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Last Updated : Sep 07, 2018 04:06 PM IST | Source:

Podcast | Digging Deeper - Decoding the Bhima Koregaon conflict 

The perpetual hounding of opponents, activists and those who work to empower people without political representation or dig too deep into corrupt practices, is gradually becoming the norm.

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On 28 August, media outlets were abuzz with news of the Pune Police conducting coordinated raids across the country on the homes of 10 activists, arresting five of them. The news was presented in the context of two suggestions.

The first was that the arrests were made in connection with an alleged plot to assassinate Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The second was that  the raids were linked to investigations into violence that occurred at Bhima Koregaon near Pune on January 1.

The crackdown on Sudha Bharadwaj, Gautam Navlakha, Vernon Gonsalves, Arun Ferreira and Varavara Rao and  raids on the residences of Father Stan Swamy, Susan Abraham, and Anand Teltumbde  followed the 6 June arrests of advocate Surendra Gadling, English professor Shoma Sen, writer Sudhir Dhawale, forest rights activist Mahesh Raut, and prisoners rights activist Rona Wilson in Maharashtra.


The Pune police claims that the examination of those detained revealed their links to Maoists, which necessitated the recent raids and arrests. An assassination plot, as we said before, targetting the Prime Minister was also supposedly in the mix.

Before we dive into this continuously evolving story, let us first explore the power of the subliminal via a few examples.

The first example has nothing to do with politics. Recently, a pro-biotic drink Yakult sold out in many supermarkets when it made an appearance in an episode of ‘To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before’ in Netflix.

The second example has everything to do with politics and pertains to just how many disgruntled consumers in the US burnt their Nike merchandise after the multinational corporation chose Colin Rand Kaepernick as the face of its latest campaign.

Kaepernick is of course, the football quarterback who in 2016, became a national figure when he chose to kneel rather than stand while the national anthem was being played before the start of NFL games. He did this to protest racial injustice in the United States and became a free agent when teams refused to hire him subsequently.

The hatred against Kaepernick has been since then ignited by media outlets like Fox News, right wing figureheads like Tomi Lahren, and even President Trump himself. They have collectively insisted that the player was dishonouring army veterans and the flag, when the fact is that he was protesting police violence against unarmed citizens.

Racist attackers in public places in the US have often repeated key phrases mouthed by Trump against Hispanics, minorities and asylum seekers. Suggestions, half-truths and even untruths when repeated by powerful mouths, often seep into the subconscious of a nation.


The power of perception altering images and phrases

 Closer home, phrases like urban naxals, half-Maoists, anti-nationals and ‘tukde tukde’ gang have been repeated ad infinitum by certain news outlets and have  resulted in wide spread mistrust of dissenters even though the basis on which such labels were issued has been refuted sometimes even  by the court of law.

The physical attacks on outspoken Arya Samaj scholar and activist Swami Agnivesh, and on JNU students including Kanhaiya Kumar   and Umar Khalid, who was fired at close to the Constitution Club near Parliament ahead of Independence Day, demonstrate how quickly the distance between perception and action can be bridged.

The idea that  teachers, writers, some journalists, lawyers and activists speaking up for marginalised communities are somehow embroiled in a high-profile conspiracy to derail the country, was drummed up in certain sections of the media even before the Pune police arrested the activists we spoke about at the beginning of the podcast.

Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had also said that Maoism was the greatest internal security threat.

The labelling and then persecution of frontline defenders of the marginalised is not new or a recent phenomenon in India.

Soni Sori, an Adivasi school teacher and activist from the Sameli village of Dantewada in south Bastar, Chhattisgarh,  was arrested by the Delhi Police's Crime Branch for Chhattisgarh Police in 2011 on charges of acting as a conduit for Maoists.

During her imprisonment, she was tortured and sexually assaulted by Chhattisgarh state police, according to information available in the public domain. By April 2013, the Indian Courts had acquitted her in six of the eight cases filed against her due to lack of evidence. Since her release, Sori has been campaigning for the rights of tribals caught up in the conflict between Maoist insurgents and the government.

Irom Chanu Sharmila, a civil rights activist, and poet from Manipur went without food and water for more than 500 weeks, to protest the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958,  and  especially the civilian killings on 2 November 2000, in Malom. She has been arrested multiple times.

On 19 August 2014, a court ordered her release from custody, subject to there being no grounds for detention. She was re-arrested on 22 August 2014 on similar charges to those for which she was acquitted, and remanded in judicial custody for 15 days, according to reports filed by various media outlets.

Amnesty International went on to call her the prisoner of conscience. The same organisation whose Indian chapter said this week, "it is a “dangerous” time to speak truth to authorities in India."


Labels that oversimplify discourses

 The mistrust against liberal politics, socialist economics and activism is not restricted to India. American senator and self-proclaimed democratic socialist and progressive idealist Bernie Sanders is often ridiculed even by democrats for his pro-labour stance, and views about reversing economic inequality.

His protege Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez won the Democratic primary in New York's 14th congressional district covering parts of the Bronx and Queens in New York City in an upset victory in the 2018 midterm-election season. She has already become a subject of criticism by many organisations, primarily Fox News.

As far as our record in perception altering media campaigns goes, Amnesty International India has said that a year after Gauri Lankesh was shot dead outside her home in Bengaluru, many other journalists continue to face death threats, attacks and false charges.

As for the actual events at the Bhima Koregaon rally near Pune in January this year , they have almost been forgotten amid the  noise of paranoia.


At the heart of the battle of Koregaon

 To understand the root of the current controversy, here is the brief history pertaining the battle of Koregaon which was fought on 1 January 1818 between the British East India Company and the Peshwa faction of the Maratha Confederacy, at Koregaon Bhima.

The battle was won by the British. Dr B. R. Ambedkar visited the site on January 1, 1927 to pay tribute to soldiers slain in the battle. They were part of the British contingent, more importantly, members of scheduled castes.

To commemorate his visit, thousands of his followers visit the site every New Year's Day and celebrate it as Shourya Divas. A number of gatherings have also been held over the years at the place but it was only this year, also incidentally the 200th anniversary of the battle, that commemorative events were opposed by several organisations  that  called them ‘anti-national’.

Violence broke out subsequently and a person was killed scheduled caste groups blaming right-wing bodies, especially two leaders Milend Ekbote and Sambhaji Bhide who according to them, allegedly conspired and organised this violence.

What followed was not action to investigate the violence but the filing of two FIRs against the speakers at a certain event in which they were blamed for provocative speeches.

A second set of FIRs claimed is that the event in itself was a conspiracy of the Maoists, and was funded and supported by them. This is the theory which led to the raids and arrests of  Dhawle, Gadling, Raut, Wilson and Sen in June.

Then an accusation was made that a letter had been recovered from the computer of one of the detainees, "discussing the plan to assassinate Prime Minister Modi, the way Rajiv Gandhi was killed’.

The letter supposedly also makes allusions to the complicit intentions of Kashmiri separatists, stone pelters, human rights lawyers, JNU and TISS (Tata Institute of Social Sciences) students and counting.

Regardless of which side we choose, it is a fact that perception building is often done by the powerful across the world, be they in media, in business or politics. And dissent is often repressed in every regime that wants to homogenise thought as was done when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared a state of emergency across the country from 25 June 1975 until its withdrawal on 21 March 1977.


A quick glance at history

The Emergency bestowed upon the Prime Minister the authority to rule by decree, allowing elections to be suspended and civil liberties to be curbed.  During this time, Gandhi's political opponents were imprisoned and the press was censored. Several other human rights violations were reported too.

The perpetual hounding of opponents, activists and those who work to empower people without political representation or dig too deep into corrupt practices, is old news.

In a world where the US is already skidding down the post-truth slope, and everything that questions the popular narrative endorsed by President Donald Trump is being dismissed as "fake news", fact checking and reporting from the wrong side of power  is increasingly becoming dangerous.

While death threats against non-partisan journalists like Don Lemon and media houses like CNN in the US are on the rise in the wake of the President's open vilification of them, elsewhere in the world, things are not sanguine either.

As The Hindu and many other publications reported some time back, this year, India’s ranking in the Press Freedom Index has fallen two places to 138. This annual report comes almost a year after journalist Gauri Lankesh was killed and India's low ranking on the index is attributed to “ to physical violence” against journalists like Lankesh.

More about India later but the big news elsewhere a few days ago was that a Myanmar court sentenced two Reuters journalists to seven years in prison for breaking something called the Official Secrets Act while investigating a massacre of Rohingya Muslims. Wa Lone, 32, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 28, were originally detained in December 2017 after working on an investigation for Reuters on the mass killing of a number of Rohingya villagers in Myanmar's Rakhine state.

In October 2017, The Guardian reported that the journalist who led the Panama Papers investigation into corruption in Malta was killed in a car bomb near her home. Her name was Daphne Caruana Galizia and she died when her car, a Peugeot 108, was destroyed by a powerful explosive device which blew the vehicle into several pieces.

Russia's routine targeting of journalists and whistleblowers is a matter of grave concern to watchdog agencies monitoring freedom of speech and of reporting while the press in North Korea has been turned into a state instrument of propaganda.

As Professor Apporvanand of Delhi University recently wrote in the Quint, in the Indian context, Chhattisgarh has now been emptied of almost all journalists, activists and lawyers who wrote about the acquisition of natural resources by big corporations, and defended the tribals. Jharkhand is undergoing a similar upheaval.

Are certain politically conflicted countries including India moving  towards a new version of McCarthyism which in the early 1950s under the stewardship of Senator Joseph McCarthy, targetted and accused  human rights workers, actors, film makers, teachers and writers of anti-national activities and of being undercover communists?

According to Apporvanand, this is a question that needs to be asked.

In a Times of India report, Amnesty International India cited the house arrest of civil liberties activist Gautam Navlakha and Left-leaning poet Varavara Rao on charges of having ties with Maoists as examples of crackdown on free speech.


Questions that need answers

 In August this year, two prominent journalists of ABP News, Managing Editor Milind Khandekar and anchor Punya Prasun Bajpayee left the organisation and this month, another senior anchor Abhisar Sharma left too. Reporters like Ravish Kumar are routinely issued death threats and trolled online.

The question to be asked here is why the simple act of reporting facts is becoming dangerous when fake news across social media has grown exponentially and has resulted in lynchings and troll campaigns.

Amnesty India, which incidentally has no political stake in India has said that attacks on journalism not only stifle the constitutional right to freedom of speech and expression but also have a “profound silencing effect”.

The United Nations' 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights says "everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference, and to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers".

Gauri Lankesh’s death anniversary, said the Amnesty report, is an occasion for us to introspect on how people who expose the truth, including journalists and whistle-blowers, are increasingly under attack.

According to Reporters Without Borders, in the first six months of 2018 alone, at least four journalists have been killed in India and at least three more have been physically attacked.

According to data available with the National Crime Records Bureau, between 2014 and 2017, as many as 204 attacks against mediapersons have been registered in India. Besides journalists, others who expose corruption and rights violations like whistle-blowers and Right to Information (RTI) activists are also being targeted.

Around 14 cases of attacks against whistle-blowers and RTI activists were recorded in 2017 according to National Crime Records Bureau data while activists say the actual number could be much higher.

As many as 68 Right to Information (RTI) activists have been killed since 2005, while 6 have committed suicide, states the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative.

There is no law, we are told to protect activists or to prevent their personal details from being misused.

Amendments have been proposed to alter the Whistle Blowers Protection Act, 2014  that will further increase the risks for whistle blowers. The amended Whistle Blower Protection Bill has been stalled in Parliament since 2015.


But coming back to the arrests of the activists at the crux of this podcast

 Since the crackdown on the activists, in a move against Additional Director General (ADG) of Maharashtra Police Param Bir Singh, a petition was filed in the Bombay High Court seeking action against him under contempt of court for disobeying the order of the magistrate and disclosing evidence related to the Bhima-Koregaon violence in media.

The PIL was filed against the ADG of Maharashtra Police for reading out parts of the letters allegedly containing a terror plot,  in a press conference before submitting them to the court in Pune.

The Bombay High Court also critiqued the Maharashtra Police for the same.

As part of an independent inquiry initiated by anti-caste activists and social groups, Justice (retired) B. Chandra Kumar of the Hyderabad high court, along with two district judges of Maharashtra, J.H. Dongre and Manik Mhakre, travelled to Bhima Koregaon and the nearby villages, and  concluded that the violence could have been controlled had the police and state administration reacted promptly.

Post the arrests on August 28, that were based on the claim that the arrested individuals  had links to the outlawed Communist Party of India (Maoist), the cops have defended their crackdown, claiming, as we told you before, that they had strong evidence against the arrested activists.

At the base of all the press statements made by the Maharashtra Police is that ‘Maoists and Maoist-sympathisers’ instigated members of scheduled caste to riot at Bhima Koregaon through their anti-State songs at Elgar Parishad, a programme organised by individuals and organisations in Pune on 31 December, 2017, a day before the commemoration of Shourya Divas at Bhima Koregaon.

It is interesting to note that this theory was first floated by right-wing organisations and reports in the media that cited anonymous sources to allege the urban Naxal angle.

Later Tushar Damgude, a right-wing activist filed an FIR on 8 January alleging that the Bhima Koregaon attacks were the result of anti-State songs sung by Kabir Kala Manch activists such as Sagar Gorkhe, Harshali Potdar, Sudhir Dhawale and others at the Elgar Parishad.

It is here that it was alleged "the banned Maoist organisation (CPI) have strong organisational role to boost and implicate strong Maoist thoughts in depressed classes, and misdirect and misguide them towards unconstitutional violence activities”.

At the crux of the whole conspiracy theory is the Elgar Parishad programme organised by 250 individuals and organisations that gathered under the umbrella of what was termed as an anti-fascist front.

Among the participants were the likes of scheduled caste leader Jignesh Mevani, Radhika Vemula, the mother of the late Rohith Vemula, Prakash Ambedkar and JNU student Umar Khalid. Over 5,000 people attended and this was the event that attracted much speculation even though the Elgar Parishad was given permission by the police and nothing objectionable had been reported at the event nor was any  police report filed against any of the speakers immediately.


A few key developments  followed 

 Following the Bhima Koregaon violence on January 1,  the urban Naxals theory began to do the rounds.

In April, Puja Sakat , a 19-year-old  woman, who belong to scheduled caste was a witness in the clashes at Bhima Koregaon was found dead in a well .

Reports have stated that she was under  pressure to withdraw her statement against the men who burnt her house during the violence in January.  They police have registered a case of abetment to suicide after her  body was found near a rehabilitation centre for those who were affected in the Bhima Koregaon violence.

Two key figures , Bhide and Ekbote  remained unmarked by the tumult even as close to 60 FIRs were registered and more than 170 people arrested.  Ekbote  sought anticipatory bail: first in the sessions court and then in the high court, later at the  directions of the Supreme Court, the Maharashtra Police filed a report about his involvement in the riots and sought rejection of his bail application.  The apex court rejected his application in March. Ekbote was arrested soon after but later released on bail.

Bhide remained immune to the proceedings and  subsequently,  homes of  individuals who had previously been called "Maoist-sympathisers" such as Vernon Gonsalves and Arun Ferreira were raided.


So what lies at core of such happenings?

  In the end, a lot of the conflict we see not just in India but in the US and many other parts of the world, can be attributed to tensions between vote banks with opposing interests. Historically, in many parts of the world, vote banks have been pitted against each other to further political agendas. Polarisation expands fault lines but achieves little else in the wrong run.

The subtext and nuance also gets lost in the day of manufactured clichés and few news outlets have bothered to understand or report that the Buddhist Ambedkarite followers that go to Bhima Koregaon every year have no connection with the Elgar Parishad event. The violence they suffered has been ignored in the furore dominated by the debate around Urban Naxalism.

As we said before, Ekbote, was arrested in March by the Pune police, but was released on bail.  No action has been initiated against Sambhaji Bhide who was named in the initial FIR for allegedly instigating the mob against the scheduled caste. The police is yet to file a chargesheet in the case.

Of the activists who were implicated by the crackdown is Sudha Bharadwaj, who is 57, and has spent over  30 years on human rights and labour rights cases in Chhattisgarh, often defending Adivasis accused of being Maoists.

P Varavara Rao, 77, is a Telugu poet and a co-founder of the Viplava Rachayitala Sangham (Revolutionary Writers’ Association) and is an easier target because he has been associated with Thirugubatu Kavulu (Rebel Poets), a literary group linked with the Naxalite armed struggle and has been closely involved with the Maoist movement in Andhra Pradesh.

Vernon Gonsalves, a gold medallist from Bombay University, and a teacher was accused in 2007 of being   a former central committee member of the Maharashtra state committee of CPI (Maoist) and charged in 20 cases. He was acquitted in all but one case.

Arun Ferreira, is a lawyer and political activist who was also arrested in 2007 on charges of being a Naxalite. He was acquitted of all charges in 2014.

Gautam Navlakha is a Delhi-based human rights activist, journalist and founder of the People’s Union for Democratic Rights and has spoken against human rights violations in Kashmir and Chhattisgarh for decades now.  The Delhi High Court has already granted a stay to the transfer order that would have permitted him to be shifted to Pune, saying that the documents produced by the Pune police did not have sufficient details.

There are others whose work and identity are closely connected with human rights issues and displacement of Adivasis, members of scheduled caste, farmers and labourers not just under this regime but many previous ones.

It was after the Supreme Court of India delayed police custody of the five activists till the petition questioning their arrest is heard on 6 September, that the Maharashtra Police held a 50 minute press conference in Mumbai, where they released letters which they termed 'incriminating material which proved beyond doubt that there were Maoist links to Elgar Parishad.'

At the time of writing this podcast, The Supreme Court, according to Zee News has slammed the Maharashtra government over state police addressing the media on Bhima-Koregaon raids.

The apex court ordered the activists to be kept under house arrest, when it heard the plea challenging the arrest of the five activists. The case was adjourned to September 12.

The Zee News report quotes Justice Dhananjaya Y. Chandrachud who has asked the Maharashtra government to direct its police to “keep your police officer in line. He is talking to the press, insinuating the Supreme Court is wrong. We don't want your police officer to tell us we are wrong. You are ruining people's reputations, casting aspersions on the court.” We will update you as the story evolves further.

For now, it bodes well for a democracy that blanket judgments are not yet the norm of the land.

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First Published on Sep 7, 2018 03:58 pm
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