India's top court ordered Wednesday that five prominent rights activists arrested for alleged Maoist links be kept under house arrest instead of police custody until it rules next week on a petition challenging their detention.
Police, meanwhile, broke up a protest in southern India against the arrests and detained about two dozen people.
Taking a dim view of the crackdown, Justice D.Y. Chandrachud said: "Dissent is a safety valve of democracy. If it is not allowed, the pressure cooker will burst."
He noted that the arrests had taken place nine months after the violence in Maharashtra.
Attorney Prashant Bhushan said the court order will prevent police from taking the five to the western city of Pune, where authorities are investigating their alleged links to Maoist rebels in various parts of the country.
The Supreme Court also ordered the federal and state governments to provide detailed reasons for their arrests within three days. It set September 6 for the next hearing in the case.
Tactic to muzzle dissent
The Supreme Court of India heard the petition on Wednesday based on a plea by eminent historian Romila Thapar and other well-known figures on the arrest of five prominent activists who are being held on allegations of having Maoist links and inciting violence in Maharashtra on January 1. The petitioners asserted that the arrests were a tactic to muzzle dissent against pro-Hindutva outfits in the country.
Simultaneous raids, allegations of Maoist links and house arrests across the country – to think that all of this actually started based on something that happened 200 years ago seems whimsical and incredible – but protests that led to two deaths and several injured gives you a reality kick. This is happening, and it is happening in a democratic and modern India.
What happened on January 1?
On January 1 this year, clashes broke out between the large group of Dalits who had gathered to pay homage to the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Koregaon, and a group of right-wing Hindus. The clashes left one person dead, several injured and scores of vehicles burnt. However, the tensions had been mounting for a couple of days.
Why were they all there - Koregaon-Bhima
In January 1818, exactly 200 years ago, there was a battle won and a battle lost – the battle of Koregaon. In a classic case of David vs. Goliath, an 834-strong army – with of a majority of Mahars (a lower ‘untouchable’ caste in the Hindu system, now categorised as a scheduled caste) led by the British owned East India company – defeated and sent home a 20,000 cavalry-strong army of the Peshwas (the highest Hindu caste of Marathas). The Battle of Koregaon is commemorated by an obelisk known as the Koregaon pillar—which was erected at the site of the battle and inscribed with the names of 22 Mahars killed at the battle.
British defence plan during Battle of Koregaon (1818) - The British Library (WikiCommons)
This ‘victory pillar’ has become a symbol of Dalit pride and every year tens of thousands visit the obelisk paying homage to the Mahar soldiers who laid down their lives in battle.
While this was a war won by colonialist forces, Dalits celebrate a caste victory because Mahars who fought in the war were overlooked because they were ‘untouchables’ by the Peshwas. It was with colonialism that oppressed Mahars saw the opportunity to be involved in the socio-political scenario of the country, albeit on the British side.
The bicentenary celebration of this battle was organised and called Elgaar Parishad which was inaugurated on December 31, 2017 by Radhika Vemula, mother of Rohith Vemula. Rohith Vemula, an Indian Ph.D. student and Dalit activist, had committed suicide in 2016 after the University of Hyderabad stopped paying him his fellowship and suspended him under enquiry for “raising issues under the banner of Ambedkar Students Association".
Understanding the castes
The Hindu caste-based discrimination which is now abolished by law in India used to divide communities and people based on the different levels of castes - each caste set to do certain kinds of jobs depending on their 'place' in society.
The Hindu caste system has four categories - Brahmins (priests or teachers), Kshatriyas (warriors and kings or rulers), Veshyas (traders, merchants, farmers) and Shudras (labourers). Dalits were outside of this caste system and were considered 'untouchables' or achhoot.
As a caste that has been subjected to untouchability, Mahars fall within the category of Dalits – a term used for Indian castes that were lowest in the caste system and were oppressed by the higher castes such as Peshwas. The Peshwas, on the other hand were considered de facto leaders of the community, and are Brahmins – the highest caste.
It was under the British rule that Mahars became more involved in military and army recruitments, as Indian high caste armies didn't want to fight alongside 'untouchables'. During the colonial period, large numbers of Mahars were recruited for military duties by the East India Company and the British Empire. Following in the footsteps of B. R. Ambedkar, most of the community converted to Buddhism in the middle of the 20th century – redefining their social status that came with their Hindu caste category.
While discrimination based on caste is illegal in democratic India, caste identities still run strong in most parts of the country. There are reservations and quotas in place for lower castes and disadvantaged groups who are either categorised as Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribes or as Other Backward Classes (OBC). These quotas allow for positive reservations for educational and job opportunities.
What happened before and after January 1?
On December 29, a fierce dispute broke out between upper-caste Marathas and Dalits in Vadhu Budruk (just 4 km from Koregaon-Bhima) over a plaque erected near the tomb of Govind Ganapat Gaikwad, a Dalit from the Mahar community. He is believed to have performed the final rites of the slain Maratha King Sambhaji (Shivaji’s son).
Gaikwad had allegedly defied the orders of the then Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb to perform the last rites of Sambhaji after the latter was tortured and murdered by Aurangzeb in 1689. According to reported history, the Mughals had warned that whoever performed the last rites of Sambhaji would be killed, and no one stepped forward except Gaikwad. He apparently paid with his life for his deed.
This plaque, the higher-caste Marathas alleged, had no base in history and that Gaikwad had done no such sacrifice – this led to the first set of fights between the groups – but police intervened and everything calmed down before pandemonium set in two days later.
On January 1, when the Dalit community got together to commemorate the victory of Bhima-Koregaon, they were met with a large group of right-wing Hindus waving saffron coloured flags. Stones were pelted at the Dalit community members and all hell broke loose. A man identified as Rahul Babaji Phatangade was killed amid the clashes while police vans and civilian vehicles were burnt and shattered by both groups. Several people were injured as well.
After the January 1 violence, there were state-wide protests by Dalit communities in Maharashtra and a bandh (general strike) was called for by the Dalit-led Bharatiya Republican Party Bahujan Mahasangh.
On January 3, there was another death reported, as protestors enforced the complete shutdown of the state’s operations. A 16-year old boy was crushed and killed by a mob in Nanded when protestors tried to flee after spotting a police van.
Allegations of incitement by right-wing Hindus
Several critics, and Dalit and leftist wing activists have alleged that the clashes and violence were a result of orchestration by pro-Hindutva outfits, specifically led by two right-wing leaders - Sambhaji Bhide (founding leader of Shiv Pratishthan Hindustan) and Milind Ekbote. The fights on December 29 are also alleged to have been set up by pro-Hindutva outfits including the RSS and to some effect, the current party in power, BJP.
On January 2, a day after Bhima Koregaon violence, Pimpri Police in Pune district filed a case against Bhide, Ekbote and others under Schedules Castes/Scheduled Tribes Prevention of Atrocities Act and under various sections of the IPC including attempt to murder as one person was killed in the clashes. The complaint was reportedly filed by Anita Salve, a social worker and member of the Bahujan Republican Socialist Party. However, the state’s Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis has come forth and given Bhide a clean chit saying that there has been no evidence of any contact between Bhide and the group involved in the violence.
Five prominent Indian activists with alleged Maoist links have been arrested in connection with caste-based violence in the western state of Maharashtra earlier this year. This week, Sudha Bharadwaj, Gautam Navlakha and Varavara Rao were picked up from their homes in different Indian cities as part of simultaneous raids. Police in Pune later confirmed that Vernon Gonsalves and Arun Ferreira were also under arrest. The homes of other leftist lawyers and scholars were also raided as part of an investigation into the violence.
Soon after news broke of the arrests, #BhimaKoregaon became the top trend on Twitter along with activists Gautam Navlakha, Varavara Rao and Sudha Bharadwaj also on the list of top trends in the country. Social media users criticised the attack on the activists, calling it an attack on free speech and an open society. Police said that the activists incited Dalits at a large public rally on 31 December 2017, leading to violent clashes the next day that left one person dead.
The #UndeclaredEmergency discussion refers to the rising dissent against silencing of or modifications in statements from journalists and activists – specifically against certain right-wing and pro-Hindutva outfits which include the current ruling party Bharatiya Janata Party of which the Indian premier Narendra Modi is a part of.
Naxalites/Maoists – what does it all mean?
A name given to far-left radicals, Naxal or Naxalite refers to someone who is part of the Maoist division of the Communist Party of India. Originally formed out of West Bengal, it started with a fight against landlords who refused to distribute land to the poor tribal sections and the failure to implement sections of the Indian Constitution that allowed for tribal autonomy over certain land. The struggle and fights were armed and many other poor farmers and tribals joined the Maoists. The armed movement was initially supported by the Marxist-Lenin wing of the Communist Party until they came into power and wanted to drive down the violent fights. The rebels left the party and grouped underground spreading to other states in the country leading armed assaults targeting government officials. They are categorised as terrorists by national authorities.
In 2009, the Indian government announced an "Integrated Action Plan" (IAP) for a large-scale co-ordinated operation aimed at dealing with the Naxalites in all affected states. This aimed to address the concerns of rural tribes through development and assurance of employment and social security.
This was discontinued in 2016 by the current ruling party BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party). Due to a resurgence of Maoist activities and after strong requests from state police and government officials, Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh announced in June 2017 that the scheme would be restarted. The major works under IAP include construction of school buildings, anganwadi centres (day care and play school), drinking water facilities, construction of rural roads, Panchayat Bhawans (village-level government bodies), PDS (Public Distribution Service) shops, livelihood activities, skill development, minor irrigation works, health centres and special coaching classes for students.
Who are the activists arrested in August?
Sudha Bharadwaj is civil rights activist and lawyer well known for her representation of Dalit and tribal issues based in Chhattisgarh. She openly retaliated against the June arrest of Surendra Gadling in connection with the Bhima Koregaon violence.
Varavara Rao or VV Rao is a poet and activist based in Telangana and is a communist by his own declaration. Arrested thrice by the government, he has been part of the Telangana movement before the state was officially formed and was a CPI (M) (Communist Party of India- Marxist) emissary for negotiation with Naxalites in the state.
Gautam Navlakha - a prominent civil rights activist, his latest work has been on Maoist influenced areas of Chhattisgarh. He was arrested in New Delhi.
Vernon Gonsalves is a leading activist, and he has been linked on other Naxal-abetting charges earlier but was released later.
Arun Ferreira was accused and acquitted of being a Naxalite. This lawyer is a Mumbai-based human rights activist. He was at one time charged with 11 cases of which he was acquitted later.
*With inputs from agencies
#MetooUrbanNaxal trends on Twitter
- Huda Tabrez, Community Web Editor
The use of the term ‘Urban Naxals’ was hotly debated on Twitter today. Following the arrest of activists across India, who have been termed as ‘Urban Naxals’, author and Bollywood filmmaker Vivek Agnihotri criticised people speaking out against the arrests and asked “some bright young people to make a list of all those who are defending” them.
@vivekagnihotri: I want some bright young people to make a list of all those who are defending #UrbanNaxals Let’s see where it leads. If you want to volunteer with commitment, pl DM me. @squintneon would you like to take the lead?
The request, however, seems to have backfired.
Pratik Sinha, a software engineer who has started a fact-checking website in India, posted a comment on Twitter urging people to claim the term “Urban Naxals” from those trying to use it to demonise critics. He asked people to use #MeTooUrbanNaxal if they were against the recent arrests.
@free_thinker: #MeTooUrbanNaxal, what about you?
The call received a massive response, with #MeTooUrbanNaxal becoming the second most tweeted trend in India.
@AVINASHGAURAV88 wrote: “#MeTooUrbanNaxal Just like I have been an anti-national for four years now. #BhimaKoregaon #UrbanNaxals #go_rational”
@Memeghnad wrote: “Hi @vivekagnihotri, dissent is important for our democracy to function and to hold our government accountable. I intend to do exactly that. Put me on your list. #metoourbannaxal”
Other users clarified what being an ‘urban naxal’ meant to them, equating it to free speech and free thought.
@arpitachatter: “I would be proud to be jailed with those arrested yesterday. They are all outstanding citizens of the country and if dissent is a crime #MeTooUrbanNaxal”
@vinita_nigam wrote: “If using reason, intellect, discretion and listening to the voice of conscience, supporting what is right is naxalism then #MeTooUrbanNaxal”
@heartbharat commented: “If speaking against Modi, Amit shah and BJP make you ‘Urban Naxal’ then #MeTooUrbanNaxal.”
Another Twitter user @archieroolz wrote: “If asking the questions, or standing up for humanity and freedom of speech makes me an urban Naxal... then I’m proud to be one #MeTooUrbanNaxal
@TheRestlessQuil followed up with Agnihotri on the list, writing: “Hi @vivekagnihotri, How's that list going? Have enough? If not, put my name on it #MeTooUrbanNaxal”
Tweep @Anupam_Guha tried to offer some context to the term: “The revolt of Naxalbari, was a specific movement in a specific historical material condition. There is no such thing as "urban naxal". This propaganda puts in danger every dissenter, leftist, socialist, Marxist of ‘thought crime’. We resist this now. Or the republic is in peril.”