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McCarthyism in Modi’s India

Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party are carrying out an audacious campaign to arrest left activists and silence dissent in India. The country is on a path toward fascism.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at Hamburg Airport for the Hamburg G20 economic summit on July 6, 2017 in Hamburg, Germany. Sean Gallup / Getty

From the time the ultra-right-wing Hindu communalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in India in May 2014, the country’s pretensions of being the largest democracy in the world have been fast falling apart. Recently, the BJP mounted an all-out vicious attack on left-oriented activists, writers, and intellectuals in the country, reminiscent of McCarthyism in the United States during the 1940s. For the last four years, the party in power has been unscrupulously pursuing its communal agenda to pave the way for transforming India into a Hindu “rashtra” (nation).

The current onslaught by the state is the most daring one yet, targeting well-known activists, trade unionists, and intellectuals who have an impeccable record of public service and as defenders of peoples’ democratic rights. The strategy is to curb the voices of dissent that have gained force in the wake of the economic ruination wrought by the BJP government and its utter failure to deliver on any of its promises.

Notwithstanding that the Indian constitution is projected as one of the most liberal and egalitarian constitutions, the traditional caste system, with all its viciousness, still survives. The Untouchables, or Dalits, are discriminated against by the Hindu majority in all walks of life even today. The BJP, which wants India to revert to its “glorious” past, upholds the caste division of society, an objective that appeals to the “nationalistic” instincts of the Hindu majority; discrimination against Dalits, invariably manifesting as gory violence, has only spiraled.

The Background

January 1, 2018 marked the two-hundredth year of the historic Battle of Koregaon between the British East India Company and the Peshwa faction of the Maratha Confederacy. A 28,000-strong force led by Peshwa Baji Rao II while on its way to attack Company-held Pune was unexpectedly met by an 800-strong Company force, many of whose members were from the untouchable Mahar caste. A memorial, now known as the Vijay Sthamb (“victory pillar”) was erected by the East India Company to commemorate those who fought the battle.

The site of the battle, the small village of Bhima Koregaon in Pune district of Maharashtra, has attained a hallowed status in Dalit history. From about the time Dalits began to organize in the early years of the last century, their leader B. R. Ambedkar began observing the practice of paying respect at the Bhima Koregaon obelisk, a shrine to the martyrdom of Dalit soldiers who unwittingly brought an end to the rule of the Peshwas. It became a matter of deep pride for Dalits that their caste fellows had fought to defeat the casteist and debauched rule of the Brahmin Peshwas.

After Ambedkar’s death in 1956, he became the rallying icon for Dalits. The places associated with him, one of them being Bhima Koregaon, became congregating points for Dalits every year. This year, marking the two-hundredth anniversary of Bhima Koregaon, was seen as a special occasion, which was used by the anti-BJP forces to rally people against the communal politics of the BJP.

Elgar Parishad

Two progressive retired judges, ex-justice P. B. Sawant of the Supreme Court and ex-justice B. G. Kolshe-Patil of the Bombay High Court, conceived the idea of a large public conference on the eve of the Bhima Koregaon anniversary, leading to the convening of the Elgar Parishad (Elgar Conference), an initiative supported by around 250 organizations belonging to Dalits, Adivasis, Other Backward Castes (OBCs), and Marathas, the dominant caste in the state of Maharashtra, who have been unhappy with the loss of their political power under the current Brahmin chief minister.

The central message of the conference was to declare opposition to the Hindutva ideology of the BJP, which, in disregard of the Indian constitution upholds the primacy of Hindus and the Hindu way of life in India. The conference was the platform for the potential coming together of Dalits and Marathas against the BJP, threatening to topple the BJP’s applecart in Maharashtra, the fountainhead of both Hindutva ideology and its organization.

As a countermove, a controversy was created by two agent provocateurs of the Hindutva camp, Milind Ekbote of the Samastha Hindu Aaghadi (All India Hindu Front) and Sambhaji Bhide of Shiv Pratisthan (Shivaji Foundation), over the memorial of Sambhaji, a son of Shivaji, who is said to have been dismembered by Aurangzeb in a village called Vadhu Budruk, four km from Koregaon. The creation of the memorial is attributed to a Dalit, Govind Gaikwad, who in defiance of the diktat of the Mughal ruler Aurangzeb, cremated Sambhaji’s body in his own field and built a memorial there. Govind Gaikwad’s Samadhi, or tomb, is also near the complex that houses Sambhaji’s memorial. The Hindutva forces, disputing the role of Govind Gaikwad, upheld the supposed claim of upper-caste Marathas to the memorial.

On December 29, 2017, the memorial of Govind Gaikwad was found damaged, creating a minor communal clash between Dalits and Marathas. This clash was to be escalated by the goons marshaled by Bhide and Ekbote so as to derail the Elgar Parishad.

Unfortunately for them, the villagers of Vadhu Budruk resolved the dispute locally the next day. The surrounding villages and even Pune city, about thirty km away, knew about the secretive preparations of the Hindutva forces as confirmed by a “secret” report. The eight-page report, submitted on January 20, claimed that Hindutva activists Sambhaji Bhide and Milind Ekbote had allegedly roped in Hindutva ultras to create unrest. The document further stated that Ekbote’s men had announced the conspiracy on social media and were aware of the “proposed” clashes since December 16, 2017. Yet the government did not take any steps to prevent any such clashes, such as deployment of adequate police force, to thwart the imminent communal clashes.

The Elgar Parishad took place on December 31, as had been planned. It was attended by activists from all over Maharashtra. Among the invitees were Jignesh Mewani (a young upcoming leader and member of legislative assembly [MLA] from Narendra Modi’s state, Gujarat), Umar Khalid (a PhD scholar from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, who was arrested on false charges of sedition at the instance of the Hindutva forces), and mother of Rohith Vemula, a Dalit PhD scholar from Hyderabad Central University who was driven to suicide by the circumstances created by the BJP, the central government, and university authorities in 2016. The conference ended peacefully, with a collective pledge taken by all the delegates that they would protect India’s constitution and democracy and fight the BJP’s pro-Hindutva tactics.

As feared by the Dalits, the Hindutva marauders, flying saffron flags and hailing the victory of Ekbote and Bhide, struck at the congregation. Scores of innocent Dalits were beaten up, their vehicles damaged, and their stalls burnt as the inadequate police force looked on. In the melee a Maratha youth lost his life. A Dalit woman, also a victim of the rioting, registered a First Information Report (FIR) against the culprits, naming Ekbote and Bhide. Dalits observed a statewide “bandh,” or shutdown, on January 3 to condemn the attack and demand the arrest of both Ekbote and Bhide. However, the government stayed silent, refusing to act. On the contrary, it began attributing the riots to the “inflammatory” speeches made in the conference on the previous day.

The conference proceedings were, in fact, recorded not by the people but by the police and could have been easily verified. But the police made a deliberate allegation against Mewani and Khalid and got an FIR lodged against them, further infuriating Dalits and progressive forces.

As the demand for the arrest of Ekbote and Bhide scaled up, the government decided to resort to its pet plan of insinuating that there was Maoist infiltration, hoping to kill many birds with one stone: it would spread terror and weaken the demand for the arrests of Ekbote and Bhide; it would breach the potential unity of Dalits and Marathas; it would consolidate the Hindus and isolate radical voices from among Dalits. The FIR against Mewani and Khalid would not serve these purposes, however, and hence it was shelved. The police began to insinuate that the Elgar Parishad was funded by Maoists. On the eighth day, one RSS functionary, Tushar Damgude, lodged a FIR with Pune police alleging Maoist involvement in the organization of Elgar Parishad. The Pune police promptly picked it up to develop a full-fledged attack on the noted activists and intellectuals known to be critical of the Modi government.

Computers and the Evidence Factory

The Maoist funding theory provided the pretext for the police to conduct raids on the houses of activists and to confiscate computers and digital devices, which come in handy to declare that “conclusive” evidence had been recovered to arrest some of them under the dreaded Unlawful Activity Prevention Act (UAPA), under which the police can arrest anyone on mere suspicion; the arrestee does not have any defense. The modus operandi of the police is to indiscriminately confiscate from activists’ books that have any key words like “Marx,” “Lenin,” “Mao,” or “revolution,” any pamphlets or leaflets in their possession, and any kind of digital device. These are enough to establish the victim’s connection with Maoists.

The police have other ways, too, to forcibly extract confessions or requisite statements from the arrestees against anyone they target. In the case of Arun Ferreira, the police had confiscated his thumb drive, portraying it in the media as a deadly weapon (taking things so far that they became a butt of public jokes). They claimed to have unearthed a Maoist plot to blast the stupa at Deekshabhoomi, the memorial where Ambedkar had converted to Buddhism along with half a million followers and which attracts millions of Dalits who congregate at this place to observe the anniversary of their conversion to Buddhism.

The details of the “plot” were released to the media to create hatred in the minds of Dalits about Maoists. None of these fantastic claims were raised officially in the court. Arun Ferreira was subjected to the Narco Analysis Test, during which he interestingly revealed that Maoist activities were funded by the founder of the Hindu right-wing Shiv Sena party, Bal Thackeray. The police did not of course act upon this “narco” evidence; they simply discarded it.

The harassment of the activists began by the police on a low key in April 2018. They raided the homes of Pune-based Kabir Kala Manch (KKM) activists (Rupali Jadhav, Jyoti Jagtap, Ramesh Gaichor, Sagar Gorkhe, Dhawala Dhengale) and a Republican Panther activist (Harshali Potdar) — all of whom spent varying lengths of time in jail for their alleged Maoist connections, without any justification as their subsequent acquittal proved.

That was perhaps a trial run. Early on the morning of June 6, 2018, raids were conducted simultaneously on the homes of noted women’s rights activist Professor Shoma Sen, head of the English Department at Nagpur University and executive member of Committee for Protection of Democratic Rights (CPDR); Advocate Surendra Gadling, General Secretary of the Indian Association of Peoples’ Lawyers (IAPL), who has fought the cases of hapless victims of police excesses; Sudhir Dhawale, the editor of the Marathi magazine Vidrohi and founder of the Republican Panthers, who spent forty months in jail before he was acquitted; human rights activist Rona Wilson, a former research scholar of Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi, and Secretary of the Committee for the Release of Political Prisoners (CRPP); and anti-displacement activist Mahesh Raut, an alumnus of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai, and a former prime minister’s Rural Development Fellow, who is working with “gram sabhas,” or village legislative bodies, in the mining areas of Gadhchiroli district, Maharashtra.

The police arrested all of them in connection with the Bhima Koregaon riots. Except for Sudhir Dhawale, who took active part in the Elgar Parishad, none of the others had the remotest connection with it. But the police had got hold of the personal computers of all the arrested activists, so it would be easy to create any evidence they wanted.

And the police came out with their initial claim that the Elgar Parishad was organized and funded by the Maoists. Justice Kolshe-Patil, the chief organizer along with Justice Sawant, insisted in every possible public forum that the idea of organizing the conference was entirely their own and that even Sudhir Dhawale had come in later. But to no avail.

The computers provided the police the full scope to script the conspiracy. It became easy for the police to declare Rona Wilson, well known for taking up the cudgels for political prisoners and a thorn in the government’s side, to be the node of the Maoist network. His computer yielded a huge load of documents, all in English, in the form of elaborate essays that mentioned the names of activists and intellectuals critical of the government. There were all kinds of names, including that of Prakash Ambedkar (a grandson of B. R. Ambedkar, three-time Member of Parliament and leader of the Bharipa Bahujan Mahasangh) and Rahul Gandhi (president of the Indian National Congress), clearly showing political overkill. Again, Justice Kolshe-Patil’s anguished explanation that they did not require a single penny for organizing the conference would be ignored.

Mother of Conspiracies

The arrests of the noted activists, who were unconnected with Bhima Koregaon or any other violence, sparked protests all over the country. Bhide and Ekbote were at large, the former arrested after his interim bail application was rejected by the Supreme Court only to be soon bailed out; the latter received a clean chit from the chief minister. Meanwhile, the Special Investigation Team (SIT) of Karnataka uncovered a plot to kill four rationalist intellectuals —Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare, M. M. Kalburgi, and Gauri Lankesh. Subsequent raids at the headquarters of Sanatan Sanstha, a Hindutva outfit that openly propagates hatred against rationalists and progressives and has spoken of killing them, led to the recovery of huge stocks of arms and ammunition. But the government has been reluctant to investigate the activities of the Sanatan Sanstha. To divert public attention from the demand to ban the outfit, it needed to come out with the ultimate bogey of the “Modi assassination plot.”

This plot has had many earlier runs in Gujarat in the period 2001–2014 when Modi was the chief minister of that state. In order to create a psychosis among people about “terrorists,” show that a particular community was out to destabilize the country, and project Modi as a courageous leader unafraid to tackle “terrorism,” many innocent people were killed in fake encounters. The SIT under the oversight of the Supreme Court had exposed those responsible for the “encounter” killings. But the change of the guard at the Center in 2014 neatly pushed all investigations and their outcomes under the carpet, freeing those who were implicated. Even the 2002 carnage of more than two thousand Muslims remains unpunished.

The script writers forgot that such a plot for the assassination of an individual is not the Maoist method. Communist ideologue Charu Mujamdar’s theory of “annihilation of class enemy,” which endorsed the killing of individuals, was discarded by the leaders of his own party soon after it was propounded. Any book on the history of the Indian communist movement would corroborate this fact.

While it is true that the Maoists, mainly ill-fed and ill-clad Adivasis in the jungles of central India, believe in armed revolution, they know they are light years away from it. Interestingly, the successive governments have projected the poor Adivasis as the “biggest threat” to the internal security of the country, and they have been unleashing the might of the state against them for more than a decade. The Adivasis have not even issued a simple rebuttal of the police claims. Notwithstanding these facts, by projecting such a threat, the police can target well-known activists and intellectuals and systematically break the back of dissent.

Establishing the Urban Naxal / Urban Maoist

After establishing the Maoists as violent and bloodthirsty, it became easy for the government to suggest that there was a Maoist conspiracy in the genuine grassroots movements of Dalits and Adivasis. In 2006, when spontaneous Dalit protests against the brutal Khairlanji massacre broke out in the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra, the then home minister of the state alleged that Naxalites were involved and gave the police a free hand to deal with the protestors. The atrocities that were unleashed on the protesting Dalits were termed by our fact-finding report as worse than the Khairlanji murders.

In the current labeling game played by the state, an urban Naxal, or urban Maoist, is anyone who works for the poor, fights for their rights, and, inevitably, criticizes the government. Labeling and maligning is a convenient weapon to be used summarily against anyone. There is also of course the dangerous weapon of UAPA under which innocent people can be incarcerated for years on the basis of mere suspicion. Indeed, over 99 percent of those who were arrested because they were believed to be Maoists in recent decades have been acquitted after serving time for an average period of four to five years. It is a different story that in many of these cases, the police would rearrest an acquitted person for a much longer period by slapping a new set of charges on them.

It is easy to see how computers and other digital equipment confiscated from the arrested activists could have easily been used to provide material to construct a “Maoist Modi assassination plot” and link the names of activists and intellectuals to the “plot.” On August 28, 2018, early in the morning, the Pune police launched simultaneous raids on the homes of a number of people (activists, priests, writers, and lawyers), including the present author, in Mumbai, Delhi, Ranchi, Goa, and Hyderabad. By the end of the day, five prominent rights activists — Sudha Bharadwaj, Vernon Gonsalves, Varavara Rao, Gautam Navlakha, and Arun Ferreira — had been arrested for their alleged links to Maoists and for indirect involvement in the supposed Modi assassination plot. However, the FIR the arrests were based on related to the violence that followed the Bhima Koregaon event.

The five have been charged under several sections of the UAPA as well as under the following sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC): Section 153a (promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language, etc., and doing acts prejudicial to maintenance of harmony); Section 505 (making statements conducive to public mischief); Section 117 (abetting commission of offence by the public or by more than ten persons); and Section 120 (concealing design to commit offence punishable with imprisonment) and

The mala fide intention of the state has been exposed in every instance where activists have been accused of having Maoist connections, most significantly in 2007 when the well-known public health specialist and activist Binayak Sen was arrested for sedition. In India, draconian laws, the ease of producing fake evidence, and a tortuous judicial process are enough to keep an innocent “suspect” in jail. Despite international indignation and protest, Sen was held for nearly two years in jail, awarded a life sentence, and only with the exceptional intervention of the Supreme Court, managed to get out on bail.

Sen serves as an example of what the state can do to anyone despite their impeccable background and public support. Professor G. N. Saibaba, almost completely disabled and wheelchair-bound, can serve as an extreme example. Through a hodgepodge trial, which has been severely faulted by legal luminaries, Saibaba, along with four other co-accused, has been awarded a life sentence. These are not stray cases: there are 293,000 such undertrials in Indian jails.

The unprecedented crackdown on dissenters in India is a sinister strategy of the government to cover up its total failure. It also portends a horrific future for this country should the BJP again come to power in 2019. India would certainly then be a Hindu nation. Modi has almost fully prepared for it in terms of hegemonizing most institutions and legitimizing his demagogic leadership. The current arrests clearly point the way to an ultra-fascist Brahminical future for the country — a frightening prospect not only for Indians but the rest of the world.