Why we will be made to fear 'urban Naxals' till 2019

Gautam Benegal
Gautam BenegalSep 04, 2018 | 13:00

Why we will be made to fear 'urban Naxals' till 2019

Thirty years of my academic life have been destroyed in five minutes. They asked me: why are you reading Mao, why are you reading Marx, why do you have the songs of Gaddar, and why do you keep the photos of Ambedkar and Phule instead of gods and goddesses?

They also asked me, why do you want to become an intellectual, why can't you be happy with the money you are getting?


I am happy, but I have to read and teach.

— Prof Satyanarayana, head of Cultural Studies department and the dean of School of Inter-Disciplinary Studies in English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad.

Protests were staged at several places across the country following the arrest of five Left-wing activists by the Maharashtra police in a nationwide crackdown on August 27. (Source: India Today)

The recent raid of the joint teams of the Maharashtra and Telangana police on prof Satyanarayana's residence is part of a nationwide crackdown against eminent activists, intellectuals and scholars at a time when the

BJP government finds itself on a shaky footing on practically all fronts and is facing wide criticism on its performance and governance.

Those arrested in the recent past include Varavara Rao, Vernon Gonsalves, Arun Fereira, Sudha Bharadwaj, Gautam Navlakha, Anand Teltumbde, Rona Wilson, Sudhir Dhawale, Mahesh Raut, Surendra Gadling, Shoma Sen, Kurmanath. Meanwhile, those accused of the violence on January 1 in Bhima Koregaon — Hindutva activists Milind Ekbote and Sambhaji Bhide — have not been arrested.

However, to see the present crackdowns as unique to this government and reduce this to a slugfest between the BJP and the Congress would be a grave error.


Some of those who have been arrested today were once arrested by the Congress government too.

Varavara Rao was arrested by Indira Gandhi under Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA) in 1973, 1974, 1975. Arun Ferreira was arrested in May 2007 and he languished in jail till 2011.

To understand how a law framed to fight terrorists can become a draconian knife turned towards one's own people, and democratic dissent can be given the label of sedition, one must refer to Martin Scheinin, a Finnish professor of International Law and Human Rights at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy. He is also the former UN special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights while countering terrorism (2005-2011).

As UN special rapporteur on the protection of human rights, Scheinin gave recommendations to governments on the right to a fair trial in the context of prosecuting terror suspects.

He highlighted the risks of codifying vague and broad definitions of terrorism and related terms. He writes that in many countries, such sweeping definitions are used by government authorities "to stigmatise political, ethnic, regional or other movements they simply do not like," even though United Nations Security Council Resolution 1456 confirms that states must ensure that measures adopted to combat terrorism "comply with all their obligations under international law... in particular international human rights, refugee and humanitarian law".


Left intellectuals have slammed the arrest of social activists. (Source: India Today)

Vague definitions, accompanied by harsh penalties and wide ancillary powers of detention and investigation, can be misused to persecute political opponents or authorise repressive measures against unpopular or marginal religious and ethnic populations.

Sure enough, government repression in India has come full circle from the days of the Emergency — which ironically many BJP party members had fought against — and all that is needed for an arrest are rumours, hearsay, and speculations of a conspiracy of assassination, with no proof to present in a court, no explanations at all but that of sub judicial secrecy as a defence.

The Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (1967) was substantially amended in 2008 to incorporate the undemocratic provisions of TADA and POTA. In all 15 sections of the principal act had been modified.

The most disturbing changes include amendment of the period of detention from 15 days to 90 days extendable to 180 days, amendment to section 167 and Section 438/6 of the Indian Penal Code relating to the bail, and amendment of Section 15 relating to presumption of innocence.

These are undemocratic and constitute a violation of human rights. The inchoate definition of terrorism introduced in the 2008 UAPA amendments cover acts "likely to threaten the unity, integrity, security or sovereignty of India or with the intent to strike terror or likely to strike terror in the people… by any means of whatever nature to cause or likely to cause" death or injury to persons, damage to property, or "the disruption of any supplies or services essential to the life of the community in or in any foreign country". This sweeping definition inappropriately encompasses a large number of nonviolent forms of political protest, such as peaceful demonstrations affecting rail services or ports, or industrial action in a wide range of industries. It gives authorities the ability to classify political opponents and a broad range of peaceful opposition movements arising from regional, ethnic or religious grievances, as "terrorist".

TADA, enacted in 1985 to counter a Sikh separatist movement in Punjab, was routinely used to arbitrarily detain and torture terrorism suspects; thousands became victims of extrajudicial executions.

It was also used against Dalits, religious minorities and trade union activists, not just terrorism suspects. In the decade during which it was in force, over 67,000 people were detained under TADA, of whom only 8,000 were brought to trial.

TADA was allowed to lapse in 1995, but was replaced by POTA in 2002, which was also widely abused. It was used to harass political opponents and target communities such as tribal groups, religious and ethnic minorities, and Dalits. Most of the detentions under POTA occurred in Jharkhand, not in states like Jammu and Kashmir, which was experiencing an internal armed conflict.

Moreover, the imposition of POTA in Gujarat revealed a pattern of religious discrimination against a large number of Muslims, who were unduly held under the law's loosened standards for pre-trial detention. In Tamil Nadu, the authorities detained political leaders, including member of Parliament V Gopalswamy, popularly known as Vaiko, under POTA for allegedly supporting the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in Sri Lanka.

Vaiko was arrested in 2002 and remained in detention for over a year, until he was released on bail. POTA charges against him were dropped in August 2004 when the review committee said that speeches supporting a banned group did not amount to terrorism. The law was eventually repealed in 2004 after intensive campaigning by human rights activists, who, in present day India go by the name of "urban Naxals", a term popularised by Vivek Agnihotri, an overeager small-time Bollywood director.

As Ranjona Banerjee, senior journalist says, "Whether it's an undeclared Emergency, whether it is trying to balance the RSS/BJP/Hindutva cadre because Sanatan Sanstha members have been arrested for murder, whether it is because innate fascist tendencies are rising, whether it is because this Modi-led BJP government is playing out its endgame, whatever the reasons, the arrests of human rights activists and lawyers for either a patently bogus assassination plot or for being 'urban Maoists' or for helping those affected during rightwing attacks on the Bhima Koregaon anniversary or just fighting for democracy and civil liberties, show how quickly we and India are falling into the abyss."

In 2011, while setting free Binayak Sen (who had been sentenced to life imprisonment by a trial court in Chhattisgarh), the Supreme Court observed, "We are a democratic country. He may be a sympathiser. That does not make him guilty of sedition." Drawing an analogy, Justice CK Prasad told senior counsel UU Lalit arguing for the state said: "If Mahatma Gandhi's autobiography is found in somebody's place, is he a Gandhian? No case of sedition is made out on the basis of materials in possession unless you show that he was actively helping or harbouring them [Maoists]."

Ram Jethmalani, senior counsel for the petitioner, observed: "I have never seen such oppression from the state government. This literature, what they call sedition is available in the market."

Quoting various Supreme Court and other judgments, he argued that mere possession of some materials would not amount to the imperialistic concept of sedition, as the law related to sedition had undergone a sea change. Not a single material was produced against Sen to show that he was involved in preaching or propagating Maoist ideology.

Arrested activists Varavara Rao, Sudha Bharadwaj, Gautam Navlakha, Arun Fereira and Vernon Gonsalves (Source: India Today)

In March 2017, the Gadchiroli sessions court convicted wheelchair-bound Delhi University professor GN Saibaba under UAPA for 'waging war' against India and alleged Maoist links. The court sentenced him to life imprisonment.

Saibaba campaigned extensively against the Salwa Judum militia (in Bastar) and the human rights violations that accompanied Operation Green Hunt against Maoists.

DU professor of economics and a colleague of Saibaba, Rajeev Ranjan, said, "This verdict is shocking for all of us because we expected acquittal of Saibaba in this case. The life term was unexpected. I haven't gone through the 800-plus pages of the order copy, but we followed the trial and found that the prosecution couldn't bring a single evidence that could establish Saibaba's deep links with the Maoists and his plans to wage war against the nation. Out of 23 witnesses presented before the court, 22 were policemen and one was a barber. A cock and bull story was framed. We're 100 per cent sure that the higher courts will acquit him."

On June 28, 2018, a four-member United Nations team of experts urged the Indian government to release Saibaba on health grounds. "We are concerned about reports that Dr Saibaba is suffering from more than 15 different health problems, some of which have potentially fatal consequences," read the report.

Anand Teltumbde told the press, "Nowadays, if you talk about human rights you will be considered as an extremist. It is unfortunate that Saibaba's lawyer Surendra Gandling had been arrested and in his case 'tareekh pe tareekh' has been going on."

Now, the police have claimed to have discovered evidence of two letters, apart from emails and other documents indicating that Maoists have been plotting a 'Rajiv Gandhi-type' assassination bid on PM Narendra Modi.

Additional director general (law and order) of police (ADGP) Param Bir Singh said the activists arrested as part of the probe into the Elgar Parishad event on December 31, 2017, were all in cahoots and helping banned organisations that were plotting to carry out a 'Rajiv Gandhi-like' assassination to end 'Modi Raj'.

If true, this is indeed alarming and a cause for concern but some things simply do not add up. Neither the wording, nor the amateurish style, nor the gawkish content like a caricature of what a simple-minded person might think of "dangerous commies" and this has been widely discussed. It is as if they have been left there like an open paper trail in a children's treasure hunt just waiting to be found. An investigation of the hard drives of the suspects has revealed weapons catalogue with luridly displayed M6OE6 machine guns, GM94 and QLZ87grenade launchers. According to experts these are very rarely available even in the USA and have been found to be used outside US only once, in Chechnya. Why did the Maharashtra police hold a press conference on August 31 with such sensitive evidence without first tabling it in the court?

According to senior advocate Sanjay Hegde, there is "no provenance or authenticity of the evidence being thrown as an undigested mass in the face of the public". What is very likely is that none of all this will stand up in court, not only because of the forensics but also because of the way the police have compromised the case as any defence counsel might point out. What purpose is served by such a press conference if the police are confident of making a case against these "urban Maoists?" Why do they need to justify themselves?

Fear is a unique political force. To the seasoned politician fear is a handy tool. "Fear is easy," Rick Wilson, a Florida-based Republican ad maker, who has worked on Trump's campaigns said, "Fear is the simplest emotion to tweak in a campaign ad. You associate your opponent with terror, with fear, with crime, with causing pain and uncertainty."

Vladimir Putin has eliminated and intimidated anyone who could have challenged his control. (Source: Reuters)

One can see similar formulas at work wherever there is need for a despot to retain control of the masses. Recep Tayyip Erdogan has done the same thing in Turkey, by strangling the press and seizing every opportunity to arrest, threaten, coerce, or eliminate opponents and critics.

In Russia, Vladimir Putin has won a series of elections and still retains high approval ratings, mainly because he has eliminated and intimidated anyone who could have challenged his control while feeding the Russian people a steady diet of pro-Kremlin propaganda.

In the USA, majority of the citizens now worry that they or their families will become victims of terrorism, up from a third less than two years ago, according to a survey by the Public Religion Research Institute. Nearly two-thirds worry about being victims of violent crime. Another poll by Gallup found that concern about crime and violence is at its highest level in 15 years.

Right leaning voters are particularly susceptible to fear based appeals. "The common basis for all the various components of the conservative attitude syndrome is a generalised susceptibility to experiencing threat or anxiety in the face of uncertainty," British psychologist GD Wilson wrote in his 1973 book, The Psychology of Conservatism.

The term "urban Naxals" is a loaded and layered dog whistle for the term "enemy of the people". Being branded an "enemy of the people" by the likes of Stalin or Mao brought suspicion and stigma, hard labour or death. It also gave tyrants extended leases of life among a fearful citizenry.

Now, this chilling phrase — "hostis publicus", enemy of the public, which was coined by the Roman Senate in AD 68 to describe Emperor Nero — has reached our shores.

It may well stay as long as the general elections of 2019 until it has served its purpose.

Last updated: September 04, 2018 | 19:48
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