Why We Must Defend Anand Teltumbde

The academic's impending arrest needs to be seen as part of a larger narrative that is changing the terms of the way we think of politics and democracy.

Something sinister is cooking, looking at the urgency with which the Bhima Koregaon case has been shifted from the Pune Police to the Centre, under the National Investigation Agency (NIA). The arrests that have happened under the current regime are neither random nor to do only with resisting the current regime. The Supreme Court’s rejection of bail pleas by Gautam Navlakha and Anand Teltumbde has serious consequences not just for human rights but also signalling the changing landscape of political discourse. These moves need to be seen as part of a larger narrative that is changing the terms of the way we think of politics and democracy.

If one watches the arrest of political leaders such as the Abdullahs and Mehbooba Mufti in Kashmir, it is intriguing that the current regime targeted not hardcore separatists but those who are actually disliked in the Valley for being pro-India. The Abdullah family especially was known to strongly pronounce pro-India sentiments. However, the current regime used the anger that may have existed on the ground as against any other long-standing political family for being self-serving to actually shoot down those who are pro-India in the name of ‘national interest’.

In other words, this is shooting down many birds with a single shot. It is moblising latent and perhaps justified anger against family fiefdoms that have maintained their privileges by standing as conduits between India and Kashmir. It effectively creates a political vacuum, and it essentially demobilises the citizens from having any effective choice. It mobilises legitimate anger for an illegitimate purpose.

Omar Abdullah and Farooq Abdullah. Photo: PTI/Files

Similar seems to be the strategy with Bima Koregaon. The activists have been carefully chosen to build a narrative and change the very turf on which politics is operating. It is erasing space for expansion of protest and change. Anand Teltumbde is not only a Marxist but also a Dalit and anti-caste activist. He not only critiqued the dominant caste prejudices but also offered a class critique of the identity version of Dalit-Bahujan politics. Ideally, Anand’s position should be partly acceptable to even the right-wing nationalist politics, as they ostensibly critique the identitarian politics of Dalit-Bahujan as it divides the ‘Hindu society’ but then this is precisely the reason, it looks like someone like Anand is being targeted. He is raising issues, one might agree or disagree that is double-edged, questioning both the dominant as well as the existent Dalit-Bahujan narrative.

In this case, as the Kashmir one, internal disagreements that are essentially political and necessary for the expansion of the political vision of Dalit-Bahujan politics are being mobilised at one level. And it is disappointing that Dalit-Bahujan groups have not mobilised protests for Anand as they should have. At another level, such a narrative of Bima Koregaon delegitimises the entire Dalit-Bahujan politics as being Maoist, violent and anti-national. In mobilising internal fissures, it seeks to delegitimise the very basis of anti-caste politics of all hues.

Also Read: ‘Bizarre, Concocted Theories’: The Many Holes in the Case Against Anand Teltumbde

A similar strategy

The strategy has been somewhat similar with the Muslim question. The Centre promulgated a law against triple talaq in order to mobilise Muslim women as a separate constituency, as against the Muslim men. It attempted to appropriate gender justice to in essence weaken and humiliate Muslims. It wished to project the Muslim community as ‘backward’ and ‘medieval’ in continuing with practices such as triple talaq. But the provisions of the law, on one hand, criminalised husbands who gave triple talaq and did not provide for any support or alimony for women abandoned by their husbands. Those who protested against this as unjust were projected as playing politics of appeasement, and protecting their vote-banks. It sought to project Narendra Modi as an emancipator who is struggling to undo the perversity of vote-bank politics, while the opposition and Muslims themselves were pulling the narrative back.

The BJP under Narendra Modi can no longer be distinguished from what the Congress used to look like during the heyday of its dominance in the 1980s – the same obsession with the Leader, the same weakness for majoritarianism, the same congenial co-existence with Mafiosi elements. Credit: Reuters/Rick Stevens

The triple talaq law sought to project Narendra Modi as an emancipator who is struggling to undo the perversity of vote-bank politics. Photo: Reuters/Rick Stevens

Right-wing strategy is alerting us to internal fissures that had arrested larger solidarities. It is building the legitimacy of its majoritarian politics on the sectarianism of secular-progressive politics. It is in fact posing a challenge to the ‘old’ kind of Left-secular politics by appropriating them and highlighting its inconsistencies and internal fractures. Majoritarianism, therefore, cannot be fought unless we begin to understand this double-edged strategy. Merely critiquing majoritarianism without internally mobilising these differences in a non-sectarian mode will only further strengthen and embolden the project of right-wing cultural nationalism.

It is enhancing and sharpening ‘internal’ differences in order to create new legitimacy for a stronger national unity that can iron out legitimate cultural differences. The more internal differences are projected as illegitimate or are projected as issues that cannot be resolved through political dialogue and commonness of purpose, political legitimacy for an undifferentiated cultural nationalism will only grow.

Cultural nationalist upsurge is actually challenging us to shift to a new language and imagination of politics. It is therefore important to defend Anand Teltumbde, not merely to protect his human rights against trumped up charges, but it is also important in order to create a new texture of politics. The sharp question it is posing is can the identity version of Dalit-Bahujan politics, including mainstream electoral versions of Mayawati and Chandra Shekhar Aazad, protest the unjust impending arrest of Anand Teltumbde, even as they may continue to disagree with his brand of anti-caste politics? Can they see him as a friend even as they disagree with his Leftist class politics? Similarly, what alternative politics can the Kashmiris forge that can be critical of local politics based on ethnicity and patronage, yet make legitimate demands with India? How can Muslims be open to addressing issues of gender, caste and class-based discriminations, even as they protest majoritarian exclusion, instead of remaining in mere denial?

Cultural nationalism of the right is reminding us of ‘our’ own majoritarian and sectarian tendencies internal to our politics. It is in fact mocking the essence of progressive politics that dithered to raise these internal issues in the name of justice. Whether or not we are able to defend Anand Teltumbde raises this pertinent question. The right is confident that we cannot succeed; what is our response?

Ajay Gudavarthy is associate professor, Centre for Political Studies, JNU.