The arrest of five human rights activists on August 28 and the strong condemnation this has invited from a wide spectrum of people all over India may become a landmark in the history of Indian democracy, especially given the judicial proceedings which have been triggered. Some implications of this development have already become clear and more will crystallise as the case unfolds.
The most conspicuous message that has emerged is the centrality of human rights to a democracy. This is seen by the current dispensation as posing the greatest challenge to their political power. Wave after wave has repressed human rights workers in the country. After G.N. Saibaba’s arrest and prosecution, the Bhima Koregaon case has become the launching pad for the next wave. The Elgaar Parishad meeting on December 31, 2017, organised by retired Supreme Court justice P.B. Sawant to ensure goodwill among Dalits and Marathas during the rally commemorating the Bhima Koregaon victory on January 1, has been built up as a major conspiracy case. The first FIR was revised to declare a link between the Dalit initiative and Maoists and five civil liberty activists were arrested, which included the lawyer representing Saibaba: Surendra Gadling. Rona Wilson, one of the main activists in the campaign for the release of political prisoners, including Saibaba, was also arrested. Now the police claim that from their interrogation, the activists arrested on August 28 were identified. Together, they seem to pose such a threat to the regime that charges of a conspiracy against Prime Minister Narendra Modi have been framed – something that is totally denied by the arrested.
Who are these activists?
Newspaper headlines mentioned that the arrests and raids were conducted on ‘rights activists’. Indeed Gautam Navlakha, the accomplished journalist and writer who was with Economic and Political Weekly for many years, is a founder-member of the People’s Union for Democratic Rights, Delhi (PUDR). He has been part of fact-finding committees and prepared reports on issues such as denial of minimum wages in Bihar, atrocities against Adivasis, false encounters, communal violence, violation of rule of law and human rights in different parts of the country including northeast and Kashmir. Navlakha also contributed to ‘Who are the Guilty?‘, the report jointly produced by PUDR and PUCL on the anti-Sikh carnage of 1984. It reassured the aggrieved Sikh community that there were enough democratic voices in India fighting for truth and justice. The democratic solidarity among people in different parts of India perhaps far surpasses many other bonds.
Sudha Bharadwaj, the national vice-president of People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) has for three decades been living among the workers in mining areas of Chhattisgarh. After obtaining an IIT degree, she decided to work with Shankar Guha Niyogi in the Sahid Hospital attached to the CMMS (Chhatishgarh Mines Mazdoor Sangh) in 1986. After Niyogi was murdered by killers hired by industrialists in 1991 and increased repression by paramilitary and police, Bharadwaj and many other PUCL members began taking up cases of harassed Adivasis. Operation Green Hunt systematically became more violent as the armed forces were deployed to liquidate Maoist cadre and their sympathisers. The Salwa Judum, later declared illegal by the Supreme Court, was used by the government agencies to destroy villages in Maoist areas and relocate them.
Binayak Sen’s arrest in 2007 on similar charges levelled against the current group was also declared illegal by the Supreme Court. The story of Adivasis in Chhattisgarh struggling to protect their land and forest rights from being taken over by corporations with strong arm support by the government is well known. Bharadwaj decided to acquire a law degree from Ravi Shankar University to fight cases of Adivasis. She is now a visiting professor at National Law University, Delhi, offering students her expertise. However, she still spends most of her time personally supervising legal cases in Chhattisgarh courts and police stations. As a rights activist, she has inherited the aura of Shankar Guha Niyogi, who presented creative methods of organising the unorganised and seeking political power for the people of Chhattisgarh through self-rule to pursue a path of equitable development. The women of Chhattisgarh, especially poor Adivasis and Dalit women, women workers of Dalli Rajhara mines and industries around Bhilai today believe that with Sudha didi around, they cannot be exploited. No wonder that one of the strongest protest against her arrest has come from Women against Sexual Exploitation and Repression.
Arun Ferreira, Vernon Gonsalves and Anand Teltumbde – who was not present at his house when the police raided it – are also human rights activists of longstanding. So is Father Stan Swamy, the priest in Ranchi who is a strong defender of tribal people’s rights over natural resources and who has been on the forefront of the movements against displacement. Anand Teltumbde, fabled management guru currently with the Goa Institute of Management, has also been involved in the human rights movement for over thirty years. Currently the secretary of CPDR (Committee for the Protection of Democratic Rights), he is a well-known author of books on the caste question. He is among the top intellectuals of India, much sought after for public events.
Varavara Rao, the famous poet has experienced repression many times before. Founder of Virasam (Revolutionary Writers Association), his poetry has given meaning to the aspirations of the oppressed people, their creative labour that has built human civilisation. His lyrics have celebrated the richness and beauty of nature sustained by the Adivasis. Every bout of repression attempted against this 78-year-old poet has made him even more radiant.
These activists and their human rights work have fostered Indian democracy, making people believe that through courts and public campaigns, rights promised in the Indian Constitution can be realised. During the Emergency, human rights included civil liberties like the freedom of expression, right to dissent, right to life, right to vote and democratic rights comprising of civil liberties as well as socio-economic rights such as right to minimum wage, education, healthcare, housing, culture, language, dignity irrespective of caste, gender, religion and so on. The human rights movement has evolved together with the growth of the people’s movements such as the women’s movement, Dalit movement and environmental activism, besides workers and peasant movements.
Public opinion in India is divided between appreciating their work and finding ways to take it forward as a means of strengthening Indian democracy, and condemning them as stumbling blocks for India’s economic growth or national security.
Mounting state repression acknowledges the growing solidarity among movements of oppressed sections for basic rights. This formidable opposition forged by the people is yet to be fully appreciated by political parties, even though all opposition parties have condemned the arrests. If they fully grasp the meaning of the August assault and the political possibilities provided by these arrests and raids – they are likely to multiply in the months before the 2019 elections – then the agenda of all parties will be to work for the realisation of human rights.
Manoranjan Mohanty is a former professor of Delhi University and is a member of the People’s Union for Democratic Rights. Views expressed are personal. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org