Sedition charges handed out like lollipops

What an extraordinary script! A flop Bollywood filmmaker, best known for soft porn and a rare talent for turning a Hollywood superhit into a Bollywood dud, starts trolling people with the hashtag #UrbanNaxal, basically to promote his “Facts are not facts, white is not white” style book! A BJP-funded TV channel with other Darbari journalists acting as supporting chorus, begins nightly demonisation of activists, especially rights campaigners. Right wing troll farms then get to work not just as echo chambers, but to produce daily fake news and propaganda, circulated widely on social media, particularly their vast WhatsApp network. Soon enough, police forces and the lower judiciary too begin parroting the propaganda, handing out sedition charges merrily as if they were  lollipops!
The Indian state, which is anyway fairly intolerant of any dissent or rigorous scrutiny, now unfurls the full range of its repressive might, right from using snipers for targeted assassinations of Tutticorin anti-Sterlite protest leaders, to unearthing all sorts of conspiracies being hatched by Maoists everywhere. Not content with harassing and chasing out the Jagdalpur Lawyers Collective from Chhattisgarh, they begin hounding any locals or civil liberties activists, who protest extra-judicial killings and incarceration of tribals in the name of anti-Naxal operations. Even academic researchers critical of any violence by the state or by the Maoists are vilified through elaborate smear campaigns. Journalists, and fact-finding teams are attacked and threatened, and advised to remain silent, or else…

This then is the larger background to the latest round of conspiracy theories hatched by Maharashtra police, that led to the arrests of five activists ,  causing a nationwide furore and forcing the Supreme Court to intervene. The Pune police allege all sorts of plots – a conspiracy to kill Prime Minister Modi in a “Rajiv Gandhi” kind of operation, plans to buy grenade launchers and even elite weaponry, including assault rifles used by special forces, in the EU! When they plant leaks in a largely pliant media, even producing “proof” in the form of ludicrous letters, the hound-in-chief  begins to have apoplectic fits on air, pronouncing verdicts from his TV pulpit  against the “anti-nationals, tukde tukde gang and urban Naxals”! It does not bother him or other Darbari scribes that precisely such demonisation had led to the assassination attempt on Umar Khalid, with the shooters openly boasting on camera, or to the brutal killing of Gauri Lankesh.

 Why the arrests?
Though the immediate trigger for the arrests seems to be  Elgar Parishad’s role in organising the Bhima Koregaon celebration, a larger story lurks beneath, as is evident from the kind of people targeted – Dalit activists and civil rights campaigners. Curiously, while alleging a larger conspiracy by Sudha Bhardwaj, Gautam Navlakha and others, the Pune cops have been careful neither to name nor arrest two of its self-confessed organisers, retired Supreme Court judge, P B Sawant and retired High Court judge, B G Kolse-Patil, as any court would have baulked at issuing arrest warrants against them on the basis of the same flimsy “evidence” used to conduct the multi-city raids and arrests.

The partisan anti-Dalit  nature of the investigations into the violence in January is obvious from the kid glove treatment meted out to those responsible for triggering it: Milind Ekbote and Sambhaji Bhide.  In 2009, when I filmed with Ekbote during his election campaign as a Hindu Mahasabha candidate in Pune, he boasted about being a part of the core group responsible for the demolition of the Babri Masjid! While taking me around the city, he was particularly venomous in his observations against the BJP, which seems to have stopped agitating him since 2014 in Modi’s #NewIndia marked by lynchings, vigilante campaigns and Karni Sena unleashing terror on our streets/ 

A formal report by a 10-member committee formed by Maharshtra police,  indicted the duo – “It was a well-planed conspiracy…planned in advance… Swords and arms were made ready before violence began… Locals were aware of something of this sort happening, but police completely turned a blind eye to  it and it escalated.” But, Mahrashtra cops have yet to arrest or interrogate Bhide. Though they arrested Ekbote on April 20, they released him on April 22. Oddly, a key witnesses against him, Pooja Sakat, allegedly committed suicide, though locals protested and demanded a thorough investigation into what they alleged was cold-blooded murder. Instead, police decided to take cognisance of a private complaint by Tushar Damgude, a ‘disciple’ of Bhide, and proceeded to arrest human rights activists, Sudha Bharadwaj, Varavara Rao, Arun Fereira, Gautam Navlakha and Vernon Gonsalves, who were providing support and assistance to Dalit activists.

 Why now?
 While the entire raid/arrest drama unfolded across cities, High Courts and the Supreme Court, what it distracted our attention from are a series of developments that the BJP wants buried. The RBI finally finished counting currency after 20 months and announced the return of 99.3 per cent of the banned notes, thereby raising serious questions about the whimsical crackpot economics that led to the demonetisation disaster. The Indian rupee nosedived to a lifetime low, even as petrol and diesel prices rose to an all-time high, despite the relatively favourable global crude oil prices. And terrorists affiliated to Sanatan Sanstha and its various hydra-heads were caught red-handed with bombs, detonators and weapons while Karnataka police investigations zeroed in on their direct involvement in the brutal assasinations of writers, rationalists and journalists, Gauri Lankesh, Pansare, Dhabolkar and Kalburgi.

In any robust democracy with an independent media, the government would have been roasted over the coals for its spectacular economic failures, forever puncturing the myth of the Vikaspurush persona of PM Modi through that mythical ‘Gujarat model’, cannily crafted by APCO, the preferred PR agency for image makeover of dictators worldwide. And TV primetime and newspaper headlines would have been dominated by the sensational revelations about a shadowy organisation raising an army of vigilantes trained to carry out assassinations, bombings and terror attacks! Not quite the script the BJP’s ‘headline management’ team wants.  So, we see instead the theatre of the absurd, with a cast of characters that includes a flop filmmaker, sundry Hindutva vigilantes, partisan cops and a pliant magistracy. The only silver lining is that by charging the five activists for conspiracy to form an anti-fascist front (their constitutional right, by the way), the Maharashtra police has unwittyingly implied to the courts that we are, indeed, governed by a fascist government! 


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