India continues crackdown on anti-Modi intellectuals

India’s Hindu-nationalist government has been accused of using the Covid-19 pandemic to target critics and activists who oppose the prime minister’s right-wing regime.

Authorities in India have arrested two prominent human rights activists, the latest such incident in an unprecedented assault on civil liberties and dissent waged by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s right-wing government in recent years. Journalist Gautam Navlakha and academic Anand Teltumbde, both activists for civil liberties, join a number of other intellectuals and anti-Modi critics who have been incarcerated or targeted.

Teltumbde and Navlakha courted arrest on 14 April before the National Investigation Agency, the federal agency responsible for anti-terror investigations, after the Supreme Court of India rejected their anticipatory bail pleas and directed them to surrender. The activists, who were told by the court on 16 March to surrender within three weeks, had entered a plea seeking an extension of this time on the grounds that going to jail during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic would be “virtually a death sentence”. The activists have been charged under the strict Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act for allegedly having links with the Maoists, an anti-state Left-Marxist armed movement, and conspiring to assassinate Modi and overthrow his government. 

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The activists were initially booked for allegedly instigating caste-based violence at a gathering in the town Bhima Koregaon in Maharashtra state in January 2018. Nine other prominent activists – Sudha Bharadwaj, Shoma Sen, Surendra Gadling, Mahesh Raut, Arun Ferreira, Sudhir Dhawale, Rona Wilson, Vernon Gonsalves and Varavara Rao – have been detained in jail since 2018 in the same case. Bharadwaj is a law professor and trade unionist who, for more than three decades, has fought for the rights of Adivasi (indigenous) people. Rao is a poet, a Maoist ideologue, while Ferreira and Gonsalves are human rights lawyers. Raut is an activist working with the Adivasis, and Sen is an academic and women’s rights activist who has been a member of many commissions that looked into allegations of sexual violence against Adivasis by state armed forces. Gadling is a human rights lawyer and Dalit activist.

The police claim that the activists made inflammatory and provocative speeches at the Elgar Parishad meeting on 31 December 2017. They say these speeches triggered the violence the next day in which one person died. The Elgar Parishad was organised by a coalition of non-profit organisations to work for the easing of acrimony between Dalits (lower-caste Hindus and former untouchables) and “backward” classes on one hand, and Marathas (the upper-caste ruling elite) on the other. The gathering had been organised on the eve of the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Bhima Koregaon in which English soldiers, with the help of Mahar troops (Dalits) had defeated the then Peshwa-Maratha ruler.

Open letters of dissent

Days before the Indian court’s deadline to surrender, Teltumbde wrote an open letter in which he underscored the role of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a far-right Hindu nationalist group of which Modi has been a lifelong follower, in fabricating the case against him. “The RSS hand in the entire case was not hidden. My Marathi friends told me that one of their functionaries, Ramesh Patange, had written an article in their mouthpiece Panchjanya targeting me in April 2015. I was identified as Mayavi Ambedkarwadi along with Arundhati Roy and Gail Omvedt. Mayavi in the Hindu mythology refers to a demon meant to be destroyed,” he wrote.

Teltumbde, who is the grandson-in-law of Dalit icon Bhim Rao Ambedkar, the architect of India’s Constitution, ended his letter emphasising that “the jingoist nation and nationalism have got weaponised by the political class to destroy dissent and polarise people. The mass frenzy has accomplished complete derationalisation and inversion of meanings where destroyers of the nation become deshbhakts [nationalists] and selfless servers of people become deshdrohis [anti-nationals]. As I see my India being ruined, it is with a feeble hope that I write to you at such a grim moment.”

Navlakha has been associated with the Delhi-based People’s Union for Democratic Rights (PUDR) and the Mumbai-based Economic & Political Weekly, a peer-reviewed academic journal covering the social sciences. Hours before his surrender on 14 April, he released an open letter in which he stated that “under this double whammy [the “draconian” provisions of the unlawful activities act], jail becomes the norm and bail an exception … In this Kafkaesque domain, the process itself becomes punishment.” He also noted that a person is no longer “innocent unless proven guilty”.

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Earlier, authorities in the North Indian state of Uttar Pradesh filed a criminal case against Siddharth Varadarajan, a journalist and founding editor of the news website The Wire, for publishing an article that allegedly made an “objectionable” comment against the state’s chief minister, Yogi Adityanath. “The Covid-19 crisis has become an excuse to double down on prejudices, authoritarian tendencies, secrecy, lack of transparency, and the use of communal politics to divide people,” Varadarajan told HuffPost India.

As many as 3 500 jurists, academics, artists and writers have heavily criticised the Uttar Pradesh government for filing the case against Varadarajan, terming it an attack on press freedom and urging authorities not to use the Covid-19 pandemic as a cover to trample on the media’s freedom and as a pretext to impose a de facto political emergency. 

Echoing a similar view, the National Alliance of People’s Movements, a coalition of civil rights groups in India, said the government was using an “undeclared emergency” situation because of the coronavirus as a “perfect tool for curbing” dissent and establishing complete control. In a letter to Adityanath, the Press Club of India also noted that the case against Varadarajan was intended to “muzzle and threaten” freedom of expression. It said the charges against him were “false”.

History of silencing critical voices

Uttar Pradesh state authorities have previously arrested journalists for criticising Adityanath on social media. In February, the police arrested activist and scholar Sharjeel Imam for allegedly making inflammatory speeches during a protest over the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act and charged him with sedition.

In 2014, the police arrested a wheelchair-bound Delhi University professor, GN Saibaba, who is a leading voice defending the rights of religious minorities. He was sentenced to life imprisonment in 2017 for “waging war against the state” and has reportedly been kept in solitary confinement. A group of academics has issued a renewed appeal to the government to release Saibaba in view of the impending threat to his life from the Covid-19 outbreak.

In March last year, police in the eastern state of Odisha arrested Lingaraj Azad, an indigenous rights activist who has been protesting against bauxite mining in the state, on charges that included criminal conspiracy. S Mugilan, an activist with the Tamil Nadu environmental protection movement and one of the most vociferous voices on environmental issues in the state, has been missing since February 2019 after he alleged that senior police officers were involved in deadly violence during a protest in Thoothukudi in South India.

The Modi regime has also detained hundreds of civilians and several key politicians, including leaders of the anti-India movement in the disputed Kashmir region, under the controversial Jammu and Kashmir Public Safety Act. It allows authorities to imprison someone for up to two years without trial.

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In 2017, Gauri Lankesh, a senior journalist and vocal critic of Hindu extremism, was shot dead outside her house in the South Indian city of Bengaluru. Her killing was linked to the string of killings of “rationalist” intellectual writers, including MM Kalburgi, Govind Pansare and Narendra Dabholkar, by right-wing Hindu extremist groups linked to the ruling dispensation.

In October 2018, United Nations human rights experts had expressed concern that the charges against the 11 activists arrested after the Elgar Parishad were “being used to silence human rights defenders who promote and protect the rights of India’s Dalit, indigenous and tribal communities”.

Solidarity and outrage

The Communist Party of India (Maoist) politburo issued a statement to condemn the arrest of Teltumbde and Navlakha on “completely trumped-up charges”. The party pointed out that it was a matter of concern that the Supreme Court did not postpone their arrest in view of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The PUDR said the “attempt to browbeat rights activists” marks a “deep and scathing new low in the political history of contemporary India”, and the arrests are an act of “state vengeance” for their critical stance on India. “All of those arrested are public-minded individuals who have successfully brought to light the untold misery and suffering being inflicted on Adivasis by state forces and powerful vested interests,” it noted. “These 11 individuals and the organisations they are associated with have been taking up issues of workers, peasants and tribal rights, on issues of caste and communal violence, of development, displacement and the environment, of police firings.”

Human Rights Watch slammed the Modi government for “using draconian counterterrorism laws” against the activists for criticising the government or raising their voices against injustice, and urged the authorities to immediately release all activists “wrongfully” detained. “Indian police have increasingly detained people for dissent, and in several cases used sedition or counterterrorism laws against government critics and social activists,” it said.

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Avinash Kumar, executive director of Amnesty International, underlined that the arrests showed the continuation of a clampdown on those critical of the government. “Over the past two years, there has been a sustained smear campaign against these activists, accusing them of working against India and seeking to undermine years of crucial work they have done to cast light on injustice,” he said.

A statement issued by several prominent publishers noted that the arrests are clearly designed to suppress any dissent. “In prison, they will join others arrested essentially for being critics of the government,” the publishers said. The All India Forum for Right to Education said the case filed under the draconian unlawful activities act, which allows for indefinite incarceration without trial, is intended to silence a significant critical voice against the anti-democratic policies and practices of the government. “The state action against Anand Teltumbde and Gautam Navlakha is part of a larger pattern of state assault on the democratic rights and liberties of the people and on principles of equity and justice that lie at the very foundation of our republic.”

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, a non-profit organisation that promotes press freedom worldwide, said: “Sending Navlakha to jail at any time would be unjust and a clear effort to silence his critical writing. But for the Supreme Court and Indian authorities to insist on sending him to jail in the middle of a pandemic goes against their own directives and is a matter of life or death.”

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