Tue Jul 23, 2024
July 23, 2024

Political Prisoners in India: The BJP’s heightened crackdown against dissidents

As I write this article, the government of India has conducted a crackdown on the Popular Front of India, an organization committed to Muslim and minority rights.

By Mazdoor Inqilab

Since the BJP government came into power in 2014, they began to heighten political repression and strengthen ‘anti-terror’ laws. This was in tune with its rhetoric of being tough on terrorism. However, actually, such rhetoric masks its true agenda of attacking any and all dissident voices, ensuring both the marginalization of minorities and the unfettered rule of capital. While opposition bourgeois parties may give tepid criticisms of these measures, they too have been more than willing participants in the suppression of dissidents in India. The Indian Congress party has achieved record highs in mass arrests during the so-called emergency, the suppression of Communist movements in Telangana and Bengal, and supported the harsh police actions in Punjab during the period of militancy, all of which saw hundreds killed in unprovoked encounters and many thousands arrested.

We must understand the present crackdown in the context of the ruling party’s ideology, the Bharatiya Janata Party, and in the context of the Indian state’s history of dealing with its opponents. We can understand them through some of the most important cases of political repression in recent times.

The arrest of Elgaar Parishad activists

The Elgaar Parishad was a rally organized by over 250 organizations on 31st December 2017, which stand for Dalit rights, held at the historic Shaniwar Wada fort in Pune, Maharashtra. The rally was supported by progressive forces locally and nationally. The rally was organized to commemorate the two hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Bhima Koregaon, a battle that took place during the third Anglo-Maratha war, which pitted the army of the Peshwa against a regiment of the East India Company whose soldiers were largely from the Mahar caste. The Peshwas assaulted the East India Company with a force of 28,000 troops. The Company troops numbered only 800. Despite these huge odds, the Mahar troops fought bravely and repulsed attack after attack. Fearing a larger British force coming into the field, the Marathas retreated. The battle was won by the Company forces. The memory of the battle was immortalized when on the 1st of January 1927, B.R Ambedkar organized a rally to mark the anniversary of the battle, marching with thousands of Dalit followers to the obelisk built to celebrate the Mahar soldiers of the battle. Since then, the event has become important for Dalits, and a mark of their identity and their movement for rights. The Elgaar Parishad assumed greater significance in this context, as it was not just a cultural gathering, but also a political gathering, unifying Dalit organizations and activists into a common struggle against caste oppression.

A key resolution was passed to boycott the BJP government in the elections. The event saw more than 30,000 people gather at the historic Shaniwar Wada fort, which has long been held as a symbol of upper caste Peshwa power. There was a powerful and provocative message in organizing such a large Dalit gathering at the fort, which underpinned the radical character of the rally. This was all the more reason for right-wing Hindutva forces to feel threatened by such a movement. Two right-wing reactionaries, Sambhaji Bhide and Milind Ekbote, planned to instigate violence and attack the gathering. On the 1st of January 2018, the people marching to the obelisk at the site of the battle were attacked. Following this attack, violence spread through the state, resulting in one fatality where the police killed a Dalit boy. A complaint was filed against the two by the Pune police, who arrested Sambhaji Bhide, but failed to apprehend Milind Ekbote, who remained ‘untraceable’.

This was a curious situation, as the police were swift in arresting the activists who had helped organize the Elgaar Parishad, and anyone connected with the Dalit movement and progressive activists. In June 2018, the Pune police arrested several activists including the Dalit activist and co-organiser of the Elgar Parishad event Sudhir Dhawale, Nagpur University professor Shoma Sen, and human-rights activist Rona Wilson under UAPA. They were accused of being conspirators of the Bhima-Koregaon violence. They were accused of smuggling weapons and funding Maoist activities. The Pune police also alleged that they found electronic evidence which showed that they were involved in a plot to assassinate Modi and wage a war against the country. Several more arrests of prominent activists and thinkers were made in the months afterwards, such as Anand Teltumbde, Father Stan Swamy and activists of the Kabir Kala Manch. With a change of government in the state of Maharashtra, the NIA (National Investigative Agency), a central apex investigative agency, took over the case. The NIA had been empowered by amendments to the NIA act giving it sweeping powers of investigation and arrest, including the establishment of a specialized tribunal. Securing bail in such cases becomes exceedingly difficult. Of those arrested, Father Stan Swamy died in prison, while sixteen others still remain in prison.

Repression against journalists

In the light of the horrific rape and murder of a Dalit girl at Hathras in the state of Uttar Pradesh, there was a mobilization of Dalits across the country, led by many Dalit organizations and activists in Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh. The behaviour of the Uttar Pradesh police, which actively colluded to sabotage investigative efforts and denied the deceased any dignity in death by forcibly cremating her body only poured salt into the wounds of the community. Several journalists and political leaders were blocked from entering Hathras under the pretext of maintaining law and order. This was, in truth, part of a committed censorship campaign by the BJP-led government led by the reactionary Hindu monk Yogi Adityanath. One of the most egregious cases of repression of journalistic freedom was the case of Siddique Kappan, a journalist from Kerala who went to report on the Hathras case but was arrested and denied bail. During his imprisonment, he had fallen ill, and reports suggest he was chained to his hospital bed. To date, Siddique Kappan has been denied bail despite no evidence to keep him imprisoned.

While his case of repression was one of the more extreme, he is not alone in being targeted. India has become one of the most unsafe places for journalists and ranks low in press freedom worldwide. Since 2021, up to 488 journalists have been arrested in India. It is critical for the BJP government, which has a vice-like grip over the news media of the country, to have complete control over the narrative. This means ensuring that no story that can challenge its narrative ever comes out. The repression of journalists is part of this larger strategy.

Umar Khalid and the anti-CAA protests

Right before the outbreak of the Covid pandemic, India witnessed one of the largest popular mobilizations against the BJP’s proposed citizenship law amendment and the announced imposition of a National Register of Citizens (NRC) throughout the country. The protests had their epicenter in Shahin Bagh in Delhi, and at the Aligarh Muslim University, which was brutally raided by the Uttar Pradesh state police. The attempts at curbing the protests by force failed, and the momentum seemed unstoppable. Most importantly, the movement was a direct threat to the ruling party and an affront to its ideology of Hindutva because it succeeded in uniting the minority and majority communities together. To break the solidarity, a plan was devised to initiate a pogrom in the city of Delhi where over fifty people were killed and hundreds injured. To date, no one is certain of how many actually died in this ‘riot’. While there is much evidence suggesting the hand of the BJP and Hindutva extremists in instigating the riots and conducting the killings, the police used this to begin its crackdown on the leadership of the Shaheen bagh protests. Umar Khalid was one of the key individuals arrested in this crackdown. He was arrested for the alleged crime of ‘hurting religious sentiments’ and instigating riots. He would ultimately spend two years in prison, only recently getting bailed out on the 16th of September 2022.

Even after the pogrom in Delhi, the national movement continued to build momentum. But with several of its leading figures arrested, the momentum was severely slowed and once the pandemic hit and lockdowns were initiated in India, the protest sites were cleared and the movement all but ended. The methods used to stymie and break the Elgaar Parishad movement were used successfully in breaking the anti-CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act) movement as well. Assisting in this were colonial-era laws and a police force that still operated largely in the manner of a colonial police force.

Repression of minority communities

Just as was the case with Umar Khalid’s arrest, the arrest of activists and Dalit scholars highlight areas where the Indian state under the BJP feels itself most threatened and towards whom they turn their worst weapons in the arsenal of repression. They target the Muslim, Dalit, and tribal activists most harshly. Their organizing and agitating are seen with the greatest alarm by the Hindutva state, and the worst nightmare for the BJP is any possibility of solidarity between Hindus and Muslims, coming together in a common struggle. Such solidarity can break the narrative of the Hindutva party, which stands for the establishment of a Hindu state and see Muslims as the foreign ‘other’.

Such a policy is not in contradiction with their pursuit of neo-liberal free market economic policies. These policies, which increase inequality, and exploitation, are deeply unpopular among the masses. In order to push through with such policies, it is necessary to have the working class and poor fight each other rather than fight the capitalists. It is not by mere accident that we have witnessed the growth of Hindu-Muslim communal politics in the context of the emergence of neo-liberal economic policies in India. The rise of the BJP went hand in hand with the rise of market-driven economics. The toxic combination of harsh neo-liberal economy and divisive politics is what makes the BJP today the favourite of the big capitalists of India, and what served as the cornerstone of the ‘success’ of the so-called Gujarat Model when Narendra Modi was the Chief Minister. Using riots and pogroms to corner political opposition, and keep the Muslim minority marginalized and scattered, was a technique Modi had mastered during his time as Chief Minister.

New and old tools of oppression

Laws such as the law for sedition under the Indian Penal Code – the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act – have been in place for many decades. The penal code is over a hundred and fifty years old, tracing its origin back to British rule. The police are more than willing tools of oppression, very unabashedly on the side of the ruling class, and with a clear caste and religious bias.

The courts which were once thought of as neutral arbiters of justice in India have shown that they too can be corrupted, as we have seen in the repeated denial of bail for political prisoners, despite abysmally weak cases lodged against them. The change was not overnight, nor should it be presumed that things were ‘good’ before the BJP came in. During the Congress party, repression against indigenous people of Central India and the targeting of left-wing intellectuals had re-emerged with activists like Binayak Sen being jailed. A large popular movement led by civil society groups, intellectuals, and students eventually led to his freedom. His arrest, however, was a foretelling of what was to come. The use of sedition law in the Indian Penal Code has been one of the tried and tested formulas of the Indian state to suppress dissidents.

At the same time, under the BJP the old repressive machinery of the state was sharpened and new laws were promulgated strengthening the state’s repressive apparatus. Chief among these is the 2019 amendment of the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, which allows the state to designate any individual as a terrorist without due process, and the amendment to the National Investigative Agency Act, a body that was formed after the 2008 terror attack under the then Congress party, giving it sweeping powers of investigation and arrest. The combined effect of these laws and their harsh implementation are apparent in the present persecution of the Popular Front of India, which has been officially banned for a period of five years on suspicion of being linked with terror groups. As much as we may disagree with the identitarian politics of the PFI, there is no doubt that this round of arrests and ban is aimed squarely at marginalizing an influential minority organization that had a nationwide presence.

In addition to these legal tools, the government in India has also extensively used spying software. The most dangerous of these is the Pegasus software which the government imported from Israel, which has been used to hack into the computers of some of the arrested activists and used by the police to plant fake evidence to implicate them. Such acts were done by the activists of the Kabir Kala Manch.

The double standards with which the BJP government uses these laws can’t be more brazen. While leftist activists and minority community organizations are wantonly arrested and harassed, majoritarian right-wing groups can get away with anything. The release of the rapists of Bilkis Bano is one such case.

How we must prepare

In this new and increasingly dangerous environment, revolutionary organizations must fully expect to become a target. This is especially so if we take a principled stance against Hindutva. If not outright murder, the state will seek institutionalized silencing through its repressive laws. Umar Khalid was a threat, but he was not killed, unlike Gauri Lankesh. He was jailed, and isolated, depriving him for two years from conducting any organizational work. For revolutionary organizations, such measures would be crippling. Any organization that has as its stated goal the revolutionary overthrow of the state would immediately fall under the eye of the government if they deem it threatening enough. This follows a clear pattern. The BJP aims the repressive arm of the state firstly on minority and Dalit leaders, and then on political opponents. The worst is reserved for the former. Such actions not only deprive vital leadership of these communities but also subtly create a division within their opposition, radicalizing the Muslim and Dalit and encouraging thinking in terms of identity rather than class solidarity. To counter this, we must take the position of class solidarity with Muslim and Dalit workers and defy the divisive agenda of the BJP, even facing the risk of persecution. At the same time, caution must be taken in all organizational preparations to ensure one does not become a target and fall to the repressive machinery of the state. In this effort, the courts have proven to be a false hope. The judicial system has been greatly influenced by the ruling party and its ideology and is not likely to go against the state, especially when it comes to matters of political persecution. Despite this, there are slivers of hope, like with the bail granted to Umar Khalid, and the stance taken against sedition laws.

Such conditions are not unique to the present day. India has seen repressive regimes, some far worse than the present. The British Raj during wartime had turned India into a police state, where secret torture centers and executions were the norm to maintain order for the empire. During periods of emergency and the counter-terror campaigns of the Indian state, mass arrests and extra-judicial killings were commonplace. Organizing openly became difficult for revolutionaries. However, through determination revolutionaries always found a way to survive and fight back by going underground.

Bourgeois democracy in crisis

Since the recession of 2008, Indian bourgeois democracy has been in crisis. Faced with rising workers’ militancy, rural resistance against proletarianization, and a worsening economy, the bourgeoisie responds with undemocratic laws. The repression of activists, curtailing freedom of speech, and increasingly invasive policing, are all part of this trend. The BJP government did not create anything new but has merely sharpened existing tools of repression. The bourgeoisie’s preferred choice for political leadership shows that it was growing increasingly impatient and weary of the Congress Party’s approach of using concessions to pacify the masses.

The BJP does not care for concessions. The BJP effectively drugs the masses with religion and majoritarianism, and attacks when the opposition is weak. However, even it has to cave in the face of determined opposition, as we saw in the case of the farmer’s protest. All repressive mechanisms failed before the collective power of mobilized masses in struggle. The government had to bow down before them.

Despite all this, it must be said, that Indian bourgeois democracy is not entirely gone, even if it may be on its way out. The institutions of bourgeois democracy such as the parliament, as well as local elected bodies, continue to exist and function, albeit with all of their imperfections. Despite the repressive laws, there is still some scope for freedom of organizing and freedom of speech. The existence of a parliamentary opposition has not disappeared, even if it may be marginalized and arguably controlled. There are still constitutionally guaranteed fundamental rights and freedoms, which have not been done away with and act as a check on the worst authoritarian impulses of the state. The BJP government is a reactionary right-wing government, which follows an agenda of Hindutva and casteism, but it has not yet made India into a Hindu nation.

However, we cannot become complacent. The BJP and RSS’ core agenda remains unchanged. Even without achieving their ultimate goal, they have succeeded in creating a country where religious minorities feel marginalized and Dalits live in a state of terror. Despite the success of mobilizations during the farmer’s protests and the anti-CAA protests, once the momentum subsided, the leading cadres were isolated and jailed. As time passes, Indian democracy continues to wane, and authoritarianism rises. The world is in far more acute crisis today than it was in 2008, and it is just natural that the bourgeoisie will respond more sharply with greater repression to maintain its power. To this, we must not respond with liberalism or reformism, but with the politics of revolution!

We reiterate our solidarity with the political prisoners of India.


Further reading :
Explained: Who is Siddique Kappan, journalist arrested on his way to cover 2020 Hathras gang-rape and murder case?

India among most dangerous countries for journalists, says media watchdog Reporters Without Borders

Umar Khalid completes 2 years in jail; mother says she is ‘optimistic’ of him walking free soon

‘Abuse of power to suppress minority rights movement’: PFI condemns NIA raids in Telangana, Andhra Pradesh

India’s harsh anti-terror law comes under rare scrutiny

Did Binayak Sen’s conviction for sedition foretell the mess we are in today?

Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act

India arrests activist Anand Teltumbde over 2018 caste violence

Punished without trial: How India’s political prisoners are being denied basic rights in jail

Bhima Koregaon: Activist Rona Wilson’s phone was infected with Pegasus, shows new analysis

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