'Urban Naxal': Decoding a lexicon that supposedly defines dissent against establishment in modern India

Vivek Agnihotri triggered a Twitter debate on Urban Naxals, forcing defenders of the activists arrested to condemn what they say is a misnomer for dissenters.

FP Staff August 29, 2018 18:45:46 IST
'Urban Naxal': Decoding a lexicon that supposedly defines dissent against establishment in modern India

The events of Tuesday, 28 August, will be remembered for long in India as a warning for anyone daring to speak out against the establishment — this is the popular opinion that emerged after multi-city raids on activists and intellectuals who have worked on causes to help the repressed and have been vocal critics of the government and its policies.

The searches by the Maharashtra Police were part of the inquiry into the Elgar Parishad event held near Pune on 31 December, which investigators claim triggered the clashes between Dalits and upper caste members in the nearby Bhima Koregaon village on New Year's Day.

On one side, there is outrage over the police action, described as a "brazen attack on democratic rights", "absolutely perilous", an "attempted coup against the Indian Constitution” and "potentially more serious and more dangerous than the Emergency", among myriad other criticisms. On the other side of the ideological wall has emerged a virtual war, with filmmaker Vivek Agnihotri, once again, triggering a debate on his popularised phrase "Urban Naxals".

Soon after news of the raids emerged, Agnihotri invited "bright young people" to make a list of "those defending Urban Naxals". Unsurprisingly, his tweet launched a war of words between right-wing thinkers like Agnihotri and the "Urban Naxals" he wants listed out and often targets in his social media posts.

In the current state of affairs in India, "Urban Naxals" is being increasingly used to describe the taxon of the population that dares to speak out against the government. Many believe that to dissent is to be an "Urban Naxal" in today's India. In an article published in Swarajya, Agnihotri had defined the term as "urban intellectuals, influencers or activists of importance" who are "invisible enemies of India". He claimed that some of these people "have either been caught or are under the police radar" for "spreading insurgency against the Indian State". The activists and intellectuals raided and detained on Tuesday have been referred to as "Urban Naxals", even by the Pune Police that headed the raids, highlighting even further that the dissent argument holds true. They were detained by the police after the raids for suspected Maoist links.

Urban Naxal Decoding a lexicon that supposedly defines dissent against establishment in modern India

People from various organisations protest against the police raids at the homes of activists and their subsequent arrests. PTI

Activists Vernon Gonzalves, Arun Ferreira and Sudha Bhardwaj, poet Varavara Rao, Father Stan Swamy and journalist Gautam Navalakha being described as "Urban Naxals" forced their defenders to counter the accusation and explain why the phrase is nothing but a "misnomer" and is used inappropriately.

The term "Urban Naxal" is a "deeply toxic, flawed analytical category that can, in practice, include any citizen who disagrees with the right-wing status quo", tweeted barrister Suchitra Vijayan. She called Agnihotri's definition of the term "empty of content", emphasising Navlakha's warning that the ambiguity over the term is deliberate.

"It mobilises the society to extrajudicially curb dissent and criminalises it," she said in a series of tweets. "But this formulation and many of the right-wing's assault on knowledge has one thing in common — a deep distrust for reason, an anti-intellectual/anti-reason streak that views anyone with a different opinion as an enemy."

Adding that curbing dissent was a common phenomenon in "fascist authoritarian states", Vijayan pointed out the often used terms of "sickular", "libtard" and "presstitute" as an "already easily accepted category of insult that automatically vilifies any dissent".

Tracing the history of the word "Naxal", she highlighted that the Naxal movement "did not start as an insurgency against the state", but was a “uprising of peasants and workers in 1967" against exploitation by landlords.

Socialist Anupam Guha echoes Vijayan's thoughts. "The revolt of Naxalbari (village in 1967) was a specific movement in a specific historical material condition," he tweeted. "There is no such thing as 'Urban Naxal'. This propaganda puts in danger every dissenter, leftist, socialist, Marxist of thoughtcrime. We resist this now, or the republic is in peril."

"...By using the narrative of 'Urban Naxal', any and all opponents, small and large, of the establishment can be arrested," he said in a Twitter thread. "The beautiful thing about the 'Urban Naxal' narrative is that perfectly legal activism get criminalised."

Although not without opposition from the other side, scores of people share the view that the "Urban Naxal" tag is added to anyone who dares to dissent.

Rights activist Kavita Krishnan tweeted "Urban Naxal", "half Maoist" — a term coined by Finance Minister Arun Jaitley — "love jihad" are "just some of the nonsense phrases used to smear activists, intellectuals and basically anyone defending rights of people under attack from the Modi govt".

Photographer and restaurant consultant Madhu Menon even went to the extent of saying that "Urban Naxal is not a real thing" and was just "a term made up by a Sanghi to sell his book". This was in reference to Agnihotri and his book, Urban Naxals: The Making of Buddha in a Traffic Jam. "In his (Agnihotri's) world, anyone who questions the government is evil and an 'Urban Naxal'. Don't give it any legitimacy."

Journalist Hridayesh Joshi tweeted: "If Sudha Bhardwaj is a Naxal, we need more such 'Urban Naxals'. We need such hearts for poor and powerless. We need spunk to stand the brute and mendacious machinery called government. We need to speak up now."

Agnihotri inviting the Twitterati to make a list of "Urban Naxals" saw a backlash in the form of #MeTooUrbanNaxal. People across the platform used the hashtag to counter the vitriol being spewed against the activists detained by the Pune Police on Tuesday, saying that if speaking up against injustice made them "Urban Naxals", then so be it.

As one Twitter user said: "If questioning the government means being an #UrbanNaxal, if being against cronyism means being #UrbanNaxal, if being against casteism, if taking a stand against hatred and bigotry makes me #UrbanNaxals, then #MeTooUrbanNaxal."

Despite the bitter criticism of his arbitrary use of the term and provocative statements, Agnihotri stands by his opinion. Referring to his critics, too, as "Urban Naxals", he asked why "making a list of enemies of the state" was being deemed a crime.

"I am the one speaking against those who are inciting violence," he told Firstpost. "The government is taking action against such people. For me, those tweets were an academic exercise because I work with a lot of young people so I wanted to see who are the ones defending stone pelters, jihadists, and Naxals."

He also claimed that many of those raided on Tuesday were part of a list that the government of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance was made aware of but did not act against.

The events of Tuesday, if not the past four years, draw attention to the suppression of the anti-establishment lot, and the fact that ambiguity of the term "Urban Naxal" allows authorities to crack down on any dissenter who fits the vague definition leaves hundreds of thousands opposed to government's ideas at peril.

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