Interview: Anand Teltumbde

‘Majoritarian agenda’

Print edition : February 15, 2019

Anand Teltumbde. Photo: V. Sreenivasa Murthy

Interview with the Dalit scholar Anand Teltumbde.

The eminent Dalit scholar and public intellectual Dr Anand Teltumbde has been booked by the Pune police under two charges—for allegedly instigating caste violence at the Bhima-Koregaon site in Maharashtra on January 1, 2018, and for reportedly plotting to kill Prime Minister Narendra Modi. On January 14, 2019, the Supreme Court granted him protection for four weeks, during which time he could seek bail from a trial court. On January 1, 2018, thousands of Dalits were attacked by Maratha groups while they were on their way to participate in the bicentenary of the Battle of Koregaon Bhima. The police claim that the Elgaar Parishad, a conference organised by Left organisations and Dalit groups in Pune on December 31, 2017, was responsible for instigating the violence. Teltumbde was not present at the conference and from the raid conducted on his house no evidence has emerged in connection with the Elgaar Parishad, the Bhima-Koregaon incident or the assassination plot.

Facing imminent arrest, he spoke fearlessly about the witch-hunt, the fabricated evidence, the false charges, the misuse of the law and the wider agenda of stifling dissent. Excerpts from the interview he gave Frontline:

The sedition law is being misused liberally by the current government at the Centre to suppress dissent. You are one of its targets now.

It is obvious that this government is out to suppress dissent using draconian laws such as sedition and the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act [UAPA]. It is not for the first time that these laws are misused, but the manner in which the present government is doing it has a distinct vicious edge. Largely saffronised, the police are given a free hand to deal with select targets. The Bhima-Koregaon case in which they have implicated me along with 10 others exceeds all limits of viciousness in its composition, expanse and implications as they used the UAPA.

Could you explain the police charges against you?

In the Bombay High Court, the police, at the instance of the bench, filed an affidavit wherein they produced five letters supposedly recovered from a computer of one of the accused. The first letter was addressed to some Com Anand (supposed to be me) by some Maoist which stated that the Maoists had funded my “meeting” in Paris, arranged with Com Etienne Balibar, to interview me and Com Shailaja Paik and Anupama Rao (both professors teaching in United States universities) to invite me as a guest lecturer to their universities. The other three letters were written by someone to someone with a reference to “Anand” but with the content that may be identifiable with me. The first referred to my coordinating the fact-finding committee in a Gadchiroli [Maharashtra] encounter. The second referred to me as giving a “good suggestion” during a meeting of the Anuradha Ghandy Memorial Committee. The third referred to my organising the Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle, which came into the limelight in 2015 when the Indian Institute of Technology Madras administration banned its activities. The fifth was a scanned copy of about five lines of scribbling, with one line reading “Anand T ..90K Surendra (through Milind)”, which is deciphered by the police as Rs.90,000 paid to me. It is important to note that none of these letters were recovered from me.

Why do you think activists such as you have been targeted?

The Bhima-Koregaon case was developed out of nothing and pursued with mud-wrestlers’ zeal.

There is no appreciation of the asymmetric battle when an individual is targeted by the mighty state in the judicial process. No appreciation that the basis of application of such draconian laws should be prima facie validated by courts. No appreciation for the context of the accused when he is made out as a dangerous terrorist for whom the law is primarily meant.

It may not be difficult to fathom the reasons for targeting the known civil rights activists Gautam Navlakha [People’s Union of Democratic Rights, Delhi], Sudha Bharadwaj [People’s Union for Civil Liberties], Shoma Sen, Arun Ferreira and myself [Committee for Protection of Democratic Rights]. All of us, besides these associations, are known for fighting on behalf of the disadvantaged people. I have been associated with other organisations as well, such as the All India Forum for Right to Education [AIFRTE] as its presidium member. Certainly, my column “Margin Speak” in Economic & Political Weekly, which represented an unsparing critique of the anti-people policies of the government, not only this but also the previous ones, may have qualified me as the target.

People suspect that I may have been targeted as my younger brother is a Maoist, though I have not seen him for the last 38 years, and because my brother-in-law, Prakash Ambedkar, has taken an uncompromising stand against the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh and the BJP.

Could this be part of a larger witch-hunt? What have you to say about the undemocratic tactics and the politics behind it?

Yes, this clearly reflects the state terror used against all those who dare to speak their mind. This government wants to de-intellectualise the country so that dissent is nipped in the bud. The freedom of thought and expression fertilises dissent. It, therefore, promotes pseudo theories that glorify ancient history, falsifies history and persists with irrationality. These are not to be taken as idiosyncrasies; these are the building blocks of undemocratic and fascist structures. Every fascist regime in history relied on spreading such irrationalities and falsehoods to consolidate its forces.

It is remarkable that you are holding on to your convictions in these grim times. Are you not afraid?

How can I not be afraid? While I am afraid of jail, I am afraid of the prospect of having to waste my time, which I dread to imagine. But when you are repeatedly driven to a wall, you lose the sense of fear. That perhaps is the process that makes people [turn into] Maoists, as I have explained in my book, Republic of Caste, and elsewhere. The police and our justice delivery system are the biggest contributors to this process. I have commented widely on the infeasibility of insurrectionary type of revolutions, or Mao’s model, in the present times. But I am being made out to be a Maoist, defamed with police canards, which are reinforced by juridical processes, and rendered hopeless; one would lose the sense of fear.

You have said in an article: “But when Babasaheb Ambedkar painted the Battle of Bhima-Koregaon as the battle of Mahar soldiers against their caste oppression in Peshwa rule, he was creating a pure myth. As myths are required to build movements, he perhaps saw its necessity then. But after a century, when it solidifies into a quasi-history and tends to push Dalits deeper into an identitarian marshland, it should become a worrisome matter.” You have a contrarian view on the Elgaar Parishad and the Bhima-Koregaon battle. Could you elaborate on this?

Oblivious of what happened at the Elgaar Parishad on January 1, 2018, when Dalits were attacked by Hindutva goons (my wife and I at the time were travelling through Pune to Goa after attending a marriage of my friend’s son), I had written that article on the night of December 31, 2017, for The Wire. It was published on January 2. Until January 1 afternoon, I did not have any idea of the attack on Dalits. My article also reflects this fact. In such a tense situation, the article should not have appeared the next day, but it was a fait accompli. It was natural for Dalits to get angry at it and react harshly as they did. Distortion of history by fascists cannot serve the oppressed; it only reinforces the identitarian orientation among them. It was not at all disrespectful to Babasaheb [B.R.] Ambedkar, which was what Dalit reactions seemed to assume.

It is amusing that in the wake of such contrarian facts, the police still persist with their story that I worked to provoke Dalits. It is not this article alone, most of my books are replete with my criticism of both Dalit politics and communist politics. I am committed to Ambedkar’s vision of annihilation of caste and I have been promoting class in the Marxian sense, but I am equally critical of the class movements carried out by dogmatic Marxists.

Support for you has been pouring in. With some effort, this may help your case.

The anger in all sections of people is palpable and is bound to materialise although opposition parties persisted with their follies and failed to present a viable alternative to people. Even middle-class people are feeling disturbed by the episode concerning me as can be seen from the spate of mails I have received from supporters, some of whom are BJP loyalists.

Going back to the use of the sedition law, it is believed that the law is used to promote a majoritarian discourse.

Sedition law is a colonial legacy and, in the first place, should not have existed in the Indian statute. It has survived through seven decades despite Mahatma Gandhi calling it a prince among draconian laws. This is the irony of the democratic polity of India that everybody will speak against it but no party will ask for its annulment. It represents a weapon in the hands of the ruling party to chasten people.

The prowess of the BJP lies in making skilful use of what existed or was initiated by the Congress and stretching it to its limits. Terms such as nation, nationalism and patriotism are the arsenals of rulers to intoxicate people and divert their attention from what ails them. They assume a special place in the ideologies of fascists. We can see everything revolving around nation and nationalism in the discourses of the Sangh Parivar. Nation is identified with the majority and used to other the minorities.

The very idea of Hindutva, as defined by V.D. Savarkar and developed by Hindutva ideologues, is based on the notion of nation and nationalism mapped with the majority.

The sedition law that punishes activities against the nation by default incriminates acts against the will of the majority. It is part of the jingoism that clearly promotes the majoritarian agenda and politics.