Arbitrary arrests in India

The BJP government is the embodiment of bigotry, divisiveness and murderous activity.

Five of the activists arrested by Maharashtra police on 28 August 2018.

On 28 August the state police of Maharashtra in western India raided and, without warrants, conducted searches of the homes of seven left-wing activists in six different cities across the state. These seven activists are advocates of the rights of dalits (the oppressed sections regarded by the upper hindu castes as ‘untouchables’).

The police raids resulted in the arrests of five of the targeted persons under the notorious Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act 2012 (UAPA) ‘anti-terrorist’ legislation.

On the order of the Supreme Court of India, the five are being held under house arrest pending a hearing on the legality of their arrests. These arrests have caused outrage, and the resultant outcry has been joined even by the opposition Congress party and former chief justice of the supreme court RM Lodha, who has characterised them as “an act to undermine fundamentals of constitutional democracy”.

For their part, the police have described those arrested as “urban Maoists”, saying that the five organised a conference on 31 December 2017 in the city of Pune to incite violence, and that they were the main instigators of a riot that occurred the next day in Bhima Koregaon, a tiny village 30km north-east of Pune.

As a matter of fact, these disturbances were provoked by hindu communalists.

The police further claimed to have found a letter on the laptop of one of the arrested people that purportedly laid out a plot to kill Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The real reason behind the arrests is doubtless the views, not any illegal actions, of those targeted – views which are an anathema to the obscurantist hindu nationalists of the ruling BJP (Bharatiya Janata [Indian People’s] Party) and its rabidly right-wing RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh [National Patriotic or National Volunteer Organisation]) paramilitary associates.

Those arrested are: the US-born Sudha Bhardwaj, a lawyer and trade unionist; Gautam Navlakha, a leader of the People’s Union for Democratic Rights, who has for decades been a contributor to the prestigious Economic and Political Weekly; Vernon Gonsalves, a labour activist; the writer Arun Ferreira; and the 78-year-old poet Varavara Rao, who has publicly declared his sympathy with the Communist Party of India (Maoist), although there is not a shred of evidence to link him with the insurgency.

The police narrative has unravelled pretty fast. Two prominent jurists – retired supreme court justice PB Swant and retired Mumbai high court justice BG Kolse-Patil – held a press conference after the arrests at which they denounced them as “an attack on the freedom of speech” and identified themselves as the organisers of the Elgaar Parishad cultural event of 31 December –a celebration, organised for the purpose of countering divisive communal forces, of the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Bhima Koregaon, in which a small force of about 850 mostly dalit soldiers in the service of the East India Company defeated the 28,000-strong army of the Brahmin Peshwa dynasty.

They further stated that those arrested had nothing to do with the 31 December conference, which had been organised for the specific purpose of opposing the hindu right wing-led (specifically BJP and RSS-led) nexus of communalist organisations and their drive to set up a fundamentalist Hindu Raj.

Angered by the anti-Hindutva theme of Elgaar Parishad, two crazy hindu extremists, Manohar Sambhji Bhide and Milind Ekbote, gathered a mob of 1,500 and egged them on violently to disrupt the 1 January 2018 dalit gathering in Bhima Koregaon.

Bhide has direct ties to the BJP and to Modi personally, who is on record as saying at an election rally in 2014 that Bhide was an inspiration to him. Under attack, the dalits at Bhima Koregaon hit back, and in the ensuing melée at least one person was killed and several others were injured.

The contrast between the treatment of Ekbote, who was released on bail and only faces minor charges, and Bhide, who was never even arrested, on the one hand, and the five leftist activists arrested by the police on the other, is glaring indeed, considering that even the Pune police have admitted that Bhide and Ekbote are violent reactionaries and “habitual offenders creating communal discord”, and that they were the persons mainly responsible for the violent events at the Bhima Koregaon gathering.

The victory at Bhima Koregaon over an upper-caste king in 1818 was attributed by the brutal colonial company to dalit bravery. This was a typically mischievous divide-and-rule tactic of the colonising company – a tactic of pitting one section of Indians against another in an ever-shifting kaleidoscope of alliances to suit the needs of conquest and consolidation of its power.

But it has now been transformed into a celebration of ‘dalit pride’ by some privileged opportunist dalit ‘leaders’ as a means of propagating caste politics, which, in the final analysis, undermine class politics and the struggle of the masses for their social emancipation, bringing political confusion to dalit toilers, who, along with poor muslims, constitute a disproportionate section of India’s most impoverished. It plays well into the caste-ridden politics of the main bourgeois parties, especially the BJP.

Be that as it may, it is the second time in three months that the police in India have used the ‘anti-terrorism’ law against pro-dalit activists. On 6 June last year the police arrested five other activists, accusing them of similar crimes. These activists are still languishing in prison.

The suicidal nature of the actions of the authorities may be judged from the fact that the supreme court, in ordering a subsequent hearing, expressed the view that the BJP’s authoritarian actions could rebound on the heads of the entire Indian elite. “Dissent,” declared the court, “is a safety valve of democracy. If you don’t allow these safety valves, it will burst.”

When the police searched the house of the son-in-law of Varavara, they subjected him to questioning reminiscent of the medieval Inquisition. “They asked me,” said the son-in-law, Satyanarayna, “why are there so many books in your house? Why are you reading 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 Phula and Ambedkar [iconic dalit leaders] in your house but no photos of gods?” Satyanarayna’s years of work stored in his laptop were seized by the police.

Why these arrests?

Before we answer this question, let us look at some of the murderous activities of the Hindutva brigade in the period preceding these arrests, for it shines a torch on the agenda pursued by these gangsters:

Murder of prominent activists – murder in defence of bigotry

Dr Narindra Dabholkar, a famous campaigner against superstition and an ardent advocate of scientific reasoning, was murdered in cold blood on 20 August 2013.The suspicion at the time was that he had been done to death by Hindutva fanatics. That suspicion was confirmed by the same type of murders in the following three years of Govind Pansare, Professor MM Kalburgi and journalist Gauri Lankesh.

All four victims were rigorous thinkers and activists, whose opinions and advocacy were founded firmly on factual evidence and who boldly confronted the faith-based ideology and absurd assertions of the muddle-headed Hindutva gangsters, and who, in so doing, roused the latter’s murderous and impotent rage.

Dhabolkar, through his writings, public lectures and training, emphasised the vital significance of reasoning based on evidence; he advocated the rejection of received wisdom, irrespective of its source. He was instrumental in the adoption by the Maharashtra state assembly of the anti-superstition legislation aimed against black magic, fake remedies for ill health, human sacrifices and suchlike practices that prey on the gullibility, ignorance and superstitious beliefs of backward people.

Needless to say, his activities roused to frenzy several vested interests such as ‘godmen’ and purveyors of panaceas who target the Simple Simons of this world. These charlatans lobbied hard against Dabholkar and the legislation so closely connected with him. In many other provinces other activists are today campaigning for similar legislation.

Govind Pansare, an activist of the Communist Party of India (CPI), worked tirelessly in his advocacy of inter-caste marriages. He had also called for the outlawing of Sanatan Sanstha, an extremist fundamentalist outfit which, it has now surfaced, had a hand in the murder of some or all of the four distinguished victims.

Professor MN Kalburgi was an eminent award-winning historian who, having researched socio-religious reform movements of 12th-century Karnataka and challenged the dominant narrative, questioned the entire caste system.

And Gauri Lankesh was an intrepid journalist and a fierce critic and enemy of Hindutva bigotry and the communalism it advocates.

What connects all four murders is the self-evident fact that the forces of Hindutva bigotry felt threatened by the influence of these activists and the power of their ideas – based as these were on solid evidence and scientific reasoning. In other words, they confronted the advocates of bigotry, communal hatred, the caste status quo and faith, with critical thinking, diversity and pluralism.

Filled with impotent rage, unable to engage in reasoned debate, the bigoted gentry resorted to murder as a way of sending a message to the effect that no opposition to their absurd beliefs will be tolerated.

The BJP and its parent organisation – the arch-reactionary obscurantist RSS – are seeking to suffocate critical thinking and create an anti-scientific atmosphere divorced from all rationality.

Under the tutelage of the BJP government at the centre, and in several states where the BJP is in office, pseudo-histories and anti-scientific narratives are being smuggled into school, college and university curricula. The evidence-based approach to rational discourse is under attack from the votaries of Hindutva in the field of culture and public debate.

Faith as the ultimate basis of absurd assertions about ancient Indian scientific achievements is pushed day in and day out. Scientific inquiry and methods are being subjected to ridicule, only to be replaced by assertions about an imaginary golden past of ‘vedic science’ and the fake achievements in ancient – even prehistoric – India. History is being pushed aside to make way for mythology, much to the shame of Indian scientists and social scientists, and to the amazement of the international scholarly community.

Knowledge of plastic surgery, in vitro fertilisation, aviation and space technology is attributed to those who inhabited India 8,000 years ago. Further, it is asserted that the internet existed at the time of the Mahabharata (5561 BC)! Last, but not least, it is asserted that the theory of evolution is wrong and that the vedas (ancient texts) of Hindu scripture are the embodiments of better theories than those of Einstein.

By contrast, the real achievements of ancient Indians in the fields of science and philosophy are totally ignored by these ignoramuses, as they do not fit in with their poisonous communal agenda of Hindutva.

We can now deal with the real reasons behind the arrests of the five anti-obscurantist activists.

These arrests are meant to create a diversion from the BJP government’s economic and social policy.

The BJP rode to victory in the 2014 parliamentary elections, gaining an absolute majority in the lower house of the Indian parliament. During the election campaign, it promised to create 20 million new jobs each year, to develop the Indian economy, and to fight corruption. What it has offered in practice is bigotry and failed economic policies.

Instead of job creation, India has suffered job losses for the first time since Independence in 1947. Instead of 60 million new jobs as promised, a mere 1.5 million have been created over the last three years of BJP rule. The reserve army of unemployed labour is increasing by 29,550 with each passing day – and thus depressing the already meagre wages of those employed.

On 8 November 2016, in a dramatic move, Prime Minister Modi announced the demonetisation of 80 percent of India’s currency (ie, abolishing the 1,000 and 500 rupee banknotes, which ceased to have any monetary value after 30 December 2016, before which the owner could reclaim their value by depositing them in a bank), claiming that this was a measure to eliminate illegally-stored black money.

Huge amounts of time were wasted by people queuing at banks to change their money, leading to serious unrest, and people found themselves unable to use their savings to buy urgent medical treatment, leading in some cases to deaths of patients. On top of all that, replacement notes were in extremely short supply for several weeks into 2017.

The process cost 1.5 million jobs and 1 percent of India’s GDP, yet 99 percent of the demonetised currency has returned to the banking system, according to the Reserve Bank of India, suggesting that there was never such a great problem of ‘black money’ as the government had been claiming.

The other major initiative taken by the government in the economic field was the introduction of a goods and services tax whose implementation was so ill-planned and botched that it dealt a body blow to small and medium businesses.

As to fighting corruption, that is more rampant today than ever before. Crooks belonging to big business houses have defrauded Indian state banks to the tune of billions of dollars, and been allowed to escape the long arm of the law because of their connections at the highest level of government.

A law has been passed which legalises the issuance of electoral bonds, which allow their purchasers to make political donations without disclosing their identity, thus clearing the way for big-time corruption and influence-buying.

Far from promoting industry, the government’s policies and actions are undermining it, as is illustrated by the government’s recent purchase of over 40 French Rafale fighter jets, directing the contract away from the much-respected publicly-owned Hindustan Aeronautics Limited to Anil Ambani’s Reliance Defence Limited, which has no previous experience in the field of defence manufacturing.

As to the farming sector, the BJP had promised to improve the lot of the farmers through measures such as the minimum support price of 50 percent over and above the real cost of production for all government procurements of farm produce. Agriculture employs 52 percent of India’s workforce, such is its importance to the Indian economy.

However, the agricultural sector is in distress, with thousands of farmers committing suicide every year and 2,000 of them exiting agriculture each day. These unfortunate souls can no longer bear their burden of poverty and indebtedness. Meanwhile, as landed peasants disappear, the number of landless peasants looking for work as rural proletarians is increasing.

In 2005, the government passed the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Generation Act (MGNREGA), which was designed to reduce rural poverty by guaranteeing 100 days of employment each year to every rural household. Such is its concern for farmers that the BJP has downsized this scheme, so that an increasing number of farmers are seeking badly-paid employment in the construction sector.

Having failed abysmally – and, as a result, losing popularity and credibility among the Indian masses – and fearing electoral rout in the next parliamentary election scheduled to take place in April/May 2019, the BJP and its ideological parent the RSS are increasingly resorting to communal bigotry and violence in an attempt to intimidate and criminalise communists, radicals, dalits and muslims.

Educational and cultural institutions are being placed under reactionary hindu ideologues, hand in hand with encouragement to vigilante organisations. The BJP has gone to the length of appointing a notorious vigilante – a proven instigator of violence against muslims, Mahant Yogi Adityanath – chief minister of the state of Uttar Pradesh, the largest state in India. Prime Minister Modi has looked the other way while this person’s goons lynch dalits and muslims in the name of cow protection.

In addition to the foregoing, the Karnataka police investigation into the murder of activist Gauri Lankesh led to several arrests, resulting in the exposure of a right-wing hindu outfit – the Sanatan Sanstha (see above) – a well-knit and organised network of hindu fanatics armed with guns, bombs and poison packets and spread over a vast area, with several hideouts, safe houses and training camps for the use of arms and assassination techniques.

This violent shadowy outfit appears to have some involvement of the RSS and its political arm, the BJP, and is behind the murder of the four anti-communal progressives.

In an attempt to divert attention from its economic failures and as a distraction from the criminal activities of its affiliates, the BJP government has launched a crusade against left activists, who are at the forefront of exposing its oppressive policies and its irrational reactionary ideology. Unable or unwilling to engage in debate and reasoned argument, it is resorting to state intimidation, violence and murder.

However, BJP tactics, far from being successful, are uniting people with varying ideologies and backgrounds in a broad anti-BJP alliance, as they realise that the BJP has nothing to offer other than bigotry, communal hatred, murder and mayhem as a way of distracting attention from its failures, staying in government to serve corporate India at home, and tying India into a criminal and dangerous alliance with US imperialism in the latter’s crusade against China and, to a certain extent, Russia abroad.

There have been big anti-government demonstrations lately, which are indicative of a growing movement against BJP policies on the economic and social fronts. On 5 September, 200,000 workers and peasants staged a historic march to the Indian parliament and denounced BJP policies. Their demands included: remunerative crop prices, loan waivers, land for the landless, more jobs and better job security, and an end to the privatisation of public-sector enterprises.

The demonstration, organised by the All-India Kisan Sabha (Peasants’ Union), the All-India Association of Women Workers and the Centre of Indian Trade Unions, among others, was an impressive expression of worker-peasant unity and determination to oppose the government’s anti-people policies.

A day earlier (4 September), there was a women’s march to parliament to protest against an increase in atrocities against women under the BJP government, many of whose leaders have sided with the perpetrators of brutal sexual violence. Since 2016 there has been an 85 percent rise in cases of rape of women and children.

Eight-year-old Asifa was gang-raped, and cases of abduction, rape, physical and mental abuse, torture and death threats are not isolated or random incidents but part of a systemic problem, with sections of the BJP and RSS blaming the victims for violence against women.

The fundamentalists want the lawgiver Manu’s teachings on women, as contained in the Manusmriti (written over 2,000 years ago), to be applied to present-day conditions for regulating relations between the sexes. They would like women to obey their fathers before marriage, their husbands after marriage, and their sons in case of the husband’s death. No wonder that vast numbers of women are increasingly opposing the BJP on this question.

India’s intelligentsia are incensed at the falsification of Indian history by the RSS and the BJP, and at the takeover by these organisations of educational institutions.

Foreign policy

The BJP, political arm of the RSS, has a two-fold agenda. In the field of domestic policy, it strives to push its Hindutva project, to divide the Indian masses and to serve corporate India and big business at the expense of the vast masses of the working class and peasantry.

In its external policy, it is doing its best to tie India to the war chariot of US imperialism in the latter’s drive to war against Russia and China. Military cooperation has become the main driver of US-Indian relations, which are being taken “to a new level”, in the words of Nirmala Sitharaman, Indian defence minister.

India has agreed to hold joint military exercises across land, sea and air with the US next year, following talks between Mike Pompeo and Jim Mattis – respectively the US secretaries of state and defence – and their Indian counterparts, Sushma Swaraj and Nirmala Sitharaman in New Delhi.

India is seeking to buy from the US advanced drones, helicopters and fighter jets. New Delhi has already purchased C-17 transport aircraft, Apache and Chinook helicopters, maritime patrol aircraft and M777 howitzers. India also wants to buy F-16 and F-18 fighters from Lockheed Martin by way of replacement for existing Russian models, as well as anti-submarine warfare helicopters.

The US, for its part, wants to ensure that India, which still buys the largest part of its weapons from Russia, does not purchase Moscow’s S-400 air-missile defence system – considered to be the best in the world.

India spent $15bn last year in weapons purchases from the US, an expenditure which is projected to rise to $18bn next year.

Egged on by US imperialism, India went to war against China in 1962 and got badly defeated. It has still not fully recovered from the consequences of that defeat. From the course that BJP-led India is pursuing now, it is clearly heading in a dangerous direction, which can only poison relations between India and China and gladden the heart of US imperialism at the cost of the Indian and Chinese people.

India needs to be on the friendliest of terms with its neighbour to the north – China – the only course to bring peace and prosperity to all the peoples in the region.

Indian people realise that while the BJP is in office, peace and security are a pipedream; that the BJP government stands in the way of forging friendly relations with China and other peace-loving countries. By its foreign policy stance, the BJP is alienating the very large progressive peace movement in India.

End in sight?

It is clear that the BJP and RSS have alienated vast sections of the Indian people – from workers and peasants to muslims, dalits, women, intellectuals, progressives, middle and small business people.

No amount of diversionary tactics will help them overcome this alienation. Come the next election, the BJP deserves to be booted out, and there is every chance that it will be.