absolutely no relation between Elgar Parishad and the violence in Koregaon Bhima...the Elgar Parishad had nothing to do with CPI(Maoists),” said retired judge BG Kholse-Patil.

“These are all false allegations to malign and defame me. I don’t know any Maoist leader and I have no relation to any of this,” said Anand Telumbde, a senior professor at Goa Institute of Management. Why’s he caught up in this? Well, if the title of your latest book is ‘Republic of Caste: Thinking Equality in the time of Neoliberal Hindutva’, these days you are bound to get into trouble with the powers that be.

A former top Maharashtra police official, who has extensive experience in anti-Maoist operations, says it is crucial for the police to prove the charges they have made. “These 10 activists have been involved in a range of protests, demonstrations and legal processes on issues that overlap with the Maoist agenda. Their activities and affiliations have been under the scrutiny of successive regimes. Of course, some of the issues would fall within the scope of legally permissible advocacy. Moreover, the charges are difficult to prove.”  

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Activists: enemies of State?

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