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‘Urban Naxals is a term to demonise dissent’

Shriya Mohan | Updated on August 31, 2018 Published on August 31, 2018

Leading the charge: “Public discourse is being engineered to create anxiety, alarm and fear”   -  THE HINDU

Senior lawyer Vrinda Grover turns the spotlight on the arrest of five human right activists

Dissent, said Justice DY Chandrachud, is the safety valve of democracy. “If it is not allowed, the safety valve will burst,” he said on Wednesday, responding to a petition filed by a group of academics and others, seeking the release of five activists arrested by the Pune police from different parts of the country. The activists — Sudha Bharadwaj, Varavara Rao, Gautam Navlakha, Arun Ferreira and Vernon Gonsalves — were on Wednesday placed under house arrest by the Supreme Court till September 6. Senior advocate Vrinda Grover, who represents lawyer-cum-human rights activist Bharadwaj, told BLink that this is a case of dissent being criminalised.

Edited excerpts from an interview:

What is significant about the timing of the arrests?

I think we need to locate this in the present political context and time. The next general elections are a few months away. Across the country, particularly among the marginalised communities — the poor, the workers, the labour classes — there is a high level of economic distress. Serious questions about the government’s performance, policies and priorities need to be asked. However, the public discourse is being engineered to create anxiety, alarm and fear amongst the public. This distracts the public discourse from anger at state failure.

I’ll speak specifically of my client, Sudha Bharadwaj, who has been teaching at National Law University, Delhi. Earlier, she was working in Chhattisgarh as a human rights lawyer representing people whose land, resources and jobs are being snatched. It is well known that the government is parcelling out natural resources, particularly in areas of adivasi population, to the corporate sector. Perhaps representing the interests of the people of this country is what has made Sudha the target of the wrath of the state.

On what grounds did the arrests take place? What evidence have the police found so far?

We’ve been told that all the arrests were made following the Bhima Koregaon FIR, which dates back to January this year when the Elgaar Parishad was organised by retired Justice PB Sawant and retired Justice BG Kolse Patil. The event was to commemorate 200 years of the Bhima Koregaon victory, a significant historical event for the Dalit movement. It is undisputed that none of the arrested activists is named in that FIR and none was present in that event or at any subsequent incident related to the violence. The police are claiming that in the process of investigating that FIR they picked up some activists and professors in June and now in August.

We have not been informed the grounds of the arrest. The FIR and seizure memo are in Marathi. The Pune police did not provide a translation in Hindi or English for my client. The law requires the arrest memo to be signed by two independent witnesses who may be family members or persons from the locality. This is a procedural mandate to protect the fundamental rights of the person being detained or arrested. Shockingly, in this case the two “independent witnesses” who signed the arrest memo and seizure memo travelled to Delhi as part of the Pune police’s entourage. No more needs to be said about the “independence” of the witnesses. This was presented before the court when the police filed for transit remand both in Delhi in Gautam Navlakha’s case, and in Faridabad in Sudha’s case. The Chief Judicial Magistrate (CJM) of Faridabad, for instance, before whom I appeared late at night on August 28, gave a transit remand earlier in the evening. The CJM does not follow Marathi. It is not the language of the Court in Haryana. Yet, the transit remand was granted on the basis that these are “serious allegations” because sections of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) have been invoked in the FIR.

The FIR makes for a very interesting read, as it quotes songs and poems sung by Dalit activists. The complainant claims to have heard songs that said the new Peshwas have to be defeated because they are the new oppressors. It’s a revolutionary song from the Dalit movement against casteist oppression. Songs, as we know, project life’s circumstances through hyperbole and drama. It is the nature of cultural expression. The person filing the FIR is believed to have heard these songs and concluded that a riot was being planned. That is the genesis of all this. This theatre of the absurd could be quite entertaining, except that here the personal liberty of prominent human right defenders and, consequently, the rights and freedoms of all of us are at stake.

What does “Urban Naxals”, a term often used against activists, supposed to mean?

The term “Urban Naxals” has been coined and deliberately placed in the public discourse to demonise dissent.

For instance, it is undisputed that Sudha has never engaged in any violence. She and the others have done their work in their professional capacities, providing legal aid to the poor and taking up their causes in other ways. Maoist ideology believes in the use of violence to advance their political ideology. So, in that sense, Sudha cannot be described as a Naxalite.

Activists are being called “Urban Naxals” to criminalise dissent and for holding a differing ideological position. The term, now planted in public discourse and state speech, should be rejected in a constitutional democracy like ours. It violates chapter three of our fundamental rights, including the freedom of expression and the right to life under Article 21.

Is this only the latest example of silencing dissent?

I fear that the situation will get worse in the run-up to the 2019 general elections. Elections are no longer a celebration of democracy, rather they are being used by certain interests to throttle democracy.

Published on August 31, 2018
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