Assassination plots and other rumors: the story of how left-wing activists were hounded in India

Procedural lapses and far-fetched conspiracy theories marked India’s right-wing government’s latest attempt to stifle voices of dissent. The raids and attempted arrest of activists was also called a diversionary tactic by critics

September 01, 2018 by Pavan Kulkarni
People rise in protest against the police crackdown on human rights activists in India Photos: V Arun Kumar / Peoples Dispatch News

Hundreds of protesters gathered on Parliament Street in India’s capital, New Delhi, to protest against the recent attempts to arrest of five prominent leftist activists and intellectuals on charges that are widely perceived to be ranging from unsubstantiable to absurd. The activists who were raided were alleged to have links with the banned Maoist movement. Attempts to arrest them were stayed by the country’s Supreme Court and the activists are currently under house arrest.

At the protest, the slogans and placards called for arrest of leaders of far-right Hindu terror organizations. Clearly, the protesters had not failed to notice the diversionary function this crackdown was serving. For the hysteria built up around the threat of ‘left-wing terror’ was taking place at a time when investigations into the murders of four prominent left-leaning rationalists were throwing more light on the network of a far-right Hindu extremist group. This group, which shares the ideology of the ruling party – the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – has been revealed to have trained and armed its cadre with guns and bombs, and engaged in assassinations and bomb blasts.

It was amid a spree a revelations in these cases that the police struck against the left-wing activists on August 28. The claim of the police is that these activists were part a plan to assassinate the prime minister and were responsible for the violence during the celebration of the 200th year anniversary of Bhima-Koregaon battle at a village in Pune district of Maharashtra on January 1 this year.

Every year, large number of Dalits (a groups of castes previously treated as untouchables by the upper castes) visit the memorial in Bhima Koregaon village. The event commemorates the Dalits, who as part of the British Indian army, defeated the upper caste Peshwa rulers in 1818. This year, the number of Dalits visiting the place was as high as 400,000 – partly because of the mobilizations against the systematic atrocities committed against them by mobs encouraged by the ruling far-right BJP.

As the Dalits marched towards the memorial for commemoration, they came under attack. The incident had all the marks of being pre-planned. In the course of the violence that followed, one Dalit girl was found dead and numerous injured.

Impunity for the right, crackdown on the left

The very next day, a First Information Report (FIR) was filed against two Hindu fanatics, Sambhaji Bhide and Milind Ekbote, for being the main instigators of the violence. This accusation was also backed by multiple news reports and eyewitness accounts, as well as some initial observations of the police.

Both these persons are closely associated with the ruling party. While top BJP leaders, including the current Prime Minister of the country and the Chief Minister of the Maharashtra state have attended functions organized by Bhide, Ekbote was an ex-corporator from the ruling party.

The police were initially hesitant to take action against them, especially Bhide, whom Prime Minister Narendra Modi has referred to as “Guruji” (a spiritual mentor). However, after relentless agitation by the Dalits – headed by Prakash Ambedkar, the grandson of B. R. Ambedkar, the chief architect of Indian constitution – Ekbote was arrested, only to be released on bail.

On January 8, a disciple of Bhide, Tushar Damgude, filed a police complaint, mentioning the names of prominent left and Dalit activists, whom he claimed to have seen making inciting speeches at the Elgaar Parishad on December 31. This was a meeting held in connection with the commemoration of the Bhima-Koregaon battle the next day.

Six months after this complaint, on June 6, five persons – including activists, writers and lawyers who had been working to defend the rights of marginalized tribals and Dalits – were arrested, after their homes were raided, on the allegation of being responsible for the violence on the Dalits during the Bhima Koregaon commemoration. The arrested, the police claimed, were the main organizers of Elgar Parishad, which they claimed was funded by and organized on behalf of the Maoist groups.

But in fact, the Elgar Parishad was organized by a coalition of 260 mass-organizations, under the lead of two retired Supreme Court judges, Justice P. B. Sawant and Justice Kolse-Patil. However, the assertion of the two judges regarding this was dismissed by the police, who chose to believe Damgude’s complaint instead.

The ‘assassination plot’

A day after the arrests, the police claimed to have found a letter in possession of one of the arrested, Rona Wilson. This letter discussed plans to assassinate Prime Minister Narendra Modi in a “Rajiv Gandhi type incident.” Former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was killed by a suicide bomber in 1991.

Incidentally, the letter had none of the coded and indirect language underground organizations such as the Maoists are known for. This, and the fact that references were made to their supposed fellow conspirators by their first names, led many to allege that it was fabricated and planted. The letter also sought 80 million rupees for the “annual supply” of M-4 rifles, with 40 million rounds of ammunition. While the word “annual supply” indicates that the Maoist guerrillas have been using M-4 rifles for years, there are no reports substantiating this. It is also not clear what purpose such combat rifles could serve for a “Rajiv Gandhi type” assassination.

Further, unlike what would be expected on the revelation of an assassination plot against the prime minister, the top security agencies of the country – National Investigation Agency (NIA), Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and the Intelligence Bureau (IB) – were not put in charge of the investigation. Instead, the letter was promptly leaked to a TV channel, where it was sensationalized and blown out of proportion. The anchor of an evening show declared that the author of the letter was a well-known advocate and rights activist, Sudha Bharadwaj. Sudha immediately sent a legal notice for defamation to the channel for the claim.

Nearly two-and-a-half months after this incident, Sudha was among the activists arrested on August 28.  Two other activists, Vernon Gonsalves and Arun Ferreira – whose first names were mentioned in that letter – and two others who were neither directly connected to the Elgar Parishad nor mentioned in the letter were also arrested.

Before conducting raids, the legal documents are required, by law, to be made available to the persons to be arrested in a language they can understand.  This procedure was not followed in most cases, as the documents had not been translated from Marathi, which is a language spoken in the state of Maharashtra, from where only two of the five activists – Vernon Gonsalves and Arun Ferreira –  were arrested.

Both these activists had previously been arrested on the same charge – of being members of the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist). After spending years in jail, both of them were acquitted.

It is the notorious Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) – the law under which the current arrests are attempted – that was used by the police to hold both Ferreira and Gonsalves in prison for years. The law allows the police to detain a person, without bail and without pressing charges, for periods that well exceed what is allowed under ordinary criminal law.

UAPA was introduced in 1967 to allow the state to deal with terrorism-related acts that threaten the country’s territorial sovereignty, without having to satisfy the checks and balances in regular criminal law. While this act is liberally used to target writers and activists who oppose the ruling ideology, the far-right Hindu extremist groups continue to operate with relative impunity.

On August 28, in the State of Telangana, the Maharashtra police, along with the local police, raided the house of Varavara Rao – a 78-year-old poet and prominent Marxist critic whose revolutionary ideology and advocacy has landed him in prison numerous times. Also raided were the residences of his relatives, including his son-in-law, Satyanarayana, who is the head of the department of cultural studies at the English and Foreign Languages University (EFLU).

“They asked me, why are there so many books in your house?.. Why do you read so many books? Why are you reading books on Mao and Marx? Why do you have books published in China? Why do you have songs of Gaddar (a revolutionary balladeer)? Why are there photos of Phule and Ambedkar [iconic leaders of the oppressed castes] in your house, but no photos of gods?’’ said Satyanarayana, whose years of work stored in laptops and hard disks was seized by the police.

His wife, the daughter of Varavara Rao, K. Pavana, said the police commented on the caste status of her husband, asking her, “Your husband is a Dalit, so he does not follow any tradition. But you are a Brahmin.. Why are you not dressed like a traditional wife? Does the daughter have to be like the father too?’’

No arrest or search warrant was provided to Varavara Rao before his arrest and seizure of materials, his family members claim. The seizure report, which lists the materials seized in the raid, was prepared in Marathi, which is not understood by Rao or his family members.

The same took place in the case of Sudha Bharadwaj and another of the targets, Gautam Navlakha. Sudha, the general secretary of People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL),  has fought to defend the access to land and livelihood of the most vulnerable tribal communities, by representing them as a lawyer in cases related to land grabbing. Navlakha, an expert on international affairs, geopolitics and defense, has exposed human rights atrocities committed by the state’s armed forces in conflict-ridden Kashmir and the deprivations imposed on the tribal population in central India. He has also previously negotiated with Maoist guerrillas, at the state’s request, to secure the release of persons kidnapped by them.

Shortly after the raids on his house – when yet again, all the documents were not in an accessible language – he was produced before a lower court. The police sought a transit demand which would have allowed them to take him to Pune. The judge granted the demand and it seemed nothing stood in the way of him being locked up under the UAPA.

When the tables turned against the police

However, a Habeas Corpus petition was quickly filed against the lower court’s order in the Delhi High Court, which, in its first hearing, observed that most of the documents, including the First Information Report (FIR), were in Marathi, while only the application for transit remand was translated into Hindi. “[I]t is not possible to make out from these documents what precisely the case against” him is, the court noted. Silence was the only response from the police.

The High Court finally stayed the grant of the transit remand, and ordered the Pune police to provide translations of all the documents the next day. In the meantime, the court ordered that Navlakha be kept under house arrest. Hours later, on the same day, the Punjab and Haryana High Court, under whose jurisdiction falls the State of Haryana from where Sudha was arrested, passed a similar order, stipulating that she was to be kept under house arrest till August 30.

Even so, the Pune police attempted to whisk her away and her whereabouts were unknown for several hours. It was past midnight when the Pune police were called on by the court to comply with its order and tensions eased.

The next day, on August 29, while hearing Navlakha’s case, the Delhi High Court pulled up the Pune police, and questioned the legality of the arrest, pointing out that the FIR and arrest memo was made available to Navlakha in a language he could not understand. The High Court also admonished the lower court whose judge had granted the transit remand, without being able read the language used in the documents.

The ease with which the lower court had granted the transit remand was of particular concern, given that police were trying to book Navlakha under UAPA, the High Court said.

The High Court further noted that the FIR, a copy of which was produced in English, makes no mention of Navlakha, who claims that he was not even present in the Elgar Parishad meeting, after which the violence had followed. The bench began dictating its order – which many believe would have set Navlakha free – when news came of the Supreme Court of India also intervening in the matter. This was in response to another petition filed against the arrest of all the five activists. This petition was filed by some of the most prominent academicians in the country, including renowned historian Romila Thapar and Marxist economist Prabhat Patnaik.

The Supreme Court stayed all the transit remand orders. All the arrested activists were to be shifted to their residences where they were to be kept under house arrest till the next hearing on September 6.

The petition by the academics pointed to the procedural lapses in the process of conducting arrests and raids, as well as the fact that not one of the arrested has his or her name mentioned or in any way hinted at in the FIR about the violence on January 1,

Deeming these arrests a political crackdown on those whose ideologies opposed that of the ruling right-wing regime, the petition also sought from the court an order “calling for an explanation from the State of Maharashtra for this sweeping round of arrests” and “an independent and comprehensive enquiry” into the arrests, not only of these five activists, but also of the first set of activists who were arrested in June in connection to the Bhima Koregaon case.

As more protests against this crackdown erupted across multiple cities in the country, the Pune police, on August 31, gave a press conference claiming that they had evidence against all these activists. In the conference, the police expanded the arms cache the alleged Maoists were trying procure, by adding to the original M-4 rifles referred to in the suspicious letter, some grenade launchers, and other Russian and Chinese weapons, before reiterating that there was an “anti-fascist plot” to overthrow the government – a statement many saw as an acknowledgement by the police of the fascistic nature of the currently ruling regime.

“If the fight against fascist policies is called a conspiracy, then there cannot be a bigger conspiracy than this,” said Varavara Rao, on his return home following the Supreme Court’s order.

[This article has been updated to reflect minor corrections]

People rise in protest against the police crackdown on human rights activists in India
Photos: V Arun Kumar / Peoples Dispatch News