The safety valve of democracy
“Arrests should be of those who actually spread terror in society through assassination and lynching, and not of those who work for human rights”
"Dissent is the safety valve of democracy. If you don't allow the safety valve, pressure cooker will burst," said the five-judge bench led by the Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra, while ordering that the recently arrested left-oriented activists be kept under house arrest till September 6, and a response be given by the Maharashtra government to the petition of citizens against their arrest by the Pune Police.
"Arrests should surely be of those who actually spread terror in society through assassination and lynching, and not of those who work for human rights - the rights that are essential to citizenship and democracy. Are these arrests a demonstration to show that the democratic rights of the Indian citizen have been annulled?" asked one of the petitioners, historian Romila Thapar.
This, in my opinion, is setting the tone of a new mass movement in India—this time to save democracy and its safety valve.
Frpom Emergency to Lokpal to 'Save Democracy'
There was the huge anti-dictatorship movement led by Jaiprakash Narayan against Indira regime that led to the Emergency being declared, 19 black months of 1975-76 then led to the elections of March 1977 which threw away the government of Indira Gandhi.
There was the huge anti-corruption movement led by Anna Hazare against UPA II regime that led to the Lokpal Bill being passed, the opposition led by BJP gaining ground, AAP was born and later coming to power in Delhi, and Mod-led BJP thereafter taking the helm since 2014.
There is a discontent brewing now. Once again India is at a crossroad. The time is ripe once again for a civil society led save democracy save constitution movement in India against the spate of anti-democratic measures in the country.
The latest in the series is the arrest of recognised human rights, Dalits and tribal rights activists, writers, and journalists across India on grounds of Maoist links, which at least two courts prima facie do not find very substantial.
The arrest of rights activists and writers
Following multiple raids across the five states police have arrested several activists including Varavara Rao, Gautam Navlakha, Sudha Bhardwaj and her daughter Anu Bhardwaj, Vernon Gonsalves, and Arun Fareira for their suspected Maoist links under the stringent Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. The raids were conducted at eight locations in Maharashtra, Goa, Telangana, Delhi, and Jharkhand.
They were also booked under IPC sections 153-A (promoting disharmony, the enmity between groups), 505 (inciting class, community of persons to commit any offence against any other class or community), 117 (abetting commission of offence by the public or by more than ten persons) and 120-B (criminal conspiracy).
They include Gautam Navlakha, a civil liberties and human rights activist, actively involved with the People's Union for Democratic Rights as an activist, and also writes for the Economic and Political Weekly. Poet Varavara Rao heads "Veerasam" - an association of revolutionary writers, and is of 80 years of age. Human Rights activist and lawyer Sudha Bhardwaj is best known for her work in Chhattisgarh, where she has lived for 29 years and fought for the rights of mine workers in Bhilai. A civil rights activist and lawyer, Bhardwaj has also been fighting against land acquisition and is currently the general secretary of the Chhattisgarh People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL).
The nationwide crackdown on activists, advocates, and human rights defenders is disturbing and threatens core human-rights values, Amnesty International India and Oxfam India said in a joint statement, and there has been widespread criticism in several international media. Delhi High Court first restrained Pune Police from taking Navlakha out of Delhi and then Punjab & Haryana High Court restrained Pune Police from taking Bhardwaj out of Delhi. This was followed by the Supreme Court's intervention.
Interestingly, earlier, Lawyer Surendra Gadling successfully defending his tribal clients under the UAPA was arrested and thrown behind bars on June 6 of this year. Now, lawyer Susan Abraham defending Gadling in Pune saw her house in Mumbai raided and her husband Vernon Gonsalves arrested.
The rules on professional standards laid down by the Bar Council note that lawyers "shall defend a person accused of a crime regardless of his personal opinion as to the guilt of the accused. An advocate should always remember that his loyalty is to the law, which requires that no man should be punished without adequate evidence."
By targeting lawyers who take this guideline seriously, the police are effectively saying that they do not recognise those who fight cases against them as professionals but as fair game. The aim is to intimidate other lawyers so that they will be reluctant to take up sensitive or controversial cases.
The 'Urban Naxal' Syndrome
'Urban Naxal' (or #UrbanNaxals) has long been the favoured tinted abuse of Sangh Parivar social media operators, first deployed on Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal and then put to a much wider use against a range of intellectuals, media-persons, and others perceived to be unaccommodating towards the BJP-Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh agenda. Arundhati Roy, Barkha Dutt, Prashant Bhushan, Rajdeep Sardesai, Shekhar Gupta, and several others have been at the receiving end of such branding.
In Maharashtra, this appeared as the ruling regime's response to the rise of an anti-BJP multi-caste alliance around the commemoration of the 200th anniversary of the battle of Bhima-Koregaon that vanquished Brahminical Peshwa rule.
The Sangh's opening gambit of organising violent attacks by saffron flag-wielding upper caste mobs on the predominantly Dalit congregation at Bhima-Koregaon failed to result in the widespread caste riots and polarisation that it desired. It, in fact, backfired and only led to an expansion and consolidation of the opposition, with state-wide protests, a bandh, and a demand for the punishment of Hindutva organisation leaders, Sambhaji Bhide and Milind Ekbote, who had been named in the First Information Report.
But later, Urban Naxal —a term, hitherto the staple of right-wing trolls, became mainstream. It appeared on the official Twitter handles of police and at high-level police press conferences, prime-time debates, and print media headlines. It's usage spread. Petty trolling rapidly grew to petty tyranny of government functionaries in a number of states, who resorted to the #UrbanNaxal tag to justify the threat of, or the actual application of, draconian provisions such as sedition or the Goondas Act or UAPA.
BJP MP Poonam Mahajan claimed that the March 2018 'Kisan Long March' to Mumbai was propelled by 'Urban Maoists' whereas it was led by All India Kisan Sabha and was an extremely peaceful demonstration. Bastar police arrested a Bangalore-based unarmed critical blogger and tweeted that they had got an Urban Naxal. Union Minister from Tamil Nadu, Pon Radhakrishnan provided the 'Urban Maoist' justification for the arrest of an advocate for the agitation against Sterlite's polluting copper plant in Thoothukudi.
As former additional solicitor general Indira Jaising rightly pointed out on a prime-time programme, 'The word "Urban Naxal" does not exist anywhere in the law. It is something only coined by BJP.' State agencies using the 'Urban Naxal' terminology do not seem to need any definition in law for the labelling, implicating, and arresting that they have done so far.
This easy branding and incrimination are made possible by the arbitrary wording of UAPA, which outlaws thought and incriminate association, merely by a notification of the State proscribing a particular organisation. Such lawmaking obviously runs counter to the very essence of democracy and Constitutional rights.
This notion of 'guilt by association' has been unequivocally rejected by the Supreme Court. The Apex court has ruled that the provisions in various statutes i.e. 3(5) of TADA or Section 10 of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) which, in their plain language, make mere membership of a banned organisation a criminal activity and have to be read down. We have to depart from the literal rule of interpretation in such cases otherwise these provisions will become unconstitutional as violative of Articles 19 and 21 of the Constitution.
It has explicitly held that 'mere membership to a banned organisation cannot incriminate a person unless he is proved to have resorted to acts of violence or incited people to imminent violence, or does an act intended to create disorder or disturbance of public peace by resorting to imminent violence.'
It has to be noted here that Binayak Sen and Kobid Ghandy were acquitted by the Courts after years of being arrested on grounds of mere membership to a banned organisation or 'guilt by association.'
Following the lead of the top court, Kerala High Court has defined the Constitutional position more explicitly: 'Being a Maoist is no crime, Police cannot detain a person merely because he is a Maoist unless police form a reasonable opinion that his activities are unlawful.'
The movement ahead
Thus, the category of crime and criminals called Maoist or Naxal or #UrbanNaxals is an illegitimate creation of right-wing propaganda media frenzy. It is a fiction repugnant to the Constitution and law of the land. Its creation is merely to raise an alternate right-wing narrative in the face of failure of the development plank of the rulers today. Only a major civil society movement against the attacks on independent critical voices, and against failures of the government on the economic front can work towards protecting democracy in India.
(The author is a media academic and columnist. The views expressed are strictly personal)