Activists' arrest

Offensive strategy

Print edition : September 28, 2018

A protest in Mumbai on September 5 against the arrest of lawyers and social activists in August. Photo: INDRANIL MUKHERJEE/AFP

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat at the cremation of former Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee in New Delhi on August 17. Photo: PTI

ABVP activists at the police headquarters in New Delhi on March 1, 2017, demanding action against the anti-India slogans raised by JNU students on February 9, 2016. Photo: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

A protest in Dadar, Mumbai, on September 5, against the arrest of civil rights activists. Photo: Supreet Sapkal

Justice (retired) Kolse Patil and advocate Indira Jaising at a press conference in Mumbai on June 12, held to condemn the arrests of the five social activists. Photo: VIVEK BENDRE

Lois Sofia, who was arrested for raising an anti-BJP slogan in the presence of the BJP's Tamil Nadu president Tamilisai Soundararajan, coming out of the Thoothukudi Medical College Hospital on September 4. Photo: THE HINDU

Tamil Nadu BJP president Tamilisai Soundararajan. Photo: B. JOTHI RAMALINGAM

The arrests of five social activists by the Pune Police show that the Sangh Parivar is aggressively pushing ahead with the “nationalism versus sedition” game plan to divert attention from the failures of the Modi government on multiple fronts.

Two perceptions were evident from the tone and tenor of interactions and murmurings within the upper echelons of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS)-led Sangh Parivar, especially the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), in the last week of August. One of them had a sense of satisfaction that its political, social and cultural action plan based on the broad theme of “nationalism versus sedition”, which had been advanced over the past two and a half years, was gathering momentum in new areas and on new fronts. The other had an element of consternation that the interventions by sections of the intelligentsia and the reactions these had evoked from the judiciary were impeding the smooth advancement of this plan.

Indeed, both these perspectives were linked to the concrete developments that unfolded on August 28 and 29. On August 28, the Pune Police, controlled by the Home Department of the BJP-led State government in Maharashtra, conducted simultaneous raids in multiple cities on the pretext of investigating the December 31, 2017, Elgar Parishad in Pune and arrested five prominent activists—Sudha Bharadwaj in Faridabad, Varavara Rao in Hyderabad, Gautam Navlakha in New Delhi and Vernon Gonsalves and Arun Ferreira in Mumbai. The Pune Police had claimed that all of them were “urban naxalites” who had links with the Left-extremist Communist Party of India (Maoist) and were “in the process of creating large-scale violence, destruction of property resulting in chaos”.

The police were planning to shift the activists to Pune and keep them under custody there. However, a three-member bench of the Supreme Court, consisting of Chief Justice Dipak Misra and Justices D.Y. Chandrachud and A.M. Khanwilkar, prevented their transfer to Pune by directing the police to place them under house arrest. This was in response to a petition filed by the historian Romila Thapar, the economists Prabhat Patnaik and Devaki Jain, the sociologist Satish Deshpande and the human rights activist Maja Daruwala. Observing that those arrested were prominent rights activists, professors and lawyers, Justice Chandrachud, during the hearing of the case, pointed out that “dissent is the safety valve of democracy” and “if dissent is not allowed, then the pressure cooker may burst”. (At the time of writing this, the apex court has placed the activists under house arrest until September 12.)

While the proceedings on the petition filed by Romila Thapar and others are bound to continue after September 12, there is little doubt that the early reactions from the apex court have acknowledged the arguments made by the petitioners with gravity. The petitioners characterised the police action as “gross abuse of police power in the country, which is intended to stifle, if not kill, independent voices and a differing ideology from the party in power”. The petition went on to state that “the impugned actions” of the Pune Police were the biggest attack on the freedom and liberty of citizens and that the police resorted to high-handed actions “without credible material and evidence”. The entire exercise, it stated, was to silence dissent, stop people from helping downtrodden and marginalised people across the nation, and instil fear in the minds of the people. “The timing of this action leaves much to be desired and appears to be motivated to deflect people’s attention from real issues,” it said.

The petition also pointed out that the police had “embarked on a motivated process of arresting a large number of human rights activists, lawyers and journalists, who are all known for their commitment to the cause of respecting and promoting the rights of the most vulnerable and marginalised communities, in particular the Dalits, Adivasis, women, landless labourers and the poor”.

The Pune Police, on their part, sought to argue in court as well as outside, at a press conference, that they were not motivated by an “urge to curb dissent” or by “difference in ideology” but had “cogent evidence” to show that the arrested persons were “active members” of the banned CPI (Maoist). The police’s argument was that the August 28 arrests were essentially in continuation of the investigations following the arrest of Shoma Sen, Rona Wilson, Sudhir Dhawale, Antachi Chalwal, Surendra Gadling and Mahesh Raut in June 2018. The allegations against them were that they had sourced funds from banned Maoist groups to help organise the Elgar Parishad. It also accused them of planning to assassinate Prime Minister Narendra Modi in a manner similar to Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination.

Speaking to Frontline from Lucknow, a senior RSS activist admitted that the intervention by sections of the intelligentsia and the judiciary’s response have “caused some operational problems” for the larger socio-political-cultural action plan on the “nationalism versus sedition” theme. He said: “It is clear that we would not be able to advance this merely on the basis of the police investigation records but would have to come up with a more direct and cogent political campaign. However, tangible plans of this are yet to be formulated.” This leader, as well as a number of other Sangh Parivar activists, recalled how the idea of developing and advancing the plank of “nationalism versus sedition” was conceived and how its organisational parameters were worked out at the Akhil Bharatiya Karyakarini Mandal Baitak (national executive committee meet) of the RSS in October-November 2015 in Ranchi, Jharkhand. The meeting, attended by the leaderships of more than 35 associate organisations of the Sangh Parivar, including the BJP, did not have a pre-announced agenda. However, as the meeting unfolded, the Sangh Parivar leadership took up the matters of “growing religious imbalance in Indian population figures” and “concerns for national unity”. It was the discussions on these two issues that led to the concretisation of the “nationalism versus sedition” plank.

The deliberations took place in a political context that was worrying for the BJP—and the BJP’s electoral performance in some key States was a cause for concern. The Narendra Modi-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government had by then completed nearly one and a half years of its term and the assessment of the RSS top brass was that the government’s performance was not commensurate with expectations despite the free hand given to Modi and BJP president Amit Shah. While the leadership of the government, including Modi, was good at making pronouncements, there was not much happening in concrete terms. In any case, the rank and file were not happy. The BJP had been roundly defeated in the Delhi Assembly elections of February 2015 by the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), and the internal reports of the RSS had indicated that the party was losing in the Bihar elections, too, which were held in October-November 2015. The results of the Bihar elections came in later, confirming the RSS’ internal assessment. It was against this background that the Ranchi meet outlined the contours of a new Sangh Parivar project, which would essentially divert attention from the failures of the government and enthuse the Hindutva support base, once again, on the basis of a new nuanced project.

The RSS and its associates in the Sangh Parivar had conceived and carried out several such projects in the past, too, basically to help the BJP to capture and perpetuate power. Sangh Parivar activists said the new project was different from the projects that were advanced in the earlier decades. The strategy was founded on all-out aggression against Muslims in the late 1980s and early 1990s, which was diluted to a moderate and covert Hindutva during the A.B. Vajpayee regime, especially from 1997 to 2002. In 2002, the Parivar returned to its old strategy of anti-Muslim attack through the genocide of the minority community. Modi, who was the champion of that plank in 2002, was rediscovered between 2010 and 2014 as an advocate of neoliberal Hindutva, which combined Hindutva communalism with a corporate-driven development agenda. The “nationalism versus sedition” agenda was to add yet another nuance to the Hindutva project.

Barely two months after the Ranchi meet, the Sangh Parivar, especially its students wing, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), raked up the “nationalism versus sedition” issue forcefully through the incidents at Jawaharlal Nehru University in February 2016 dragging the then JNU Students Union president Kanhaiya Kumar and other student leaders into a controversy. Parallelly, the action plan on this idea was getting advanced more aggressively in Chhattisgarh, which had a Left-wing extremist problem for long. It involved the creation of a police state where the rule of law was suspended to oppress and, in a calculated and strategic manner, suppress all voices of dissent that questioned the socio-economic machinations of the BJP and corporate-Hindutva politics. Informally termed “Mission 2016” campaign, this offensive charted a new record in terms of brutal interference in the everyday lives of the common people, including Adivasis and well-meaning social activists (see “War on Bastar”, Frontline, April 29, 2016).

Advancing this premise further, the BJP national executive meet held in New Delhi in March 2016 passed a resolution stating that “nationalism, national unity and integrity are an article of faith with the BJP” and that a “very microscopic minority in this country is today indulging in a kind of demagogy that goes against the very essence of our Constitution”.

The resolution qualified its premise as follows: “Our Constitution guarantees Freedom of Expression to every citizen; but that freedom is enjoyable only within its framework. Talking of destruction of Bharat can’t be supported in the name of freedom of expression. Similarly, refusal to hail Bharat—say Bharat Mata ki Jai—in the name of freedom is also unacceptable. Our Constitution describes India as Bharat also; refusal to chant victory to Bharat taṅtamounts to disrespect to our Constitution itself....” “The BJP strongly condemns the principal opposition, the Congress party for its cynical and self-serving actions on the national security front.... Their leaders are seen brazenly rubbing shoulders with secessionist and ultra-Leftist elements who were demanding the vivisection and destruction of Bharat.”

Two more years have passed. At present, the assessment is near unanimous within the Sangh Parivar and even among the constituents of the NDA that the Modi government is failing on one front after the other. In the days following the Bhima Koregaon incidents, the government did make an attempt to address the concerns of the Dalit communities by initiating a piece of legislation that strengthened the Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe (Prevention) of Atrocities Act, but the adversarial reaction it has evoked among a section of the upper castes has caused new law and order problems in several parts of the country. This has become particularly problematic for the BJP and some of its allies because it is the party’s core support base that is revolting on this issue. On the economic front, the failures of the government have been accentuated by the falling value of the rupee and the constantly rising fuel prices.

Sharad Yadav, senior politician and president of the Loktantrik Janata Dal, told Frontline that it was no wonder that the BJP government in Maharashtra had suddenly turned aggressively patriotic and was trying to brand committed and respected social activists as seditious people. “This is evidently a project that is being executed at the highest levels of the BJP. It is an open challenge to the tenets of our democracy as well as our constitutional rights and the obligations of the government. It is the arrogance of power at its worst. But there is also resistance happening. The new spirit that we have seen in certain observations of the senior judiciary are also a byproduct of the struggle for democracy that happened within the judiciary a few months ago. The intelligentsia is also rising up to the occasion and fulfilling a similar, democratically assertive role. Time is not far off when all this will roll into a mass movement against the authoritarian rule of Modi,” he said.

Former Justice P.B. Sawant, who was one of the organisers of the Elgar Parishad, pointed out that the effort of the BJP and the Sangh Parivar was to alter the identity of the nation from a democracy to a fascist theocracy. “I am not even sure whether we can call the BJP a political party within the framework of the Constitution. More than a political party, it seems to be a national calamity,” he told Frontline.

Student arrested in Tamil Nadu

However, the BJP-Sangh Parivar leadership does not seem to have realised the growing resistance to this plan. The manner in which Tamilisai Soundararajan, president of the BJP’s Tamil Nadu unit, got a student arrested at the Thoothukudi airport in that State on September 3 exemplified the persistence with which the BJP and the Sangh Parivar were imposing their anti-democratic and bigoted political, social and cultural designs on India and its people through a series of measures, including wanton misuse of the administrative machinery.

Tamilisai Soundararajan had flown from Chennai to Thoothukudi that day and it so happened that Lois Sofia, a 28-year-old research scholar from the University of Montreal in Canada, was also on the same flight. Apparently, Lois Sofia, who hails from Thoothukudi, where 13 people, including a Plus 2 girl student, were gunned down on May 22 during a protest against a copper smelter plant of Sterlite Industries, shouted “down with the fascist BJP” after the plane landed at the airport. The BJP leader reacted rather aggressively to this expression, filed a complaint with the police, and got the girl arrested and remanded in judicial custody. According to eyewitnesses, the airport police did their best to pacify the BJP leader who entered into an argument with the girl at the airport lounge, citing the scholar’s young age and the over-enthusiasm she might have on account of this. But the senior leader would have none of it. She asked the police to inquire into the girl’s “suspected background” and take action. On the basis of her complaint, the police registered cases against the girl under Sections 505 and 290 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and under 75 (I) (c) of the Tamil Nadu City Police Act, 1888.

That the State party president was involved in such a shocking and abhorrent episode barely a week after a three-member bench of the Supreme Court had highlighted the importance of dissent in democracies pointed to the mindless and disdainful manner in which the BJP, its governments at the Centre and in many States, along with its associates in the Sangh Parivar, were pursuing the agenda of repression and suppression of voices and forces that differed from its political and ideological positions. Several social activists who have opposed the actions of the Pune Police and also that of Tamilisai Soundararajan are apprehensive that the Sangh Parivar outfits may themselves engineer fissiparous activities, including mock attacks on senior BJP leaders, to justify the anti-national, sedition tag on committed activists and intellectuals.

An activist belonging to Yogendra Yadav’s Swaraj India, who did not wish to be named, summed up the apprehension succinctly by pointing out that such a turn of events would give the BJP and the Sangh Parivar the ultimate tool to once again launch vicious communal attacks in much the same manner as they did in Gujarat in 2002.

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