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Dawn raids on Dalit activists citing 'Maoist' links indicate desperate attempt to secure Hindutva vote bank

Dawn raids by Pune Police personnel across seven cities have resulted in the arrest or detention of five rights activists, who have been accused variously of being ‘urban Maoists’ and the ‘overground’ faces of the ultra-Left underground. However, as this copy was being written, the Supreme Court gave some interim relief to the held activists and said that the police cannot keep them in jail but under house arrest till 6 September.

A brief look at the background of the activists targeted by the Pune Police would be instructive. From Hyderabad was Varavara Rao, a Left revolutionary who has been in and out of jail since the 1970s; he was an emissary in talks between the Central government and the Maoists in the early 2000s (that is, under both the Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh government). From Delhi was Gautam Navlakha, a former journalist and one of the most recognisable representatives of the Peoples Union for Democratic Rights; from Faridabad, the police picked up Sudha Bharadwaj, a lawyer and tribal rights activist; from Mumbai they picked up Vernon Gonsalves, an academic, lawyer and activist, who was in jail on suspicion of being a Maoist, but was acquitted in all cases he had been embroiled in; and from Thane was arrested Arun Ferreira, also a lawyer and rights activist, who had been in jail for six years as an undertrial on charges of being a Maoist.

 Dawn raids on Dalit activists citing Maoist links indicate desperate attempt to secure Hindutva vote bank

Vernon Gonsalves with his son Sagar and wife Susan Abraham. Facebook/Sagar Abraham-Gonsalves

Tellingly, the Delhi High Court threw out the Pune Police’s plea for transit remand and ordered Navlakha remain under house arrest until the case is disposed of, while the prayer for transit remand in Bharadwaj’s case was first granted by a Faridabad court despite being stayed by the Punjab and Haryana High Court. The Faridabad court later stayed the remand till 30 August. The Delhi High Court pointed to infirmities in the procedures adopted by the police.

Several aspects of these simultaneous raids (also carried out in Goa and Ranchi) and arrests suggest that it is part of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) strategy to consolidate upper caste Hindu and ultra-nationalistic vote banks with difficult elections impending in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan this year, followed by Lok Sabha elections next year along with elections to a host of Legislative Assemblies, including, crucially, elections in Maharashtra, where the party is not on a good wicket at all.

The police say that they have evidence linking all the five with five people arrested earlier this year – Sudhir Dhawale (activist), Surendra Gadling (advocate,) Mahesh Raut (activist), Shoma Sen (professor and activist) and Rona Wilson (activist) – in connection with violence in Bhima Koregaon (Maharashtra), where Dalit groups celebrated a nineteenth-century battle in which a colonial Mahar (Dalit) regiment had defeated a Maratha army. The forensic spotlight had originally fallen on Hindutva activists Milind Ekbote and Sambhaji Bhide, who had made inflammatory speeches before the event. Ekbote had been arrested and released on bail, while Bhide, a sort of eminence grise in Sangh Parivar circles, counting amongst his admirers Prime Minister Narendra Modi, was never arrested at all, despite the Supreme Court having ordered it.

Curiously, the police then abandoned their case against Ekbote, Bhide and other saffron merchants and focused attention on Dalit activists, who have been promoted to the position of prime agents provocateurs inciting the violence in which one person was killed. While Marathas had accused Dalits of having attacked them, the latter had said that crowds carrying saffron flags had orchestrated attacks on them. Clearly, some charges are more equal than others.

To return to the current situation, some things stand out. One, the Dalits and those who work amongst them remain targets (and not beneficiaries) of the current regime. The Central government was more or less stampeded into introducing and passing the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Amendment Bill, 2018, earlier this month to nullify a Supreme Court ruling which many felt had diluted the original act. The Central government had barely reacted to the Supreme Court ruling. Subsequently, the pressure had started building up. Many Dalit MPs and ministers had approached the government seeking action. Among them was Lok Sabha member Udit Raj. Key allies Ramvilas Paswan of the Lok Janshakti Party and Upendra Khushwaha of the Rashtriya Lok Samata Party also pressured the government to counter this dilution. The latter had threatened to part company with the National Democratic Alliance, and, according to recent reports, is still mindful of entering into an alliance with the Rashtriya Janata Dal.

The catalyst for all these were the countrywide protests against the Supreme Court order organised by Dalit groups on 2 April. Eleven people were killed, many more injured and public property destroyed in the protests. No one had anticipated this scale of violence. With another Bharat bandh that was scheduled for 9 August, and the pressure continuing to build, the Modi government finally introduced and passed the amendment bill on 3 and 6 August. The bandh was called off much to the relief of the BJP and its governments at the Centre and in various states, some of which had also called for action.

But, clearly, the anti-Dalit sentiment is hardwired into the Sangh Parivar make up, with its unreconstructed upper caste biases surfacing every now and then. The shifting of blame unilaterally to the Dalits in the Bhima Koregaon case is just one more piece of evidence. The desperate attempt to entwine Dalit activism, which is not proscribed, with sympathy for or involvement with the Communist Party of India (Maoist), which is banned, seems to be a classic upper caste backlash against growing Dalit assertion. It could well derail the current regime’s efforts to win Dalit support and prove electorally counter-productive. Activist and author Arundhati Roy does not necessarily get it right all the time, but she seems to have nailed it when she said the dawn raids on 28 August were a desperate sign ‘of a government that fears it is losing its mandate’.

Second, as we have already noted, this seems to be an electoral gambit. How far the ‘consolidation’ of the Hindutva vote bank will compensate for a possible consolidation of Dalit sentiments against the BJP remains to be seen, but given the shift away from the ruling party, which is proceeding apace on the back of, amongst other things, mismanagement of the economy, the opposition has reason to be optimistic, if it manages to stick together.

Third, there are enough grounds to speculate about whether this sudden crackdown on ‘Maoists’ is to compensate for wholesale arrests of Sanatan Sanstha members in relation to the murders of journalist Gauri Lankesh, rationalist Narendra Dabholkar and others. The government has not been able to protect them because the Central Bureau of Investigation, building on the work done by the special investigation team of the Karnataka Police, has unearthed a critical mass of evidence. Hindutva sentiments have been aroused, as demonstrated by the support shown for many of those arrested in these cases. This could well be the BJP’s way of sending out the ‘right’ message.

Much of the foregoing is, as it has to be, in the realm of speculation. It is now up to the judiciary to protect the rights of those arrested now and earlier. The Chhattisgarh government had arrested eminent physician and activist Binayak Sen and kept him in jail for two years until the Supreme Court bailed him out in 2009. The Chhattisgarh government hasn’t proceeded with the case since. Justice could still be done and seen to be done, especially if Bhide is arrested in accordance with the Supreme Court’s orders.

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Updated Date: Aug 29, 2018 19:11:58 IST