A recent Indian story
Dissent is rarely welcomed in any society. As power increases, appreciation of dissent decreases. Innumerable examples can be seen with dictators or absolute powers. It is also possible in religion, culture, and other domains. China, Russia, and North Korea give us enough examples of political dictatorship. At times, the case is not very much different in democracies. The action taken against the dissent needs to be sugar-coated that the repressive action can be portrayed as a security measure for national security, communal harmony, or something in that order.
My country India, with all its high democratic values, is no different. The officially declared emergency(1975) may be the worst period in that line. But there are many unofficial competitors for the same today. The recent arrest of many social activists (latest in that line being Fr. Stan Swamy, a tribal activist) under a draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) along with many contemporary events raises serious questions.
History of Bhima Koregaon Violence and the Arrest
Bhima Koregaon in Pune, Maharashtra, the seat of unrest now, is a tiny village, but is associated with an extraordinary phase of Maratha history. Two hundred years ago, on January 1, 1818, a few hundred Mahar soldiers (one group of the erstwhile untouchables) of the East India Company, led by the British, defeated the massive Peshwa army, led by Peshwa Bajirao II, in Koregaon. This battle has, since, attained legendary stature in Dalit history (Dalit is the word used for all people belonging to the erstwhile untouchables). Ambedkarite (Father of Indian constitution, and one who fought for Dalits) Dalits do not see this from the narrow lens of nationalism versus imperialism. Over the years, as the battle came to be seen as a victory of the Mahars against the injustices perpetuated by the Brahminical Peshwas, thousands of Ambedkarites have been gathering in Bhima Koregaon on January 1 to pay their respect at the Vijay Sthamb (victory pillar). The pillar was erected by the East India Company in memory of those who fought the battle and includes the names of the Mahar soldiers who unknowingly brought an end to the Peshwa rule in 1818.(Hindu, 4 January, 2018) (Bolded words in the quotations are my additions).
“Govind Gopal Mahar is a 17th-century peasant who Dalit groups and some historians believe performed the last rights of Maratha king Chhatrapati Sambhaji, the son of Chhatrapati Shivaji (a much-respected king by Marathas), in defiance of a decree passed by Mughal emperor Aurangzeb”.(Hindustan Times, 2 January 2020). This is a historical event that creates strong emotions and oppositions between the upper castes and the Dalits.
There had been a clash at Mahar samadhi (memorial place for the dead) on 29 December 2017 which was mentioned in an Elgar Parishad Conference at Shaniwarwada Pune on 31 December 2017. It was a conference organized by many NGOs to commemorate the bicentennial anniversary of Bhima Koregaon and Dalit leaders addressed the gathering of nearly 35,000. Shaniwardwada is an erstwhile seat of Peshwas. (“Peshwas were the loyal ministers of Marathas state who were appointed to assist the king in different administrative as well as political affairs.”) Some Dalit leaders also claimed that the BJP-RSS (BJP is the ruling dispensation of the country and RSS is widely considered as the parent organization of BJP) represents the New-Peshwai Mentality.
So we can already see different points of view between Marathas and Peshwas vs Dalits. When one group saw the Mahar memorial and Bhima Koregaon as prestigious memories for them, the others don’t share the same enthusiasm.
As part of the yearly celebrations, Dalits assembled in 2018, which was also the 200th anniversary of the Bhima Koregaon event. Violence erupted between the Dalits and the Maratha groups. One of the accusations is that there were inflammatory speeches at the Elgar Parishad Conference, which led to violence. The other side of the story is that these are sponsored by the Hindutva groups.
The aftermath of Violence
There were blame games from both sides. There were many protests post the violence. Prakash Ambedkar (a prominent Dalit leader) and Anita Sawale (an anti-caste activist) have named Sambhaji Bhide and Milind Ekbote (Hindutva leaders) as responsible for the violence. After criticism by the Supreme Court of India for the slow progress of the case, Ekbote was arrested on 14 March 2018. One interesting thing to be noted here is that BJP run governments existed at the national and state level. Their admiration for Hindutva policies is well known.
An Organisation called Forum for Integrated National Security (FINS) produced a report on the Bhima Koregaon Violence. Many of the associates of this organization have an affinity to BJP and its parent organization RSS. The report identified new links for some of the participants of the Edgar conference. A short message from an article in Scroll sums it up well;
A report released by a security think-tank in March into caste violence in Bhima Koregaon near Pune on January 1 had foreshadowed the turn taken by the police investigation into the events. The report pinned the blame for the violence on a Maoist conspiracy — a conclusion that bears striking resemblance to the claims the Pune police has subsequently made in court.
Thus we have a new list of accused persons. Police arrested the first group of activists (Surendra Gadling, Sudhir Dhawale, Rona Wilson, Shoma Sen, and Mahesh Raut) on 8 June 2018, and the second group of activists (Varavara Rao, Sudha Bharadwaj, and Arun Ferreira, Gautam Navlakha, and Vernon Gonsalves)on 28 August 2018. On 14th April 2020, Anand Teltumbde was arrested, and on 9th October 2020, 83-year-old Father Stan Swamy. The initially accused duo, Sambhaji Bhide and Milind Ekbote are roaming free now. One of the dissenting opinions by a supreme court judge (Justice Chandrachud)on one of the petitions related to the same case before the supreme court on 28 September 2018 is, “Dissent is the safety valve of democracy. If dissent is not allowed, then the pressure cooker will burst”
If you are not suspecting any controversy till now, there is another strange incident that evokes suspicion. In November 2019, there was a change of guard in the state of Maharastra. BJP was out of power and the case was removed from the hands of the Maharashtra government is bizarre.
On January 22, 2020, Maharashtra home minister Anil Deshmukh and deputy chief minister Ajit Pawar met the Pune police and the state intelligence officials for a review meeting on the case. Soon after the meeting, Deshmukh announced that by the next week, his department would take a decision on whether a Special Investigation Team (SIT) needs to be constituted to look into the investigation. But even before the state could act upon its announcement, the Union home ministry decided to take the case away from the Maharashtra police. (The Wire, 26 September)
Thus the case moved to the Central government. After almost a year, NIA filed a 10000-page charge sheet in October 2020. All are not accused in the first charge sheet, and one more may be expected. The activists are in jail accused of heavy charges. How long it will take before a judgment? Knowing the slow progress of cases in Indian Courts, it's difficult to say. The specialty of the law (UAFA) under which they are arrested makes the situation further complicated.
The Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (‘UAPA’) was passed in the year 1967 as a mechanism to check unlawful activities, terrorist organisations and other notorious groups posing a threat to the integrity and sovereignty of India. Civil rights organizations have vehemently opposed the legislation, which negates the very ethos of democracy. For one, it gives sweeping powers to the government to designate any group or opinion as ‘unlawful.’ In essence, it dilutes the distinction between political opposition and criminal activity. This persecution and delegitimization of political dissent is representative a larger culture of political witch-hunting, which mischaracterizes legitimate opposition to the government as waging war against India.
Unique bail conditions in several “special criminal laws” are one of the vestiges of India’s colonial past. Among these is Section 43(D)5 of the UAPA, which only allows an accused to receive bail, if the court has “reasonable grounds for believing” that they are innocent. As is evident from the bare letter of this provision, it contradicts the very purpose of bail, which is to prevent punishment before conviction. (Lawschoolpolicyreview.com)
Thus the access to many of the rights is denied to them because they have supposedly committed serious crimes. To have a clearer idea about the subject, I mention the stories of three of the accused.
Knowing them a little more…
1. Mari Marcel Thekaekara in an article in the Guardian criticizes the arrest of Fr Stan Swamy. Fr Stan is 83 years old and has been fighting for the rights of the poor tribals, and this is the prize he had to pay at the ripe old age. A report of protest from his Karmabhumi (place of work) reveals the anger against the injustice done to him. The article by John Dayal reveals the work done by Stan by the application of various governmental laws to protect the land and resources of the tribals and to help innocent tribals languishing in prisons without proper legal aid.
In an article, Stan Swamy says that there are increasing seasonal and permanent migrations by Tribals to other parts of India for obtaining work because of deepening poverty (despite the high level of growth existing in India till the arrival of COVID-19) and governmental repression to extract their lands with minimum compensation and to offer it to the huge industries. He worked against governmental repression, which is also against the interests of major industries. Do they act as stimulations for his arrest?
2. Prof Varavara Rao is the second oldest man, poet, and one of the most important literary critiques of the Telugu literature. He was arrested innumerable times by various governments (the first one being 1973). The initial arrests were highly criticized by the High Courts and then he was released. He was again accused of a conspiracy case in 1985 and was only acquitted fully in 2003. He was one of the peace emissaries for the talks between state governments and Maoist organizations. Talks failed and he himself was accused as one with Maoist links.
In 2020, the then home minister of the erstwhile Congress government K Jana Reddy (though much late) said, “As the then Home Minister I carried the responsibility of holding peace talks between the then Andra Pradesh government and Naxal parties in the year 2004 October. Mr. Rao played a significant role in creating a cordial climate in conducting these peace talks and was genuinely interested in bringing peace in the state.” How governmental powers can accuse someone and keep him in prisons to be released later as free of charge? Who is responsible for this irresponsible act by the existing governments and who will repay the falsely accused of their loss?
3. Sudha Bhardwaj is one of the activists from Chattisgarh. Being an IITian (one of the prestigious engineering institute in the country), she would have obtained many looked-after jobs. But she found her home in trade union movements and later as a lawyer fighting for the rights of workers. “In December 2019, Rajkumar Sahu, a water-treatment-plant operator at a cement factory in the central Chattisgarh town of Durg felt compelled to make a 1,000-km journey to Pune to try and meet the incarcerated lawyer Sudha Bharadwaj. Explaining why he made the journey for a fleeting meeting with Bharadwaj, as the police brought her to court for a hearing, the 50-year-old blue-collar worker said, “She is not just our lawyer or union colleague. For us, Sudha didi (elder sister) is family”.”
She helped many of the workers to go against the big companies; their salaries and living conditions improved. Some other interesting accolades of the accused are,
Bharadwaj’s sustained work over three decades for difficult causes also led to requests to legally represent government departments, such as the Ministry of Tribal Affairs, feature on a sub-committee on tribal issues for the National Advisory Council, address judges, and most recently over 2017–18, teach law students as visiting faculty at the National Law University, Delhi. Over 2013–14, Bharadwaj was also offered a judge’s post at the Chhattisgarh High Court. She turned it down so she could continue her legal aid work for the state’s marginalized, recalled her daughter and numerous colleagues.(Article 14, 28 August, 2020)
Dissent is crushed for various reasons by the governments in power. Some of them can be;
- Dissent is against the interest of the government or its allies.
- To create a rhetoric that can divert the attention. Later, they might be sent free, but the function of distraction is already served
- To send a message to the opponents of those in power.
I don’t know which all of the above are applied in this particular case. Though I believe in their innocence, others may have different views. But the normal legal dictum that “innocent until proved otherwise” is easily forgotten and the activists who have worked to improve the lives of innumerable poor (which is the task of the government) are so carelessly thrown into jails under draconian laws.
We as a society, do treat them badly for their yeoman services and I stand with them. I hope that justice is granted to all of the accused and many other political prisoners, at the earliest.