Why the Arrest of Dalit Activists, ‘Urban Naxals’

by Ram Puniyani

The violence in Bheema Koregaon is still reverberating. We recall that on January 1, 2018, thousands of Dalits returning from Bheema Koregaon were beaten up. In that context the names of Milind Ekbote and Sambhaji Bhide cropped up as the instigators of violence. The probe is on. In the same context five activists— Mahesh Raut, Rona Wilson, Surendra Gadling, Shoma Sen and Sudhir Dhawale, working on issues related to Adivasis and Dalits—were arrested. Now in the month of September Gautam Navlakha, Sudha Bharadwaj, Varavara Rao, Vernon Gonslaves and Arun Ferreira were arrested while houses of Anand Teltumbde and many others were raided. The charge, as per the police version, is that all these activists were behind the Bheema Koregaon violence, in the organising of the Elgar Parishad, where inflam-matory speeches were delivered, leading to violence. In a surreal manner the police have succeeded in producing a letter ‘unearthing the conspiracy’ to kill the Prime Minster, Narendra Modi. Interestingly the attempt to arrest these activists was halted due to the intervention of the Supreme Court, which gave a sort of dressing down to the police, telling them that arresting these activists is like doing away with the safety-valve of our democracy. These activists were placed under house arrest till further hearing.

Subsequently the SC extended the period of house arrest and asked them to seek legal remedies from the lower courts. While some, like Sudha Bharadwaj, are doing so, Gautam Navlakha has already been released by the Delhi High Court after he moved it in the matter.

All through different political individuals and organisations have affirmed that these arrests earlier and now are an attempt to intimidate the Dalit activists, meant to instil fear among them, these are vindictive and arbitrary. Aakar Patel, Executive Director of Amnesty International, noted: “This is not the first time that activists working on Dalit and Adivasi rights have been arrested with little evidence. The government should protect people’s rights to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly instead of creating an atmosphere of fear.” Now the European Union has taken note of these arbitrary arrests by the police and has condemned these and the raids. It is due to actions of the state like this that India has been named as one of the offenders for the ‘alarming’ levels of harsh reprisals and intimidation against those who cooperate with the UN on human rights issues.

The Supreme Court has been forthright in doubting the police action and prevented its attempt to arrest these activists and raid the houses of others. This phenomenon of reprisals against human rights defenders is very dis-turbing and also points to the direction in which the present government’s Hindu nationa-list agenda is leading the country. In Bheema Koregaon the blame is being put on the Elgar Parishad’s speeches. While most of these activists have nothing to do with the organising of the Elgar Parishad, retired Supreme Court judge P.B. Sawant and retired Justice Kolse Patil have stated that they were the conveners of this meeting. So the question does arise as to why these activists have been arrested. It seems the major goal of this government, guided by Hindutva agenda, is to label every dissent as anti-national; at the same time to snub and suppress those who are trying to help Dalits assert their dignity and demand their rights.

Let’s remember that with this government coming to power the Dalit assertion has been targeted all through. Starting with the banning of the Periyar Ambedkar Study Circle (IIT Madras) they went on to target the Ambedkar Students Association in Hyderabad Central University leading to the institutional murder of Rohith Vemula. In the aftermath of Vemula’s suicide, a massive upsurge of Dalits all over the country did give rise to a Dalit movement, with other social groups chipping in for support. As the Hindutva agenda of the Holy Cow-Beef unfolded by targeting the Muslim community, an unexpected parallel to this came up in the form of four Dalit youth being stripped and beaten mercilessly. All over the country the discontent of Dalits started getting polarised in the form of agitations launched by another Dalit young man, Jignesh Mevani, who successfully organised the protests around the cow issue, to emerge as a powerful voice of Dalits. He has tried to combine the Dalit identity and dignity with the issue of land, which is the core problem of Dalits in the country today.

The present political agenda of the BJP-Sangh Parivar has tried to push the Muslim minorities into second class citizenship by picking up issues like the Ram Temple, Cow-Beef, Love-Jihad and Ghar Wapsi (reconversion into Hinduism). Labelling Muslims and Christians as foreigners, and in particular Muslims as anti-national, has been the plank of their politics. As far as Dalits are concerned, the RSS combine has been doing multiple things to co-opt them into their fold. The first major attempt has been that of the Samajik Samrasta Manch (Social Harmony Forum), where the central theme has been to promote harmony between different castes, as the RSS propagates that caste inequality is due to the Muslim invaders who tried to convert, leading to caste inequality. This has been backed up by social engineering where attempts have been made to co-opt Dalits and even Adivasis into the ideology which hides inequality. Also many a Dalit leader like Ramvilas Paswan, Ramdas Athawale and Udit Raj have been lured into the posts of power to get their support for Hindu nationalism. At the cultural level they have modulated historical icons, like Suhel Dev, as great Hindu warriors standing against the foreigners, the Muslims.

Still the rebellion is spilling out; the unrest of Dalits is on the streets. The question of equality and dignity of Dalits remains under-mined. It is in this light that the Maharashtra Police is desperately trying to implicate those activists/scholars who have stood their ground to help bring up the movement of rights for these marginalised groups. And so this attempt to implicate them with a conference, which was convened by two retired judges. Alert citizens like Romila Thapar have done a yeoman service in invoking the Supreme Court to save the democratic ethos by stopping the reckless police action. The Supreme Court has yet again proved that it can protect the rights of the marginalised sections.

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