Bhima Koregaon raids: A case of over-the-top outrage, Congress hypocrisy, media's peddling of Leftist narrative

The arrest of five Left-wing activists for their alleged involvement with the Maoist insurgency movement has created widespread furore in India. The case lies on the intersection of national security, human rights and Leftist ideology of “armed struggle” against the state. This contentious subject partly explains the tsunami of outrage. However, the case also raises disturbing questions about political opportunism and media’s blatantly partisan positioning.

The facts of the case, at this stage, are sparse. The arrests were carried out by Pune Police on Tuesday following simultaneous raids across Mumbai, Thane, Ranchi, Delhi, Hyderabad and Faridabad. According to reports, those arrested or put under house arrest now include Vernon Gonsalves, Arun Ferreira, Gautam Navlakha, Sudha Bharadwaj and Varavara Rao. Cops had also landed on the doorsteps of Jesuit priest Stan Swamy in Ranchi and Anand Teltumbde in Goa but they were not arrested. The focus has now shifted to Supreme Court.

These rights activists, writers and lawyers have been charged with harbouring links with Communist Party of India (Maoist) — a Maoist rebel outfit banned by India in 2009. The then UPA government had termed it a “terrorist organisation” and slapped Section 41 of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) on it.

Incidentally, the raids and arrests of the five accused on Tuesday were carried out under the relevant sections of the stringent UAPA law. The police have also invoked IPC sections 153A, 505(1)(b), 117, 120(b) and 34 against the activists.

People protest against the arrest of five activists in raids conducted by Pune Police. PTI

People protest against the arrest of five activists in raids conducted by Pune Police. PTI

The police swoop, arrests, charges and ongoing courtroom developments have shaped public discourse along expected lines. Police say the activists were involved in inciting riots during the Bhima Koregaon violence in January this year and claim that all of them are ideologues associated with the banned terrorist outfit. Rights defenders, Leftist intellectuals and the Opposition call it a crushing of “dissenting voices” by a “brutally authoritarian regime”.

Police assert that the arrests are a result of a seven-month-long investigation following the Bhima Koregaon violence in January. They also claim to have unearthed a plot to assassinate Prime Minister Narendra Modi. At this point, it is worth remembering that well may the police take the accused in custody, the Indian state has to justify its action in courts and subject itself to judicial scrutiny. If their evidence is poor, the case will be thrown out.

The Supreme Court might be busy judging the merits of the case, the arrests have already fallen between the twin stools of ideological adherence and pathological hatred towards Narendra Modi. Assorted intellectuals and a section of media are calling it an open expression of Modi government’s fascism and imposition of Emergency 2.0.

Arundhati Roy has termed it “more serious and more dangerous than the Emergency”. She told The Hindu: “events that are unfolding are being fuelled by an intent to do away with democracy and turn this country into a Hindu state.” She also detected a panic among the government “that fears it is losing the mandate”.

Historian Ramachandra Guha has called the events “absolutely chilling”.

According to lawyer-activist Prashant Bhushan: “Fascist fangs are now openly bared. It is a clear declaration of emergency. They are going after anyone who has spoken against the government on rights issues. They are against any dissent.” The rhetoric hasn’t stopped there. Social media is awash with comparisons of the arrests with McCarthyism or ‘Pre World War 2 Germany’.

It is possible that the intellectuals are right. The police are out on a witch hunt against the accused. At this stage, however, it is impossible to come to this conclusion. Some of the activists who have been arrested on Tuesday have been detained or have faced travel restrictions in the past. Navlakha was detained on arrival at the Srinagar airport in 2011 and not allowed to enter the city. The authorities had served him an order under Section 144 of CrPC and restrained from entering Srinagar.

Navlakha has courted controversy in the past due to his writings on Kashmir which is perceived as ‘pro-separatist’. Telugu poet and Maoist ideologue Varavara Rao was arrested in 2005 from Andhra Pradesh. He was later acquitted. Prior to that, Rao was jailed for two years in the 1980s on charges of waging a war and conspiring against the state. Vernon Gonsalves was arrested in 2007 by the Mumbai ‘anti-terrorism squad’.

He was convicted seven years later by a Nagpur Sessions Court under the UAPA. According to a report in The Indian Express, Gonsalves and Sridhar Srinivasan (both central committee members of CPI(Maoist)) were planning a terror attack in 2007 when the ATS raided their chawl and recovered nine detonators, 20 gelatin sticks, a walkie-talkie set, a computer and Naxal literature. Arun Ferreira, also arrested by Pune police on Tuesday, was detained by the police in 2007 along with a Naxal leader Arun Satya Reddy alias Murali in Nagpur.

Eight cases under UAPA were lodged against him. He was later granted bail. While past incidents cannot be taken to suggest culpability in present, it nevertheless provides some perspective. The over-the-top reactions from Leftist intellectuals reflect a desperation to mount a political challenge against BJP at the cost of undermining national security. A larger point, not related to any specific case, must be made here. Political opposition against the Modi government cannot justify intellectual ballast for Maoist terrorism.

Ideology isn’t enough to wage war against the state. It requires funding and other forms of support. The caregivers are no less culpable than those who pick up guns against the state. The issue goes much beyond political bickering between parties, which is why Congress’s position in the current controversy reeks of opportunism and hypocrisy. Following the arrest, Rahul Gandhi has posted an intellectually dishonest tweet, considering the fact that many Maoist sympathisers were arrested by the Indian government led by his own party.

Congress leader Salman Khurshid has claimed that “an atmosphere imposing restrictions on dissent” is enveloping the country, while commenting on the arrests. Congress, its leaders and its president might be suffering from selective amnesia. They need to be reminded of former prime minister Manmohan Singh’s oft-repeated words on the dangers of Maoist terrorism. In 2010, to mark the completion of one year of UPA 2 in office, Singh had said: “I have been saying for the last three years that Naxalism remains the biggest internal security challenge facing our country.”

What makes the Congress president’s position insidious is the way he has shifted stance on national security. In 2010, doctor and civil rights activist Binayak Sen was found guilty of sedition by court for helping the Maoists. Sen was arrested on 14 May, 2007, from Bilaspur. Top Maoist leader Kobad Ghandy was arrested in September 2009 from Delhi. Ghandy’s arrest was touted to be a ‘big catch’, that would deal a serious blow to Maoist movement.

Ferreira, as has been mentioned, was first arrested in 2007 for alleged links with Maoists. Following his acquittal by a Chandrapur sessions court, he was released in 2011 but was rearrested as soon as he stepped out of jail. He was granted bail later, according to a report in The Times of India. Congress’s hypocrisy has been called out on social media.

It is unlikely that the party understands the problem it is creating for itself by shifting to the ultra-left corner in Indian polity. The threat of Maoism is real, and the violent extremist movement has already claimed tens of thousands of lives. Its threat, as The Economist had written in 2006, “is low-key, insidious, and, to the city-dweller, largely invisible. Yet it now affects at least 170 of India's 602 districts: a “red corridor”, running from the Nepali border in the north to the state of Karnataka in the south. It takes in some of the poorest parts of India, and in particular forests inhabited mainly by tribal peoples. In some places Naxalites have, in effect, replaced the state…”

Faced with such a challenge to its writ, the nation-state will fight back. The police says that speeches made at the Elgaar Parishad meeting in Pune on 31 December 2017, a day ahead of the bicentennial celebration of Bhima Koregaon battle, “were one of the triggers for the violence that was witnessed in and around Pune the next day.”

There is a very real fear that Maoist extremism is trying to hijack the Dalit movement in India because it sees an opportunity to develop a common cause against the so-called “right-wing” government at the Centre.

Tuesday’s arrests, according to reports, are also the culmination of the investigation launched by the police since January and build on the detentions of five alleged Maoist operatives made in June this year. Sudhir Dhawale, Roma Wilson, Shoma Sen, Mahesh Raut and Surendra Gadling are now lodged in Yervada central prison in Pune.

Mumbai Mirror quotes an officer of the probe team as saying, “After the arrest of the five activists in June, we came across some communication between those arrested earlier and now. We were able to get evidence on them (arrested on Tuesday) hatching a conspiracy. It is too early to reveal the details.”

The “details” could be materials that point to an assassination plot targeting Modi in “Rajiv Gandhi-like manner”. In its submission before the Pune Sessions court, the police claimed to have seized a letter from the house of one of the five activists arrested in June.

The final point is about the media’s partisan positioning. The arrests of Leftist intellectuals have triggered a no-holds barred attack on the government despite the fact that the well-connected activists enjoy wide structural, moral, social, legal and even political backing. Lawyers are ready to represent them even at the stroke of midnight hour. A few hours within the arrest, a battery of top lawyers had moved the Supreme Court on their behalf.

Yet the media narrative pronounces them as “hapless dissenters” hounded and persecuted by the state for their political beliefs. Terms such as “poet”, “writer”, “thinker” are used to blunt criticism, provoke outrage and mask the intellectual slant towards a violent ideology. This stance contrasts deeply with those accused of perpetrating “saffron terror”. Within hours of arrest of a member of an organisation like the Sanatan Sanstha, the media acts as the judge, jury and executioner and pronounces the accused “guilty”. Not just that. The guilt trail reaches all the way to the top and ends at Modi’s doorstep. This thematic difference in coverage points to an ideological brainwashing of mainstream media.

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Updated Date: Aug 30, 2018 06:59:25 IST

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