Activists' Arrests a Dire Warning for Anyone Who Dares to Question or Resist

The most diabolical aspect of the spate of arrests is its speed and its resilience to justice and fairness.

The searches and arrests made on August 28 were shocking. Not unexpected, but the brazenness of state action hit those of us committed to civil rights and the rule of law rudely. As I sat numbed, wondering what there is left to say that we haven’t already said, I started a slow and painful process of recall and remembering that took me year by year back to the Emergency years of my childhood, which is when I began to bear witness to state rage and impunity, but more importantly, to the power of resistance against impunity. “Waging war against the state” – an arbitrary state, a violent and lawless state – is the righteous war to entrench the constitution. It is a war where conscience and courts are the only weapons to confront the arsenal of the state in all its armed might.

We have now been hearing news reports of conspiracies. What is conspiracy? According to the online Oxford Dictionary, “a secret plan by a group to do something unlawful or harmful. ‘a conspiracy to destroy the government’”. A conspiracy theory is “A belief that some covert but influential organisation is responsible for an unexplained event”.

Clearly the dictionary and legal meanings of conspiracy are obsolete. Not necessarily – not at all any more – the secret meeting of minds to a common criminal purpose. We live in times of open and declared conspiracy to wage war against dissenting citizens, human rights defenders and against minorities – Dalits and Muslims. The criminal meeting of minds armed with the guarantee of protection from prosecution and the guarantee of impunity to carry out systematic, targeted assaults supported by the state or arbitrary action by the government. We have just witnessed an interstate police force that is stunningly rapid in its action of searches, seizures, harassment, criminal intimidation and arrest of students and human rights defenders. This same force is rendered immobile in the face of conspiratorial mob violence and criminal assaults/murder against human rights defenders as we saw with Swami Agnivesh and Umar Khalid.

The most diabolical aspect of the spate of arrests is its speed and its resilience to justice and fairness. We have witnessed for decades that confinement to custody is swift and accomplished in a swoop (daytime, not necessarily in the dead of night any more). But once shackled, liberty is the most difficult to restore, getting totally mired in procedures and criminal procrastinations in the justice system, designed to keep people locked up, disregardful of the law, at any cost – as we have seen in the case of G.N. Saibaba and others in that case, and later his lawyer Surendra Gadling. And so many more.

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The biggest and most effective conspiratorial bogey that rationalises this kind of brutal state action is the conspiracy to kill a leader. There need be no objective assessment of this allegation. The subjective fear that all does not bode well is sufficient. But this subjective fear is not a fear of physical death as much as it is of political decimation. We saw this in the run-up to the Emergency in a very different way. The roots of that fear do not lie in the actions of the individuals arrested or their families’ repositories of seditious materials. The roots of that fear lie in the political constituencies whose attention must now be deflected from the common and gross ills of the regime.

Who else but the violent, fearsome Naxals may be invoked? But of course, when you are moving the scene of action from Dandakaranya to Delhi, Goa, Pune, Hyderabad, there is a new species of Naxal that the ruler’s genie must conjure up – fearsome because of his/her utter proximity to our everyday lives. The Naxals now do not “infest” only the forests. We have a proliferation of “urban Naxals”. If you respect the constitution, demand the rule of law, petition against unlawful procedure and illegal detention or against arbitrary state action – you are an “urban Naxal”.  You can be a lawyer, a professor in a law school or a professor of big data analysis in a leading school of management, or a 78-year-old writer and poet who has been a prisoner of conscience in the past and has faced conspiracy trials and been acquitted because of lack of evidence – who has been following up Saibaba’s case with messianic zeal, or an editor of the front-running Economic and Political Weekly – it doesn’t really matter.

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Since this travesty of justice has been at work, every one of us has shifted our sharp and critical gaze from the powers that be to the specific cases of arrests, caught in extricating those trapped in this round of action. Our attention has been deflected and the attention of people generally has shifted too, from the powers to this new monster-in-our-midst, the “urban Naxal”.

We need to read this state action for what it is. It is a dire warning that anyone who dares to question, to speak up, to resist – at a time when everyday resistance is the only way to survive with dignity – will put themselves at risk as “urban Naxals”. We, as a people, are trapped today between lynch mobs, anonymous assassins and arbitrary police action. We are being ordered to be complicit through our silence and inaction. This sounds quite alarmist – but if we take stock of the situation we have landed ourselves in, we can see that this is true. So this is not about Swami Agnivesh, or Father Stan Swamy, or Umar Khalid, or Sudha Bharadwaj, or Anand Teltumbde, or Arun Ferreira or Gautam Navlakha. It is about every one of us and the country we live in.

Kalpana Kannabiran is professor and director, Council for Social Development, Hyderabad.