By Samuel Mathai
Totalitarianism is the other name of Indian democracy today. The democratically elected government in the country exercises an extremely high degree of control over public and private life. People at the helm can’t digest any form of opposition. And, they always try to muzzle dissension. The government propaganda campaign through venal (Bikau) media is at work. It’s a dangerous time to speak the truth. Human rights activists, journalists and intellectuals are being targeted and subjected to a vicious and mala fide attack. They continue to face death threats, attacks, false charges and raids. Political repression, personality cultism, restriction of speech, mass surveillance, raids by Income, CBI and other government agencies and arrests of rights activists are the order of the day.
In flagrant violation of the freedom of the press, the Income Tax officers, obviously at the behest of the BJP government at the Centre, on October 11, conducted a 22-hour raid at the office of Quintillion Media Pvt Ltd in Noida, which runs the website The Quint. I-T officers raided the residence of The Quint’s Editor-in-Chief Raghav Bahl and CEO Ritu Kapur, and the office of Quintype too, and conducted a survey at The News Minute in Bengaluru.
Journalists from across the country condemned the raid – terming it ‘intimidation’ – and demanded that the government ‘explain’ the reasons behind the same. They termed it an ‘attack on the freedom of press.’
Expressing concern over the raids, the Editors Guild of India, in a statement, said, “While the tax administration is within its rights to make inquiries in compliance with the relevant laws, it should not exercise those powers in a way that could be seen as intimidation of the government's critics. The Guild believes that motivated income tax searches and surveys will seriously undermine media freedom and the government should desist from such attempts.”
The searches triggered a number social media posts questioning the independence of media. Senior journalist Shekhar Gupta, who is also the president of the Editors Guild, said on Twitter that the raids looked like intimidation of media critical to the government.
The democratically elected government in the country today is exercising an extremely high degree of control over public and private life. It shows, people at the helm can’t digest any form of opposition. And, they always try to muzzle dissension. It’s a dangerous time to speak the truth. Human rights activists, journalists and intellectuals are being targeted and subjected to mala fide attacks.
Recently, the Supreme Court of India, in a majority judgement, has refused to interfere in the arrests of five rights activists. The judgment was proclaimed by Chief Justice Dipak Misra and Justice AM Khanwilkar, whereas Justice Dhananjaya Y Chandrachud dissented.
The activists -- Varavara Rao, Arun Ferreira, Vernon Gonsalves, Sudha Bharadwaj and Gautam Navlakha -- have been under house arrest since August 29, in connection with the violence in the annual gathering of Elgar Parishad held at Bhima Koregaon in Maharashtra on December 31. The violence that killed one person was triggered on January 1.
Earlier, on September 20, the court had reserved its judgment and said it would look into the case with a ‘hawk's eye’ as “liberty cannot be sacrificed at the altar of conjectures.” It was also said that it may order an SIT probe if it found that evidence had been ‘cooked up.’
Questioning the arrest of the five activists nearly nine months after the violence, the apex court had observed, “Dissent is the safety valve of democracy... the pressure cooker will burst if you don’t allow the safety valves.”
Following the Bhima Koregaon incident, the Pune police had raided the residences of prominent lawyers and activists in Delhi, Faridabad, Goa, Mumbai, Ranchi and Hyderabad and arrested them for alleged Maoist links. They were charged with criminal conspiracy, creating fear and enmity between groups, and under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act.
According to an FIR, provocative speeches were made at the event. Unsurprisingly, the Maharashtra police have included a plot to kill Prime Minister Narendra Modi and topple his government, in the case.
Earlier, in April, the Pune police had arrested prominent rights activists like Surendra Gadling, Mahesh Raut, Shoma Sen, Rona Wilson and Sudhir Dhawale besides raiding Harshali Potdar, Jyoti Jagtap, Ramesh Gaychor and Sagar Gorke.
The police also raided Father Stan Swamy in Ranchi and Kranti in Telangana. Anand Teltumbde's Goa home also featured on the list, but the activist wasn’t at home. Laptops, pen drives and documents have been seized for analysis.
Shockwaves from the violence that pitted higher-caste agitators against out-of-caste Dalits, once known as untouchables, have spread far. The police move was condemned by opposition leaders and other public figures as an attack on civil rights.
Since Dalits face continued discrimination and the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) is in charge both of Maharashtra’s government and the national one, the state police have ignored eyewitness testimony. Instead, they have pursued the theory of a leftist—specifically Maoist—conspiracy. They have raided houses across the country, arresting well-known leftists, among them activists, lawyers, writers and academics, and charging them under draconian anti-terror laws.
Pro-government TV networks have put the spotlight on letters allegedly found by the cops. The letters neatly tie each suspect by name to a 50-year-old armed insurgency by ostensibly Maoist guerrillas, known as Naxalites, that festers in India’s interior regions. One letter also appeared hinting a plan to kill Prime Minister Modi with a suicide-bomb, like the one that killed former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.
The letters, riddled with inconsistencies, have conveniently linked up the Maoists, human-rights groups, Christian missionaries, Muslim organisations, Kashmiri separatists, the opposition Congress, Western academics, Dalit activists, China and academic institutions with the case.
Several theories circulated as to why, despite its obvious flimsiness, the case was being pursued and even loudly endorsed by Modi’s senior henchmen. One is that this is pure politics. The rumpus allows the BJP, which faces state elections in November and a general one next year, to play to its strengths as nationalist, pro-Hindu and pro-dominant caste.
Secondly, the Maharashtra police force has egg on its face from the limpness of its investigation into the murder of two outspoken critics of Hindu nationalism in the state in 2013 and 2015. By contrast, police in the neighbouring state of Karnataka have rounded up more than a dozen suspects, including the confessed trigger man, in the similar murder last year of Gauri Lankesh, a firebrand secular journalist.
Thirdly, the rival detectives appear to have exposed a Hindu extremist hit squad, mainly based in Maharashtra, linked to well-connected religious groups and armed with a list of secular targets. But this theory, too, is odd. It suggests that Maharashtra’s finest think they can appear heroic by labelling elderly sandal-wearing intellectuals as dangerous assassins.
The Bhima Koregaon violence
A pillar in a dusty park in Bhima Koregaon marks the victory on New Year’s Day in 1818 of a British-led but largely Dalit-manned army against the Marathas, a Hindu dynasty which then controlled most of western India.
Members of the Dalit community from all over Maharashtra gathered there on December 31 last to celebrate what they call their victory over Maratha Peshwas. As this year was the 200th anniversary of ‘Vijay Diwas’, over three lakh people attended the event.
Maratha descent still tends to disdain Dalits, who come from far and wide to mark this triumph. Dalit leader and Gujarat lawmaker Jignesh Mewani also attended the event.
However, 'Right wing' groups had reportedly opposed the Dalit celebrations saying they cannot observe a 'British' victory. Clashes between 'right-wing' groups and Dalits who had congregated there turned violent. The violence spread to Mumbai and other cities in the next three days.
The arrested activists
Varavara Rao: A communist, activist, renowned poet, journalist, literary critic, and public speaker from Telangana, Varavara Rao was arrested in Hyderabad. Rao, 77, has been writing poetry since 1957. He was arrested for his alleged involvement in a plot to assassinate Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Rao’s name had cropped up in a letter allegedly seized by the police during searches on others arrested after the Elgar Parishad event.
Gautam Navlakha: A civil liberties, democratic and human rights activist; and a journalist, Gautam Navlakha is engaged in the activism by the People's Union for Democratic Rights, Delhi. He is also an editorial consultant of the Economic and Political Weekly. Navlakha was under house arrest, as per the orders of the Supreme Court. However, the Delhi High Court set him free after he approached the Court citing the SC ruling.
Sudha Bharadwaj: A trade unionist, civil rights activist against land acquisition and human rights lawyer, Sudha Bharadwaj has been working and living in the state of Chhattisgarh for 29 years now. The Pune police have picked up her from Faridabad.
Arun Ferreira: A political activist, Arun Ferreira was arrested in 2007 for alleged links to the Indian Naxalite movement and spent five years in prison before he was acquitted in 2012. He began a career as a criminal lawyer defending political prisoners. The Pune police arrested him from Thane, Maharashtra.
Vernon Gonsalves: The 61-one-year-old Gonsalves is among the five activists who have been taken into custody over the Bhima-Koregaon violence. Gonsalves has worked in some of the prominent colleges in Mumbai, including HR College of Commerce and Economics, and Akbar Peerbhoy College of Commerce and Economics. A writer and social activist, Gonsalves writes for online publications regularly.
‘Mala fide attack’ against activists
Liberal activists retort that the riots have provided a pretext for a crackdown on dissent that bodes ill for looming general elections, and for Indian democracy. The raids have been described by many as ‘absolutely chilling’ and a ‘virtual declaration of emergency.’
Different groups have traded blames for it. Dalits accuse Hindu extremists of planning and leading attacks. Hindu groups, allied local politicians and a think-tank in Pune run by ex-army officers have all fingered leftist activists, who they claim sought to use the event to stir anti-government feelings.
Demanding appropriate action against Maharashtra police for launching a ‘vicious and mala fide attack’ against human rights activists, leading intellectuals and civil society members called for an immediate end to ‘such political acts of vendetta’.
The arrests of the five activists highlight the violation of all due procedures and is a mockery of the legal system, said a joint statement signed by author Arundhati Roy, lawyer Prashant Bhushan as well as activists Aruna Roy and Jignesh Mevani, among others. They have demanded that police return the laptops and mobiles seized during the ‘illegal arrest’ of the activists.
“These are only the most recent arrests in a continuing wave of repression spearheaded by the police at the behest of their political masters and their communal and casteist agendas against people’s movements and human rights defenders,” said the joint statement.
Jignesh Mevani: “They want to divert attention from real issue and discredit the dalit movement. The so-called Maoist plot to kill the prime minister is an effort to garner sympathy. Dalits will hold protest rallies at various places on September 5 against the government.”
Prashant Bhushan: “What is happening today is more dangerous than the emergency.”
Arundhati Roy: Author-activist Arundhati Roy said, “The police should raid those who make up lynch mobs and murder people in broad daylight. It tells us very clearly where India is headed. Murderers will be honoured and celebrated. Anybody who speaks up for justice or against Hindu majoritarianism is being made into a criminal. What is happening is absolutely perilous."
“It is in preparation for the coming elections. We cannot allow this to happen. We have to all come together. Otherwise we will lose every freedom that we cherish. It is as close to a declaration of an Emergency as we are going to get,” the celebrated author warned.
Shehla Rashid: JNU student leader Shehla Rashid alleged the raids were an attempt to “instil fear among those who are vocal about issues.”
Dangerous time for people speaking truth
Amnesty International India has asserted that it is a ‘dangerous’ time to speak the truth to authorities in India. Referring to the killing of Gauri Lankesh outside her home in Bengaluru on September 5 last year, it said, many other journalists continue to face death threats, attacks and false charges in the country.
The rights body said attacks on journalism not only stifle the constitutional right to freedom of speech and expression but also have a “profound silencing effect”.
The body cited the house arrest of Gautam Navlakha and Left-leaning poet Varavara Rao on charges of having ties with Maoists as examples of crackdown on free speech.
“While it is heartening that the investigation into Gauri Lankesh’s murder seems to be progressing, investigations into several other attacks on journalists and whistle-blowers have yielded precious little. It is a dangerous time for anyone who speaks truth to power in India,” said Aakar Patel of Amnesty India.
According to Reporters Without Borders, in the first six months of 2018, at least four journalists have been killed in India and at least three more have been physically attacked. Several other journalists have received threats for journalism that is critical of the State. In August, two journalists were arrested in a nationwide crackdown on human rights defenders, Amnesty India said in a statement.
“Journalism cannot be suppressed by those refusing to acknowledge the truth,” Patel said, adding, “This occasion is also a good time to call for investigations into all attacks on journalists.”
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) ranked India 12th in its 2017 Global Impunity Index, which ranks countries where the murder of journalists, are least likely to be prosecuted.
According to data available with the National Crime Records Bureau, between 2014 and 2017, as many as 204 attacks against mediapersons have been registered in India. India’s position among 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index has gone from 136 in 2017 to 138 in 2018, the body said.
It pointed out, besides journalists, others who expose corruption and rights violations like whistle-blowers and Right to Information (RTI) activists are also being targeted.
FSL confirms Waghmare shot Gauri Lankesh
The Special Investigation Team probing the Gauri Lankesh murder case got a major breakthrough with a Gujarat-based forensic lab confirming that Parashuram Waghmare shot and killed her on September 5 last.
SIT sources said the entire sequence of events was reconstructed and a video of it along with CCTV footage on the day of incident sent to the Directorate of Forensic Science, which confirmed that the man in both the visuals was the same.
“The FSL confirmed that the person who appeared in both visuals was the same. It establishes our line of investigation,” said the SIT officer, requesting anonymity.
“The group has a vast size and network and is active across India. We have identified many of them and have shared the names of people involved in such crimes with our higher ups. It is up to them take action,” he said.
This fringe group, which has killed four prominent persons, Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare, MM Kalburgi and Gauri Lankesh, showed signs of its presence after the Margao blast about nine years ago.
They prepared a hit-list of 26 people and had killed four of them and recceed the activities of other prominent people, including Jnanpith awardee and playwright Girish Karnad, KS Bhagawan and a few politicians and religious seers, the officer said.
“In Karnataka, it was Manohar and Sujith who were recruiting people, while Amol Kale was the kingpin of the gang and mastermind of Lankesh murder case,” an SIT officer said.
During raids at the houses and hideouts of these gang members, police discovered books authored by Jayant Balaji Athavale, the hypnotherapist who founded right wing Sanatan Sanstha in 1999.
The Sanstha has been accused of having links with people arrested in connection with the killings of rationalists Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare, MM Kalburgi and also Gauri Lankesh, as well as seizure of explosives by the Maharashtra anti-terror squad.
(With inputs from agencies)
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